John Tortorella

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Mixed Blue Jackets injury news for NHL Playoffs: Jones in, Anderson out

With a Qualifying Round best-of-five looming against the Maple Leafs, the Blue Jackets got mostly positive injury news lately. Seth Jones highlights the good injury news, while Josh Anderson is the most significant letdown.

Jones headlines good injury news for Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets activated Jones and fellow defenseman Dean Kukan off of IR on Thursday.

This capture the bigger picture: that the Blue Jackets should have quite a few key players back if that Qualifying Round series happens against Toronto. Jones joined Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and basically the kitchen sink on the injured list this season.

Jones, 25, scored six goals and 30 points in 56 games before injuries derailed his season.

By certain measures, Jones might not be quite the Norris Trophy-level defenseman many believe. His possession numbers are closer to solid than dominant, although some of that might boil down to playing more than 25 minutes per night.

Wherever Jones ranks in the stratosphere, he’s important to the Blue Jackets. So is Bjorkstrand and Atkinson, as this Evolving Hockey GAR Chart reinforces:

Blue Jackets injury news GAR
via Evolving Hockey

[MORE: Previewing Blue Jackets – Maple Leafs and other East Qualifying Round series]

Players Blue Jackets might not have in the lineup

You may look at that chart above and believe that Anderson isn’t much of a loss. In the framework of the 2019-20 season alone, that’s probably fair.

In the grand scheme of things, it likely is not fair, though. He’s been a useful player for Columbus for some time now. Anderson also boasts the sort of size and physical play that can make him difficult to handle in a playoff format. He was a handful at times for the Lightning during that shocking sweep during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline reports that Anderson is unlikely to be available until at least September (sub required).

That’s a big blow, although it does leave the door open for a return during the postseason — if the Blue Jackets made an even better underdog run than in 2018-19.

A lack of Anderson hurts because, frankly, the Blue Jackets figure to struggle to score — even while healthier. With expanded rosters in mind, look at Portzline’s guesses for the forwards Columbus will have on hand:

Cam Atkinson, Emil Bemstrom, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Nick Foligno, Liam Foudy, Nathan Gerbe, Boone Jenner, Jakob Lilja, Ryan MacInnis, Stefan Matteau, Riley Nash, Gustav Nyquist, Eric Robinson, Devin Shore, Kevin Stenlund, Alexandre Texier, Alexander Wennberg.

When you stack that group up against the firepower Toronto boasts in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, and others, you can see why every Anderson-type helps.

Out of context, the eighth-ranked Maple Leafs probably shouldn’t be big favorites against the Blue Jackets.

Look at the difference in firepower, then consider very different levels of media focus. Put that together, and Columbus is likely to be framed as heavy underdogs.

That’s just the way John Tortorella & Co. like it. With Jones looking good to go, they might just have a shot at making a run.

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.

Lightning coach Cooper on NHL playoff format, possible games without fans

Lightning coach Jon Cooper covered an array of NHL playoff-related topics during an interview with Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live.”

You can watch the full interview in the video above, complete with some fun razzing. (Even with some ribbing, Cooper’s route to the Lightning really is remarkable.)

Cooper explains qualms Killorn/Lightning had with playoff format

Early on in the interview, Cooper discussed why the Lightning joined the Hurricanes as the two dissenters in the 29-2 vote for the return-to-play proposal. Cooper repeatedly insisted that Alex Killorn and the Lightning want to return to hockey. They just disagreed with the format to do so.

To be more specific, Cooper explains that Killorn & Co. are worried that the qualifying round winners will end up more “battle-tested.” Can you really blame the Lightning for fearing being caught flat-footed? Such thoughts must give the Lightning flashbacks of that Blue Jackets sweep.

For more details, check out Killorn’s explanation in this post.

“ … I don’t know how competitive the games will be going forward where the teams at the bottom will be playing playoff games right away and [would be] potentially more prepared for the real playoffs,” Killorn said.

Different times, but maybe exciting ones?

If you want insight on how the Lightning and others may handle the return to play, Cooper provided interesting thoughts:

  • For one thing, Cooper wonders if the experience might be a little like the world championships. Players from different teams likely would be staying in the same hotels, possibly eating in similar areas. If you’re like me, you’re picturing awkward breakfast buffet run-ins between Matthew Tkachuk and Zack Kassian.
  • Another interesting remark is that this feels like a reset for Cooper and the Lightning. Take the rest of an offseason and then factor in how, after most summers, you have to adjust to new players. Instead, the Lightning and other teams have a chance to play at close to full-strength.
  • Finally, Cooper didn’t seem too worried about a lack of fans.

