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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.

Panarin took one game to spotlight his importance to Blue Jackets

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What’s tougher: stopping Artemi Panarin or figuring out what the Columbus Blue Jackets should do with him?

Such a question came to mind during the team’s season-opener, as the pending unrestricted free agent scored the overtime game-winner, assisted on the team’s first goal of 2018-19, and greedily hogged the puck as few forwards could do.

(In a good way.)

Say what you will about John Tortorella, but he’s smart enough to know when he should just stay out of the way, and that’s what he did with Panarin, allowing him to stay on the ice long enough to win the game.

In a team sport like hockey, you cannot assign all the credit to one player. Even a team-carrying goalie needs overmatched defenders to block shots every now and then. In the case of last night’s Panarin-propelled 3-2 OT win against the Red Wings, people hand credit to other Blue Jackets, like a lunch-pail trio featuring Brandon Dubinsky.

Let’s be honest, though. Just about every team has those muckers and grinders. The Blue Jackets aren’t that far removed, after all, from being a team with a rat-like mentality.

Such a hard-driving style suits Tortorella’s tendencies, and it’s likely helped Columbus rise to a more respectable level, but stars are what win you games … and hopefully, playoff series.

For all the progress the Blue Jackets have made, they still haven’t advanced to the second round or beyond in their franchise history.

That thought makes losing Panarin – who, at best, is leaning toward leaving – that much more painful. Trading him would mean avoiding losing Panarin for nothing except a roster spot and cap space, yet it could also pull this seemingly rising franchise that much closer to the pit of misery that is being regularly booed in your own building.

What does GM Jarmo Kekalainen do, really?

Theoretically, the best trade return for Panarin would probably come from landing a bunch of futures from a contender, much like the Montreal Canadiens received for Max Pacioretty. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a team that has reasonable aspirations to win their division and make a deep run in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, though.

Do you instead demand present-day assets, knowing that you’re just about assured a meager return?

Or do you just ride things out, hoping that Panarin will change his mind while playing for an – ideally – very competitive team where he’s the man? Because, with all due respect to very good players such as Zach Werenski, Seth Jones, and even Sergei Bobrovsky, Panarin reminded the hockey world last night that he’s exactly that for Columbus, at least for as long as he’s wearing a Blue Jackets sweater.

This is a story to watch all season – particularly before the trade deadline expires – and if opening night was any indication, the questions will only burn deeper as 2018-19 progresses.

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.

Which 2018 NHL playoff team is most likely to miss in 2019?

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We should start all of this off with a prediction.

As the 2018-19 NHL season is set to begin, I am fairly confident in saying the following playoff teams from this past season are going to once again find themselves in the playoffs again this year: Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators, and San Jose Sharks. Those seem like the safest bets. They have the best rosters, they have the best talent, they are at the top of the league and should be the biggest contenders for the Stanley Cup.

It is also a given that a couple of teams that missed the playoffs a season ago are going to make enough improvements and take a couple of the remaining spots. A few weeks ago we looked at the best possibilities to do that, with the St. Louis Blues and Florida Panthers leading the way (you can read about all of them). Obviously if a couple of them make it, that has to mean that a couple of other teams are going to fall back out.

So which 2018 playoff team is at most risk for having that happen? Assuming the eight teams mentioned above return, that leaves eight on the bubble that need a closer look. We start with the teams at most risk of missing and working our way up to the teams that should be able to return to the postseason.

1. New Jersey Devils 

Usually when one player single handedly carries a mediocre team to the playoffs it is a goalie doing the heavy lifting. For the 2017-18 New Jersey Devils it was winger Taylor Hall as he put together the best season of his career, won the Hart Trophy as league MVP, and did everything in his power to lift the Devils to a playoff spot. Independent of Hall (and even with Hall, actually) this was a remarkably average hockey team.

They weren’t bad. They weren’t great. They were just … average. In every possible category.

