Wednesday Night Hockey: What went wrong for Devils this season?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the New Jersey Devils and Edmonton Oilers. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Devils shocked the hockey world last season when they finished in the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. No one saw it coming. In the end, they fizzled out in the first round, but the 2017-18 campaign was filled with positives for this young Devils squad.

Fast forward one season, and things are very different. They’re nowhere near a playoff spot with just under a month to go and they’ve been out of the race for a while already. They sold players like Brian Boyle, Keith Kinkaid and Marcus Johansson at the trade deadline for draft picks, which showed they were focused more on the future than the present.

But why did things fall apart this year? Was last year just a blip on the radar?

Let’s take a look.

The biggest difference between this year and last, is Taylor Hall. The 27-year-old was named league MVP last year, as he accumulated 93 points in just 76 games. Unfortunately for Hall and the Devils, he just couldn’t stay healthy this year (he’s been out since Dec. 23 with a knee injury). When he played, he remained as productive as ever, scoring 37 points in 33 games. But there’s no way the Devils could compete for anything without Hall in the lineup. That’s the case for a lot of the borderline playoff teams in the NHL. No Hall=No playoffs. It’ll continue to be that way going forward, too.

Will Butcher was another one of the unexpected positives for the Devils last season. The 24-year-old had a terrific rookie season with five goals and 44 points in  81 games. This year, those numbers have come way down, as he has four goals and 26 points in 68 contests. Many of his key advanced stats have dipped, too. His CF% has gone from 53.14 to 49.72 percent, while his FF% dropped from 53.89 to 50.74 percent. That’s not completely unexpected when you consider how everyone on the team’s play has fallen.

Keeping the puck out of their own net has been a major issue, too. When Cory Schneider was injured or struggling in 2017-18, Kinkaid was there to pick up the slack. The veteran had a respectable 2.77 goals-against-average and a .913 save percentage in 41 outings. Before being traded to Columbus last month, he had a 3.36 GAA and a 891 save percentage in the same amount of games. That’s a significant difference.

As for Schneider, injuries and overall inconsistency have held him back over the last couple of seasons. If the Devils are going to make a run at a playoff spot next year, they’ll need him to be a lot better than he’s been lately. He and Hall could be the biggest keys to turning this thing around.

2018 Olympic gold medalist Kendall Coyne Schofield will serve as an analyst for NBC Sports’ Devils-Oilers Wednesday Night Hockey telecast. Coyne Schofield made her broadcasting debut as an analyst on Wednesday Night Hockey in January and has also served as a studio analyst for NHL Network.

Coyne Schofield will join Chris Cuthbert (play-by-play) and Ray Ferraro (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) for the call of Devils-Oilers from Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Blue Jackets go back to Bobrovsky for huge game against Penguins

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Under normal circumstances a team starting its No. 1 goalie in a massively important regular season game, with a playoff spot on the line, against their main rival, would not be a newsworthy event.

That is just what you expect to happen.

But the announcement that the Columbus Blue Jackets are starting Sergei Bobrovsky against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday is a pretty big deal because when these two teams met just two nights ago in Pittsburgh, the Blue Jackets not only opted to not start their top goalie, they did not even dress him as the backup.

He was not an option at all for what was to that point the biggest game of the season.

It was such an eye-opening move because Bobrovsky has struggled horribly against the Penguins over the past couple of years, and the decision to go with backup Joonas Korpisalo seemed to indicate that maybe the team didn’t have faith in their starter in this particular matchup.

But with Saturday’s game taking on even more importance, especially after the Carolina Hurricanes and Montreal Canadiens both lost on Friday night, the Blue Jackets are going right back to their starter.

It will be a big test for him and the Blue Jackets as they look to finally break through the wall the Penguins have built in front of them.

