Matt Duchene

Departing stars could slow progress for Blue Jackets

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — If the Blue Jackets’ two best players leave town as expected, it will ripple through just about every move the team makes this summer.

Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and winger Artemi Panarin are unrestricted free agents and almost certainly are out the door. Retooling the roster to compensate for the loss of the two Russians, and possibly other free agents, will mean a busy and interesting offseason for general manager Jarmo Kekalainen.

”We want guys that are proud to be Blue Jackets, guys that want to live in Columbus, want to raise their families in Columbus,” Kekalainen said Wednesday. ”If that’s the reason why you want to play somewhere else, then go play somewhere else.”

Kekalainen knew the elite pair probably would go – their refusal to sign contract extensions caused some strife in the locker room during the season – but held on hoping to make a deep postseason run. ”Bob” and ”Bread” ended up being a huge part of the Blue Jackets’ march to the playoffs and first-round sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the NHL’s best team during the regular season.

Columbus played in a second-round series for the first time in the 19 years the franchise has been in existence but fell to Boston 4-2 in an Eastern Conference semifinal.

”We took a step in the right direction,” coach John Tortorella said. ”I hope we can see how difficult it is to keep on going. There are so many good things going on in our room now and – in talking to Jarmo and the management group – so many good pieces coming here. It’s an exciting time for us.”

But there will be retooling.

Forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, both picked up from Ottawa at the February trade deadline for the playoff run, also will be unrestricted free agents. Both were so-so down the stretch, but Duchene caught fire in the playoffs with 10 points in 10 games. Defenseman Adam McQuaid, also a trade-deadline pickup, didn’t contribute much because of an injury and may or may not be re-signed.

”That’s part of the business, unfortunately,” said winger Cam Atkinson, who led the team with a career-high 41 goals. ”That’s the crappy part about it. But we’re so close as a team and an organization. We took a lot of huge strides forward this year. Ultimately, those guys get the make their own decision, but we know what we have in this room. We have a winning team and a winning culture.”

The Blue Jackets have some goalies in the wings but none of Bobrovsky’s caliber. Backup Joonas Korpisalo will get a good look but may not be an everyday goalie. Columbus likely will try to re-sign 29-year-old Keith Kinkaid, who was acquired from New Jersey at the trade deadline but didn’t get into a single game with his new team.

The team also likes 24-year-old Elvis Merzlikins, a flashy Latvian goaltender who was a 2014 third-round draft pick. He’s had success in the Swiss National League and is expected to start next season on the Blue Jackets roster.

Columbus hopes forward Alexandre Texier and defensemen Vladislav Gavrikov – rookies who joined after their foreign league commitments finished – can develop into reliable NHL players. Both showed flashes in limited action in the playoffs. Highly touted prospects Emil Bemstrom and Liam Foudy also could be ready to contribute.

Columbus will have to find a way to replace Panarin’s team-leading 87 points, but will have Atkinson (41 goals, 28 assists) and Pierre Luc-Dubois (27, 34) as well as top blue-liners Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.

”We’re trying to put a stamp on what this place is, what this organization is, how we run our business here,” Tortorella said. ”Our community put a stamp on it (in the playoffs), not just for us but for the hockey world.”

Follow Mitch Stacy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mitchstacy

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Youthful Girard-Makar pairing playing like experienced vets for Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche didn’t make a big splash at the 2019 NHL trade deadline (unless you wanted to count Derick Brassard as a big splash) but they did get some significant help for their postseason run during Round 1 when Cale Makar, the 2018 No. 4 overall pick and 2019 Hobey Bakey Award Winner, decided to turn pro and sign his entry-level deal.

It has not taken him long to start looking like the real deal and become a significant part of the Avs’ rapidly improving young core.

Entering Game 7 of their Round 2 series against the San Jose Sharks Wednesday night (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream), Makar has already recorded six points in his first nine NHL games and has been even more impressive with the eye test given his confidence, skating, and willingness to make plays with the puck. He just looks exciting, and so far he has the results to back it up. He has been sheltered a little with his overall ice-time and with a lot of offensive zone starts, but he is still only 20 years old and getting what is literally his first taste of NHL action on the biggest possible stage.

It is a huge jump and a big test, and so far he is passing it.

What stands out about the Avs’ usage of Makar against the Sharks is that even though they are sheltering him in terms of where they start him on faceoffs, they are not sheltering him with a veteran partner.

Instead, they have been using him over the past four games almost exclusively with their other young standout defender, fellow 20-year-old Samuel Girard.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It is not only the youngest defense pair any team has used this postseason, Makar and Girard are just two of the six defensemen who have appeared in a playoff game this season who are age 20 or younger. And they are not only playing together, they have been great together. In more than 56 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together against the Sharks the Avalanche have scored four goals with the Makar-Girard duo on the ice and are dominating territorially, controlling more than 56 percent of the shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger chances.

Some of that, again, is due to the deployment as they are being put into situations where they are expected to create offense, and it is very clear how head coach Jared Bednar wants to utilize his three defense pairings. The Tyson BarrieNikita Zadorov and Erik JohnsonIan Cole duos are getting almost all of the defensive zone starts and being leaned on in any defensive situations, which is very understandable given the inexperience of the third pairing.

The Makar-Girard duo, on the other hand, is almost always being put into offensive situations. But there is still something to be said for taking advantage of those situations, especially when it is two of the youngest players in the playoffs playing alongside one other.

What has to be exciting about this for the Avalanche is that no matter what happens in Game 7, or in the rest of the playoffs should they advance, these two will be together for the foreseeable future as a key part of this core’s development and the foundation of their blue line.