Goals for: 15th
Goals against: 15th
Power play: 10th
Penalty kill: 8th
Shot Attempt Percentage: 21st
Team save percentage: 18th
Overall record: 14th

It would be nearly impossible to be more average than that. They ended up making the playoffs as a wild card by just a single point. The team right behind them, Florida, is coming back even stronger this season and if Hall regresses even a little bit it could spell doom for the Devils’ playoff chances.

What can keep them in? Taylor Hall goes superman again, and/or Marcus Johansson is healthy and productive while 2017 top pick Nico Hischier builds on a strong rookie season and has a breakout performance.

2. Colorado Avalanche

The Western Conference version of the Devils.

The Avalanche were another mediocre team that came out of nowhere to make the playoffs thanks to an incredible season from their franchise player. In this case, it was Nathan MacKinnon (with some help from Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog).

It was a truly stunning one-year turnaround because the Avalanche in 2016-17 were one of the worst teams in recent NHL history. They stunk. So to go through that big of a turnaround in one year was truly remarkable and unexpected, especially when they traded one of their best players (Matt Duchene) at the start of the year. That trade, for what it is worth, is probably going to work out in the long-run and look like a genius move because Samuel Girard looks like he might be a player for them on the blue line and they now own one of the most valuable assets in the NHL this season as a result of it — the Ottawa Senators’ 2019 first-round draft pick.

Having said all of that, like the Devils, the Avalanche are what is basically a one-line team that needed an MVP-caliber season from its best player to just barely, by the slimmest of margins, be good enough to make the playoffs and lose in the first round.

3. Philadelphia Flyers

I actually like this Flyers team a lot, but they also have a lot of boom-or-bust potential.

If everything breaks right for them this could be a team that not only makes the playoffs again, but potentially even makes some noise. Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek can be great, and their young talent is captivating, particularly second-year forward Nolan Patrick who at times was one of their most dangerous forwards in the playoffs.

If Giroux and Voracek repeat what they did a year ago, and the young players like Patrick, Travis Konecny, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Ivan Provorov take big steps forward they are going to an exciting team. That is the boom potential.

The bust potential is that if the young players (especially on defense) don’t take a step forward, and/or if the goaltending implodes on them. Given the franchise history of the Philadelphia Flyers and its goaltenders, especially the goaltenders they are currently employing, that bust potential is certainly possible. Likely? Maybe not. Possible? For sure.

4. Los Angeles Kings

It was not that long ago that the Kings were one of the NHL’s elite teams, in a yearly battle with the Chicago Blackhawks for Western Conference supremacy and the Stanley Cup. Not really the case anymore either team.

The Kings, to their credit, are still a ferocious defensive team that will suck the life out of every game they play and keep everything close. That gives them a chance every night. The problem is they just lack the offense to be any kind of a serious threat, and even last season with Anze Kopitar having a career year and Dustin Brown somehow reviving his career offensively for one season they were still only slightly below average offensively.

Ilya Kovalchuk could be a nice addition, but it is very likely that Brown, and yes, maybe even Kopitar are not as productive as they were a year ago. As I wrote in the Pacific Division preview on Thursday, the Kings have been a bubble playoff team for four years now and will continue to be one as currently constructed. They are teetering closer and closer to needing an organizational overhaul.

5. Minnesota Wild 

I mean this in the most respectful way possible — I have no opinion on the Minnesota Wild.

None. No positive opinion. No negative opinion. No emotion of any kind toward them. There is nothing about them that makes me passionate in any way. This, I think, is the only attitude to take toward the Minnesota Wild if you are not actually a Minnesota Wild fan because this is the only attitude they deserve.

They are just a hockey team that exists.

If you were to ask someone to construct the most bland, run-of-the-mill NHL franchise imaginable, this would be it because that is what they are, what they have been, and what they will continue to be.

They have enough talent to make the playoffs. They have enough talent to be kind of relevant but not really relevant.

They do not have enough talent to get out of the first or do anything of significance once they get there. What they are now is probably what their ceiling is. They just … exist.

Minnesota Wild: hockey team.

