Pierre-Luc Dubois

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How aggressive should Blue Jackets be at trade deadline?

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We need to talk a little more about the Columbus Blue Jackets because they are one of the most fascinating teams in the NHL right now.

Not only for their recent hot streak, but for what might still be ahead of them over the next couple of months.

Thanks to their win in New York on Sunday night, capped off with an Oliver Bjorkstrand goal with 26 seconds to play in regulation, they hold the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference and are one of the hottest teams in the NHL. They are 15-2-4 since Dec. 9, while their overall record through 50 games is actually one point better than it was at the same point a year ago. Considering their offseason and the almost unbelievable run of injuries they have experienced once the season began, they are one of the biggest surprises in the league.

It all creates a pretty interesting discussion for what their front office does — or is able to do — before the NHL trade deadline.

1. They are in a position to buy, not sell

That is not up for much debate, either. This is the same team and front office that went all in before last season’s trade deadline at a time when they were still on the outside of the playoff picture. Not only are they in a playoff position right now, they are just one point back of the New York Islanders for the third spot in the Metropolitan Division.

There is also this: Their upcoming schedule through the trade deadline and end of February really softens up with only five of their next 16 games coming against teams that currently rank higher than 19th in the league in points percentage. Three of those games (two against Philadelphia, one against Florida) will be against teams they could be directly competing with for a playoff spot.

There is a chance to gain even more ground and solidify their spot even more.

2. What they need and what they have to spend

What they have to spend: A lot. The only teams with more salary cap space to spend ahead of the deadline are the New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators, and Colorado Avalanche. Out of that group, only the Avalanche will be in a position to buy. The Blue Jackets, in theory, could add any player that is theoretically available before the trade deadline.

What they need: At the start of the season the easy — and expected — answer here would have been a goalie given the uncertainty of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins and their ability to replace Bobrovsky. After some early struggles, they have turned out to be the Blue Jackets’ biggest bright spot as that tandem has combined for the second-best five-on-five save percentage in the NHL and the third-best all situations save percentage. They have been great, and especially Merzlikins with his recent play.

What they really need now is some scoring. Getting healthy would help a lot (Cam Atkinson just returned to the lineup; Josh Anderson, Alexandre Texier are still sidelined) but they do not have a single player in the top-77 of the league in scoring (Pierre-Luc Dubois is 78th), and only two in the top-120 (Dubuois and Gustav Nyquist).

As a team, they are 24th in the league in goals per game.

Looking around the league, obvious forward rentals would include Tyler Toffoli (Los Angeles Kings), Chris Kreider (New York Rangers), Ilya Kovalchuk (Montreal Canadiens), and Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Ottawa Senators). Potential trade options with term still remaining might include Jason Zucker (Minnesota Wild) or Tomas Tatar (Montreal).

3. The problem: How aggressive can they be?

The downside to their “all in” trade deadline a year ago is that it absolutely decimated their draft pick cupboard for two years. They were left with just three picks in the 2019 class (none before pick No. 108) and as it stands right now they have just five picks in 2020, with only one of them (a first-round pick) slated to be in the top-100.

While players like Texier and Emil Benstrom are good prospects, their farm system is not the deep and the younger players currently on the NHL roster (Dubuois, Seth Jones, Werenski) are players they are going to build around.

That seriously limits what they can do.

Is general manager Jarmo Kekalainen in a position to trade another first-round pick to add to what is a pretty good, but probably not great team? Is there a player available that can a big enough difference to make that worth it? If there is, that player can not be a rental. It has to be a player that has meaningful term left on their contract and can be a part of the organization beyond just this season.

Even if you assume the Blue Jackets will not be able to maintain their current hot streak (and they will cool off at some point) they have at the very least put themselves in a position where they are going to be in the playoff race with a very good chance of making it. This is also not a team in a “rebuild” mode, either. When you are in that position you owe it to your fans and the players in that room to try to win. For the Blue Jackets, it is just a matter of how much they can do and how aggressive they should be over the next few weeks.

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.

Surging Blue Jackets finally getting some help

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The Columbus Blue Jackets have been one of the NHL’s hottest teams over the past month-and-a-half, riding a 12-2-4 run over their past 18 games. They have the league’s third-best record (behind only St. Louis and Pittsburgh) during that stretch and have played their way back into playoff contention in the Eastern Conference, entering play on Wednesday in a tie with the Philadelphia Flyers for the second wild card spot.

What makes this run even more impressive is the team has been absolutely ravaged by injuries during that stretch.