Thursday’s 3-0 loss was the eighth consecutive time the Blue Jackets have lost to the Penguins and pushed them to four points behind them in the standings, while also keeping them on the outside of the playoff picture. Another regulation loss on Saturday would extend that deficit to six points behind the Penguins and make it almost impossible for them to catch back up down the stretch. A regulation win, however, would bring them back to within two points and, at least temporarily, put them back in a playoff position ahead of the Canadiens.

But if any of that is going to happen the Blue Jackets are going to need Bobrovsky to shake off his previous struggles against the Penguins. Since the start of the 2016-17 season, including their playoff meeting that season, Bobrovsky has a sub-.880 save percentage against them, and only a .905 mark for his career. That is one of his worst career-long performances against any team in the league.

That will level of play will not be good enough on a night like this.

Korpisalo actually played really well in place of Bobrovsky on Thursday night, giving up only two goals (one of which was a fluky play; the third Penguins goal was an empty net goal), only to get no offensive support from the skaters in front of him, something that has been a struggle for the Blue Jackets in the six games since the trade deadline.

That, too, will have to change.

There is immense pressure on the Blue Jackets to make the playoffs this season, not only because of the fact they are likely to lose Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin after this season, but because they sold off almost their entire 2019 draft class to acquire several more UFA’s at the trade deadline including Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid. Missing the playoffs with all of that happening would be a brutal pill for the Blue Jackets to swallow and would probably put everyone from the head coach to the general manager on the hot seat going into the offseason.

If they are going to avoid that it almost certainly has to start with a win on Saturday. For that to happen they are going to need their starter to play like the top-tier, two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie that he is.

Push for the Playoffs: Another chance for the Blue Jackets

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Blue Jackets’ offense shut down again in big loss to Penguins

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PITTSBURGH — John Tortorella raised quite a few eyebrows on Thursday when he not only decided to start backup goalie Joonas Korpisalo for what was, to this point, his team’s biggest game of the regular season, but also decided to not even dress his regular starter, Sergei Bobrovsky.

The official explanation was for Bobrovsky to get some additional rest and work on his game, and not because of his career-long struggles against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Given the importance of the game, the dire situation Columbus is in when it comes to the Eastern Conference playoff race, and the fact Bobrovsky is supposed to be their starting goalie that explanation doesn’t really fly.

This is not the time to “rest” your starter. This is the time you lean on him. So in that sense, it was a pretty bold decision. Actually, it probably isn’t even fair to call it bold because it is too much of an understatement.

[Related: Blue Jackets sit Bobrovsky versus Penguins]

Having said all of that, Tortorella’s decision wasn’t really the difference in the end because it doesn’t matter who your goalie is if you can’t score any goals. And that is exactly what happened to the Blue Jackets on Thursday night. They did nothing.

The Blue Jackets dropped their eighth consecutive game to the Penguins, fell four points behind them in the standings, and continued their post-trade deadline struggles in what could be a massive 3-0 loss. The two teams meet again on Saturday night in Columbus in what figures to be a must-win game for the Blue Jackets if they have any hope of catching the Penguins in the standings. A regulation win would at least bring them back to within two points; but a regulation loss would push them six points back with less than a month to play in the regular season. That gap would almost impossible to make up, especially no more remaining head-to-head meetings after Saturday.

There are a couple of issues here for the Blue Jackets.

First, what does it say about your confidence in your starting goalie if you can’t start him in this game against this team?

Second, and perhaps more importantly, after going all in at the trade deadline and trading away almost every draft pick they have in 2019 (as well as a couple of prospects) to get Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid, the Blue Jackets are now in a situation where they are not even close to a guarantee to make the playoffs.

They are just 2-4-0 since the trade deadline, with none of those wins coming in regulation. They needed overtime to beat a Philadelphia Flyers team that is not going to make the playoffs and barely outlasted a depleted New Jersey roster that is among the worst in the league in a shootout on Tuesday night. They have scored just nine goals in the six games, have been shutout twice (once to Edmonton) and been beaten twice by the Penguins in two huge head-to-head games.

That is obviously not what they had in mind when they went all in at the trade deadline to try and take advantage of the remaining months they have with Artemi Panarin and Bobrovsky before they inevitably leave in free agency.

