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The Buzzer: Capitals lead the NHL; Slim to Nilsson

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Three Stars

1. Thomas Greiss, New York Islanders

There were a handful of strong goaltending performances again on Saturday, and you can even gripe about the placement of stars here, as Greiss didn’t have the most saves in stopping 37 out of 38 shots on goal.

Greiss might have been asked to do the most of any winning goalie, though.

Not only was there no margin of error, as the Islanders beat the Panthers 2-1, but Greiss faced a mixture of quality and quantity against the Cats. According to Natural Stat Trick, Greiss faced 20 high-danger scoring chances, and the Panthers’ expected goals were at 4.41. To hold the Panthers to one goal – and only on the power play – is another great night of work for a goalie who probably deserves more hype at this point.

2. Anders Nilsson, Ottawa Senators

If you look at the bare stats alone, Nilsson had a “better” night than Greiss, allowing one goal on 39 SOG (38 to 37 saves).

We can debate Nilsson’s Saturday vs. Greiss’ Saturday, yet it’s getting tougher to reasonably argue which goalie should be starting for Ottawa — at least if the Senators don’t want to merely tank. Nilsson is now on a three-game winning streak, and his save percentage is up to a splendid .930. He’s shown some signs of being a well-above-average backup goalie for a little while now, especially since joining the Senators.

All due respect to Craig Anderson‘s tremendous accomplishments, particularly helping them come within an OT goal of advancing to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, but times haven’t been great for the veteran goalie. Anderson’s save percentage is a rough .897 this season, and he’s been putting up replacement-level numbers since 2017-18.

Frankly, tanking might be the best option for Ottawa, so theoretically they could merely split starts for at least a while. If this continues, they won’t be able to get away with even a platoon for a whole lot longer, though.

3. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals, or pick your favorite two-point night

Pointing to Kuznetsov’s goal and assist is a way of moving up the Capitals’ winning streak in the “batting order,” if you will.

The funny thing about the Islanders’ remarkable 10-game winning streak (and their still-active point streak of 12 games) is that, if you were looking at the standings, you might have thought “Huh, but the Capitals are still ahead.” That’s because Washington’s been almost as hot, and with a win on Saturday, the Caps are now at 29 standings points. Which means they’re leading the NHL.

Death, taxes, Capitals winning their division.

Nicklas Backstrom also had two goals in that win, but his was an empty-netter, so Kuznetsov feels like the safer choice. There are plenty of other options for star three, even if you limit your choices to skaters, including Cale Makar and Patrick Maroon, who both scored two goals.

Highlight of the Night

I didn’t mention Shea Weber yet, because one of his two goals earns highlight of the night consideration. If you want more on his night, there’s a fancy post for it and everything. Weber finished the night with two PPG to reach 101 for his career, the 11th most among defensemen in league history (or at least since the stat began being recorded).

Notable injuries

Factoids

Some might argue this package is the highlight of the night, then.

Scores

NYI 2 – FLA 1
TBL 5 – BUF 3
PHI 3 – TOR 2 (SO)
MTL 3 – LAK 2
OTT 4 – CAR 1
PIT 3 – CHI 2 (SO)
WSH 5 – VGK 2
MIN 4 – ARI 3
COL 4 – CBJ 2
STL 3 – CGY 2 (OT)
SJS 2 – NSH 1 (SO)

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Blue Jackets haven’t fallen apart without Panarin, Bobrovsky

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After Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky and Matt Duchene all walked in free agency, outside expectations for the Columbus Blue Jackets weren’t very high. Why would they be? Panarin was their most talented player and Bobrovsky was a two-time Vezina Trophy winner. But through 10 games, they’ve found a way to keep their head above water.

The Jackets head into this weekend with a 5-3-2 record, which is good enough to put them in a Wild Card spot right now. Yes, we’re 10 games into the season, but that little factoid is important when comparing their work to the rest of the Eastern Conference.

Without Panarin, the offense has produced exactly the way you’d imagine. They don’t have anybody that’s scored more than six points in 10 games, but they have received plenty of contributions from different players. As of right now, nine players on the roster have scored at least two goals and 14 players have found the back of the net at least once.

Pierre-Luc Dubois leads in the team in goals, with 4, and he’s tied for the scoring lead with six points. That puts the 21-year-old on pace to score a solid 33 goals and 49 points this season. The only way to have success when your leading scorer is on pace for under 50 points is for everyone behind him to contribute too. So far so good in that respect.

The fight this team has shown has been nothing short of impressive. For example, in last night’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus found themselves down 3-1 after the first period. Thanks to goals by Ryan Murray and Sonny Milano, they managed to even the score before Cam Atkinson won it in OT.

“It was another opportunity presented to us as far as not blowing up starting that second period,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said after the game, per NHL.com. “We need to stay patient, not try to score. We just need to stay above the puck. It’s such a fast team over there.

“So we kept our patience, played above the puck and probably played, out of all the minutes we’ve put in this year, probably the fastest we’ve played as far as our transition.”

