Oliver Bjorkstrand

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Werenski’s contract, goaltending are top questions for Blue Jackets

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 Columbus Blue Jackets.

1. What will Zach Werenski‘s contract look like, and when will it get signed?

This is currently the most pressing issue for the Blue Jackets.

Werenski is one of the team’s core players, helps form one of the league’s best defense duos alongside Seth Jones, and has had an outstanding start to his NHL career with his best years still in front of him.

Based on his current level of production he should be in line for a huge contract (maybe something in the seven-or eight-year, and $8 million per year range?) and the Blue Jackets certainly have the salary cap space to accommodate it. It is just a matter of when it actually gets signed and how much it’s for.

Like all of the remaining unsigned RFA’s (and there are a lot of significant ones) it is probably going to be a lengthy waiting game while everyone waits for the first shoe to drop around the league.

[More: 2018-19 In Review | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. Who is going to emerge as the starting goalie?

This is the position that is going to make-or-break the Blue Jackets’ season.

Sergei Bobrovsky may have had some issues in the playoffs, but he was also a major reason why the team managed to reach them in four of his six full seasons as the starting goalie.

Bobrovsky was a two-time Vezina Trophy winner in Columbus and one of the best, most productive goalies in the league during his tenure. That is not an easy thing to replace, and right now the Blue Jackets have no proven goalie on the roster.

The in-house candidates are Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins and it remains to be seen whether either one is capable of being a No. 1 starter in the NHL. Korpisalo has a sub-.900 save percentage over the past three seasons as a backup, while Merzlikins is 25 years old and has never played a game in North America. He is an intriguing option, but is a complete unknown at this point. If neither one is capable of stepping up to take control of the job it will be a major problem for the Blue Jackets that will become general manager Jarmo Kekalainen’s top priority to fix.

3. How will they replace the offense they lost this summer?

Pretty much everyone in hockey was anticipating a free agency exodus out of Columbus this summer with Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Bobrovsky all moving on to new teams. That is a lot of offense walking out the door, especially as it relates to Panarin who has been one of the NHL’s most dynamic offensive players and was the one true game-changing forward the team had.

That is obviously a lot to replace, but it doesn’t end there as there are another set of questions that arise with the players that are returning.

Among them: What if Cam Atkinson isn’t a 40-goal scorer again? What if Oliver Bjorkstrand, after scoring 23 goals, regresses? Will Pierre-Luc Dubois take another big step in his development? All of that can add up and only add to what the Blue Jackets need to replace this season.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Tortorella on Blue Jackets’ goalie outlook, post-Bobrovsky future

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The Columbus Blue Jackets are headed toward what might be the most fascinating offseason of any team in the NHL thanks to their trade deadline splurge that saw them send off most of their 2019 draft picks in an effort to load up for a playoff run.

The good news is the additions of Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel not only helped the Blue Jackets make the playoffs for the third year in a row (their longest streak in franchise history), but also have their most successful postseason to date, reaching Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs where they fell in six games to the eventual Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins. That came after a stunning and emphatic Round 1 sweep of the Presidents’ Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning. It gave Blue Jackets fans a taste of success they hadn’t yet experienced and helped raise the bar on a franchise that had consistently been an afterthought.

None of that is a bad thing.

The problem is that along with their own stars, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, Duchene and Dzingel are also eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer and there is a very real chance that none of that quartet will return to the team next season. Combine that with the fact the team only has two draft picks in this month’s draft (their own third-round pick, and a seventh-round pick that previously belonged to the Calgary Flames) and, as of now, only five for the 2020 class (if Duchene re-signs with the Blue Jackets, their 2020 first-round pick will also go to the Ottawa Senators as part of a condition attached to that trade) and there is a lot of work for general manager Jarmo Kekalainen.

That means a lot of changes are probably coming for the Blue Jackets.

The biggest of those changes will be in net where Bobrovsky is almost certainly going to be moving on in free agency.

With limited trade resources at their disposal and a thin crop of potential free agents at the position that spot might have to be filled from within, and that is not going to be easy given how important Bobrovsky has been to the Blue Jackets over the past seven years. Poke fun at his playoff resume and worry about the potential issues that would come with signing him to a seven-year contract at his current age all you want, but the reality is he has been one of the league’s best goalies and a two-time Vezina Trophy winner with the team.

It is not going to be easy to just replace that.

The internal option is Joonas Korpisalo, Bobrovsky’s top backup the past four years, while the team also signed 25-year-old Elvis Merzlikins to a one-year, one-way contract this past month.