For as bad as the situation looks right now the Blue Jackets are definitely not out of this thing yet. Even though Saturday’s game against the Penguins is huge when it comes to their chances of catching them, the Penguins are not the only team the Blue Jackets are competing with in this race. Even with all of their recent struggles they are still only two points back of the Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes, so they are well within reach. They are not going to get there though if they can not start to find some consistent and sustained offense.

As for the Penguins on Thursday, Phil Kessel started the scoring with an early power play goal to snap what had been a 16-game goal-less drought, while Nick Bjugstad and Sidney Crosby also scored in the win.

Matt Murray stopped all 25 shots he faced to record his fourth shutout of the season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Blue Jackets sit Bob vs. Penguins: About rest or big-game woes?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Thursday night’s matchup between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Virtually every game is a big game for the Columbus Blue Jackets going forward, but even by those standards, this upcoming home-and-home set with the Pittsburgh Penguins is ginormous. Like, bigger than the biggest John Tortorella meltdown.

Frankly, the Blue Jackets haven’t had the greatest luck in big games against the Penguins, and key head-to-head games against their bubble peers this season — and maybe Torts is just a bit too aware of it.

There’s a fascinating tug-of-war going on on Thursday, after word surfaced that (gulp) Sergei Bobrovsky isn’t just being passed over as the starter against the Penguins; he isn’t even dressing. Instead, Joonas Korpisalo gets the nod, while Keith Kinkaid serves as backup.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

From a front-facing perspective, Torts’ explanation is sensible enough.

“We feel he’s played a lot of hockey,” Tortorella said, via Jeff Svoboda of the team website. “This was a game we wanted to give to Korpi and try to get Bob a little bit of rest and kind of work on his game.”

Understandably, some wonder if Tortorella is merely serving up platitudes, but there are at least kernels of truth. Svoboda points out that Bobrovsky’s started eight consecutive games for the Blue Jackets, and 14 of their last 15 games.

It still makes you wonder if the Blue Jackets are overthinking (and/or underthinking?) things a little here.

For one thing, if the team was preoccupied with getting Bob some rest, the timing is a little odd. Wouldn’t it have been wiser to rest Bobrovsky on Tuesday (a 2-1 shootout win against the Devils) than during these big games against the Penguins? The two-time Vezina winner struggled right after the trade deadline, yet he was strong against New Jersey.

But maybe Torts is really just scared of history repeating itself?

Look, there’s no denying that Bobrovsky’s suffered some of his worst moments in big games against the Penguins, surely only intensifying Torts’ clear hatred for the Penguins. In both 2013-14 and 2016-17, Bobrovsky followed magnificent regular season runs with first-round faceplants against the Penguins. The narratives about Bobrovsky “choking” in clutch moments started to take root there.

No doubt, Tortorella is aware of such thoughts.

But, again, the rest argument is reasonable, to an extent. This could work out quite well, actually, if Korpisalo wins on Thursday, relieving some of that anxiety and maybe lifting a bit of the Penguins baggage. From there, Torts could decide if Korpi might be the “hot hand” or if Bob got enough rest — and it’s also worth noting that Kinkaid’s had some small-sample success against the Penguins.

And, again, the Blue Jackets have really whiffed in big-game situations, so there’s an argument that they simply need to try different approaches. Consider this rundown of how Columbus has fared in head-to-head games against the three teams they’re jockeying with: the Hurricanes, Canadiens, and Penguins.

Against Carolina

Oct. 5: 3-1 loss to Hurricanes.
Nov. 17: 4-1 win vs. Hurricanes.
Jan. 4: 4-2 loss to Hurricanes.
March 15: Final game against Hurricanes, in Columbus.

Against Montreal

Jan. 18: 4-1 loss to Habs.
Feb. 19: 3-2 loss to Habs.
March 28: Final game against Habs, in Columbus.