Looking back at typical circumstances, the Lightning would practice without fans. Even without thousands of roaring fans, Cooper explains that Lightning practices could get intense. Now just imagine the intensity against “foes.”

If the Lightning get their chance to make that playoff run, Cooper might just back up Tirico’s quip regarding smoothing out the “parade route” for Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.

Of course, the Bolts have a long way to go to make that happen — even if outside forces don’t shut this whole thing down altogether.

(Note: no, as far as we know, John Tortorella isn’t an outside force.)

More on Lightning, Cooper, and the NHL’s return to play

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?

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With the NHL just announcing how Phase 2 will work — but not even exactly when it will start — the NHL has a long way to go before a 24-team playoff format might actually happen. That “long way to go” part gives us a lot of time to mull over different possibilities, though. So let’s mull, then.

A lot must still be determined, but if everything holds, there will be eight “play-in” series (four per conference, featuring the 5th through 12th seeds). Each series would include a best-of-five format.

So which of those current, play-in series would be the best? Which would brim with drama, even with fans relegated to watch at home? Let’s rank them. You can also see the proposed 24-team NHL playoff format at the bottom of this post.

1. Penguins vs. Canadiens

Look, it’s true that there’s a lot of evidence that the Carey Price players imagine has not been the Carey Price players actually face most nights over the past, say, three years.

But in your heart of hearts, can you truly dismiss how fun it could be to see “Carey Price vs. Sidney Crosby” in headlines? Especially when you can throw Evgeni Malkin in the mix? Then maybe Brendan Gallagher to add some humorous wrinkles on TikTok?

The actual, not just imagined, hockey would really sell it. Even with a more defensive bent at times in 2019-20, the Penguins remain one of the league’s most electric teams. Sometimes that electricity stems from the static energy of making mistakes. For all of the Canadiens’ flaws, they are the sort of smaller, speedy, skilled team that might carry upset potential during these uncertain times. Montreal boasts the possession numbers of a viable team, too.

Maybe Shea Weber can shoot a puck through a net and make us forget about the state of the world for at least a few moments?

Bonus points if this would set the stage for the Penguins facing the Flyers, who currently stand as the East’s fourth seed.

2. Oilers vs. Blackhawks

When in doubt, go with star power. You could do a lot worse than Connor McDavid vs. Patrick Kane. Heck, you could do worse than Leon Draisaitl vs. Jonathan Toews, too.

In a macro sense, there are some parallels between the way the teams are built, too. McDavid and Draisaitl often feel the burden of carrying not-so-balanced Oilers teams. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks are a very top-heavy, deeply flawed team. But their top players are dangerous.

Corey Crawford‘s quietly strong finish to 2019-20 sprinkles in some extra intrigue as well.

If nothing else, this could be messy-but-fun.

3. Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets

Sometimes you stick to star power. Other times, you subsist on the potential for soap opera drama.

On one side, you have the explosive Maple Leafs, whose explosiveness can backfire. The media will seize on any of their stumbles, and this talented team nonetheless gives critics plenty to chew on.

On the other, you have John Tortorella, who basically has a quota for dramatic press conferences. The NHL basically owes us some controversial calls to leave Torts fuming. It’s basically an unwritten right for us hockey fans. Don’t let us down during this play-in series, then, NHL.

The contrast between a defensive-minded team and an explosive offense can let us olds rattle off “irresistible force vs. immovable object” references if we really feel saucy.

Speaking of saucy, it’s possible the Maple Leafs would go on to face the (gulp) Bruins.

4. Flames vs. Jets

If this happened a year earlier, it might take the top spot. Both teams have fallen quite a bit, though, making this a series where you wonder if they can reclaim past magic.

Even with tempered expectations, the Jets and Flames bring a lot to the table. Matthew Tkachuk has all of that pent-up pest energy from the pandemic pause. Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine can fill up highlight reels. Mark Giordano vs. Blake Wheeler would be fun.

From an actual hockey standpoint, this series might deserve a better spot on the list.