On Monday, Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella appeared on 97.1 The Fan in Columbus and talked about the team’s offseason, with a special emphasis on the goaltending situation without Bobrovsky and how that might impact the team’s style of play.

“I don’t think Bob’s going to be here,” said Tortorella while appearing on his Hockey and Hounds segment with hosts Anthony Rothman and Bobby Carpenter (you can listen to the full segment here).

“You’re losing a very, very good goaltender. We may have young goaltenders that are going to be taking over that position. I have to start thinking about just a little bit of a change in style of play in order to protect them a little bit to get their feet wet. Korpi has obviously played, but Merzlikins is coming in here, we have couple of other guys coming in here, I’m not sure what it looks like. So we have to start thinking about style of play.”

The only conclusion that can be reached when hearing him talking about protecting inexperienced goalies is a more conservative approach, which might be necessary anyway Panarin and Duchene leave.

He was later asked if Korpisalo can be a No. 1 goalie for the team and after a slight hesitation in his response, expressed some confidence in him.

“I do,” said Tortorella. “I say that in a respectful way, because it’s hard to say if a guy that is kind of spotted in — you know Korpi ran with the ball early in the regular season, and we saw once he was playing a lot of games, we saw his game grow. I have not given him many opportunities to run with it because I simply can’t because I had Bob. He has certainly showed us, like a lot of players at that position, if you have the ball and you run with it and you are playing every other night and you get into a little bit of a roll, you are certainly going to play better. So that’s what we are going to look for with Korpi, we feel it’s in him, he hasn’t really had an opportunity go a couple of months being the No. 1 guy, he’s had a few weeks at certain times. He’s going to get an opportunity, that’s one think as I’ve talked to a few guys coming here, and maybe some guys from last year that didn’t get the ice time they wanted, it’s going to be an open book, you’re going to get an opportunity and you’re going to make the decision on if you play or not.”

The concern with Korpisalo is that his performance the past three years has not been great, even after a promising start to the 2018-19 season.

His save percentage the past two years is only .897, and if you go back to the start of the 2016-17 season it is only .899, a mark that places him 61st out of the 65 goalies that have appeared in at least 40 games since then.

Combine that with Merzlikins, who has zero games of NHL experience, and there is a lot of uncertainty at the position.

It is no wonder that Tortorella is looking at a slight change in the team’s playing style.

Making a trade seems like a major challenge given how depleted the team’s trade chips are after the deadline, while the free agent market after Bobrovsky is, in a word, unappealing. Robin Lehner is the next most significant name out there, but the New York Islanders are probably not going to let him get away.

Even with the likely free agent departures there is still a good bit of talent on this roster. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are stars on the blue line and there is still going to be some real talent at forward with Cam Atkinson and rapidly improving younger players like Pierre-Luc Dubois and Oliver Bjorkstrand. But the goaltending might end up making or breaking what this team is capable of in 2019-20, and right now the entire position seems like a giant mystery.

(S/T 1st Ohio Battery)

Related: Blue Jackets ink Bobrovsky’s potential successor

Blue Jackets’ Panarin scores controversial goal after puck hits protective netting

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Do you want more discussions about expanded replay in sports, and especially in the NHL? Well, if you do, I have some good news for you because you are probably going to get a lot more of them after Columbus Blue Jackets forward Artemi Panarin scored a controversial goal in the first period of Game 4 against the Boston Bruins on Thursday night.

With the Blue Jackets trailing, 2-0, Panarin scored his fifth goal of the playoffs to cut the deficit in half and bring his team back into the game. The controversy comes due to the fact that before Panarin scored, the puck clearly hit the protective netting above the glass and fell back into play, a development that was missed by all four officials on the ice.

It was not missed by the Bruins, who immediately protested the non-call.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

There were two problems for the Bruins.

First, that sort of play is not one their coaching staff could have challenged as coaches only have the ability to challenge plays for offside and goalie interference.

The other problem is that the Situation Room in Toronto can only get involved and call for a review of plays that hit the protective netting if it “immediately” results in a goal.

What does that mean?

Here is what the NHL rule book says:

“For pucks that hit the spectator netting undetected by the On-Ice Officials, “immediately” shall mean the following:

a) When the puck strikes the spectator netting and deflects directly into the goal off of any player;

b) When the puck strikes the spectator netting and falls to the ice and is then directed into the goal by the player who retrieves the puck.

In both of the above scenarios, the NHL Situation Room must have definitive video evidence of the puck striking the netting in order to disallow the goal.”

