Columbus Blue Jackets

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Blue Jackets look to move past drama of departing stars

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — The offseason drama churned up by the exodus of some of their top stars is now behind the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Now they open training camp with some burning questions.

Can veteran Joonas Korpisalo, rookie Elvis Merzlikins or someone else step into the huge skates vacated by star goalie Sergei Bobrovsky?

How will Columbus replace the scoring of forwards Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene?

Can Blue Jackets stalwarts like Cam Atkinson, Josh Anderson and Pierre-Luc Dubois make the Columbus faithful stop grumbling about the superstars who spurned the city and get the team to the playoffs for a fourth straight year?

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen, for one, is indignant that anyone thinks the Blue Jackets will take a step backward following the offseason exodus of talent. He’s tired of talking about it already.

”We’re very, very confident in our core group,” Kekalainen said. ”And I’m a little aggravated by the doubters, to be honest with you, because it shows disrespect to our core group that brought us all that success we’ve had in the past three years.”

Kekalainen decided to go with a strategy of counting on trusted veterans to step up their offensive production along with moving up NHL-ready prospects to help fill the void left by Panarin – who made it clear a year ago he didn’t want to re-sign with the team and subsequently left for the New York Rangers – and Duchene, a trade-deadline rental who signed with Nashville.

”We’re all going to have to do it by committee,” said Atkinson, who had a career-high 41 goals and 28 assists last season. ”Hopefully, the guys who get the opportunity seize the moment, step in and step up for us because we’re going to need everyone.”

Alexandre Texier and Emil Bemstrom, both 20, are among the prospects expected to contribute. Texier came to the U.S. at the end of last season, had a short stay in the minors and then showed flashes of what he could do down the stretch for the Blue Jackets. Bemstrom starred in the Swedish professional league and comes to camp amid plenty of hype.

”(Panarin) is a very good player, he’s a game-breaker. But I’m not going to sit here and say that’s a hole,” said coach John Tortorella, who acknowledged he has a chip on his shoulder because of the predictions of doom. ”It just gives other people an opportunity to fill that, and I feel very comfortable where we’re going with some of our young kids.”

Kekalainen’s biggest offseason move was adding veteran help with Gustav Nyquist, a top-six forward who had a career-high 22 goals and 38 assists last season with Detroit and San Jose.

Replacing Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, is the toughest order. Columbus will give Korpisalo a chance to be the everyday guy. Korpisalo has played well in stretches as Bobrovsky’s backup for the past four seasons. He’ll compete with the flashy 25-year-old Merzlikins, who has been outstanding in the Swiss league and in international play.

Players who have been here awhile insist the naysaying will go away if they win.

”We feel confident with what we have in this room,” All-Star defenseman Seth Jones said. ”We understand what the narrative is probably going to be this year, and I think now more than ever we have to maintain the tight chemistry in this room and not let outside noise interfere with what we’re trying to accomplish.”

The Blue Jackets, who got to the second round of the playoffs after a stunning sweep of Tampa Bay in the opening round last spring, will skate together for the first time Saturday free of the drama Panarin and Bobrovsky dragged around all last season after both made it known they didn’t want to stay in Columbus any longer than necessary.

”Maybe we don’t have the shiny pieces people like to talk about,” captain Nick Foligno said. ”But there’s going to be a lot of headlines, a lot of great plays going on because of the skill we have.”

Rangers are one of NHL’s biggest mysteries going into camp

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Henrik Lundqvist wants training camp to begin with an honest conversation.

The longtime face of the New York Rangers sees this as an important time to define expectations for this season after watching the team fast-track a rebuild by signing winger Artemi Panarin, trading for defensemen Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox, and drafting Finnish sensation Kaapo Kakko.

”What type of pressure can we put on this team now? Where are we?” Lundqvist said. ”What you want and what the reality is is sometimes very different. I want to win games. I want to play playoff hockey. And I hope within the group and coaching staff, we talk about it before camp starts. ‘OK, this is what we’ve got?’ What’s realistic? You set the goal and then you work toward that.”

The Rangers will be watched closely as NHL training camps begin this week, a curiosity amid the traditional Eastern Conference powers in Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Pittsburgh. Across the river from New York, the New Jersey Devils look similarly primed to turn things around, but New York seems a threat to contend again after missing the playoffs the past two seasons.

