Gustav Nyquist

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.”

Previewing the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: The Sharks lost a lot this offseason, with Joe Pavelski, Joonas Donskoi, Gustav Nyquist, and Justin Braun all moving on to new teams. That is a lot of talent (and goals) leaving, and while Braun wasn’t one of their top defenders he still played 20 minutes per night. That is a lot to replace in one summer and it would be awfully difficult to say right now that the Sharks, on paper, are better than the team that ended the 2018-19 season. They are still really good, but they have a lot to replace.

Strengths: It is the defense. How can it not be the defense? The Sharks have two Norris Trophy winners in Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns leading their blue line, and both look to be contenders for the award for the foreseeable future. Their No. 3 defender, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, is no slouch either. That is as good of a top-three as you will find anywhere in the NHL. The biggest key will be Karlsson staying healthy as he has missed 40 games over the past two years, including 29 a year ago.

Weaknesses: Until they show otherwise this team’s Achilles Heel will be in net. The Martin Jones and Aaron Dell duo was the league’s worst a year ago, and it remains a testament to how great the rest of the team was in front of them that the goaltending performance did not completely ruin their chances. Teams that get the level of goaltending the Sharks received tend to miss the playoffs. The Sharks not only still made the playoffs, they were a contender. With the team around them looking a little thinner in some areas it just puts even more pressure on the goalies to perform.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor | Three Questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): The most vulnerable coaches at the start of each season tend to be the ones that have been with a team for a few years, have high expectations, and have not yet won it all. That pretty much describes Pete DeBoer’s situation in San Jose. He would not seem to be in immediate danger, but if the Sharks get off a slow start or regress this season he might start to feel a little more pressure, if for no other reason than the old “shake things up” coaching change. He is a 6 out of 10 on the hot seat rating.

Three most fascinating players: Jones, Joe Thornton, and Kevin Labanc.

There is no way to sugarcoat Jones’ performance a year ago — it was bad. But for as bad as it was, his overall track record in the NHL is a mostly solid one. He backstopped the Sharks to a Stanley Cup Final appearance a few years ago, he has received Vezina Trophy votes in two different seasons (finishing 6th and 7th) and his overall numbers are at least a league average level. He is definitely capable of better than he showed. Was last year a fluke? Or was it a sign of things to come for him in the Sharks’ net? Not to put too much pressure on one player, but the answer to those questions will play a big role in what the Sharks are capable of this season.

Thornton is back for yet another run at that elusive championship. He may be 40 years old, but he showed a year ago he can still play a big role for a contender with 50 points and dominant possession numbers. The Sharks lost a lot over the summer, but being able to bring back Karlsson and Thornton were big wins for the front office.

Labanc has shown steady improvement every year he has been in the NHL and is coming off an impressive 56-point season that made him one of the team’s top scorers. That is why it was so surprising to see him sign a one-year, bargain contract as a restricted free agent this summer. It was a big bet on himself and if he can continue to develop into a top-line scorer he should be in line for a significant contract this summer. With Pavelsi, Donskoi, and Nyquist out the door he should get a pretty big opportunity to play an increased role in the offense.

Playoffs or lottery: They may not be as strong on paper, but this is still not only a playoff team, it is one of the top Stanley Cup contenders in the league. They lost some talent, but they still have Logan Couture, Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl, Evander Kane, and Labanc up front, they have an elite defense, and while the goaltending is a question mark and a potential problem, Jones’ track record in the NHL suggests he should be better. Still one of the best teams in the Western Conference and the entire league.

MORE:
Sharks open camp with new captain after Pavelski’s departure
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Blue Jackets still have reasons for optimism after free agency exodus

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The 2018-19 season was the most successful one in the history of the Columbus Blue Jackets franchise.

They went all in at the trade deadline to load up for a postseason run, made the playoffs for the third year in a row (first time they have ever done that), and then upset the Presidents’ Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning in a stunning four-game sweep to advance to Round 2 for the first time in team history. While the end result was not what they wanted, it was still the first time fans of the team had ever had something to be truly excited about. Management paid a heavy price to reach that point (trading several draft picks and prospects) and then watched over the summer as a free agency exodus saw the departure of Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Sergei Bobrovsky.

Those exits have left some significant holes on the roster, especially in net where they have no proven replacement for a two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie.

It is possible — if not likely — that the team regresses this season, especially in a Metropolitan Division where every team is loading up on talent.

Even with all of that working against them, there are still reasons for Blue Jackets fans to have some cautious optimism about the short-and long-term outlook of the team.

Among them…

[More: 2018-19 In Review | Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are an elite defense pairing

The Blue Jackets may have lost All-Stars at forward and in net, but they still have two of them on their blue line. The Werenski-Jones duo has been one of the best in the NHL over the past three seasons. During that time they have played more than 3,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey with the Blue Jackets outscoring their opponents by 16 goals and controlling more than 52 percent of the total shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances. Jones turns 25 at the start of the season while Werenski will only be entering his age 22 season, meaning both of them should still be on top of their game for the foreseeable future with still room to improve. The rest of the blue line might need some work, but finding even one defender of this caliber is a difficult task. The Blue Jackets have two of them.

