Pierre-Luc Dubois

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Blue Jackets still have reasons for optimism after free agency exodus

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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.

The 2018-19 season was the most successful one in the history of the Columbus Blue Jackets franchise.

They went all in at the trade deadline to load up for a postseason run, made the playoffs for the third year in a row (first time they have ever done that), and then upset the Presidents’ Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning in a stunning four-game sweep to advance to Round 2 for the first time in team history. While the end result was not what they wanted, it was still the first time fans of the team had ever had something to be truly excited about. Management paid a heavy price to reach that point (trading several draft picks and prospects) and then watched over the summer as a free agency exodus saw the departure of Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Sergei Bobrovsky.

Those exits have left some significant holes on the roster, especially in net where they have no proven replacement for a two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie.

It is possible — if not likely — that the team regresses this season, especially in a Metropolitan Division where every team is loading up on talent.

Even with all of that working against them, there are still reasons for Blue Jackets fans to have some cautious optimism about the short-and long-term outlook of the team.

Among them…

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

Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are an elite defense pairing

The Blue Jackets may have lost All-Stars at forward and in net, but they still have two of them on their blue line. The Werenski-Jones duo has been one of the best in the NHL over the past three seasons. During that time they have played more than 3,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey with the Blue Jackets outscoring their opponents by 16 goals and controlling more than 52 percent of the total shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances. Jones turns 25 at the start of the season while Werenski will only be entering his age 22 season, meaning both of them should still be on top of their game for the foreseeable future with still room to improve. The rest of the blue line might need some work, but finding even one defender of this caliber is a difficult task. The Blue Jackets have two of them.

Cam Atkinson is better than you might realize

He may not be a star or total point producer on the level of Panarin, but Atkinson has been one of the league’s best goal-scorers for the past four years and is coming off of a career-high 41-goal effort during the 2018-19 season. While he might be due for a slight regression from that mark, only 11 players have scored more totals goals than him since the start of the 2015-16 season. Only nine have scored more even-strength goals. A lot will be made over what they lost this summer, but they still have some good veterans returning and Atkinson is at the top of that list.

Gustav Nyquist looks like a strong addition

Is he going to completely replace what the Blue Jackets are losing in Panarin? No he is not. But that doesn’t mean he can’t still be a great pickup, especially at that salary cap hit. You know every year he is going to give you 20 goals, 50 points, and help drive possession. He is an excellent all-around player.

They have a ton of salary cap space to play with

Even when taking into account the money they will need to re-sign Werenski this summer, the Blue Jackets have more salary cap space than all but two teams in the NHL, meaning they have the flexibility to make in-season additions to help fill weaknesses, whether they be in net or on the wing.

Pierre-Luc Dubois could be their next star

He is our X-factor for the Blue Jackets this season. Dubois is trending toward becoming an impact player in the middle of the Blue Jackets’ lineup and could be on the verge of a monster season based on what he has done over the first two years of his career. If he continues on that trajectory and takes a big leap in his development it will go a long way toward helping the Blue Jackets replace what they have lost over the summer.

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.

Blue Jackets’ Pierre-Luc Dubois on verge of huge season

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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.

The Columbus Blue Jackets raised some eyebrows at the top of the 2016 draft when they used the No. 3 overall pick to select Pierre-Luc Dubois, passing on winger Jesse Puljujarvi. It was a bit of a surprise because Puljujarvi was viewed as the consensus pick at that spot and was one of the big three in that class alongside Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine (even if the other two were a notch ahead of him).

So far, it is looking as if the Blue Jackets were correct in their assessment to select Dubois.

While Puljujarvi has been mishandled by the Edmonton Oilers and not yet established himself as an NHL regular, Dubois has quickly started to emerge as one of the top players on the Blue Jackets and a significant part of the team’s long-term core.

In his first two years in the NHL he has played in every single game while showing consistent improvement across the board offensively, already producing at a top-line level.

Based on what he has already produced there is reason to believe he could be on the verge of a monster season in 2019-20 for the Blue Jackets. How high is the ceiling for him this season? Let’s try to take a look.

[More: 2018-19 In Review | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

The table below looks at recent players with a similar start to their NHL careers and what they produced in year three. The criteria: Forwards since the start of the 2007-08 season that played their first two years in the NHL at ages 19 and 20, while also averaging at least 0.25 goals per game, 0.65 points per game, and a 51 percent Corsi percentage — all marks that Dubois has hit so far in his career.

It is a promising list of comparable players if you are Dubois and the Blue Jackets.

A couple things to consider here.

First is that the previous players in this group scored, on average, at a 31-goal, 81-point pace over 82 games, while only one player (Nylander) failed to scored at least 26 goals. Those are huge numbers.

If you wanted to look for a reason to lower you expectations for Dubois it might be that his per-game averages over the first two years are at the low-end of this group. While that is true, his year two performance was right in line with everyone else (0.33 goals per game, 0.74 points per game). The player whose path he most closely resembles is probably Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk whose career and development skyrocketed this past season for the Flames.

Obviously there are no guarantees in professional sports, so Dubois still has to actually do it. But recent history suggests that players that have performed at the level he has demonstrated at this stage of his developmemt go on to become All-Star level players. If you are good enough to perform like that in your first two seasons, it is usually a strong sign that you are going to be good enough to keep getting better.

Given how much offense the Blue Jackets have lost this offseason they are going to need this sort of step from their best young forward.