”It was exciting to see the big steps we’re taking in the right direction,” Lundqvist said. ”We should be able to take that next step now with the additions and the younger guys need to take another step here in their development. But there’s so many teams I feel like in similar situations where if they do really well, they can get in.”

Signing Panarin to an $81.5 million, seven-year contract is the biggest reason to think the Rangers can get in. Now it’s a question of how the Russian point-a-game producer jells with center Mika Zibanejad and the rest of the forwards within coach David Quinn’s system. Kakko, the second overall pick, dazzled in a prospects tournament and New York’s blue line got a major boost with the trade for Trouba.

”There’s no question that we improved a lot over the summer,” Lundqvist said. ”Changes, big and small, can turn things around pretty quickly.”

MCDAVID’S KNEE

Connor McDavid is five months removed from tearing the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, which might now be the most scrutinized body part in the league. The Edmonton captain has surpassed 100 points each of the past three seasons, seems to skate at a different gear than his peers and is widely considered the best hockey player in the world.

There are plenty of questions about how the injury will affect all that.

”It’s tough to see anyone get hurt, especially a player of his caliber,” said Chicago forward Alex DeBrincat, who played junior hockey with McDavid. ”He said it’s getting better. Hope he’s ready for camp and would love to see him back on the ice.”

The Oilers said they won’t rush McDavid back. That’s a common refrain but easier said than done after missing the playoffs in back-to-back years and knowing what McDavid can do.

”He’s our leader; he’s our engine,” Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. ”But at the same time, he’s a young hockey player who you want to make sure he’s healthy and confident in his body. Whenever he’s ready to go, we’re going to be happy to have him back.”

NEW COACHES

Six teams go into camp with a new coach: Joel Quenneville in Florida, Alain Vigneault in Philadelphia, Ralph Krueger in Buffalo, Todd McLellan in Los Angeles, Dallas Eakins in Anaheim and Dave Tippett in Edmonton. All of them have previous NHL experience, most notably Quenneville winning the Stanley Cup three times with Chicago. Vigneault took the Vancouver Canucks in 2011 and the Rangers in 2014 to the Cup Final. Now he’s in charge of a head-scratching Philadelphia team that has alternated missing and making the playoffs the past eight seasons.

”He’s had success with two different teams,” Flyers center Sean Couturier said of Vigneault. ”I think he’s a coach that knows what it takes to go far in the playoffs and win.”

NOTABLE ABSENCES

A handful of prominent restricted free agents are signing new contracts on the eve of camp, but a handful of situations might drag on into the regular season. Toronto’s Mitch Marner and Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor don’t have deals.

”Obviously Mitch is a big part of our team,” Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews said. ”We want him there and we want him there as soon as possible.”

MORE YOUTH

Kakko isn’t even the biggest rookie to watch in the New York area thanks to Devils No. 1 pick Jack Hughes . New Jersey has depth at center with 2017 top pick Nico Hischer and veteran Travis Zajac that should allow coach John Hynes to protect Hughes from tough matchups as he adjusts to the NHL.

”I think the focus needs to be on his development as a player,” new Devils defenseman P.K. Subban said. ”He’s got a lot of time, and there’s going to be a learning curve. But he’s a tremendous talent, and you’re going to see that when the puck drops.

PHT Morning Skate: Werenski’s blueprint; Female referees gaining experience

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

• Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta still wants to own an NHL team. (Sportsnet)

• The structure of Zach Werenski‘s new deal could be used as a blueprint for future RFA deals. (TSN)

• What does the Werenski contract mean for Bruins RFAs Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy. (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

Alex Galchenyuk is starting to build some chemistry with Evgeni Malkin. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

• It looks like Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger is planning to start the season with Rasmus Ristolainen. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• What will the Blues bottom-six forward group look like come the start of the regular season? (St. Louis Game-Time)

• Barrett Hayden might be the most important addition for the Coyotes this season. (Arizona Republic)

• Female officials are thrilled to get NHL experience. (NHL.com)

• The Nashville Predators will look to dethrone the St. Louis Blues. (Predlines)

• The Lightning could easily find a way to use Patrick Maroon and Kevin Shattenkirk on their lethal power play. (Raw Charge)

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.