6. Anaheim Ducks

Losing Corey Perry for most of the season definitely hurts, especially when this isn’t a great offensive team to begin with. But we also have to remember they are losing 2018 Corey Perry and not 2010 Corey Perry. There is a difference. He is still a very good top-six player, but he also has not topped 20 goals or 60 points in two years.

Ryan Getzlaf is still there, they have a really good defense, and their goaltending duo with John Gibson and Ryan Miller is still one of the league’s best at the position. They also play in a division that, outside of the top two teams, isn’t overly difficult.

7. Vegas Golden Knights

Anyone that can say certain what they expect from the Vegas Golden Knights this season is lying, because nobody really does. There is every reason to believe that a lot of players that shined in their debut season are going to regress. They also made some significant additions (Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny) that can make up for it.

8. Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets have some problems. They play in a division with Pittsburgh and Washington. Their two best players — Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky — are free agents after the season and management may have to make a big decision on what to do with them before they risk losing them for nothing in free agency. Seth Jones is starting the season injured. They still have not made it out of the first round of the playoffs in their existence. Those are the problems.

The positives are the fact that for right now they still do have Panarin and Bobrovsky on the roster, and they are great players.

Jones will be back at some point and along with Zach Werenski will form what should be one of the league’s best defensive pairings. They also have Pierre-Luc Dubois who, I think, could be on the verge of a monster season. They play in a tough division, but it is a top-heavy division. Once you get beyond Pittsburgh and Washington at the top everything is wide open. They will keep their two stars throughout the season, make one more run at something with them, and see where things go after that.

 

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.

PHT’s Season Preview Roundtable: Blue Jackets, Rinne’s future, surprise teams

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1. You’re Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen. How do you handle the Panarin/Bobrovsky situations?

SEAN: I go all-in until the trade deadline. The Metropolitan Division will be a battle, and if you’re going to lose these guys in free agency, might as well load up for a Cup run and try to make your way through three rounds of playoff hockey. Kekalainen has the fallback of using the Feb. 25 trade deadline to flip them both should the season not go as planned. It’s a difficult spot. These are two huge pieces of your team and pieces that can help you win. No GM wants to have a Tavares situation and watch two elite players walk for nothing next summer.

JAMES: While Panarin isn’t interested in an extension and Bobrovsky’s situation is cloudy, Kekalainen received serious peace of mind by receiving an extension of his own. With that in mind, he – or in this exercise, I – can feel far more comfortable if it becomes clear that the best option is the nuclear one: trading both.

Honestly, it doesn’t seem like Panarin’s allowed Columbus much latitude here, so the question essentially becomes closer to “When?” than “If?” Here’s where Kekalainen and I might differ, though: if the best trade package revolves around “futures” rather than “currents,” then so be it. This franchise is restless about winning a playoff series, but with Seth Jones at 23 and Zach Werenski at 21, it’s not as if the situation is now or never.

Resolving Panarin-Bob in the best way possible may just come down to timing.

[Metropolitan Division Preview]

The Bob situation is a tougher call because an extension might not be best for the team, rather than the goalie. Bobrovsky is already 30. It’s fascinating that Bob might want the same deal as Carey Price, as Price’s $10.5M per year looks especially scary considering that the deal just began while he’s … 31. Yes, the same age that Bob would be.

If $10.5M was the rare, would Bobrovsky at least dial his term demands to a less-imposing range of say, 5 seasons? If I’m Kekalainen, those are the answers I would need. If the answers aren’t positive, then trading both might really be the best – if most painful – thing to do.

The thing is, people will wonder how you could move a $7.425M goalie, yet things get easier during the trade deadline. Also, teams that want to win get more desperate. What if the Flames are on fire (sorry) but Mike Smith goes on IR? What if things are coming together for the Stars, but Ben Bishop is on the shelf or in a deep slump? Contenders could conceivably offer a huge price to rent Bob.

ADAM: You have to let the season play out. Yes, the possibility of losing one or both of them for nothing as free agent sucks. But you’re a playoff team, you’re probably going to be a playoff team with them. As long as you have a realistic chance to do that you have to take a run at it and see where you can go. If the team falls out of the playoff picture by the deadline, or is on the bubble, and you are sure you can’t get them signed, then by all means make them available and see what you can get. But until it reaches that point you make a run with this group.

