John Tortorella

Blue Jackets haven’t fallen apart without Panarin, Bobrovsky

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After Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky and Matt Duchene all walked in free agency, outside expectations for the Columbus Blue Jackets weren’t very high. Why would they be? Panarin was their most talented player and Bobrovsky was a two-time Vezina Trophy winner. But through 10 games, they’ve found a way to keep their head above water.

The Jackets head into this weekend with a 5-3-2 record, which is good enough to put them in a Wild Card spot right now. Yes, we’re 10 games into the season, but that little factoid is important when comparing their work to the rest of the Eastern Conference.

Without Panarin, the offense has produced exactly the way you’d imagine. They don’t have anybody that’s scored more than six points in 10 games, but they have received plenty of contributions from different players. As of right now, nine players on the roster have scored at least two goals and 14 players have found the back of the net at least once.

Pierre-Luc Dubois leads in the team in goals, with 4, and he’s tied for the scoring lead with six points. That puts the 21-year-old on pace to score a solid 33 goals and 49 points this season. The only way to have success when your leading scorer is on pace for under 50 points is for everyone behind him to contribute too. So far so good in that respect.

The fight this team has shown has been nothing short of impressive. For example, in last night’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus found themselves down 3-1 after the first period. Thanks to goals by Ryan Murray and Sonny Milano, they managed to even the score before Cam Atkinson won it in OT.

“It was another opportunity presented to us as far as not blowing up starting that second period,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said after the game, per NHL.com. “We need to stay patient, not try to score. We just need to stay above the puck. It’s such a fast team over there.

“So we kept our patience, played above the puck and probably played, out of all the minutes we’ve put in this year, probably the fastest we’ve played as far as our transition.”

The other pleasant surprise is Joonas Korpisalo, who has done a good job between the pipes for the Jackets this year. The 25-year-old has won four of his last five games. If he can continue to keep them in games, they’ll be one of the teams fighting for a playoff spot near the end of the season.
It’s important to note that this is a small sample size, but 10 games isn’t insignificant either. Most of the hockey world may have been guilty of overlooking players like Dubois, Atkinson, Seth Jones and Zach Werenski coming into this season, so it’s up to them to continue to prove people wrong.
Even though the Blue Jackest are a middle-of-the-pack team when it comes to goals scored (16) and goals against (32), they’re finding the way to get the job done with a committee of contributors. That’s definitely not a the sexy approach, but if it’s effective enough to get them back into the playoffs, that’s what they’ll continue to do.
“I don’t know what we are yet,” Tortorella said via The Athletic. “It’s 10 games. You can’t say ‘You are this’ after 10 games, but we certainly have shown some resilience here.”

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.

New-look Blue Jackets figuring out what they have

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Given all of the talent that walked away from the Columbus Blue Jackets this summer it was pretty obvious they were going to have a very different look this season.

Not only on paper, but also in the way they play on the ice.

They lost a franchise goalie with two Vezina Trophies to his name (Sergei Bobrovsky) and replaced him with two relative unknowns (Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins). They lost their biggest superstar (Artemi Panarin) and a couple of trade deadline acquisitions (Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel) that were supposed to help make them contenders.

That is a lot of talent to replace, especially in net. Because of that, and because of the uncertainty around their two goalies, they were going to have to adjust the way they played and take a more patient, conservative approach. The old “safe is death” mindset John Tortorella’s teams used to employ was never going to work with this roster. They not only do not have the skill to trade chances with other contenders, but they also don’t yet know if they have the goalies to help cover up for chances coming back the other way.

Safe is probably the only way for this team to play.

Through the first two games of the season (a 4-1 loss to Toronto and then an ugly 7-2 loss in Pittsburgh) they are still trying to figure out how they have to play and what they have to do to win.

Patience was the big word used after Saturday’s loss in Pittsburgh.

“We had a lot of good minutes in there,” captain Nick Foligno said after Saturday’s game. “I know it’s weird to say that, but we did some good things. It’s just the patience, it’s the understanding of how we need to play and being okay with a 1-0 game or a 0-0 game for 59 minutes if it has to be that, and sticking with that. We are almost over-anxious and our patience is getting away from us right now and it is costing us. We are doing so many good things throughout the game that are being negated by poor decisions because we don’t want to do the necessary thing in that moment. Sometimes it’s not the prettiest thing, but it’s the necessary thing.”

“I think it gives us an opportunity to teach a little bit here,” said coach John Tortorella, echoing Foligno’s thoughts that were still some positives mixed in with the early struggles.

“I thought our first 25-35 minutes or so were pretty good. I thought we were fast, I thought we were right there. They end up scoring a few goals and we end up losing our composure as far as how we have to play. So for me it just gives us a great opportunity to start teaching what the patience of our game needs to be.”

In recent years the Blue Jackets had Bobrovsky to mask a lot of flaws on the back end and serve as the last line of defense. A franchise goalie can change a lot for a team and allow the team in front of them to maybe take more chances and play a bit more aggressively. They no longer have that proven safety net behind them. Korpisalo has been a backup his entire career with varying degrees of success, while Merzlikins is getting his first taste of NHL action. Saturday’s game was his NHL debut and went about as poorly as it could have gone.