Zach Werenski, Blue Jackets work out three-year, $15M extension

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When NHL training camps open later this week, Zach Werenski will not be on the list of likely restricted free agents waiting to sign an extension with their team.

The Columbus Blue Jackets announced on Monday that the 22-year-old defenseman has agreed to a three-year $15 million extension, as first reported by NHL Network’s Kevin Weekes. Werenski played all 92 regular season and Stanley Cup playoff games last season for the team. He scored 11 goals and recorded 44 points during the regular season.

“Zach Werenski is one of the best young defensemen in the National Hockey League and we couldn’t be happier that he will continue to be a foundational player for the Columbus Blue Jackets,” said Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen. “He is a gifted offensive player that has continued to improve in all facets of the game and will be an elite player for many years.”

The three-year pact buys one RFA year for Werenski and two RFA years that gave him arbitration rights, per Cap Friendly. The extension will expire after the 2021-22 season where the blue liner will be eligible for arbitration and one year away from unrestricted free agency. He’ll make $4 million per season in the first two years and then $7 million in the final year, which would give him a large qualifying offer.

Despite things coming down to the final days before camp opened, there was never a doubt on Werenski’s side that he would be back with the Blue Jackets. His agent, Pat Brisson, told the Columbus Dispatch in August that he had been speaking with the team during the summer and was confident the defenseman would not miss any time. The team had similar feelings. “He’s a good player. We like him,” said Kekalainen. “We want to give him a fair contract and continue. We’re not the least bit worried.”

As Adam Gretz noted last month, since the start of the 2007-08 season, there have been only four defenseman who have played at least 100 games, averaged at least 0.50 points per game, and had a shot-attempt differential greater than 52 percent. Werenski is one of them along with Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty and Charlie McAvoy.

Could this be the first of the RFA dominos to fall this week as teams get together officially later this week? Certainly Werenski’s contract could have an affect on what fellow blue liners McAvoy and Ivan Provorov end up doing with their respective teams.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

Tortorella sour about Blue Jackets’ off-season exodus

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Say ‘mass exodus in Columbus’ to John Tortorella and sit back and enjoy the fireworks.

After winning their first playoff series in franchise history, and doing so in such emphatic fashion by sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning after their historic regular season, three of the biggest names who helped get them there took their talents elsewhere this summer.

Sergei Bobrovsky signed a mammoth deal in Florida. Artemi Panarin signed an even bigger deal in New York with the Rangers. And Matt Duchene, who was brought in at the trade deadline, and perhaps one of the three that had the best (but still not great) odds of re-signing, left for the sights and sounds of Nashville.

It all made for a bit of a sour summer for Torts.

“I’m pissed,” Tortorella told The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline in a wide-ranging interview. “Yeah, I’m pissed. I’m pissed for my players. I’m pissed for my organization. And I’m pissed on behalf of my city.”

Tortorella let loose in the interview in a very Tortorellan way. He said he has tremendous respect for the players that left in the mass exodus, but if it was about winning, well…

[MORE: Panarin to Rangers | Bob to Panthers | Duchene to Predators]

“Don’t talk about god—- winning, like you want to go somewhere to win. It’s right there in front of you,” he said. “I respect them all. But I don’t want to hear “I want to win” when it’s right f—— here. I respect them, but I’m really pissed. It was right there, where we were really progressing.”

Columbus’ summer hasn’t included much, with only Gustav Nyquist being the notable addition — a move that Tortorella called a very good one by general manager Jarmo Kekalainen.

It won’t likely replace the loss of the team’s top point producer, a top-line center and a No. 1 goalie, however. The team will be looking for its youth to step up, including 19-year-old Alex Texier, who showed well for the club at the tail-end of last season, including eight playoff games.

The team will also be looking to Joonas Korpisalo to take the No. 1 job between the pipes in camp.

Tortorella said the whole thing has left him not having to worry about instilling a chip-on-the-shoulder mentality on the remaining players.

“I’m saying, ‘Hell with them, we want to be here, let’s get it together and get going.; I wish them nothing but the best, but I’m pissed that they leave Columbus, because I think we’ve got a really good thing going here,” he said.

Meanwhile, regarding restricted free agent Zach Werenski, Torts told Portzline that he’d be “disgusted” if his player was to missing training camp.

“I just don’t want him to miss a beat here,” Tortorella said, raving about how Werenski has grown as a player.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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