Seth Jones

Blue Jackets look to Swedish players for scoring punch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Columbus Blue Jackets are looking to Sweden to help fill the scoring void left by departed star forward Artemi Panarin.

More specifically, the Blue Jackets are relying on a quartet of Swedes – two of them rookies who haven’t played in North America before – for some scoring punch as they open the season Friday night against Toronto at Nationwide Arena.

Twenty-year-old Emil Bemstrom and 26-year-old Jakob Lilja played together on the same Swedish elite league team last year, and both made the Blue Jackets’ opening night roster out of coach John Tortorella’s notoriously rigorous training camp.

Bemstrom, a fourth-round pick of the Blue Jackets in the 2017 draft, was a scoring machine in Sweden. Lilja was signed as a free agent and impressed the Blue Jackets in the prospects tournament in Michigan. Both could end up skating together on the fourth line on either side of veteran Riley Nash.

”It’s a really different game,” Lilja said. ”Smaller ice, so like if you lose the puck in the wrong places it’s creating scoring chances right away. The players are really skilled, so you don’t want to lose the puck to them. Overall, it’s like a high-speed game. Even at the pro level in Sweden it’s really defensive. So just better players and smaller ice, so everything goes a little bit faster.”

The other two members of the Swedish coalition will be expected to bear more of the burden as the Blue Jackets try to return to the playoffs for the fourth straight season.

Center Alexander Wennberg, 25, will try to fulfill the great promise he showed three seasons ago when he put up 59 points for Columbus and seemed poised to break out. Veteran Gustav Nyquist is a solid top-six forward who was signed as a free agent after registering 60 points last season with Detroit and San Jose. The two are slated to skate together on the second line.

Rookie Alexandre Texier is expected to take Panarin’s place on the top line with center Pierre-Luc Dubois and winger Cam Atkinson . Team veterans including captain Nick Foligno, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Boone Jenner and Josh Anderson all will have to step it up to compensate for the loss of Panarin’s team-leading 87 points a season ago.

No worries about the blue line, though.

Zach Werenski and Seth Jones continue to make up one of the best defensive pairings in the NHL, and there is some good depth behind them.

Joonas Korpisalo will be given a chance to be the everyday goalie after the free-agent departure of Vezina Trophy-winning stopper Sergei Bobrovsky, who is now with Florida. Rookie Elvis Merlikins also will see time in the net.

Last season was filled with drama surrounding the pending departures of Panarin and Bobrovsky. Tortorella said none of that is hanging in the air anymore.

”I think as the season begins here and all the questions start coming our way, I think there’s an inner camaraderie about the definition of guys wanting to be here,” he said. ”I think that’s really important, to have a team that’s going to try to be competitive in this league and stay competitive, is people wanting to be here. We have that. I think they’re rallying around that. This will grow as the season goes on.”

PHT’s 2019-20 predictions: NHL Awards, free agent busts, overhyped teams

3 Comments

The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here (Wed. at 6:30 pm on NBCSN) and what better way to kick off the new hockey than with some predictions. Today we’ll look at the various awards and some topics such as overhyped team, first coach fired, whether Nikita Kucherov or the Tampa Bay Lightning will record a higher point total, and more.

Pre-season predictions are fun to read to get a sense of what people are thinking as we head into a new season. There was plenty of change around the league on the ice, behind the bench, and in the executive offices. Lots of teams have reason for hope, while the expectations of others aren’t very lofty, but they’re just hoping to take some positive steps.

Who will take home the hardware in June and what teams and players will be notable this season? Here’s what the PHT staff is thinking at the moment.

[PHT PREDICTIONS: EAST / WEST / STANLEY CUP]

Be sure to give us your picks in the comments!

HART: Nathan MacKinnon (Sean, James, Joey, Adam)
ART ROSS: Connor McDavid (Sean, Adam), Nathan MacKinnon (James), Nikita Kucherov (Joey)
ROCKET RICHARD: Alex Ovechkin (Sean, James, Adam), John Tavares (Joey)
VEZINA: John Gibson (Sean), Andrei Vasilevskiy (James, Joey), Ben Bishop (Adam)
NORRIS: Seth Jones (Sean), Erik Karlsson (James), Victor Hedman (Joey, Adam)
CALDER: Kaapo Kakko (Sean, James, Adam), Jack Hughes (Joey)
SELKE: Aleksander Barkov (Sean), Mark Stone (James), Ryan O’Reilly (Joey), Brayden Point (Adam)

OVERHYPED TEAM

SEAN: An NHL-worst power play was (hopefully) improved by the Matt Duchene addition, but while the Predators will once again be their solid selves, did David Poile do enough to overcome the trending upward Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche in a very tough Central Division? The bottom six could help out a bit more, and they need to find the old Kyle Turris at some point.