Neither of these situations apply to this goal, as the puck did not bounce directly into the net after hitting the spectator netting, and it was not scored by the player who immediately retrieved the puck (that would be Oliver Bjorkstrand). Once Bjorkstrand played the puck and passed it to Panarin in front, the Situation Room could not get involved to review the play.

This sort of thing has happened before, and oddly enough it actually happened between these same two teams in the same building back in 2014.

The Bruins aren’t going to be happy, and it is probably something that will be addressed over the summer as a potential addition to the replay system, but the current rule is pretty clear on what the replay system could and could not do on this particular play once it was missed by the on-ice officials.

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.

Bruins vs. Blue Jackets: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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For the first time in franchise history the Columbus Blue Jackets will get to see what life is like in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

After pulling off a stunning upset in Round 1, where they not only beat the NHL’s best team, but completely dominated them, the Blue Jackets get to see if they can shock the world once again when they take on the Boston Bruins.

The big thing to watch early in this series will be whether or not the lengthy, week-long layoff for the Blue Jackets will be something that helps or hurts them against a Bruins team that is coming off of a grueling seven-game series against the Toronto Maple Leafs where they had to win back-to-back games to fight off elimination.

From a big picture outlook the Bruins are the superior team on paper and based on their overall regular season performance, but the same thing was said about the Lightning in the previous round, and we all saw how that turned out.

Going back to March 24 the Blue Jackets are 11-1-0 in their past 12 games, with that only loss coming at the hands of the Bruins, a 6-2 defeat on April 2.

The two teams met three times during the regular season with each team winning once in a blowout, and the Bruins taking the extra game in a 2-1 overtime decision on March 16.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Schedule

Surging Players

Boston: It should be no surprise that the three-headed monster of of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak is leading the way offensively for the Bruins. They have been doing it for years, and they did it again in Round 1 against the Maple Leafs. What is really helping is they are getting a lot of contributions from players outside of that group. Charlie Coyle, one of the Bruins’ trade deadline acquisitions, scored three goals in Round 1, Brandon Carlo didn’t record a point but was outstanding at times defensively, and their Game 7 offense came from a lot of their unsung depth players. The Bruins are a team with superstars at the top of the lineup (all playing exceptionally well) and has found some depth to go with the. That is a dangerous combination.

Columbus: Instead of dealing away their pending free agents, the Blue Jackets went all in at the trade deadline with Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid, and it not only helped produce the first postseason series win in franchise history, it helped them pull off one of the biggest Round 1 upsets ever. Duchene was one of the driving forces behind that four-game sweep of the Lightning, recording seven points in the four games. Artemi Panarin was also an impact player throughout the opening round, while young players Pierre-Luc Dubois and Oliver Bjorkstrand started to make a name for themselves.

Struggling Players

Boston: Marcus Johansson had what could probably described as an “up-and-down” series for the Bruins. He scored a huge goal in Game 7, but it was his only point in the five games he played while he also finished as a team-worst minus-4 in the series. Jake DeBrusk also had a quiet round, but that was mostly due to poor shooting luck (only one goal on 20 shots) than anything that he was or was not doing.

Columbus: When you sweep the best team in the NHL in four games there probably are not many players on your roster that are struggling, and even if there are, you haven’t had enough time to figure out who they are. Still, the Blue Jackets would probably like to see a little bit more from Dzingel and Brandon Dubinsky in Round 2, as both were held off the scoresheet entirely in their first four games.

Goaltending

Boston: Bruins fans always seem to be waiting for an opportunity to criticize Tuukka Rask and make him the scapegoat for whenever the team falls short in the playoffs. While his regular season performance wasn’t consistently great, and there is reason to believe he is not the same goalie he was four or five years ago, he is still a very capable starter that has the potential to steal a game or two, and perhaps even an entire series should it come to that. He was outstanding in the first round with a .928 save percentage and was at his best in Games 6 and 7 when the Bruins needed him most.

Columbus: This was always going to be the big question for the Blue Jackets. For as good as Sergei Bobrovsky has been throughout his career he has been one of the least productive goalies in the NHL come playoff time, consistently melting down at the worst possible time. He did a lot of work in Round 1 to quiet the doubters in helping to shut down one of the greatest offenses the NHL has ever seen. The Blue Jackets dominated the series so much that they didn’t even need Bobrovsky to be great, and he still finished with a .932 save percentage in what has been — by far — the best postseason performance of his career.