The list of injuries includes…

  • Forward Cam Atkinson, a 40-goal scorer a year ago, has missed the past 12 games.
  • Forward Josh Anderson and defenseman Ryan Murray have not played since Dec. 14 (15 games).
  • Rookie defenseman Andre Peeke has not played since Dec. 17.
  • Oliver Bjorkstrand, who had 12 goals in his first 36 games, has missed the past 11 games.
  • Alexandre Texier, a rookie forward the team had high hopes for at the start, has missed the past seven games.
  • Starting goalie Joonas Korpisalo has missed the past eight games.

On Wednesday the Blue Jackets finally got some good news on the injury front when the team announced that Atkinson and Peeke have been activated from injured reserve (Peeke has since been assigned to the AHL).

Atkinson is expected to be in the lineup on Thursday for a huge game against the Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes are just two points ahead of the Blue Jackets in the standings.

The Atkinson is significant because he is such a huge part of the Blue Jackets’ offense and has been one of the most underrated goal scorers in the entire league the past few seasons. Over the previous three seasons he scored 100 goals in 227 games, a rate that averages out to 36 goals per 82 games. That production is down a little so far this season, but a lot of that drop has been driven by a significant dip in his shooting percentage.

He was already starting to see a bounce back before the injury, scoring five goals in his past eight games.

Blue Jackets keep surprising

Expectations were low for the Blue Jackets at the start of the season after the team lost Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel in free agency. Add in the recent injury situation on top of a slow start, and this team has every possible excuse to have completely gone in the tank. That has not happened.

Even with all of the free agency departures the Blue Jackets still had reasons for optimism this season (we looked at that here and here) because of the young talent still in place. Zach Werenski and Seth Jones form one of the best defense duos in the league, and they have been their usual steady selves this season. Pierre-Luc Dubois is also an emerging star in the NHL and becoming a legit No. 1 center that can impact the game on both sides of the ice.

But perhaps the biggest factor in their ability to remain competitive has been the emerge of Korpisalo, and most recently, Elvis Merzlikins in net.

Goaltending was always going to be the big X-Factor for this team and would strongly dictate what the team could do.

Merzlikins has been the big story over the past couple of weeks as he has stepped up in place of the injured Korpisalo. After losing each of his first eight decisions in the NHL, he is now 6-2-0 in his past eight games with a .950 save percentage. That includes back-to-back shutouts in his past two starts.

It is not realistic for him to keep playing at that high of a level, but as long as he and Korpisalo (once he returns) do not completely fall apart the Blue Jackets are going to have a great chance to not only stay in this race, but also shock the NHL and potentially return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Especially if they can start getting some more of their key players (Bjorkstrand, Murray, Texier, Anderson) back in the lineup.

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.

The Buzzer: Nylander keeps Maple Leafs rolling; Canucks make it 6 in a row

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Three Stars

1. William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs. Following a restricted free agent contract dispute and a down 2018-19 performance, Nylander became a popular target for criticism in Toronto. Not anymore. He continued what is turning out to be a massive breakout season on Thursday night by scoring two more goals and adding an assist in the Maple Leafs’ 6-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets. The Maple Leafs are now 14-4-1 under new coach Sheldon Keefe and 8-0-1 in their past nine games. Nylander has 19 goals and 38 total points in 41 games this season. That puts him on a pace for 38 goals and 76 points over 82 games. That level of production makes his $6 million cap hit a bargain.

2. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche. MacKinnon got the Avalanche rolling with a late first period goal and never slowed down as the cruised to a huge 7-3 win over the St. Louis Blues. He recorded his fourth four-point game of the season, most in the NHL. It is his ninth since the start of the 2017-18 season, tied for second-most in the league (behind only Nikita Kucherov) during that stretch. Read more about the Avalanche’s big win here.

3. J.T. Miller, Vancouver Canucks. Miller continues to be a massive addition to the Canucks’ lineup and helped them win their sixth game in a row with his second four-point game of the season. He opened the scoring with an early first period goal, then added three assists, including the lone assist on Adam Gaudette‘s game winning goal in a wild 7-5 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. He has at least one point in five of the Canucks’ six games during this streak and continues to help push them toward a playoff spot. They paid a steep price to get him, but he has been worth it so far.

