Blue Jackets are red-hot, mostly with Bob on the bench

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Sometimes, when locker room drama spills out into the mainstream, the star in question will silence murmurs with great play. Other times, things will fall apart altogether.

In the case of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Sergei Bobrovsky, the Blue Jackets have been prospering ever since Bob dealt with that unofficial suspension, but it really hasn’t had much to do with Bobrovsky.

[Blue Jackets sit Bobrovsky; Bob addresses the incident, his future]

Instead, the Blue Jackets have largely feasted on the improving play of Joonas Korpisalo, and dynamite work from the top line (maybe “The Bread Line?”) of Artemi Panarin, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Cam Atkinson.

Consider the last week-plus for Korpisalo, with some overlap from the “incident,” which was Bob not returning to the Blue Jackets’ bench after being pulled last week against Tampa:

Jan. 4: 14 saves in relief appearance against Carolina, no goals allowed
Jan. 8: The night of the “incident,” Korpisalo stops all eight shots against Tampa Bay.
Jan. 10: Makes 35 saves as Columbus beats Nashville in OT, with Bob fever at a high pitch.
Jan. 12: Korpisalo only allows one goal as Columbus beats Washington 2-1 in OT
Jan. 13: Bob’s lone appearance since the kerfuffle. Columbus wins, but the score was 7-5, so it’s tough to give Bobrovsky overwhelming credit.
Jan. 15: Korpisalo and the Blue Jackets cruise to a 4-1 win against the Devils.

This strong play hasn’t gone unnoticed by John Tortorella, as he discussed when asked about what he’s seen in Korpisalo:

“It’s what I don’t see in him,” Tortorella said. “Just no extra movement. He just looks confident …”

On one level, it’s a little awkward that the Blue Jackets are on a hot streak, mostly with Bobrovsky on the bench. It’s sort of a twisted take on “living well is the best revenge.”

But the delightful thing is just how fun certain elements are turning out to be.

Take, for instance, a post-win ritual. For a while, Nick Foligno and Korpisalo would exchange ill-advised, but very “hockey” headbutts when the backup would get a W:

The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline has been chronicling this development (sub required), including this amusing quote from Foligno earlier in 2018-19.

“I don’t really know where that came from,” Foligno said. “But I kinda like it. It’s good to rough Korpi up a little bit.”

Yet, with Korpisalo winning three of the four games on the Blue Jackets’ current four-game winning streak, even reckless hockey players took a step back on thought of the conkies.

In case you’re not fluent in Hockeylish, “conkies” are apparently concussions, and the two finally put a stop to it after Tuesday’s win against New Jersey. Their new celebration might need some more time in the oven, which is something even Korpisalo admitted.

Yeah, that wasn’t too great, unless Korpisalo and Foligno were actually doing a high-level impression of that “Step Brothers” scene where Will Ferrell and Adam Scott clearly don’t know how to hug each other.

That jovial atmosphere extends to the little things in life, like the team being overjoyed by the prospect of no practice, like conky-fearing Allen Iversons:

It’s remarkable that Korpisalo’s hot streak has merely pushed him to a .902 save percentage on the season, and Bobrovsky hasn’t been nailing his contract year either, with just a .903 save percentage in 2018-19.

Such a kerfuffle underscores an interesting thought: this team is jockeying with the Capitals for the Metropolitan Division crown even with subpar, and sometimes distracting goaltending.

A blazing-hot top line is a big reason why.

While a heating up Korpisalo makes a Bobrovsky trade seem only more inevitable, Panarin’s been proving his value all season long. He’s generated a four-game point and goal streak, generating five goals and two assists for seven points during that span. Panarin’s up to 52 points in 44 games, Dubois has 42 points in 46 contests, and Atkinson has 27 goals (among 48 points), closing in on his career-high of 35.

Imagine what that line (not to mention stellar defensemen Seth Jones and Zach Werenski) could accomplish if that goaltending rises to the occasion?

It’s pretty strange to see the Blue Jackets prosper so much without Bobrovsky in net, but the organization obviously must hope that this is a sign of good things to come.