“I think it’s going to help him in the long run,” said Tortorella. “I thought he looked really calm in the first period, just the way he handled the puck the outside the net, stopped some wraparounds, broke us out. I thought he was right there. But it’s an unforgiving league. It’s a good lesson for him, and we knew there were going to be lessons like this for us. The most important thing now is how we handle it. It’s an opportunity for us right away at the beginning of this year to teach about patience, to teach about how we have to play. Hopefully we go about it the right way.”

They get a chance to start doing that on Monday against a white-hot Buffalo Sabres team.

It has been a frustrating start for sure. They had a tough draw out of the gate getting two of the most dangerous offensive teams in the league as their new goalies get settled, while the team in front of them hasn’t exactly adapted in trying to protect them. But there is still enough talent on the roster to get it figured out.

MORE:
• 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.

PHT’s 2019-20 predictions: NHL Awards, free agent busts, overhyped teams

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The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here (Wed. at 6:30 pm on NBCSN) and what better way to kick off the new hockey than with some predictions. Today we’ll look at the various awards and some topics such as overhyped team, first coach fired, whether Nikita Kucherov or the Tampa Bay Lightning will record a higher point total, and more.

Pre-season predictions are fun to read to get a sense of what people are thinking as we head into a new season. There was plenty of change around the league on the ice, behind the bench, and in the executive offices. Lots of teams have reason for hope, while the expectations of others aren’t very lofty, but they’re just hoping to take some positive steps.

Who will take home the hardware in June and what teams and players will be notable this season? Here’s what the PHT staff is thinking at the moment.

[PHT PREDICTIONS: EAST / WEST / STANLEY CUP]

Be sure to give us your picks in the comments!

HART: Nathan MacKinnon (Sean, James, Joey, Adam)
ART ROSS: Connor McDavid (Sean, Adam), Nathan MacKinnon (James), Nikita Kucherov (Joey)
ROCKET RICHARD: Alex Ovechkin (Sean, James, Adam), John Tavares (Joey)
VEZINA: John Gibson (Sean), Andrei Vasilevskiy (James, Joey), Ben Bishop (Adam)
NORRIS: Seth Jones (Sean), Erik Karlsson (James), Victor Hedman (Joey, Adam)
CALDER: Kaapo Kakko (Sean, James, Adam), Jack Hughes (Joey)
SELKE: Aleksander Barkov (Sean), Mark Stone (James), Ryan O’Reilly (Joey), Brayden Point (Adam)

OVERHYPED TEAM

SEAN: An NHL-worst power play was (hopefully) improved by the Matt Duchene addition, but while the Predators will once again be their solid selves, did David Poile do enough to overcome the trending upward Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche in a very tough Central Division? The bottom six could help out a bit more, and they need to find the old Kyle Turris at some point.

JAMES: The Coyotes are spending like a team with legitimate aspirations, but I just don’t see enough dynamic talent to break through.

JOEY: Boston Bruins. Everyone has them locked into the top three spots in the Atlantic, but they’re coming into the year a little banged up. They’re also coming off a long playoff run.

ADAM: Going to go with Nashville. They are still really good, but I don’t think Matt Duchene solves all that much for them and even though their defense is still really good I think they are going to miss P.K. Subban.

UNDERRATED TEAM

SEAN: Staying in the Central, the Avs are rightly garnering a lot of hype, but let’s not sleep on the Stars. Once they figured out Jim Montgomery’s system in the second half, they surged. Add in Joe Pavelski and a lottery ticket in Corey Perry, along with the up-and-coming Roope Hintz, future Norris winner Miro Heiskanen, and old standards Tyler Seguin, Alex Radulov and Jamie Benn, and you’ve got a real dangerous team this season. If Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin can repeat their success from last season in goal, watch out for the Stars.

JAMES: The Penguins keep shrinking their margin of error with some head-scratching moves. Even so, they still have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and a few other valuable players, so reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.

JOEY: Carolina went to the conference final, but I’m not sure they’re getting the respect they deserve. I think they can finish second in the division.

ADAM: Columbus is going to be better than people think. They still have a lot of really good players coming back, and I think Pierre-Luc Dubois has a massive breakout year this season.

UNDERRATED PLAYER

SEAN: Four seasons with double-digit goals, at least 40 points in each of his five NHL seasons, and consistently in the positive when it comes to possession, Klingberg needs to get more due around the league. With Heiskanen and Esa Lindell on the blue line, the Stars’ top defenseman are among the best in the league.

JAMES: Alex Pietrangelo gets mentioned as an underrated player quite often, yet I think Colton Parayko might be even more overlooked. Parayko is a beast AND an absolute unit, to use fancy scientific jargon.

JOEY: Jonathan Huberdeau put together one of the quietest 90-plus point seasons I can remember. I think he’ll have another big year in Florida.

ADAM: John Klingberg shouldn’t be underrated, but I feel like he is. The development of Miro Heiskanen kind of stole a lot of the spotlight in Dallas last year but Klingberg is still the player that runs that defense, and he is outstanding.