JOEY: I think you have to do your best to convince both players that Columbus is where they need to be. That might be easier said than done, but you have to pull out all the stops for these two guys because they’re the two most important players in the organization. Panarin put up 82 points last season and he’s still going to be just 27 years old when free agency hits. That’s a talent worth trying to keep. As for Bobrovsky, he’s been one of the top goaltenders in the league for years now, but some teams aren’t willing to pay goalies top dollar. Still, Kekalainen has to do everything he can to make these players feel like they need to be Blue Jackets. This team still hasn’t won a playoff round, and they won’t be doing that anytime soon if they lose those two players.

If, for whatever reason, Panarin and Bobrovsky aren’t willing to commit to being Blue Jackets after they’re eligible to sign extensions on January 1st, Kekalainen has no choice but to move them both. Even if the Jackets are in a playoff spot, they can’t afford to lose those guys for nothing in the summer. 

SCOTT: If you trade them now, say buh-bye to the playoffs. Panarin is the only point-per-game player the Blue Jackets have. Hell, he was the highest scoring player on the team by nearly 30 points and the highest scoring forward by almost 40. Panarin is the type of player you build around, so if money is the issue, PAY. THE. MAN.

Of course, it appears Panarin doesn’t want to be there, so whenever the best possible deal presents itself is when you need to pull that trigger. That’s the reality of the situation. You need — NEED — to get the best possible return given how talented he is and what you’re losing.

Still, you need to try your damnedest to convince Panarin to stay.

And that applies to Bob as well.

Bobrovsky, like Panarin, is one of the best at what they do. No Bob = no playoffs.

But if it comes to it, they have to go by the deadline. You can’t do what the Islanders did last summer and watch your best player(s) walk for free. The return at the deadline probably isn’t what it would be now, or a month or two into the season once the injury bug hits someone in the league. A tricky road to cross.

2. Will this be Pekka Rinne‘s final season with the Nashville Predators?

SEAN: Juuse Saros appears to be ready to take over the No. 1 role in Nashville, but Rinne is coming off a Vezina Trophy winning season and has been such a huge part of that franchise for the last decade. I can see Poile wanting to keep the tandem in place in the future as long as Saros take strides and Rinne doesn’t take a huge step back. A short-term deal — a bridge-type extension — could be ideal considering their salary cap situation, allowing for a transition phase.

[Central Division Preview]

JAMES: With the Ryan Ellis extension settled, the Predators don’t really have any enormous contracts to settle for 2019-20 (although Kevin Fiala is a gem). With that – and Juuse Saros’ ridiculously cheap contract – in mind, Nashville could enjoy the basically unprecedented luxury of a gradual transition from Rinne to Saros over a couple of seasons. Goalies are unpredictable, so why not try to convince Rinne to spend more time with the only team he’s known? The guy’s made a ton of cash, seems to love Nashville, and could conceivably move on, say, after 2019-20.

There’s logic to parting ways for both sides, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that this will be his second-to-last season.

Then again, I thought Ellis would leave for greener pastures, so take that prediction with a grain of salt.

ADAM: It certainly looks that way. His age, combined with the fact that his replacement is already in the building and will probably get more of a role this season makes it seem inevitable. He was a great goalie for a long time in Nashville but I think this season is it for him there. Eventually Saros has to play because he might be too good to keep on the bench.

JOEY: I know Rinne’s heading into the final year of his contract, I know Juuse Saros is going to push him for the number one job and I know Rinne struggled in the playoffs, but I don’t think the Predators will want to lose him. He’s been with them for his entire career and he’s been a valuable contributor throughout the years. On the flip side, he’s also going to have to accept a decrease in pay if he’s going to stick around beyond this year.