5. Hurricanes vs. Rangers

You have to assume that the Hurricanes will come up with some sort of viral sensation, right? They’ll stumble upon something.

Luckily, the Hurricanes can back up that sizzle with the steak of good hockey. Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho also give Carolina more star power than most might realize.

All of that aside, it will be tough to resist this becoming “The Artemi Panarin Show.” He generated justified Hart Trophy hype, and the Rangers were finishing pretty strong this season.

(I’m admittedly artificially boosting this on the hope that we’ll get one last Rangers playoff run from Henrik Lundqvist, by the way.)

6. Canucks vs. Wild

I’m not sure the hockey world has totally clued in to how great Elias Pettersson is. The play-in for the NHL’s 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs seem like a great opportunity to see the light.

7. Predators vs. Coyotes

There’s no way we can sneak P.K. Subban back onto the Predators for entertaining purposes, is there? (*Puts hand to imaginary earpiece*) It appears there is no way.

These two teams can play some high-quality hockey when they’re on. For all of Nashville’s headaches, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis were incredible this season. Maybe Pekka Rinne can get back on track, and create a memorable goalie duel with Darcy Kuemper? (Kuemper deserves more credit for his elite work from the past two seasons.)

Even with no Subban, there are players to watch. How might Taylor Hall perform with a lot to prove, and his next contract hovering? Will Phil Kessel rebound, or at least amuse us?

8. Islanders vs. Panthers

As much as people might want to replay John Tavares‘ series-clinching goal (it ruled), that clip might honestly bother both Panthers and Islanders fans at this point.

*cough* And yet I must …

 

There’s not really much of a rivalry here, yet even as the eighth-ranked NHL play-in series, it’s not that hard to find reasons to get excited.

Can the Islanders contain an explosive Panthers offense starring Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov? Maybe Sergei Bobrovsky can get his mojo back after a wildly disappointing first Florida foray? Joel Quenneville vs. Barry Trotz is kind of fun. And, really, take any excuse you can to witness the splendor of Mathew Barzal.

However you rank the NHL’s potential play-in series, the odds are strong that you’ll get some fun hockey. Will it be strange to watch it without fans? Sure, but the talent and intrigue might just make it all work.

Brushing up on the NHL’s proposed 24-team playoff format, including play-in series

As a reminder, here’s how it might look, and what we’re basing the play-in series upon.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
Bruins
Lightning
Capitals
Flyers

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Penguins
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Canadiens

(6) Hurricanes
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Rangers

(7) Islanders
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Panthers

(8) Maple Leafs
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Blue Jackets

WESTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
Blues
Avalanche
Golden Knights
Stars

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Oilers
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Blackhawks

(6) Predators
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Coyotes

(7) Canucks
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Wild

(8) Flames
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Jets

MORE POWER RANKINGS:

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 extend Elvis Merzlikins, lock down cheap goalie tandem

Blue Jackets extend Elvis Merzlikins
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Don’t you step on all of your best Elvis jokes at once, because the Columbus Blue Jackets are keeping Elvis Merzlikins around for a while.

Blue Jackets secure goalie tandem for two more seasons with Elvis Merzlikins extension

Not long after signing fellow goalie Joonas Korpisalo to a two-year extension, the Blue Jackets signed Merzlikins for two years as well. Interestingly, the Blue Jackets will reportedly pay Merzlikins more than Korpisalo. While Korpisalo’s AAV will be $2.8 million starting next season, The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline reports that Merzlikins’ cap hit will be $4M. Each deal runs through the 2021-22 season.

Portzline shares the yearly breakdown:

Let’s get one of the gut reactions out of the way first: the Blue Jackets will devote less cap space to Merzlikins and Korpisalo ($6.8M) than the Panthers are paying a struggling, aging Sergei Bobrovsky ($10M).

That inevitable comment aside, the Blue Jackets made an interesting bet this past week.

An interesting tandem

Korpisalo (25) and Merzlikins (26) stand at an interesting intersection between being in their primes, yet fairly unproven for their ages. After all, Elvis is in the middle of his rookie season, with just 33 NHL games played.

Honestly, while his stats at other levels are impressive, it all comes in the Swiss League. If they’re being honest, the Blue Jackets must admit that they only know so much about Merzlikins.