Other notable performances from Thursday

  • Pierre-Luc Dubois‘ overtime goal against the Boston Bruins helped the Columbus Blue Jackets improved to 8-0-4 in their past 12 games.
  • Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 38 shots to help the Tampa Bay Lightning pick up a huge 2-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens.
  • Jonathan Huberdeau remained hot and Evgeni Dadonov had three points as the Florida Panthers used a four-goal second period to storm by the Ottawa Senators.
  • Brent Burns scored an overtime goal and Aaron Dell made 36 saves to help the San Jose Sharks get a much-needed 3-2 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
  • All 12 Arizona Coyotes forwards recorded a point in their 4-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks.
  • Max Pacioretty continued to be a dominant force for the Vegas Golden Knights as he scored two more goals in their 5-4 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.
  • Johnny Gadreau had a goal and an assist for the Calgary Flames as they beat the New York Rangers.

Highlights of the Night

It did not result in a win, but Patrik Laine finished with 13 shots on goal for the Winnipeg Jets and scored this beauty of a goal after turning Morgan Rielly inside out.

Thanks to this beauty of a Nico Hischier goal the New Jersey Devils were able to win their third game in a row. It is their first three-game winning streak of the season. Read all about it here.

Jack Eichel helps the Buffalo Sabres get a huge win by scoring the game-winning goal on a penalty shot in overtime.

Blooper of the Night

This is only a blooper in the sense that it should NEVER HAPPEN if you are the New York Rangers. They allowed Calgary’s Mikael Backlund to score a shorthanded goal in a 3-on-5 situation. That was the difference in a 4-3 Flames win.

Factoids

  • Zdeno Chara, Joe Thornton, and Patrick Marleau became 12th, 13th, and 14th players in NHL history to play in four different decades in their NHL careers. [NHL PR]
  • David Pastrnak is the first Bruins player since Cam Neely during the 1993-94 season to score his 30th goal in 42 or fewer games. [NHL PR]
  • With his assist on Brent Burns’ overtime goal, Joe Thornton collected the 1,080th assist of his career to move him into sole possession of seventh place on the NHL’s all-time list. [NHL PR]

Scores

Columbus Blue Jackets 2, Boston Bruins 1 (OT)
Buffalo Sabres 3, Edmonton Oilers 2 (OT)
Tampa Bay Lightning 2, Montreal Canadiens 1
New Jersey Devils 2, New York Islanders 1
San Jose Sharks 3, Pittsburgh Penguins 2 (OT)
Florida Panthers 6, Ottawa Senators 3
Toronto Maple Leafs 6, Winnipeg Jets 3
Calgary Flames 4, New York Rangers 3
Arizona Coyotes 4, Anaheim Ducks 2
Colorado Avalanche 7, St. Louis Blues 3
Vancouver Canucks 7, Chicago Blackhawks 5
Vegas Golden Knights 5, Philadelphia Flyers 4

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.

Rangers’ Panarin returns to Columbus the way he left: as a superstar

Aside from no-brainer cases such as Nathan MacKinnon being paid essentially half of his on-ice value (maybe less), it can be tricky to say that an expensive free agent signing is “worth the money.” Especially since the New York Rangers have been worse than their 13-10-3 record would indicate.

So … maybe you’d argue Artemi Panarin hasn’t been worth every dime of his $11.64M AAV, but I believe emphatically that he’s at least justified the hype as the rare superstar to actually hit unrestricted free agency.

Thursday serves as a momentous occasion to consider that decision, as Panarin is playing against the Blue Jackets for the first time in Columbus since deciding to leave for the Rangers. Let’s look at this situation from a few different angles.

Still a superstar

As the headline suggests, Panarin remains a dynamic talent.

Even with a two-game pointless drought coming into Thursday’s game, Panarin has been producing, generating 12 goals and 33 points in 26 games. If Panarin managed to maintain this pace over an 82-game season, he’d set new career-highs with 39 goals, 67 assists, and 106 points.

He might not be able to maintain it. While Panarin’s shooting percentage isn’t totally out of order, his playmaking might cool ever so slightly (his on-ice shooting percentage – a decent way to see if a player’s assists might be a touch inflated – is very high at 15.6 percent, compared to a career average of 10.8).

Even so, if Panarin stays healthy, he’s off to a hot enough start that he might beat his career-high of 87 points.

Most importantly, Panarin is still extremely good, and brings more to the table than just the highlight reel passes and goals.

By most underlying numbers, Panarin is more or less the same player: a dynamic offensive presence who doesn’t seem to hurt his team defensively. Maybe you can chalk that up to the notion that the best defense is to not have to play defense because you have the puck all the time, but either way, he’s remarkable. Check out the past three seasons of his heat maps via Hockey Viz’s Micah Blake McCurdy:

(As a reminder, lots of red and a positive number up top, in the offensive side is great, and not lots of red and a negative number in the bottom [defensive] half is also great. So, basically, Panarin ruled and still rules.)