Rinne is scheduled to make $7 million this season. He won’t be getting that kind of money again going forward, but Saros’ new deal only pays him $1.5 million per year for the next three years, so the Preds could be able to “splurge” to bring back Rinne on a short-term deal. The 35-year-old shouldn’t be in a hurry to leave a Predators team that has a real chance at success over the next few seasons.

SCOTT: Ideally, no.

Ideally, the Predators find a way to sign him to a shorter deal that takes him to the end of his career and provides a smooth transition as Saros turns into a legitimate No. 1 goaltender. A one year deal, even, given the cap crunch for Nashville doesn’t come until after the 2019-20 season when Roman Josi is going to need big money.

Of course, that ball is in Rinne’s court. He’s the UFA at the end of this season and there are teams out there that would want the services of a guy one year removed from winning the Vezina. How many would line up is yet to be determined, and he’s not getting any younger, but GMs take risks and Rinne is still a good goalie, despite his blunder in the playoffs last year.

Any short-term contract likely means a pay cut for Rinne, who really doesn’t need to take a pay cut unless he wants to remain in Nashville.

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3. What level of regression — if any — will the Vegas Golden Knights experience this season?

SEAN: George McPhee did a good enough job refueling the tank this off-season that the monumental drop-off that many were expecting after last season shouldn’t go down. William Karlsson won’t be chasing a Rocket Richard again and Marc-Andre Fleury may play at a Conn Smythe calibre again, but the additions of Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny will help with scoring depth and they still have plenty of room under the cap ceiling to make a big splash to stay in the mix in what will be a brutal Western Conference playoff battle.

JAMES: Quite a bit, yet I believe that they’ll be in the hunt for a playoff spot. Losing Nate Schmidt for 20 games is a big blow, as the inevitable toll of injuries hasn’t even kicked off. That defense could be in trouble, for real this time. While the top line is very good, I expect them to at least cool down from last season’s “molten lava” state. The drop could be really steep for Marc-Andre Fleury, not to mention “Huh?” successes like Deryk Engelland. On the bright side, it was brilliant to bring in Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny. They might just make the difference between getting in the playoffs and barely missing out.

ADAM: There almost has to be some. William Karlsson might be a good player, but he’s not 43 goals good. Marc-Andre Fleury is a really good starting goalie whose career has done a 180 from where it was five or six years ago, but I think it’s unrealistic to expect that same level of play over another full season, especially at his age. I don’t know that Erik Haula is a 30-goal scorer every year. So there is definitely some potential for regression there. That said, don’t you kind of make up for that by adding players like Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty? And even if the aforementioned trio does regress, they are not going to suddenly become bad. They just might go from great to really good.

JOEY: The Golden Knights lost David Perron and James Neal in free agency, but they replaced them with forwards like Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty, which makes them even better (on paper at least) heading into this season. And, don’t forget, they had to overcome the loss of Marc-Andre Fleury early on in the season. If Fleury plays between 50-60 games, that definitely makes them better, too. 

[Pacific Division Preview]

Vegas may not get repeat performances from every player that had a career year in 2017-18, but as a team, I think they’ll be more than just competitive. Don’t be surprised if the Golden Knights and Sharks are battling for the Pacific Division crown throughout the year. They know they have a first line that works in William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, and now they also have Stastny and Pacioretty playing a second-line role. This team will be just fine.

SCOTT: I guess this depends on whether you think all the career years that were had in Vegas last season were just a fluke.

I don’t. Vegas good great deals in the scrap bin that was the expansion draft and they immediately found some uncanny chemistry. George McPhee didn’t stand still over the summer, either. The addition of Paul Stastny was bigger, and then getting Max Pacioretty was bigger. Those guys can make up for any regression we might see from the likes of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith.

Remember, this was a team that dealt with crippling goaltender injuries and still managed to win the Pacific Division. I’ll stop betting against this team until they give me a reason to.