JAMES: The Coyotes are spending like a team with legitimate aspirations, but I just don’t see enough dynamic talent to break through.

JOEY: Boston Bruins. Everyone has them locked into the top three spots in the Atlantic, but they’re coming into the year a little banged up. They’re also coming off a long playoff run.

ADAM: Going to go with Nashville. They are still really good, but I don’t think Matt Duchene solves all that much for them and even though their defense is still really good I think they are going to miss P.K. Subban.

UNDERRATED TEAM

SEAN: Staying in the Central, the Avs are rightly garnering a lot of hype, but let’s not sleep on the Stars. Once they figured out Jim Montgomery’s system in the second half, they surged. Add in Joe Pavelski and a lottery ticket in Corey Perry, along with the up-and-coming Roope Hintz, future Norris winner Miro Heiskanen, and old standards Tyler Seguin, Alex Radulov and Jamie Benn, and you’ve got a real dangerous team this season. If Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin can repeat their success from last season in goal, watch out for the Stars.

JAMES: The Penguins keep shrinking their margin of error with some head-scratching moves. Even so, they still have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and a few other valuable players, so reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.

JOEY: Carolina went to the conference final, but I’m not sure they’re getting the respect they deserve. I think they can finish second in the division.

ADAM: Columbus is going to be better than people think. They still have a lot of really good players coming back, and I think Pierre-Luc Dubois has a massive breakout year this season.

UNDERRATED PLAYER

SEAN: Four seasons with double-digit goals, at least 40 points in each of his five NHL seasons, and consistently in the positive when it comes to possession, Klingberg needs to get more due around the league. With Heiskanen and Esa Lindell on the blue line, the Stars’ top defenseman are among the best in the league.

JAMES: Alex Pietrangelo gets mentioned as an underrated player quite often, yet I think Colton Parayko might be even more overlooked. Parayko is a beast AND an absolute unit, to use fancy scientific jargon.

JOEY: Jonathan Huberdeau put together one of the quietest 90-plus point seasons I can remember. I think he’ll have another big year in Florida.

ADAM: John Klingberg shouldn’t be underrated, but I feel like he is. The development of Miro Heiskanen kind of stole a lot of the spotlight in Dallas last year but Klingberg is still the player that runs that defense, and he is outstanding.

FIRST COACH FIRED

SEAN: Boudreau seems inevitable, right? It’s looking like another long year in the State of Hockey and with a new GM in town, he might want to install his own hire, even with Bruce’s history of success in the league.

JAMES: Bruce Boudreau. Bill Guerin didn’t hire him, and the Wild insist on contending with a so-so roster, setting the stage for Bruce’s face to turn the color of a pink slip.

JOEY: Jeff Blashill. The Red Wings aren’t expected to make the playoffs, but I think they get off to an ugly start.

ADAM: I think it Paul Maurice’s time is going to run out in Winnipeg. That team faded last year and looks like it is setting up for a really tough season given the RFA drama and the state of their defense. He has been there long enough that a slow start could be it for him.

FREE AGENT BUST

SEAN: Stralman’s offense has steadily declined since 2014-15, his first year in Tampa, and now at 33 he’s on the back nine of his career. That makes it all the more odd that Dale Tallon decided to give him a three-year deal in the summer, especially coming back from a lower-body injury that caused him to miss most of last season.

JAMES: Tyler Myers is closer to a third-pairing defenseman than a $6M one.

JOEY: Tyler Myers in Vancouver. When it’s all said and done, that’s going to be a pretty nasty contract. He’s a good depth defenseman, but not someone you commit big dollars to.

ADAM: Have to go with Tyler Myers. Just do not see the plan in Vancouver and the amount of money they spent on him.

MORE:
2019-20 NHL Power Rankings
PHT’s 2019-20 season previews
Which 2019 NHL playoff teams are in danger of missing this season?
• 2019 NHL free agency tracker
NHL on NBC television schedule

Blue Jackets can be much better people think

Getty
2 Comments

The 2019-20 NHL regular season has not even started and already the Columbus Blue Jackets are being almost completely written off.

This is a development they are very well aware of, and one they are not responding kindly to.

Coach John Tortorella is “pissed” about it. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen thinks it’s a slap in the face to the core of the team. Cam Atkinson is ready to prove everybody wrong.

The doubters are not without their reasons, and for much of the offseason I was right there with them. How could you not be?