Via the Point Hockey’s stats, Panarin is tied with Mathew Barzal for the lead in offensive zone puck possession (1:12 per game) and Panarin’s 72 completed passes to the slot ranks fourth overall.

At this point, it’s not about if Panarin is still an elite player, but where he ranks among the cream of the crop.

Not downplaying the meaning of the game

Plenty of people involved with the Rangers acknowledge that Thursday’s return to Columbus means a lot to Panarin. Panarin himself admitted as much on Wednesday, as the New York Post’s Larry Brooks reports.

“I’m pretty excited. It’s not going to be a regular game for me,” Panarin said. “It’s going to be a different game, I’m going to try to show the best I can.”

Via The Athletic’s Rick Carpiniello (sub required), current Rangers and former Blue Jackets executive John Davidson believes that Panarin might be a “little apprehensive” about how he’ll be received. Going to the Rangers was basically Panarin’s first full-fledged choice (his options were limited when he came to the Blackhawks from the KHL, and it wasn’t his call when Panarin was traded to Columbus), so here’s hoping that Blue Jackets fans are as understanding as 1st Ohio Battery’s Chris Pennington recommends.

Breadless

So far, it’s been an up-and-down season for Columbus, who have lost two in a row and sit at 11-12-4.

While Sergei Bobrovsky‘s bloated contract and rocky start make his departure seem like a possible blessing in disguise, it’s tougher not to miss Panarin.

In particular, I’ve been curious to see how Pierre-Luc Dubois has fared without Panarin. He’s been glued to Panarin for the first two years of his career, making it difficult to tell just how good he is. (We knew PLD was a very useful player, but a star like Panarin can really shine you up.)

So far … mostly very good. Like Panarin, is heat maps look strong as ever:

With 18 points in 27 games (thanks to a dry spell of one assist in his last five games), Dubois isn’t quite on last season’s 61-point pace, but he’s not so far off, and has a shot at his first 30+ goal season.

Sure, Dubois proving himself doesn’t totally soothe things for a Columbus team facing ups and downs, yet it’s something they can hang their hat on as Panarin comes back to town.

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.

Oilers’ Puljujarvi, Stars’ Honka won’t play in NHL this season

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With Sunday’s RFA deadline having passed, neither Dallas Stars defenseman Julius Honka nor Edmonton Oilers forward Jesse Puljujarvi will play for any NHL team during the 2019-20 season.

Both Finnish players are plying their trade in Finland’s Liiga this season. Puljujarvi’s play has been particularly tantalizing, as the big winger has 24 points in 25 games so far for Karpat. (Honka has six points in 15 games for JyP HT Jyvaskyla.)

Of course, things feel more fraught with Puljujarvi because of the stakes. The 21-year-old was the fourth pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, and it was a surprise to most that he didn’t go third overall. While Pierre-Luc Dubois has been a find for the Columbus Blue Jackets, Pulujuarvi’s development has been bumpy with the Oilers, skewing more toward the Nail Yakupov route than that of, say, Leon Draisaitl.

Time will tell if Puljujarvi can prove that he actually isn’t a bust, but either way, it at least feels like he won’t suit up with the Oilers again. That said, Ken Holland has pointed to instances during his time as GM of the Detroit Red Wings where players seemed like they wouldn’t suit up again for Detroit, only for them to return — at least sometimes. (Jiri Hudler’s a decent example.)

It’s difficult to tell what Puljujarvi’s ceiling or floor really is, but it feels like he should at least be able to help an NHL team, so it feels like a waste. There are certain signs that he could at least be someone who brings something to the table, such as his Hockey Viz heat chart via Micah Blake McCurdy:

Solid enough. One could picture Puljujarvi giving the Oilers a much-needed boost beyond Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, if only new Oilers management could find a way to earn a clean slate (or maybe Holland would’ve needed to pony up some more money?).

To a less dramatic extent, Honka has been one of those players whose underlying stats make you think that he should be helpful … if nothing else, at least as a bottom-pairing defenseman, as the bar isn’t especially high at that level:

Alas, neither one could really stick in lineups, whether they weren’t quite ready for the NHL, found their way into coaches’ doghouses, or some combination of factors.

Both situations seem wasteful, even if each player might only be capable of fairly average results. Oh well, maybe we’ll see them in the NHL next year — wherever they might play?

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.