4. What team that is flying way under the radar and could surprise people this season and why?

SEAN: They came within a point of the playoff last season, and with a year under their belts with head coach Bob Boughner, the Florida Panthers appear ready to take that next step. There are a lot of other teams in the East to get excited about, which could allow the Panthers to fly under the radar this season. Between Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov up front, and Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle in the back, there’s a very strong core there. Add in the potential of youngsters Owen Tippett and Henrik Borgstrom and Sunrise, Florida could provide us with a big surprise this season.

JAMES: The Florida Panthers have been the subject of ridicule for some time, but they looked like a dangerous team late last season. Barkov and Trocheck give them a one-two punch at center that can hang with just about any other duo. As brittle as Reimer and Luongo are, both goalies are capable. There are some great supporting cast members, and we could see the ascent of intriguing young players such as Henrik Borgstrom. These Cats can play.

[Atlantic Division Preview]

ADAM: Not saying they will do it, but it would not shock me if Arizona really came out of nowhere this season. Their entire season was made last season when they got off to that terrible start. It is not a coincidence that Antti Raanta played in almost none of those games. When he was in the lineup they were not only competitive, they were pretty good. Now they have Alex Galchenyuk coming in, I still have high hopes for Dylan Strome to be an impact player, and they have a top-tier defenseman. The Arizona Coyotes are my sleeper team.

JOEY: The Arizona Coyotes. Yes, I realize that they’ve been one of the worst teams in the league over the last few seasons, but they ended last season on a high note. They also had a positive offseason, as they were able to get Oliver Ekman-Larson re-signed and they added a talented center in Alex Galchenyuk, who could be a big-time difference maker once he gets healthy. Even though the ‘Yotes are still a little young, they could be able to compete for a playoff spot in 2018-19. The fact that Antti Raanta looked a lot more comfortable in a number one role toward the end of last season is an encouraging sign. 

Today’s NHL is all about being young and fast, and the Coyotes are certainly both of those things. They may still be a year away from earning a postseason berth, but they could still shock a lot of people as soon as 2018-19.

SCOTT: The Buffalo Sabres. Rub your eyes. Splash some water on your face. Pinch yourself. But the fact of the matter is the Sabres went out and made some moves this summer in an effort to get better. And they weren’t empty moves. Skinner. Berglund. Hutton. Sheary. Oh, and some kid named Dahlin. Sure, Dahlin was the product of a disastrous season, but he’s an immediate upgrade to their defence. Casey Mittlestadt should play an important role as well. I said it before, but I believe Buffalo have gone from the joke of the NHL to a team that could work its way into the *gasps* playoff discussion this year.

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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.

Blue Jackets limp into season as injury sidelines Seth Jones 4-6 weeks

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Considering all of the uncertainty surrounding Blue Jackets stars Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, it must be comforting for Columbus to at least know that they still deploy a dynamic defensive duo in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.

Columbus was already aware that Werenski’s outlook was fuzzy. Back in May, the 21-year-old wunderkind underwent shoulder surgery. The Blue Jackets would be foolish to rush him back, but at least the latest updates seem broadly optimistic.

Worries about Jones’ health only cropped up recently, as the probable Norris candidate suffered a lower-body injury during Tuesday night’s preseason game. After John Tortorella said the defenseman will be out “a little while,” the Blue Jackets announced that he suffered a second degree MCL sprain of his right knee and will miss the next 4-6 weeks.

It’s more injury news for a team entering a big year.

While he’s not of the importance of a Jones or Werenski, 1st Ohio Battery also notes that Ryan Murray is banged-up. With Ian Cole and Jack Johnson no longer with the team (Cole being most effective, Johnson being more … drama-heavy), the Blue Jackets enter 2018-19 with a lot of uncertainty on the blueline.

Still, there’s a concern that both Werenski and Jones may deal with lingering issues. It can take a while to recover from surgery, whether it comes down to lingering soreness or merely a lack of confidence that you can avoid a re-injury. With certain lower-body injuries, a player might be able to soldier on, yet at the same time struggle through nagging discomfort. Could one or two of those great players lose that extra gear to take over games, even just for a portion of 2018-19?

Of course, both players could just shake off these concerns as if they’re nothing, continuing their dual ascents up the charts as star players.

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.