The Blue Jackets were the last team to get in the Eastern Conference playoff field last spring and were hit harder by free agency than any other team in the league, losing franchise players Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, as well as trade deadline acquisitions Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. That is a ton of talent and production to walk out the door, and with Gustav Nyquist (a very good player!) being the only significant outside addition to the team, it’s easy to have lowered expectations.

But Kekalainen made a fairly strong point in support of his core earlier this month when he said this to The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline:

“I’m a little aggravated by the doubters, to be honest with you,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said, “because it shows disrespect to our core group that’s brought us all the success we’ve had in the last three years.

“(Three) teams have more regular-season wins than we do (142) in the last three years, and we had 108 points the season before (Artemi) Panarin arrived here. I’m a little bit upset about all that, and I’m getting fed up talking about it.”

Obviously a general manager is going to go to bat for their team and believe in the roster at the start of the season. But he’s also not wrong here. Only Tampa, Washington, and Boston have more regular season wins than the Blue Jackets since start of the 2016-17 season, and only two of the players that left this offseason (Panarin and Bobrovsky) played a significant role in compiling that record. Out of those two, one of them (Panarin) was not even there in the year they won the most games and compiled the most points during that stretch.

But let’s focus on replacing those two since they are the most important.

The wrench in all of this is that Bobrovsky was there for all three seasons and was probably the most important part of that success, especially during the 2016-17 season (the pre-Panarin year) when he won his second Vezina Trophy. That is a difficult thing to replace, and the Blue Jackets are going to open the year relying on two completely unproven starters in Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. Obviously their success or failure as NHL goalies will play a massive role in what the Blue Jackets can do this season. But I’m not ready to totally eliminate the possibility of Merzlikins being good.

The thing is, they don’t need to totally replace Bobrovsky for the Blue Jackets to have a chance. They just need to be decent. The Blue Jackets were one of the better defensive teams in the league last season and were among the top-seven in suppressing shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances during 5-on-5 play (via Natural Stat Trick). Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are an elite defense pairing, and when paired together can help lock down a significant chunk of every game.

That will help any goalie. As long as the Blue Jackets can maintain that defensively they won’t need a superhero in net.

And while the departure of Panarin, and to a lesser extent Duchene, leaves a big hole at forward the cupboard is not completely bare. Nyquist won’t replace Panarin’s offense or game-breaking ability, but he is a legitimate top-six forward. Atkinson has been a top-10 goal-scorer for about four years, and they have an exciting prospect in Alexandre Texier ready to make the jump to the NHL.

Then there is third-year center Pierre-Luc Dubois, an already dominant two-way player that seems to be on the verge of a breakout season (read about that here).

It’s not that Blue Jackets won’t miss the players that are leaving — they obviously will — but they still have enough high-end talent (and capable depth) that the season isn’t going to be a lost cause before it even begins. A lot will depend on the goalies, but they have enough around them to support them and keep them competitive.

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Columbus Blue Jackets

1 Comment
(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)
 
For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Uhhhhhh worse. Look, can the Blue Jackets surprise some people this year? Absolutely. It’s just tough to argue that they’re a better team today than they were at the end of last season. Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingle and Sergei Bobrovsky are all gone, but there’s still some talent on this roster. How good can they be? We’ll find out early on in the season, but counting them out from get-go might be a silly proposition. John Tortorella is a good head coach, but he’ll have to do the best coaching job of his career if the Jackets are going to make a trip back to the postseason.

Strengths: Not many teams can say that they have a one-two punch like Zach Werenski and Seth Jones. They’re both two of the best defenders in the league and they should continue to be key contributors for the Jackets in 2019-20. They also have solid depth contributors like David Savard and Ryan Murray.

Despite losing some big names up front, Columbus is still pretty deep up front. Cam Atkinson, Gustav Nyquist, Alex Wennberg, Boone Jenner, Josh Anderson, Pierre-Luc Dubois and a few others. Losing Panarin will hurt the offense, but it also gives a lot of these young veterans an opportunity to take the next step in their careers.

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

Weaknesses: There’s no denying that the Blue Jackets are unproven between the pipes. Losing a two-time Vezina Trophy winner in free agency will do that to a team. It looks like Columbus will head into the season with Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. Korpisalo had a 10-7-3 record with a 2.95 goals-against-average and a .897 save percentage in 27 games last year. The issue with Korpisalo is that he’s never played in more than 31 games at the NHL level. As for Merzlikins, he’s been in the Swiss League for the last six years. He’s totally unproven as an NHL goaltender. So it’s tough to get a read on what he can bring to the team.