The other pleasant surprise is Joonas Korpisalo, who has done a good job between the pipes for the Jackets this year. The 25-year-old has won four of his last five games. If he can continue to keep them in games, they’ll be one of the teams fighting for a playoff spot near the end of the season.
It’s important to note that this is a small sample size, but 10 games isn’t insignificant either. Most of the hockey world may have been guilty of overlooking players like Dubois, Atkinson, Seth Jones and Zach Werenski coming into this season, so it’s up to them to continue to prove people wrong.
Even though the Blue Jackest are a middle-of-the-pack team when it comes to goals scored (16) and goals against (32), they’re finding the way to get the job done with a committee of contributors. That’s definitely not a the sexy approach, but if it’s effective enough to get them back into the playoffs, that’s what they’ll continue to do.
“I don’t know what we are yet,” Tortorella said via The Athletic. “It’s 10 games. You can’t say ‘You are this’ after 10 games, but we certainly have shown some resilience here.”

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 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.”

Big winners of the NHL’s restricted free agent signing period

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With Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, and Mikko Rantanen all signing new contract extensions this weekend, the NHL’s summer-long restricted free agency drama has come to a mostly anticlimactic end.

All the top players stayed where they were supposed to stay, nobody unexpected ended up getting traded, no additional offer sheets were actually signed, and the only big development was the shift by players to opt for shorter-term bridge deals instead of max long-term contracts.

Now that everyone is signed for the start of the 2019-20 season (which starts Wednesday night with Blues-Caps at 7 pm on NBCSN), let’s take a look at some of the big winners from the RFA signing period.

Teams that won big

Tampa Bay Lightning. Brayden Point‘s three-year deal is a massive short-term win for the Lightning. They entered the offseason facing a salary cap crunch but still managed to get one of their top players — Point — re-signed without really having to do anything significant to the rest of the roster. At a salary cap hit of just a little more than $6 million per season for the next three years the Lightning have a steal in Point given the way he blends elite offense and Selke caliber defense. Having a core player that good, signed for that cheap, is a huge advantage to a contender whose championship window remains wide open.

Boston Bruins. This looked like it was going to be a tricky situation for Don Sweeney at the beginning of the summer as he had to try to re-sign top defenders Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo, as well as forward Danton Heinen, all while having limited wiggle room under the cap. He managed to get all three players signed for a combined cap hit of under $11 million per season. Not bad. McAvoy should have a monster contract coming his way when his current deal ends, but a lot current money will be off the books by then.

San Jose Sharks. Timo Meier‘s contract (four years, $24 million) was the big one this summer and looks like a perfectly fair deal for both sides. Meier very well could end up outperforming that deal before it’s done, but he will still be young enough to secure another significant contract. But getting Kevin Labanc signed for just $1 million for this season after his 17-goal, 56-point season was a really nice bonus for the Sharks. He is betting on himself, but in the short-term the Sharks are getting a huge advantage this season with some additional cap flexibility as they try to get Joe Thornton his Stanley Cup ring.

Carolina Hurricanes. They won at the very beginning of the summer when the Montreal Canadiens signed Sebastian Aho to a five-year offer sheet. The Hurricanes easily matched it, got their franchise player signed, and the whole process helped them to avoid all of the drama and stress that every other team had to deal with in trying to negotiate a deal. That is a win.

Players that won big

Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs. He managed to get a six-year deal out of the Maple Leafs that averages just under $11 million per year. The breakdown of the contract will pay him $41 million over the first three years, including $31 million in the first two years and $16 million this season. It is, by far, the biggest of all the RFA deals signed this summer and when compared to the deals signed by Point and Rantanen (two players that are not only similar to him, but maybe even better) it is a huge win for him to get pretty much exactly what he wanted.

Ivan Provorov, Philadelphia Flyers. Provorov has No. 1 defender potential and the Flyers definitely treat him like a No. 1 defender, but he has not yet consistently played at a level to justify all of that. Despite that, he still managed to get a six-year, $40.5 million contract this summer. That is significantly larger than the deals signed by McAvoy and Zach Werenski (Columbus), both of whom are probably already better than Provorov. If he becomes the player the Flyers think he can be, it will be a fine contract. But he has to become that player first.

Jacob Trouba, New York Rangers. He managed to get out of Winnipeg (something that seemed inevitable for a couple of years now) thanks to a trade to the New York Rangers where he signed a huge seven-year, $56 million contract, complete with a no-move clause and trade protections. Of the major RFA defenders this offseason (Trouba, McAvoy, Provorov, Zach Werenski) this is by far the biggest contract signed. That $8 million per year cap hit is also tied for the fifth largest among all defenders in the NHL. Is he that good? Trouba is a fine player and will make the Rangers’ defense better, but that is a huge investment in a player that is probably best suited to be a No. 2 defender on a contending team. Risky move for the Rangers, but a huge win for the player across the board.

More RFA signing news:
Jets lock up Connor with seven-year contract
Avalanche avoid breaking bank with Rantanen’s contract
Jets come to short-term agreement with Laine

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Blue Jackets can be much better people think

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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.