That said, Elvis has been a stunning smash hit for the Blue Jackets. While his 13-9-8 record is merely modest, Merzlikins sports a .923 save percentage, and his advanced stats are promising. By Hockey Reference’s version of Goals Saved Against Average, Merzlikins ranked ninth in the NHL with a 12.10 mark this season.

John Tortorella’s system helped the goalies involved, but Merzlikins played an enormous role in helping Columbus stay in playoff contention. That’s no small feat considering the wave of injuries that besieged the Blue Jackets.

At first, it was a little surprising that Merzlikins ($4M) will carry a larger cap hit than Korpisalo ($2.8M). After all, the Blue Jackets worked hard during the expansion draft to make sure they could keep Korpi.

But Korpisalo hasn’t delivered quite as they hoped. The 2019-20 season represents one of his better efforts, yet even then Korpisalo was merely solid with a .911 save percentage. If you had to bet on one of these two goalies putting together elite work, you might swing for the fences with Merzlikins.

Of course, goalies remain a mystery to most of us, so who knows? If nothing else, the Blue Jackets kept a cheap tandem together that’s reasonably young. It sure beats, well (insert Bobrovsky joke that’s almost cruel at this point).

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.

What is the Columbus Blue Jackets’ long-term outlook?

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 long-term outlook for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Pending Free Agents
Josh Anderson (RFA)
Gabriel Carlsson (RFA)
Pierre-Luc Dubois (RFA)
Vladislav Gavrikov
Jakob Lilja (RFA)
Joonas Korpisalo (RFA)
Ryan MacInnis (RFA)
Elvis Merzlikins (RFA)
Devin Shore (RFA)
Kevin Stenlund (RFA)

The Core

The Columbus Blue Jackets do not have the elite goal-scorer or dangerous playmaker that top-tier NHL teams have, but they do possess a few critical components of their foundation to build a long-term successful roster.

Zach Werenski and Seth Jones anchor the Blue Jackets’ blue line and make up one of the top defensive pairings throughout the NHL. Their steady play helped goaltender Joonas Korpisalo become an All-Star this season and Elvis Merzlikins look like a seasoned veteran in his rookie season between the pipes.

Pierre-Luc Dubois continued his development as a top-line center and was in position to match his 61-point total from a season ago. However, Cam Atkinson and Josh Anderson’s production dropped off dramatically. Atkinson only netted 12 goals in 44 games this season, while Anderson scored one time in 26 games. Both players missed time with injuries this season (along with most of the Blue Jackets’ roster) but couldn’t produce offensively the way they have in the past.

Despite Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin leaving the organization last summer, the Blue Jackets remained in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race up until the NHL Pause a few weeks ago.

The experience gained in the spring of 2019 when the Blue Jackets secured a playoff spot and won a series for the first time in franchise history paid dividends for the team this season.

Long-Term Needs

The Blue Jackets averaged 2.57 goals per game in the 70 games they played this season and desperately need to add more playmakers. The lack of production from Atkinson and Anderson hurt dramatically and injuries contributed to them becoming one of the bottom-five teams in goals per game this season.

One area of concern is depth at the center position. Dubois is on track to become a building block every successful team needs in the middle, but the roster lacks playmakers behind the promising young player.

Alexandre Texier showed promise this year before a back injury derailed his season and John Tortorella believes he could fill a gaping hole in the lineup.

“The thing I like about Tex is I think he understands how to play low in that (center) position,” Torts told the team website. “A lot more comes into play as a centerman when you don’t have the puck in your end zone, a lot more reads like a defenseman, and I think he has the intelligence to do that.”

Columbus does not have the sexiest roster in the NHL, but they do have the right pieces of the puzzle to be a playoff team for the next several seasons.

Long-Term Strengths

While Tortorella’s antics during press conferences have been entertaining, he had one of his strongest seasons behind the bench and proved to be one of the NHL’s best bench bosses. The Blue Jackets did not have a 50-point scorer and proved to be greater than the sum of their parts with a strong season following a tumultuous summer.

The Blue Jackets sustained a league-leading 15 overtime/shootout losses (including a mistake which produced an epic postgame press conference) and could have pulled away from a crowded playoff wild-card race if a few of those outcomes went their way.

Jones and Werenski are two world-class defenders and Dubois is growing into a dynamic center but Columbus needs to fill out its roster. The Blue Jackets’ front office must find the right corresponding pieces to skate alongside their foundational players in order to take the next step as a franchise.

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Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.