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): 6. The Blue Jackets stunned the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They were the talk of the NHL for a couple of weeks in the spring before eventually falling to the Boston Bruins in the second round. Even though they’ve lost key free agents, the expectations internally will be high for this group. GM Jarmo Kekalainen has spent the off-season telling people that the team isn’t going to be as bad as they think. If Tortorella can’t get the most out of this group, his job could be in jeopardy.

Three Most Fascinating Players: It’ll be interesting to see what Wennberg, Dubois and Korpisalo can do to help the Blue Jackets this season. Wennberg posted a 59-point season back in 2016-17, but he’s gone cold over the last two seasons, as he’s scored 35 and 25 points during that stretch. Can he finally get his career back on track offensively?

Dubois has taken a step forward in each of his first two seasons in the NHL. During his rookie year, he posted a 20 goals and 48 points in 82 contests. Last season, he followed that up by scoring 27 goals and 61 points in 82 games. Now, can he top those numbers? That would be huge for this team in transition.

As we mentioned earlier, Korpisalo could go into the season as the number one goalie on an NHL team, which is something he’s never had the privilege of doing. Can he be a solid starter? That remains to be seen. He could be the key to them making it back to the playoffs.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. The Jackets might be better than most people anticipate, but it might be difficult for them to sneak into a Wild Card spot with the other teams in the East improving significantly. Even with Panarin, Bobrovsky and Duchene, the Jackets only clinched a playoff spot on the second-to-last night of the season. Without those three, they will have their work cut out for them.

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 look to move past drama of departing stars

Getty Images
2 Comments

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The offseason drama churned up by the exodus of some of their top stars is now behind the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Now they open training camp with some burning questions.

Can veteran Joonas Korpisalo, rookie Elvis Merzlikins or someone else step into the huge skates vacated by star goalie Sergei Bobrovsky?

How will Columbus replace the scoring of forwards Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene?

Can Blue Jackets stalwarts like Cam Atkinson, Josh Anderson and Pierre-Luc Dubois make the Columbus faithful stop grumbling about the superstars who spurned the city and get the team to the playoffs for a fourth straight year?

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen, for one, is indignant that anyone thinks the Blue Jackets will take a step backward following the offseason exodus of talent. He’s tired of talking about it already.

”We’re very, very confident in our core group,” Kekalainen said. ”And I’m a little aggravated by the doubters, to be honest with you, because it shows disrespect to our core group that brought us all that success we’ve had in the past three years.”

Kekalainen decided to go with a strategy of counting on trusted veterans to step up their offensive production along with moving up NHL-ready prospects to help fill the void left by Panarin – who made it clear a year ago he didn’t want to re-sign with the team and subsequently left for the New York Rangers – and Duchene, a trade-deadline rental who signed with Nashville.

”We’re all going to have to do it by committee,” said Atkinson, who had a career-high 41 goals and 28 assists last season. ”Hopefully, the guys who get the opportunity seize the moment, step in and step up for us because we’re going to need everyone.”

Alexandre Texier and Emil Bemstrom, both 20, are among the prospects expected to contribute. Texier came to the U.S. at the end of last season, had a short stay in the minors and then showed flashes of what he could do down the stretch for the Blue Jackets. Bemstrom starred in the Swedish professional league and comes to camp amid plenty of hype.

”(Panarin) is a very good player, he’s a game-breaker. But I’m not going to sit here and say that’s a hole,” said coach John Tortorella, who acknowledged he has a chip on his shoulder because of the predictions of doom. ”It just gives other people an opportunity to fill that, and I feel very comfortable where we’re going with some of our young kids.”

Kekalainen’s biggest offseason move was adding veteran help with Gustav Nyquist, a top-six forward who had a career-high 22 goals and 38 assists last season with Detroit and San Jose.

Replacing Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, is the toughest order. Columbus will give Korpisalo a chance to be the everyday guy. Korpisalo has played well in stretches as Bobrovsky’s backup for the past four seasons. He’ll compete with the flashy 25-year-old Merzlikins, who has been outstanding in the Swiss league and in international play.

Players who have been here awhile insist the naysaying will go away if they win.

”We feel confident with what we have in this room,” All-Star defenseman Seth Jones said. ”We understand what the narrative is probably going to be this year, and I think now more than ever we have to maintain the tight chemistry in this room and not let outside noise interfere with what we’re trying to accomplish.”

The Blue Jackets, who got to the second round of the playoffs after a stunning sweep of Tampa Bay in the opening round last spring, will skate together for the first time Saturday free of the drama Panarin and Bobrovsky dragged around all last season after both made it known they didn’t want to stay in Columbus any longer than necessary.

”Maybe we don’t have the shiny pieces people like to talk about,” captain Nick Foligno said. ”But there’s going to be a lot of headlines, a lot of great plays going on because of the skill we have.”