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

3 Comments

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.

Bobrovsky wants to move on from incident, but questions linger

4 Comments

Considering how tight-lipped NHL players can be even about the most mundane subjects, Sergei Bobrovsky deserves credit for being patient with the media in addressing the incident that essentially prompted the Columbus Blue Jackets to unofficially suspend him for Thursday’s eventual win against the Predators.

Of course, this is the NHL and Jim Lites isn’t involved, so Bobrovsky’s comments aren’t the most candid, prompting us to read way, way too much into things.

As it turns out, there are definitely some interesting questions and non/semi-answers that linger in the air, even as Bobrovsky wants to “move on.”

(Warning: do not take a shot for every time that phrase is uttered. This isn’t “Mad Men,” you can’t drink like that at lunch time.)

To review and to overthink things:

  • Most directly, Bobrovsky explained that he let his emotions get to him regarding Tuesday’s 4-0 loss to the Lightning.

Bob seemed to say that he “cleaned”/cleared the air, and began the festival of move-ons.

(By the way, Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen joined that party, as he told The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun: “Matter resolved, we are moving on.”)

Bobrovsky then said it would stay in the room, which follows the pattern of the Blue Jackets handling the situation in the vaguest way possible.

  • One big eyebrow-raiser came when Bobrovsky asked (around the 1:15 mark) if he wanted to stay in Columbus for the rest of the year.

“Well, I am here.” Bobrovsky said. “And I will play here. I will do my best as I’ve done for this team, this organization, for these fans, for this city. I’ve been working hard, and I will continue to do that.”

Interesting semi-answer, right?

This does little to curb speculation that Bobrovsky wants out of Columbus, and might not be happy. Elliotte Friedman speculated as much during an appearance on Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup on Friday, reporting that Bobrovsky has been “unhappy all year.”

  • When asked if he thought the suspension was right, Bob merely said “It doesn’t matter” and essentially what happened, happened. (And, yes, that he wants to move on.)

It’s a professional response, yet he’s not exactly absolving the organization of criticism there. Interesting.

  • One of the funnier moments came when Bobrovsky looked perplexed around the 2:22 mark. He was asked if anything came back to a different loss to Tampa Bay, which was an 8-2 defeat way back on Oct. 18. Fun comic relief, if you’re a Blue Jackets fan wiping sweat from your brow right now.
  • It remains unclear if there’s a rift with coach John Tortorella.

When asked if his relationship is the same with Tortorella as it had been in past seasons, Bob said “Torts is Torts. He’s an honest guy … and will do what he believes his best for the team.”

That’s nice, but what about what he’s doing for the starting goalie?

***

This incident is prominent not just because of the air of mystery surrounding why Bob was suspended, and not even because Torts can be one of the most entertaining coaches in the NHL when it comes to comical meltdowns and golden one-liners.

It’s fascinating because of just how unusual this situation is.

Bobrovsky is a two-time Vezina winner, yet Bob and the Blue Jackets haven’t won a single playoff series. Bobrovsky and star winger Artemi Panarin are on expiring contracts, so the team is in an extremely tough spot, especially if free vodka for life, free dental work, and an extension aren’t enough to keep Panarin around.

Losing Bobrovsky for nothing isn’t ideal, especially if the Pittsburgh Penguins or Washington Capitals once again frustrate the Blue Jackets in the playoffs. Then again, what happens if Columbus trades away Bob? While he hasn’t been his world-stopping self in 2018-19, Joonas Korpisalo hasn’t exactly looked like the goalie of the future they were hoping for.

The Blue Jackets are dealing with an extreme set of challenging circumstances here, and while Bobrovsky technically says more or less the right things, it’s tough to argue that he’s actually happy right now.

Such happiness absolutely matters because Bobrovsky could shoot down potential trades with his no-movement clause. Yeah.

Whether the Blue Jackets like it or not, this matter is far from resolved.

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.

Concussion issues force Rick Nash to retire from NHL

4 Comments

Rick Nash’s hockey career is unfortunately coming to an end and not on his own terms. After 15 years and 1,060 NHL games, the longtime forward announced his retirement in a statement through his agent on Friday morning,

From Joe Resnick of Top Shelf Sports Management Inc, via Darren Dreger:

Due to unresolved issues/symptons from the concussion sustained last March, Rick Nash will be forced to retire from the game of hockey. Under the advice of his medical team, the risk of further brain injury is far too great if Rick returns to play. Rick would like to thank everyone who has supported him during this difficult time period.

When Nash’s contract expired after last season, he announced in late June that he would not be signing during free agency and would take his time deciding if he would play again. The concussion he suffered after a trade to the Boston Bruins was still giving him issues, and while a number of teams checked in on him once the 2018-19 season got under way, there were no signs of a comeback.

Nash, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NHL Draft, finishes his career with 437 goals and 805 points. He was a six-time All-Star, won a Rocket Richard Trophy, two Olympic gold medals, gold at the World Championships, hit the 20-goal mark in all but two of his 15 seasons and reached 40 three times.

He also scored one of the more memorable goals of this era back in 2008:

Nash’s departure from Columbus still leaves mixed feelings, he wasn’t greeted too warmly when he returned as a New York Ranger during the 2015 All-Star Game, but he’s one of the Blue Jackets’ greatest players ever and still holds a number of franchise records like goals, points and power play goals.

There’s no question that No. 61 should someday hang from the Nationwide Arena rafters, and despite the feelings about Nash’s departure, we’ve seen that time can heal wounds with hockey fans.

————

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 to sit Sergei Bobrovsky after unspecified ‘incident’

12 Comments

As the Columbus Blue Jackets look to turn things around after dropping two of their last three games, they will be without goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky Thursday night when they host the Nashville Predators.