FIRST COACH FIRED

SEAN: Boudreau seems inevitable, right? It’s looking like another long year in the State of Hockey and with a new GM in town, he might want to install his own hire, even with Bruce’s history of success in the league.

JAMES: Bruce Boudreau. Bill Guerin didn’t hire him, and the Wild insist on contending with a so-so roster, setting the stage for Bruce’s face to turn the color of a pink slip.

JOEY: Jeff Blashill. The Red Wings aren’t expected to make the playoffs, but I think they get off to an ugly start.

ADAM: I think it Paul Maurice’s time is going to run out in Winnipeg. That team faded last year and looks like it is setting up for a really tough season given the RFA drama and the state of their defense. He has been there long enough that a slow start could be it for him.

FREE AGENT BUST

SEAN: Stralman’s offense has steadily declined since 2014-15, his first year in Tampa, and now at 33 he’s on the back nine of his career. That makes it all the more odd that Dale Tallon decided to give him a three-year deal in the summer, especially coming back from a lower-body injury that caused him to miss most of last season.

JAMES: Tyler Myers is closer to a third-pairing defenseman than a $6M one.

JOEY: Tyler Myers in Vancouver. When it’s all said and done, that’s going to be a pretty nasty contract. He’s a good depth defenseman, but not someone you commit big dollars to.

ADAM: Have to go with Tyler Myers. Just do not see the plan in Vancouver and the amount of money they spent on him.

MORE:
2019-20 NHL Power Rankings
PHT’s 2019-20 season previews
Which 2019 NHL playoff teams are in danger of missing this season?
• 2019 NHL free agency tracker
NHL on NBC television schedule

Blue Jackets can be much better people think

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The 2019-20 NHL regular season has not even started and already the Columbus Blue Jackets are being almost completely written off.

This is a development they are very well aware of, and one they are not responding kindly to.

Coach John Tortorella is “pissed” about it. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen thinks it’s a slap in the face to the core of the team. Cam Atkinson is ready to prove everybody wrong.

The doubters are not without their reasons, and for much of the offseason I was right there with them. How could you not be?

The Blue Jackets were the last team to get in the Eastern Conference playoff field last spring and were hit harder by free agency than any other team in the league, losing franchise players Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, as well as trade deadline acquisitions Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. That is a ton of talent and production to walk out the door, and with Gustav Nyquist (a very good player!) being the only significant outside addition to the team, it’s easy to have lowered expectations.

But Kekalainen made a fairly strong point in support of his core earlier this month when he said this to The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline:

“I’m a little aggravated by the doubters, to be honest with you,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said, “because it shows disrespect to our core group that’s brought us all the success we’ve had in the last three years.

“(Three) teams have more regular-season wins than we do (142) in the last three years, and we had 108 points the season before (Artemi) Panarin arrived here. I’m a little bit upset about all that, and I’m getting fed up talking about it.”

Obviously a general manager is going to go to bat for their team and believe in the roster at the start of the season. But he’s also not wrong here. Only Tampa, Washington, and Boston have more regular season wins than the Blue Jackets since start of the 2016-17 season, and only two of the players that left this offseason (Panarin and Bobrovsky) played a significant role in compiling that record. Out of those two, one of them (Panarin) was not even there in the year they won the most games and compiled the most points during that stretch.

But let’s focus on replacing those two since they are the most important.

The wrench in all of this is that Bobrovsky was there for all three seasons and was probably the most important part of that success, especially during the 2016-17 season (the pre-Panarin year) when he won his second Vezina Trophy. That is a difficult thing to replace, and the Blue Jackets are going to open the year relying on two completely unproven starters in Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. Obviously their success or failure as NHL goalies will play a massive role in what the Blue Jackets can do this season. But I’m not ready to totally eliminate the possibility of Merzlikins being good.

The thing is, they don’t need to totally replace Bobrovsky for the Blue Jackets to have a chance. They just need to be decent. The Blue Jackets were one of the better defensive teams in the league last season and were among the top-seven in suppressing shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances during 5-on-5 play (via Natural Stat Trick). Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are an elite defense pairing, and when paired together can help lock down a significant chunk of every game.

That will help any goalie. As long as the Blue Jackets can maintain that defensively they won’t need a superhero in net.

And while the departure of Panarin, and to a lesser extent Duchene, leaves a big hole at forward the cupboard is not completely bare. Nyquist won’t replace Panarin’s offense or game-breaking ability, but he is a legitimate top-six forward. Atkinson has been a top-10 goal-scorer for about four years, and they have an exciting prospect in Alexandre Texier ready to make the jump to the NHL.

Then there is third-year center Pierre-Luc Dubois, an already dominant two-way player that seems to be on the verge of a breakout season (read about that here).

It’s not that Blue Jackets won’t miss the players that are leaving — they obviously will — but they still have enough high-end talent (and capable depth) that the season isn’t going to be a lost cause before it even begins. A lot will depend on the goalies, but they have enough around them to support them and keep them competitive.

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.

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