Seth Jones

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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.

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.

Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

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When it comes to the NHL’s restricted free agent market this summer most of the attention has been directed at forwards Mitch Marner, Mikko Rantanen, and Sebastian Aho. They are the stars, the big point-producers, and in the case of Aho, the rare player that actually received — and signed — an offer sheet from another team, only to have the Carolina Hurricanes quickly move to match it. For now, though, let’s shift the focus to the blue line where there are a few more big contracts still to be settled this summer with Jacob Trouba, Charlie McAvoy, Zach Werenski, and Ivan Provorov all waiting on new deals from their respective teams.

The two most intriguing players out of this group are Columbus’ Werenski and Boston’s McAvoy because they are already playing at an elite level among NHL defenders.

Just how good have they been?

Both are coming off of their age 21 seasons and have already demonstrated an ability to play at a top-pairing level on playoff caliber teams.

Since the start of the 2007-08 season there have only been four defenders that have hit all of the following marks through their age 21 season:

  • At least 100 games played
  • Averaged at least .50 points per game
  • And had a Corsi Percentage (shot-attempt differential) of greater than 52 percent at that point in their careers.

Those players have been Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, Werenski, and McAvoy.

That is it.

Pretty elite company.

Based on that, it seems at least somewhat reasonable to look at the contracts Karlsson and Doughty received at the same point in their careers when they were coming off of their entry-level deals.

They were massive.

Karlsson signed a seven-year, $45.5 million deal with the Ottawa Senators, while Doughty signed an eight-year, $56 million contract. At the time, those contracts were worth around 10 percent of the league’s salary cap. A similarly constructed contract under today’s cap would come out to an annual cap hit of around $8 million dollars, which would be among the five highest paid defenders in the league.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Are Werenski and McAvoy worth similar contracts right now? They just might be.

The argument against it would be that while the overall performances are in the same ballpark, there are still some significant differences at play. Karlsson, for example, was coming off of a Norris Trophy winning season when he signed his long-term deal in Ottawa and was already on track to being one of the best offensive defensemen ever (he was already up to .68 points per game!). Doughty, meanwhile, was a significantly better defensive player than the other three and had already been a finalist for the Norris Trophy.

Neither Werenski or McAvoy has reached that level yet, while Werenski also sees a pretty significant drop in his performance when he is not paired next to Seth Jones, which could be a concern depending on how much value you put into such a comparison. It’s also worth pointing out that Jones sees a similar drop when he is not paired next to Werenski, and that the two are absolutely dominant when they are together.

But do those points outweigh the production and impact that Werenski and McAvoy have made, and the potential that they still possess in future years?

What they have already accomplished from a performance standpoint is almost unheard of for defenders of their age in this era of the league. It is also rare for any player of any level of experience.

Over the past three years only 15 other defenders have topped the 0.50 points per game and a 52 percent Corsi mark. On average, those players make $7 million per season under the cap, while only three of them — Roman Josi, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Erik Gustafsson — make less than $5 million per year. Josi is also due for a huge raise over the next year that will almost certainly move him into the $7-plus million range as well.

Bottom line is that the Blue Jackets and Bruins have top-pairing defenders on their hands that still have their best days in the NHL ahead of them. There is every reason to believe they are on track to be consistent All-Star level players and signing them to big deals right now, this summer, will probably turn out to be worth every penny.

Related: Bruins face salary cap juggling act with McAvoy, Carlo

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Juggling owners wishes, team success; Aftermath of Aho

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Trading Alexander Nylander became inevitable. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Making a team good and juggling the wishes of an owner can be difficult for general managers. (Yahoo Sports)

• Sabres have built a formidable right side on defense, but something needs to be done to address the logjam now. (Die by the Blade)

• Having done what he can to make his team competitive next season, Jim Benning should now find a way to get rid of Loui Eriksson. (Sportsnet)

• Another chapter in the Jesse Puljujarvi saga. (Oilers Nation)

• Darryl Sutter saying it’s not a big deal he’s joining the Anaheim Ducks is a very Darryl Sutter thing to say. (LA Times)

• The aftermath of Sebastian Aho and that offer sheet. (Section 328)

• Hurricanes hoping to build off breakout season. (NHL.com)

• Bruce Boudreau is exploring his newfound options with Mats Zuccarello and Ryan Hartman. (StarTribune)

• Question: What does the Danton Heinen signing mean? (FanSided)

• A shorter courting period and an earlier opening to free agency? It could be coming. (The Hockey News)

• Second buyout window for the New York Rangers is looming large. (Elite Sports NY)

• A look at the Canucks and their salary cap crunch. (Daily Hive)

• The Winnipeg Jets should have an Atlanta Thrashers night. (Jets Nation)

• Rangers, Islanders take different approaches for engaging female youth hockey players. (The Ice Garden)

• Why Bryan Hicks was chosen to lead the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association. (ESPN W)

Seth Jones: a year in review. (1st Ohio Battery)

• Can Travis Dermott be the new top-pairing defenseman with the Toronto Maple Leafs? (FanSided)

• New Senators defenceman Nikita Zaitsev plans on doing his talking on the ice. (Ottawa Citizen)

• Analyzing Victor Mete’s role as a top-pairing defenseman. (Eyes on the Prize)

• Winning > new arena for the Arizona Coyotes this summer. (AZ Central)

• QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads hire J.J. Daigneault as head coach. (Halifax Mooseheads)


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