If not, at least it’s been a fun, unexpected ride for the last week or so.

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Reality strikes Ducks

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The Anaheim Ducks have held a playoff position for much of the 2018-19 season, but their place in the standings has been the biggest mirage in the NHL.

Their success this season has been driven almost entirely by the play of their goalies (John Gibson and Ryan Miller) and has masked the numerous flaws that exist on this team, from the lack of depth, to the injuries, to the fact their core players are getting older and declining, to the fact they get absolutely caved in almost every night on the shot and scoring chance charts.

Teams like this eventually crumble. They always crumble. Sometimes it takes a few weeks. Sometimes a few months. Sometimes it does not happen until the next season. But it eventually always happens because the goalies, no matter how good they are, can not continue to play that flawlessly for that long.

The dam always breaks, the bubble always bursts, or whatever other cliche you want to use to refer to it.

For the Ducks, that time has come.

After getting blown out by the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday, the Ducks have now dropped eight games in a row, find themselves barely hanging on to a playoff spot, and have been outscored by a jaw-dropping 23 goals on the season. That is one of the worst marks in the league and puts them with the NHL’s worst teams.

It is almost impossible to be that bad when you’re getting the level of goaltending they are getting this season (among the absolute best in the NHL!)

They are falling fast in the standings and in this week’s PHT Power Rankings.

The elite

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Their 5-2 loss in San Jose was their first loss in regulation since Nov. 27. It happened on Jan 5. That is a hell of a long time to go between regulation defeats. They are just on an unbelievable roll right now, thanks in large part to Nikita Kucherov‘s offensive dominance. They are on a tier all alone this week.

Contenders making their climb

2. Vegas Golden Knights — They have won six in a row, are 17-3-3 in their past 23 games, and they have the dominant underlying numbers to back up their record. They are good. Legitimately good.

[Related: Golden Knights stay hot even beyond winning streak]

3. Pittsburgh Penguins — Matt Murray is back to playing like the franchise goalie the Penguins need him to be. Combine that with the performance of stars like Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang (who has been Norris worthy this season) and you have a team that is 14-5-1 in its past 20 games and has caught up to the leaders in their division.

The rest of the contenders

4. Toronto Maple Leafs –– Imagine how good the offense will be once William Nylander starts to get going.

5. Washington Capitals — Their power play has hit a pretty big slump lately but I am one million percent confident that is not something that is going to last.

6. Calgary Flames — Johnny Gaudreau just keeps getting better. He is on pace for 118 points this season and is the engine that drives this team.

7. San Jose Sharks — On Dec. 1 they lost their fourth game in a row to drop to 12-10-5 on the season. Since then they have gone 11-3-2 and their stars on the blue line are really starting to dominate like we expected. Do not sleep on this team in the Western Conference.

8. Columbus Blue Jackets — This is a really good team as it stands right now and I still feel like some of their best players (Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Sergei Bobrovsky) haven’t played their best hockey yet this season. What happens when they do?

9. Winnipeg Jets — Losing Nikolaj Ehlers will be a big loss, but they still have one of the best collections of forwards in the NHL. They have hit a bit of a wall recently, but they will be fine.

10. Nashville Predators — They are starting to get healthy (Welcome back, Filip Forsberg) so we will once again get to see what this team is capable of when it has all of its key players in the lineup.

Right on the edge

11. New York Islanders — Every team that outperforms its shot and scoring chance metrics thinks it has stumbled on the secret. They haven’t. They just have great goaltending. The Islanders right now are getting great goaltending.

[Related: Goalies are the difference for Islanders]

12. Boston Bruins — Patrice Bergeron has nine points in seven games since returning to the lineup. The Bruins have won five of those games. Getting key players back in the lineup helps.

13. Montreal Canadiens — Shea Weber has really made a huge difference for this team since returning to the lineup.

14. Dallas Stars — Even with their ugly loss to Winnipeg on Sunday and all of the drama surrounding this team because of their CEO and owner, they are still 5-1-1 in their past seven games and hanging around in the playoff race. The top line is still carrying the offense.

