Alexander Wennberg

Columbus Blue Jackets: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Elvis enters the building as goaltending surprises for Blue Jackets

If any position in sports challenged the saying “You get what you pay for,” it would be NHL goaltending.

The Blue Jackets haven’t just watched Sergei Bobrovsky fall short of his $10M asking price with Florida already. They’ve also seen their $2M tandem of 25-year-olds (Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins) provide some of the best goaltending since John Tortorella took over as Blue Jackets head coach.

If forced to guess, people might postulate that Korpisalo would drive that bus. While his development’s been bumpy since Columbus took measures to keep him during the expansion draft, Korpisalo at least had NHL experience. As much as people loved the idea of putting on blue suede shoes and making bad Elvis jokes, could the Blue Jackets expect Merzlikins to convert nice Swiss league numbers to acceptable backup work?

Nope. Instead, Korpisalo has been solid but unspectacular, when he hasn’t been hurt. Meanwhile, Merzlikins has been a smash hit.

Speaking of surprises and prices, there could be more up ahead. Both Merzlikins and Korpisalo are pending RFAs. What’s even a fair contract for Merzlikins, especially if the NHL doesn’t resume action until 2020-21?

Torts walks the walk

For some time, the feeling was: whether John Tortorella is actually a good coach or not, he at least provides entertaining press conferences. When the Torts rage boils over, snarky folks are the biggest winners.

Tortorella’s backers must feel vindicated, as the Blue Jackets sit in the playoff bubble even after the team lost Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin — along with facing wave after wave of injuries.

Much like Barry Trotz nurturing strong numbers for Islanders goalies, there’s a chicken-and-the-egg situation in Columbus. Merzlikins deserves credit for his strong .925 save percentage this season, but surely Torts helped make life easier for Elvis.

Take a look at Hockey Viz’s coaching impacts and you’ll see that Tortorella seems to be getting more and more effective during his time as Blue Jackets head coach:

Pretty impressive stuff from Tortorella.

Numerous health-related disappointments for Blue Jackets

Chalk up the Blue Jackets’ crushing run of injuries to bad luck … I think.

There is one thought: maybe certain style choices increase the risks of injuries. Tortorella’s teams are notorious for being gritty, and most obviously blocking shots. Could that make his players more susceptible to injuries? Maybe such issues wouldn’t just crop up because of single seasons, but rather multiple years of playing that way?

Overall, I’d still say it’s mostly bad luck.

The Blue Jackets should definitely be careful though, particularly if the NHL opts to squeeze in some portion of the rest of 2019-20 while holding a full 82-game campaign in 2020-21.

Offensive disappointments for Blue Jackets

Look, any reasonable person expected Columbus to have a tougher time scoring goals without Artemi Panarin (and, to a lesser extent, Matt Duchene). Even so, when Pierre-Luc Dubois is your leading scorer at 49 points through 70 games, it’s dishonest not to put offense on the list of disappointments.

This is likely the more reasonable knock on Tortorella’s ultimately-worth-it focus on defense than injury concerns. Certain Blue Jackets would likely put up bigger numbers in a more open system; it just likely wouldn’t be the wisest strategy overall.

There are disappointments within those disappointments for the Blue Jackets:

  • To some extent, it’s a bummer that Sonny Milano never quite found his place. Not surprising, but a bummer, as there’s talent there.
  • Alexander Wennberg didn’t rebound to his most promising form. Instead, he sits at a middling 22 points in 57 games, including just five goals.
  • Josh Anderson suffered through a disastrous 2019-20 season. Along with injuries, Anderson enjoyed almost zero puck luck, scoring a single goal on just a 1.6 shooting percentage (four points in 26 games overall). That hurts after Anderson scored a career-high 27 goals and 47 points in 2018-19, and fell just short of 20 goals in 2016-17 and 2017-18.

My guess is that Anderson can still contribute as a power forward once he gets healthy. Those numbers almost certainly were affected by injury issues to some extent, too. Even so … ouch.

***

Overall, the surprises are more pleasant than the disappointments ended up being painful for the Blue Jackets. It’s truly remarkable that they’re in almost the same spot in 2019-20 as they were in 2018-19.

What should we expect if there’s more for 2019-20, and then in 2020-21, though?