The team announced just before their morning skate that Bobrovsky was basically being suspended for something that the club wouldn’t go into detail about.

From Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen:

“There are certain expectations and values that we have established for our players that define our culture. An incident occurred in which Sergei failed to meet those expectations and values, so we made the decision that he would not be with the team for tonight’s game. This is an internal matter and we will have no further comment at this time.”

Head coach John Tortorella didn’t elaborate Thursday morning, simply saying “The release will speak for itself,” and did not indicate if Bobrovsky would be back in net Saturday night against Washington. He is expected to be on the ice for Friday’s practice if a morning meeting with Kekalainen goes well, reports Aaron Portzline of The Athletic.

This was already going to be a dicey year for Bobrovsky and the Blue Jackets since the goaltender can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and he hasn’t given any indication he’s willing to re-sign. And with the team in the mix of the Metropolitan Division playoff picture, it wasn’t as easy as trading him away over letting him walk for free.

But will whatever this situation is precipitate a move? Bobrovsky has a full no-movement clause, per Cap Friendly, so he can control his destination if a trade is in the offing before the Feb. 25 deadline. But unless Kekalainen is getting a goaltender that he feels can help his team on the same level, this situation will likely have to be sorted out as the Blue Jackets eye a deep playoff run.

————

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.

The education of Blue Jackets’ Pierre-Luc Dubois

Getty Images
1 Comment

As only John Tortorella can do, in the span of 20 seconds before a late November game he went from saying Pierre-Luc Dubois’ game against the Toronto Maple Leafs “sucked” to then describing him as arguably the team’s most complete player this season.

That kind of criticism comes with the territory for a young player who plays under an old-school coach like Tortorella. It’s a young players’ NHL and the mistakes will be there, but for the 20-year-old Dubois, he’s turned himself into a reliable top-line center for the Columbus Blue Jackets after being thrust into the role unexpectedly.

When Tortorella and his coaching staff decided to move Dubois, then only 20 games into his rookie season, up to the No. 1  center position a year ago, it was because the team needed help in that spot. They were worried at first handing such an inexperienced player that kind of responsibility, but he found his footing and established himself in that job.

“Quite honestly, he made the coaches look like fools overthinking that because he took the responsibility, thrived in it and keeps growing as a player,” Tortorella said.

It helps putting Dubois between veteran producers in Artemi Panarin and Cam Atkinson. The line has played 586:24 even strength minutes together since last season, helping drive possession (54.17 percent Corsi) and creating 39 goals together, per Natural Stat Trick.

“They’re two real good players. As a line we play well together,” Dubois told Pro Hockey Talk recently. “We all have a different style of play that complements the other ones really well.”

Size and strength helps accelerate the development process in order to become a top-flight NHL centerman. After getting that first experience as a No. 1 center last season, Dubois knew he had to get stronger in order to help win face-offs, drive to the net and win those one-on-one battles, so that became his focus over the summer. Just peeking at his Instagram page and you’ll see the short videos of his off-season workouts, adding weight and getting up to 207 lbs. on his 6-foot-4 frame.

In this era of the NHL where small and speedy is succeeding, bigger players have to adjust in order to survive. It took Dubois nearly a quarter of last year to figure out how to use his size to his advantage after making the transition from junior hockey.

“I got my first goal in my first game and then I scored [again] in my 16th game, so it took me a long time to figure out what I could and couldn’t do,” he said. “Even today, I’m still figuring [things] out. I’m stronger than last year, so I’m still figuring some stuff out like puck protection.”

Those abilities were on display during the build-up to his goal Saturday night against the New York Islanders:

Representing Canada at the IIHF World Championship in Denmark last spring afforded Dubois the opportunity to further his education. Coming off a 20-goal, 48-point season, he discussed face-offs with Ryan O’Reilly, who’s won the tenth-most draws (6,621) since entering the NHL in 2009-10 at a 55.3 percent success rate. He was also able to get some tips for playing in the offensive zone from Connor McDavid, who knows a thing or two about succeeding in that area of the ice. 

The entire experience allowed him to watch the habits of plenty of veterans like O’Reilly, McDavid, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Kyle Turris, and Josh Bailey. The faceoff talk is slowly paying off as Dubois’ success in the dot is up to 44.6 percent from 43.8 percent last season. Through 27 games he already has 13 goals and recorded 25 points in nearly two extra minutes of ice time per night. There’s still work to be done, but the strides that have been taken have impressed everyone around the Blue Jackets.

“His ability to pick up things and not feel the added pressures as a young player and get nervous about it, he’s uncanny that way,” said Tortorella. “He accepts it. He wants more. It’s a really good thing for us right now with Luc, and I can see it getting better as we keep on pushing forward.”

Dubois admits that it took him a month into last season to really get going. He wanted a better start for the 2018-19 season but it took him a handful of games to “get the right mindset going.” He says his game preparation has improved and his practices have gotten better.

“It’s not that I wasn’t working hard, I just wasn’t working the proper way,” he said. “Now the guys and the staff here has helped me a lot to refocus.”

As the Blue Jackets approach a summer where they could lose two franchise players in Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, Dubois, the youngest player on the roster, has demonstrated that he’s part of the future, a piece to build around. He’s shown growth through 109 NHL games and proven he’s willing to adapt and make changes when necessary.

“Right now, I think I’ve been playing better than last year,” Dubois said. “I took another step even since the start of the season. But I still have a long ways to go. Whether it’s being consistent, with the puck, without the puck, being a centerman is not just about scoring. That’s fun, that’s what everybody talks about, but to help your team win you’ve got to do a lot more than that. You’ve got to sacrifice some offense for the team.

“To do that on a consistent basis, that’s the next step. Play well in the D zone, help the Ds out, support everybody on the ice, get the right reads. It’s a long process, but that’s what’s going to make me a better player.”

————

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.