15. Carolina Hurricanes — They are on one of those streaks where they start to play up to their potential and make you think they are about ready to turn the corner. Will this be the time it happens?

16. Minnesota Wild — That 13-game stretch where they lost 10 games really put them in a hole. They are trying to dig out of it with wins in three of their past four.

Falling back

17. Buffalo Sabres — That big cushion they built for themselves earlier in the year is really starting to slip away from them. They need to get more out of their forwards other than Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner.

18. Colorado Avalanche — Speaking of a team that needs more out of players outside of their top line … the Avalanche have lost 12 out of 15 and are now all of a sudden on the playoff bubble despite having three of the best offensive players in the league. Not a great sign!

19. Anaheim Ducks — This is, quite simply, not a very good hockey team.

The playoffs look like a long shot

20. Florida Panthers — It is looking like another wasted year of the Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau core. Unfortunate, because they are such outstanding players. Especially Barkov.

21. Vancouver Canucks — The standings say they open the week just one point out of a playoff spot, but they have already played 45 games this season, way more than everyone else around them in the standings. Their points percentage is in the bottom-six of the NHL. Once every one around them catches up in games played their playoff chances will look a lot worse.

22. New York Rangers — It should be another busy year for this team at the trade deadline. No playoffs in their immediate future and a few veteran players that could be attractive for contenders.

23. Edmonton Oilers — Just speaking in hypotheticals here, but how many more seasons like this before Connor McDavid gets fed up and demands his way out of Edmonton? It has to happen at some point, right? If this circus continues around him?

Lose For Hughes

24. New Jersey Devils — Rookie netminder Mackenzie Blackwood has been a pleasant development for a team that has had a constant hole in net this season.

25. Chicago Blackhawks — The Blackhawks should be highly encouraged by what they have seen from Dylan Strome so far. He is up to 14 points in 20 games and scored the game-winning goal in Pittsburgh on Sunday night.

26. Los Angeles Kings — Even Anze Kopitar is having a disappointing season for this team. It is almost as if they are prohibited from having good offensive players.

27. Arizona Coyotes — You can not question the effort, but the talent is just not there yet. It really hurts when they are down to backup goalies on top of that.

28. St. Louis Blues — They took a run with this core and it doesn’t look like it is going to work. Like the Blackhawks and Kings, this is a team that looks like it might be in need of a teardown and rebuild.

29. Philadelphia Flyers — They’ve fired the coach, fired the general manager, fired assistants (coach, GM), called up the hot-shot goalie prospect, and had the players-only meeting after another loss. They have played every card a bad hockey team can play in a season.

30. Detroit Red Wings — Every year some rebuilding teams that are short on talent overachieve early in the year and then hit an extended slump that brings them back down to where everyone expected them to be. The Red Wings are in the middle of that slump right now.

31. Ottawa Senators — The problem with their spot in the “lose for Hughes” category is their 2019 first-round draft pick belongs to the Colorado Avalanche.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

NHL reveals 2019 All-Star Game rosters

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The NHL has revealed the rosters for the 2019 All-Star Game, which will take place at SAP Center in San Jose on Jan. 25-26.

Last week it was announced that Alex Ovechkin (Metropolitan), Auston Matthews (Atlantic), Nathan MacKinnon (Central), and Connor McDavid (Pacific) were voted in as division captains. Ovechkin has since pulled out of the event, so the Metropolitan Division will need a new captain.

Given the format of the event where every team is represented and only 11 players per division get to go, it’s tough to use the “snub” word when talking about someone who’s having an All-Star worthy season but isn’t listed below. But there will likely be a few swaps over the next three weeks as injuries pop up.

[Backstrom, Kopitar, Laine, Skinner highlight NHL All-Star Last Men In vote]

On to the rosters!