Special Teams

Boston: The Bruins’ power play can be a game-changer for them. It was among the best in the NHL during the regular season, and then absolutely dominated the Maple Leafs in Round 1 by scoring seven power play goals in the seven games (and they didn’t even get a power play in Game 7). And it wasn’t just any one player during the damage. They received power play goals from six different players in the first round (only Bergeron scored more than one) while eight different players recorded at least one point on the power play. The only flaw the unit has — and it is a big flaw — is that it is sometimes vulnerable to shorthanded goals against, giving up 15 during the regular season and another one in Round 1. The Bruins’ PK unit, on the other hand, is a tough group to figure out. With Bergeron, Marchand, and the defense they have behind them it should be a good group, at least based on the talent they have at their disposal. But they were only middle of the pack during the regular season and were just “okay” against the Maple Leafs, though they did kill have six in a row to end the series, including all five in Games 6 and 7 when facing elimination.

Columbus: It’s not always about how many goals you score, but when you score them. That was the case for the Blue Jackets’ power play that was one of the worst in the NHL during the regular season, but went off in Round 1 by scoring on five of its 10 attempts against the Lightning. Nobody should reasonably expect them to continue clicking at 50 percent into Round 2, but if they can find a couple of goals on the man-advantage and continue their excellent penalty kill that could be a huge difference in the series — especially if they can keep staying out of the box. Columbus was tied for best PK unit in the league during the regular season and then followed that up by taking just six minor penalties in the four games against Tampa Bay. Their PK will probably get more use in Round 2, and they are going to be challenged by a Bruins power play that is not only good, but is white-hot right now.

X-Factor for Bruins

After scoring 27 goals in only 68 games during the regular season Jake DeBrusk had a mostly quiet series against the Maple Leafs, but he still showed some signs (like the fact he had 20 shots on goal) that he could be on the verge of breaking out in a big way at some point very, very soon. If he does that would give the Bruins just one more weapon that Columbus has to contend with and try to slow down. In his first two years in the league he has already shown that he can be a legit top-six forward and could be a huge X-factor in Round 2 for the Bruins.

X-Factor for Blue Jackets 

Alexandre Texier was a late addition to the Blue Jackets’ roster, and the 19-year-old has already made a sizable impact. He has only played in six NHL games (two at the end of the regular season, all four playoff games to this point) and has already scored three goals and an assist. That includes his two goals in the Blue Jackets’ series-clinching win over the Lightning where he opened the scoring with an early power play goal.

Prediction

Bruins in 6. The Blue Jackets are not going to be an easy out, and even though they entered the playoffs as the No. 8 seed the roster they have now is very different from the one they had for most of the regular season. And all of the new additions seem to have found their place in the lineup. They are legit. But so are the Bruins, and they not only have a trio of stars at the top of their lineup that are probably superior to Columbus’ top players, but they have also found some depth to complement them.

PHT’s Round 2 previews
Round 2 schedule, TV info

Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable
Conn Smythe favorites after Round 1
Hurricanes vs. Islanders
Blues vs. Stars
Avalanche vs. Sharks

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 on verge of sweeping Lightning after Game 3 win

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The Columbus Blue Jackets are on the verge of making franchise history following their 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 3 Sunday night.

A win on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; CNBC) would not only mean a shocking sweep of the Presidents’ Trophy winning Lightning, but also give the Blue Jackets their first ever Stanley Cup playoff series victory.

Remember when the Lightning jumped out to a 3-0 lead 17:50 into Game 1? No one saw this coming.

[2019 NBC STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS HUB]

Playing in front of an energetic Nationwide Arena crowd, the Blue Jackets continued their puck possession dominance and again piled on after scoring. Matt Duchene, who now has five points in the series, opened the scoring 1:44 into the second period.

Columbus built on that lead 6:41 later when Oliver Bjorkstrand made it 2-0 on the power play, which is now 4-for-8 in the series. The goal left the Lightning stunned.

Ondrej Palat gave Tampa a fighting chance with an early third period goal, but even as they continually tried to test Sergei Bobrovsky, they couldn’t solve the Blue Jackets’ netminder, who ended the night with 30 saves.

“I thought [Bobrovsky] came up really big in those 10-12 minutes when they really turned it on,” said Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella.

Already without Nikita Kucherov (suspension) and Victor Hedman (injury), the Lightning still had enough weapons to mount a comeback in the series starting with Game 3, but the suffocating play of the Blue Jackets kept Tampa’s stars quiet. Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos have yet to record a point while combining for 12 total shots on net.

Out of 32 Presidents’ Trophy winners, only eight have gone on to win the Stanley Cup. Zero have been swept in Round 1. The Lightning has no margin for error remaining.

The Blue Jackets will go for the sweep Tuesday night at 7 p.m. ET on CNBC

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.