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.

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.

It’s Columbus Blue Jackets Day at PHT

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.

2018-19
47-31-4, 98 points (5th in the Metropolitan Division, 8th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Lost in six games to the Boston Bruins in Round 2

IN
Gustav Nyquist

OUT
Sergei Bobrovsky
Matt Duchene
Artemi Panarin
Ryan Dzingel
Keith Kinkaid
Mark Letestu
Adam McQuaid

RE-SIGNED 
Markus Hannikainen
Joonas Korpisalo
Ryan Murray
Scott Harrington
Sonny Milano
Adam Clendenning

2018-19 Season Review

Well, you can’t say it was an uneventful year in Columbus. The Blue Jackets were a playoff team for most of the year, but they definitely started to struggle early in the second half of the regular season. In January, the Jackets dropped their final four games and they followed that up by losing their first contest in February. They managed to go on a four-game winning streak in February and they managed to go a respectable 8-5 that month.

It was a bit of an awkward time for the organization. They were talented enough to be a playoff team but they had a few key pending unrestricted free agents in Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Could they afford to lose them for nothing? Many speculated that both players wouldn’t be with Columbus beyond the trade deadline. Not only did they stay but general manager Jarmo Kekalainen also added to his core group of players.

[More: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Kekalainen felt like this was the time to go all-in. He traded for Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid. This sent a strong message to the players, fans and the entire NHL. The Blue Jackets weren’t just going to watch the parade go by while their top two players became free agents. It was a bold strategy, especially because there was always a chance that they could play the high-powered Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In the end, the Blue Jackets ended up finishing in the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference and they only clinched it on the second-to-last day of the regular season. Kekalainen’s team was a nice story, but no one expected them to go head-to-head with the Lightning and come out victorious.

In Game 1, the Bolts jumped out to a 3-0 lead and most people in the hockey world were starting to type up their obituaries for the Jackets. But Columbus stuck with it and they ended up coming back to win the first game of the series. The rest must have been a blur for the Lightning, as they get swept by the Blue Jackets in the opening round.

With Tampa out of the way, who was going to stop Columbus?

Unfortunately for them, they ran into a red-hot Bruins team that they pushed but were unable to beat. They dropped the series in six games, and just like that their season was over.

It’s hard to blame Kekalainen for going all-in. After all, the organization had never won a playoff series before. So on one hand, he was able to deliver a series win and one of the biggest surprises in postseason history. On the other hand, the additions he made at the deadline only got his team to the second round.

Duchene, Bobrovsky and Panarin all ended up walking in free agency, so the team isn’t as strong as it was last season. They still have Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno, Boone Jenner, Josh Anderson, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, but no one can argue that they’re a better team than they were one season ago.

There are plenty of question marks surrounding this team, but this group will be able to prove all their doubters wrong all over again in 2019-20.

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

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’ Kekalainen has tough task moving forward

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He bet big, lost bigger and now has to pick up the pieces of a team that appears like it won’t have the star power that pushed them to their first playoff series win in franchise history.

Is that the cost of doing business? Or was it a short-sighted gamble — perhaps a little greedy — that was likely never really going to pay off?

Whatever the case, Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen has his work cut out for himself this summer. Seemingly set to lose Sergei Bobrovsky, the team’s starting goaltender, Artemi Panarin, the team’s leading point getter, and Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel (who is for sure gone now), two players that Kekalainen mortgaged the team’s future on to acquire around the trade deadline, the challenges to ice a competitive team will be many.

And it all feels self-inflicted.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The Blue Jackets weren’t exactly in a great spot on deadline day. They entered in in sixth place with a queue of teams behind them. Twenty-four hours later, they were down in ninth. Kekalainen says he’d do it all over again if given the chance, something he has to say. Teams in that kind of spot, with no guarantee of a playoff berth, don’t often become one of the most aggressive buyers in the market.

The Blue Jackets were, however, selling off draft picks for rentals and not cashing in on pending unrestricted free agents in ‘Bob’ and the ‘Bread Man’.

“We said all along we assumed the risk and if they’re gone by July 1, we’re going to have lots of cap space and lots of different other opportunities to move forward,” Kekalainen said. “Life goes on. That was part of the risk we were willing to take.”

Columbus’s draft this year included just two fourth-round picks after doubling down on their third, and a seventh rounder. Stocking the cupboards wasn’t a priority in a draft that appeared to be pretty deep.

The Blue Jackets certainly have cap space — nearly $30 million of it. But $30 million won’t replace Bobrovsky and Panarin. That talent isn’t on the free-agent market outside of those two players. And they have to sign Zach Werenski and Ryan Murray, so the cap space is less.

Now, this isn’t to say that the Blue Jackets don’t have some budding talent. And some established stars, too.

Cam Atkinson and Seth Jones are great players and Josh Anderson and Pierre-Luc Dubois are two pieces of a young crop of talent. But there can be no denying that losing a Vezina-calibre goalie and a point-per-game player is detrimental, if not back-breaking.

Remember, the Blue Jackets barely made the playoffs with the four players in question.

Kekalainen hasn’t seemed that worried in recent interviews. That, in itself, might be cause for concern among Blue Jackets fans.

Whether it all pans out or not remains to be seen. Can Kekalainen woo players into the fold after a bunch of big names headed for the hills? And will the team be competitive if they can’t?

Kekalainen certainly has his work cut out for him this summer.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.