Cam Atkinson is better than you might realize

He may not be a star or total point producer on the level of Panarin, but Atkinson has been one of the league’s best goal-scorers for the past four years and is coming off of a career-high 41-goal effort during the 2018-19 season. While he might be due for a slight regression from that mark, only 11 players have scored more totals goals than him since the start of the 2015-16 season. Only nine have scored more even-strength goals. A lot will be made over what they lost this summer, but they still have some good veterans returning and Atkinson is at the top of that list.

Gustav Nyquist looks like a strong addition

Is he going to completely replace what the Blue Jackets are losing in Panarin? No he is not. But that doesn’t mean he can’t still be a great pickup, especially at that salary cap hit. You know every year he is going to give you 20 goals, 50 points, and help drive possession. He is an excellent all-around player.

They have a ton of salary cap space to play with

Even when taking into account the money they will need to re-sign Werenski this summer, the Blue Jackets have more salary cap space than all but two teams in the NHL, meaning they have the flexibility to make in-season additions to help fill weaknesses, whether they be in net or on the wing.

Pierre-Luc Dubois could be their next star

He is our X-factor for the Blue Jackets this season. Dubois is trending toward becoming an impact player in the middle of the Blue Jackets’ lineup and could be on the verge of a monster season based on what he has done over the first two years of his career. If he continues on that trajectory and takes a big leap in his development it will go a long way toward helping the Blue Jackets replace what they have lost over the summer.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Blue Jackets look to reassemble pieces after free agent losses

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Columbus Blue Jackets watched three of their best players leave for other teams on the opening day of free agency and did relatively little to fill the holes.

When the dust settled after Monday’s comings and goings, many questions remained about whether general manager Jarmo Kekalainen will be able reassemble enough pieces for Columbus to make a run at the playoffs for a fourth straight season.

The success of the team in 2019-20 will depend on a player or combination of players filling the offensive void left by departed forward Artemi Panarin. And it will require last year’s backup goalie Joonas Korpisalo – or someone else – to be nearly as good as two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky.

Panarin, who was considered a long shot to re-sign with Columbus after two seasons, inked a seven-year deal with the New York Rangers worth $81.5 million. Bobrovsky went to the Florida Panthers after seven years in Columbus, and center Matt Duchene, picked up at the February trade deadline, moved on to Nashville.

Forward Ryan Dzingel, defenseman Adam McQuaid and goalie Keith Kinkaid – all acquired at the deadline and now unrestricted free agents – are not likely to stay with Columbus, which also lost its top executive, John Davidson, to the Rangers’ front office.

The Blue Jackets did pick up free-agent forward Gustav Nyquist from the San Jose Sharks. The Swedish winger was dealt by the Detroit Red Wings at the deadline and helped the Sharks advance to the Western Conference finals. He totaled 22 goals and 38 assists last season.

Kekalainen has said he wants only players who are happy to play in Columbus. Nyquist said that includes him.

”I think it’s a team that has some really good pieces, some young pieces and also some great veteran leaders, and a team that’s really heading in the right direction,” Nyquist said. ”You saw that in last year’s playoffs. Those were things that really excited me.”

Nyquist said the departure of some of the stars doesn’t concern him.

”I’m sure the media will talk about that,” he said. ”But I think we want to prove that there is going to be opportunity for other guys who are going to try to come in and fill some of those holes, and I’m sure everyone will be excited to keep building on what they’ve done here for the last few years. I have no doubt in my mind that we’re going to be a really good team.”

Kekalainen had declined to deal Panarin and Bobrovsky at the February trade deadline, even though he knew there was scant chance of re-signing either. Instead, he added Duchene, Dzingel and others for an ”all in” playoff run.

That paid off when Columbus won its first postseason series in franchise history, stunning the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning with a four-game sweep. The Blue Jackets then lost to Boston in six games in the second round.

Kekalainen said he knew some of those players might leave, but ”then we just move forward with what we have and start building other ways.”

That increases the reliance on scoring forwards Cam Atkinson, Pierre Luc-Dubois and Josh Anderson. It also puts pressure on underachieving center Alexander Wennberg to play up to his potential.

Talented defenseman Ryan Murray and Korpisalo, who was Bobrovsky’s backup last season, signed new contracts Monday. Bobrovsky leaves huge skates to fill for Korpisalo, who will compete with flashy rookie Elvis Merzlikins for the starting job in the net.

Blue Jackets sign Nyquist as Kekalainen moves forward

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Jarmo Kekalainen’s quest to replace all that he has lost has begun with the signing of Gustav Nyquist.

Nyquist has inked a four-year, $22 million deal with an annual average value of $5.5 million.

Nyquist is the first move in what will likely be many for Kekalainen as he looks to restock the cupboards after

Kekalainen has his work cut out for him this summer.

With Artemi Panarin heading to the New York Rangers, Sergei Bobrovsky jumping ship to the Florida Panthers and Matt Duchene off to the Predators, the Blue Jackets have lost their top center, top scorer and top goalie.

The list of lost assets is quite lengthy, actually:

Much work has to be done in Columbus.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Not to be lost in this is the fact that the San Jose Sharks have lost a good chunk of their forward contingent, as well.

Joe Pavelski is off to Dallas and Joonas Donskoi is heading to the Colorado Avalanche, moves the Sharks could do little about after giving Erik Karlsson a king’s ransom and signing Timo Meier (to what actually seems to be a very good deal).

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.