Atlantic Division
F Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres
F Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
F Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Captain)
F David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins
F Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
F John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs
D Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators
D Keith Yandle, Florida Panthers
G Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings
G Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

Potential injury replacements: Mitch Marner, Brayden Point, Jonathan Huberdeau, Mark Stone, Jeff Skinner, Morgan Rielly, Frederik Andersen, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Jaroslav Halak

Metropolitan Division
F Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes
F Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets
F Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders
F Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
F Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers
F Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils
D John Carlson, Washington Capitals
D Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets
G Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals
G Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers

Potential injury replacements: Phil Kessel, Nicklas Backstrom, Artemi Panarin, Evgeni Malkin, Kyle Palmieri, Chris Kreider, Kris Letang, Zach Werenski, Robin Lehner

Central Division
F Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
F Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche (Captain)
F Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues
F Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche
F Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets
F Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets
D Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars
D Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
G Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild
G Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

Potential injury replacements: Gabriel Landeskog, Alex DeBrincat, Patrik Laine, Ryan Suter, Ben Bishop

Pacific Division
F Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames
F Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes
F Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (Captain)
F Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks
F Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks
D Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks
D Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
D Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks
G Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights
G John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks

Potential injury replacements: Leon Draisaitl, Sean Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk, Elias Lindholm, Timo Meier, Mark Giordano, Jacob Markstrom, David Rittich

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills Competition will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

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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.

As Karlsson returns to Ottawa, don’t believe the anti-hype

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When a star player returns to a team after a controversial trade, you’re bound to scold your hands on some hot takes. Knee-jerk reactions only get more dramatic if there are easy – though not necessarily profound – ways to criticize that player.

So, it’s no surprise that people are jumping to some dopey conclusions as Erik Karlsson returns to Ottawa to face the Senators as a member of the San Jose Sharks on Saturday afternoon.

You see, many are latching on to Karlsson’s relatively modest offensive numbers, as the splendid Swede currently has two goals and 15 points in 26 games. Tying the likes of Zach Werenski and Drew Doughty for 15th place in scoring among defensemen, obviously, is unacceptable.

Speaking of Doughty, Postmedia’s Michael Traikos trotted out an … interesting take in comparing the two defensemen in mid-November:

In nine seasons with the Senators, Karlsson led the team in scoring four times and finished second in three others. There was a reason for that. If he didn’t, no one else would.

In San Jose, his job description has changed. On a team that has so many offensive options, Karlsson is no longer the No. 1 offensive weapon. With Brent Burns leading the Sharks with 21 points, he might not even be the team’s No. 1 offensive defenceman.

Ah yes, scoring less as a defenseman than Burns. That’s almost as sick of a burn as telling John Tavares or Auston Matthews that they’re the Toronto Maple Leafs’ second-best center.

While there might be something to Karlsson experiencing some tweaks to his role with the Sharks (it’s certainly true that he’s never played with other defensemen anywhere near the level of Brent Burns or Marc-Edouard Vlasic), it’s far from the only take that might have you scratching your head.

As seemingly always, there are vague rumblings about the locker room being a happier place, with explanations rooted in “picking up on little things” and “body language.”

Some venture the argument that the Senators are finally getting to practice more this season now that their minutes-munching superstar is in San Jose.

The most baffling tendency is to harp on scoring, though.

If you’ve ever gotten into a debate about Karlsson’s Norris Trophy merits, you’ve likely heard someone try to brush off his numbers. The popular (inaccurate) refrain is that Karlsson is “a glorified forward who can’t play defense.”

Remarkably, those who are straining to criticize Karlsson now are using his points against him. I’d wager good money that some of those peoples mocking (still pretty good) point totals are the same people who claimed that his offensive production didn’t matter.

Digging into Karlsson’s stats on even a surface level reveals that he’s still a fantastic defenseman.

Karlsson was frequently a possession monster in Ottawa, particularly compared to Senators teammates whose numbers were often under water. You’d think that he’d be less dazzling on a Sharks team with better players, yet Karlsson isn’t just retaining fantastic individual possession numbers; he’s also putting up great stats relative to his teammates in San Jose.