MORE ON THE BLUE JACKETS:

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’ nightmare season of injuries continues with Bjorkstrand news

You could not possibly blame the Columbus Blue Jackets and their fans if they thought there was some kind of supernatural force aligning against them this season.

It is obviously just a lot of bad luck, but the ongoing injury situation is really starting to become absurd.

It continued on Friday with the news that Oliver Bjorkstrand, currently the team’s leading goal scorer this season with 21 goals in only 49 games, is going to be sidelined for the next 8-10 weeks due to an ankle sprain and fracture.

The injury happened in the Blue Jackets’ loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night.

Columbus managed to overcome a free agency exodus this offseason to remain in the playoff race far longer than most expected, but the injuries are starting to add up into something that might be too much to overcome.

Bjorkstrand’s injury comes at a time where the team is already playing without Cam Atkinson, Seth Jones, Joonas Korpisalo, Josh Anderson, Ryan Murray, Alexandre Texier, Alexander Wennberg, Brandon Dubinsky, and Dean Kukan.

That list includes two of their top forwards (Atkinson and Bjorkstrand), their top defenseman (Jones), their starting goalie (Korpisalo), and a couple of young players they were counting on to take big steps forward this season (Texier, Wennberg).

For the season the Blue Jackets have lost a league-leading 345 man games due to injury.

Despite all of that they went on a 19-2-5 run for the two-month stretch between Dec. 7 and Feb. 7 to climb to within striking distance of the second playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division.

Since then, though, they have managed just an 0-3-4 record in the seven games since.

As of Friday they occupy the top Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference with 73 points, just one point ahead of the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes. They are also just two points behind the Flyers for the third spot in the Metropolitan Division. The problem is all three of those teams have games in hand on the Blue Jackets and are on pace for more points this season.

MORE: PHT’s 2020 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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 injured list keeps growing as Wennberg to miss 3-4 weeks

Blue Jackets
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The injuries will not stop for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

They added another name to their already lengthy injured list on Monday when they announced that forward Alexander Wennberg is going to miss the next three-to-four weeks due to an upper-body injury.

He was injured during the Blue Jackets’ 4-3 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday afternoon.

Wennberg is one of just eight Blue Jackets to have played in at least 50 of the team’s first 53 games this season. He has five goals 15 assists on the season.

He is not one of the Blue Jackets’ biggest offensive contributors, but any injury at this point is going to be significant given the list of players they are already without. The Blue Jackets are already dealing with injuries to Josh Anderson, Ryan Murray, Joonas Korpisalo, Alexandre Texier, Dean Kukan, and now Wennberg. That list also does not include Brandon Dubinsky (who has yet to play in a single game this season), or the previous injuries they have dealt with this season.

At various times this season they have also been without defenseman Zach Werenski (nine games), top goal scorer Oliver Bjorkstrand (13 games), and top winger Cam Atkinson (12 games).

When you add all of that to the offseason free agent departures it is amazing that this team is not only in a playoff spot as of Monday, but is also two points ahead of its pace from a year ago. It is a testament to the job coach John Tortorella has done behind the bench, and also the shockingly great play of their goalies (Korpisalo, Elvis Merzlikins, and Matiss Kivlenieks).

The Blue Jackets are on a run that has seen them collect a point in 22 of their past 24 games (17-2-5). They play again on Tuesday against the Florida Panthers in a huge game in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Panthers are dealing with their own significant injury at the moment (read about it here).

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 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.”

Blue Jackets’ Alexander Wennberg forced from game after hit to head (Video)

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The bad hits keep coming on the second night of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

First, Josh Anderson was ejected from the Columbus Blue Jackets game against the Washington Capitals after a boarding major on Michal Kempny. Then, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri was sent for an early shower for a dirty hit on Tommy Wingels of the Boston Bruins.

Now, Capitals forward Tom Wilson drilled Alexander Wennberg with a hit to the head, forcing the later from the game.

With Anderson’s ejection and Wennberg’s injury, the Blue Jackets are down to 10 forwards. Still, they managed to tie the game 3-3 late in the third period off the stick of Seth Jones.

George Parros at the NHL Department of Player Safety is going to have himself a busy day on Friday.

UPDATE:


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