Against Pittsburgh

Nov. 24: 4-2 loss against Penguins.
Feb. 26: 5-2 loss against Penguins.
March 7 and 9: Home-and-home.

[Push for the Playoffs]

That’s just two of a possible 14 standings points in seven games so far against those teams, with four remaining. If the Blue Jackets miss the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs – as they’re currently positioned to do – it would be because of failures against those teams. It would be painfully fitting if those failures specifically boil down to not getting over the hump against the Penguins, a team that’s tormented them for much of the Bobrovsky – Torts era.

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Either way, the Blue Jackets need to figure things out, and cross their fingers that Bobrovsky and their other goalies get on track. After all, it’s not just about slaying that Penguins dragon, even if that’s the biggest and most pressing obstacle ahead; the Blue Jackets note that they’re heading into a stretch where they’ll play seven straight games against teams in playoff position. It’s imperative that the Blue Jackets navigate these choppy waters. Their season depends on it.

When it comes to justifying the team’s bold bets at the trade deadline, the results have been mixed at best so far. It’s time for the Blue Jackets to finally thrive in do-or-die situations, whether Bobrovsky’s in net or not.

John Forslund (play-by-play) and AJ Mleczko (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Pittsburgh. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Jeremy Roenick and Mike Johnson.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

McQuaid already out of Blue Jackets’ lineup just one week after trade

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The Columbus Blue Jackets pushed all their chips to the center of the table at the NHL trade deadline and went all in on this season by acquiring Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Keith Kinkaid, and Adam McQuaid over a three-day stretch, exhausting almost their entire allotment of draft picks for 2019.

It was such a bold approach because the team was not even a lock to make the playoffs at the time of the trades and enters the week on the outside of the playoff picture after dropping back-to-back games to the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets over the weekend. It also puts a ton of pressure on the team to win this season because Duchene, Dzingel, Kinkaid, McQuaid, Artemi Panarin, and Sergei Bobrovsky are all unrestricted free agents after this season.

There is a real chance many — if not all — of them could be gone after July 1. Given what they gave up at the deadline, the headlines they made, and the uncertainty about the roster after this season missing the playoffs would be … well … bad.

So far, the early returns have not produced the results the Blue Jackets were looking for as they have dropped three of their first four games since the deadline.

It also looks like one of those acquisitions is going to struggle to get a regular spot in the lineup.

McQuaid was a healthy scratch in Sunday’s loss to the Jets, having been replaced by Dean Kukan, and based on coach John Tortorella’s press conference on Monday it appears the same lineup will be used on Tuesday night when the team takes on the New Jersey Devils.

That means, again, no Adam McQuaid, just one week after the team traded a prospect and two draft picks for him.

“I have to make decisions on who I think is our best six, and right now [McQuaid] isn’t that,” Tortorella said on Monday. “I don’t know what he is; I know the character of this guy, that is a big reason why we got him, he is a high character guy. Little concerned about the speed of the game with him, so we went back to the other guys. [Kukan] had some good games prior to being taken out, in fact it was probably unfair that comes out, but because we make a deal I wanted to look at [McQuaid], and I feel [Kukan] should be in right now, so we will go with those six.”

In his first three games with the team McQuaid was a minus-four in just around 40 minutes of total ice time.

Of all the players Columbus acquired prior to the deadline McQuaid was always the one that seemed to be the most unnecessary. Obviously Tortorella loves the person and presence he can provide off the ice, but his style of play just doesn’t seem to fit with the way the Blue Jackets play on the back end or with the direction the NHL is moving. But, players get injured and if you are a team that has any hope of going on an extended playoff run you are probably going to have to use at least eight or nine different defenders. Plus, the Blue Jackets probably no doubt see McQuaid as some kind of an answer to Tom Wilson should they encounter the Washington Capitals again at some point. So here we are.

As for the Blue Jackets’ other main additions, Duchene has one goal and two assists in his first six games, while Dzingel has a pair of assists in four games.

PHT Power Rankings: The NHL’s best under-the-radar performances

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.