Actually, you could make a reasonable argument that Karlsson’s been just as good – if not better – than he had been in recent seasons with the Senators. Check out this side-by-side chart based on a wide array of stats, via Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool:

via Bill Comeau

As you can see, Karlsson’s possession numbers have skyrocketed. While his scoring numbers aren’t there yet, one stat seems promising: his expected goals are virtually identical to last season’s figure. That, to me, is another way of driving home the point that the offense will climb as the bounces go his way.

(If that’s too fancy for you, his shooting percentage is just 2.7 this season, far lower than his career average of 6.8.)

Long story short: Karlsson is still really, really good. In my opinion. he’s long been too easily dismissed as an all-around player.

Karlsson himself admits that it will be “different and weird” to play a game against the Senators in Ottawa.

One can see the awkwardness in how he’s addressed the media. Earlier this week, Karlsson basically ended a press conference as it began when someone brought up Ottawa. He played nice during this press conference – almost too nice – although he really shut things down (understandably) when a reporter asked about the Monica Caryk/Melina Karlsson/Mike Hoffman situation.

You can see him abruptly no-comment that at the end of this clip:

As awkward and uncomfortable as some moments will end up being for Karlsson, the Sharks, and the Senators, it’s tough to imagine anything being quite as bumbling as his critics grasping at straws to knock him down a peg.

Luckily, most aren’t falling into that sort of trap, including plenty of Senators fans and also some of Karlsson’s former teammates.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Seth Jones return reunites one of NHL’s top defensive pairs

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Huge news for the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday as the team announced it has activated defenseman Seth Jones from injured reserve, and that he is expected to make his season debut on Tuesday against the Arizona Coyotes.

Jones has missed the first seven games of the season recovering from an MCL injury.

This is a huge development for a Blue Jackets team that has been, to say the least, inconsistent at the start of the year.

First, Jones is one of the NHL’s top defenders and a rising star in the league after finishing fourth in the Norris Trophy voting a year ago. Since arriving in Columbus as part of the one-for-one swap involving Ryan Johansen his game has taken off.

But it’s not just Jones himself that is a difference-maker for the Blue Jackets. When paired with Columbus’ other top young defender, Zach Werenski, the two help form one of the best and most productive defense pairings in the league, and Jones’ return might be just what Werenski needs to help bust him out of what has been a little bit of a slow start to the season.

Since the start of the 2016-17 season (when Werenski made his NHL debut) the two have spent almost all of their 5-on-5 ice-time together as a defense pairing, and they have been as good as any other duo in the league.

Coach John Tortorella said over the weekend that when Jones returns the plan is to put him back on the top pairing with Werenski.

In more than 2,500 minutes of ice-time the Blue Jackets control more than 56 percent of the shot attempts and outscore teams by a 95-69 margin. When neither player is on the ice that shot attempt share drops to below 50 percent, while the goal and scoring chance differentials also see a drop. But it’s not just the team that sees a drop without Jones — Werenski himself sees his play drop off when Jones is not next to him. Given how much time they spend together it’s not a huge sample size, but Werenski’s production and overall play has taken a hit without Jones by his said, especially at the start of this season. Understandable given how good Jones is, but it’s a testament to how well the two play alongside one another and how big of a difference they can make.

The Blue Jackets are fascinating team this season because there are so many different directions they can go in. When they are fully healthy they have a chance to be a really good team because they have two top-tier players in Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky at the top of the lineup, and as mentioned here, one of the best defense pairings in the league in Jones and Werenski, a duo that can eat up 25 minutes per night and dominate.

But given the contract situations with Panarin and Bobrovsky and their uncertain future in Columbus no one really knows if they will be there beyond this season — or even at the end of this season.

If everything clicks just right this will almost certainly be a playoff team, and perhaps one that could even make some noise. Or they could be big-time sellers at the deadline if they stumble and find themselves on the playoff bubble and are not confident they can keep their top two players.

We have not seem them at their best yet so far this season.

Now that they are getting Jones back we should finally be able to see what they are really capable of.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.