The Avalanche are an extremely young team in terms of who is carrying the workload this season and are positioned to become one of the dominant teams in the Western Conference given their current star power at the top of the lineup, the salary cap space they have at their disposal, and the fact they have two first-round draft picks in 2019, including another No. 4 overall pick thanks to the Matt Duchene trade, which was the deal where they acquired Girard.

MORE: Avs in position to build on current success

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’ future cloudy after Kekalainen’s gamble falls short

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If you’re looking for a feel-good story about how the Columbus Blue Jackets ignited hockey fandom in a town for the past month, you won’t find it here on this Tuesday in early May.

Fuzzy feelings are fleeting when a team that went all-in, risking future assets and big returns on key pending unrestricted free agents, crashes out of the playoffs in Round 2.

The talk or progress would be a sentiment I could be more bullish on if they weren’t fixing to lose two or three of their stars come the summer.

Yes, the Blue Jackets beat the Tampa Bay Lightning. Swept them, no less, in emphatic fashion.

Sure, Columbus battled the Boston Bruins hard, taking them to Game 6 before being unable to solve Tuukka Rask

They showed tremendous tenacity during those two rounds and a sense of having bought into a suffocating style of hockey that stymied one of the best regular-season teams of all-time.

Coming back from a 3-0 deficit in Game 1 against the Lightning will be memorable. As, too, will be the play of Sergei Bobrovsky, who gave the Blue Jackets a chance every night, as did the scoring touches of both Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, who proved to be crucial pieces that stepped up when the lights shined brightest.

The crowds, the chants, the atmosphere, the cannon — all special while it lasted.

John Tortorella said his team made huge steps forward. True. The exact makeup of the team as of Monday’s Game 6 made huge steps forward over the past month, and there’d be a lot of build on here if it weren’t for this dark cloud that’s also been hovering over the team.

There’d be a reason to be optimistic if every player mentioned above were locked into varying lengths of long-term deals with the organization. The sad reality is they aren’t. And it seems almost certain at this point that they will lose both Panarin and Bobrovsky to free agency, and Duchene could walk to under the same circumstances if he so chooses.

Losing them is, at the very least, a step back, right?

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen gambled big here, so much so that he can probably skip his flight to Vancouver for this year’s draft because he won’t play a big part having only a third-round pick and Calgary’s seventh-round choice at the moment. (Not to mention no second- or third-round pick in 2020.)

The only thing that lasts forever in hockey is Stanley Cup banners and the engraving on hockey’s holy grail that goes with it.

Hockey’s a sport where if you’re not first, your last. You can raise feel-good banners, but they become the butt-end of jokes rather than revered pieces of fabric.

When the dust settles in or around July 1, the Blue Jackets could be without their top scorer, their No. 1 goaltender and the man they sold a good acre or two of the farm to get at the NHL trade deadline.

Per CapFriendly, Columbus’ projected cap space heading into next year is in the $27 million range. Can that coerce a No. 1 to sign in free agency if Bobrovsky leaves? Maybe, but the No. 1 goalie pool this year is slim at best.

Can it replace a 27-year-old superstar in Panarin? What about a 28-year-old point-per-game player in Duchene?

Kekalainen’s wand is going to need a full charge to pull off that kind of sorcery. That’s not to say it can’t happen, but it’s a tall order in the highest degree.

Sure, the remaining players can draw on the experiences they had. Is there much to extract from that, however, if three big names are out?

“Next year who knows what’s going to happen?” said Cam Atkinson after Game 6. “Who’s going to be in this locker room?”

There’s a core in Columbus that will remain, however: Atkinson, Seth Jones, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Josh Anderson, and Nick Foligno, who’s a consummate captain.

But you don’t just magically regrow a couple of severed limbs. That takes detailed surgery and an unknown timeframe get back to full strength.

Gambles, however well calculated they may be, are still gambles at the end of the day.

Kekalainen pushed all in and got caught by a better hand.

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

NHL can sympathize with Kentucky Derby replay controversy

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As the 2019 Kentucky Derby showed, even horses aren’t shielded from the effects that video replay can have on a sporting event.

We know all about the current issues with video replay in the NHL, and the offside challenge has been one of the most interesting ones.

One instance where video review would have come in handy was the egregious non-offside decision that allowed Matt Duchene to score during a game in Feb. 2013.

Even in real time you could see how far into the Nashville Predators’ zone that Duchene was, clearly ahead of the puck before scoring. You can even see the Nashville players slow down believing the call was about to come — and credit to Duchene for not stopping despite the lack of a whistle.

The Avalanche would win the game 6-5.

“I was shocked,” Duchene said afterward. “Even after I shot it, I thought maybe I missed something. Like I said, I didn’t see the play. It might have been a good call by the linesman, but from what I heard, it wasn’t. We’re not complaining, that’s for sure.”

Predators head coach Barry Trotz was clearly incensed and said the NHL told him that it was indeed a missed call.

“The explanation from the crew here was that we passed it back,” he said. “We didn’t pass it back. That’s why they didn’t blow the whistle. The league’s already talked to us about it. There’s no fix. It’s just one of those things. Everybody has a bad day.”

Two years later, the NHL’s Board of Governors instituted video replay expansion with the Coach’s Challenge, allowing coaches to challenge for potential offside on plays that led to goals. If they were unsuccessful, they would lose a timeout. In 2017, after NHL coaches began using them often as an opportunity to give their players rest, the league instituted a two-minute penalty for each attempt that failed to overturn a disputed offside challenge.

After missed high-sticks, the major and game misconduct on Cody Eakin that helped decided Game 7 of the Sharks-Golden Knights series, pucks hitting the netting and leading to goals, and continued goalie interference issues, the calls for expanded for video replay are getting louder.

Should teams be allowed to challenge everything? Should more eyes be involved in the review process? There will never be a perfect solution.

Kentucky Derby winner Country House will go for the second jewel of the Triple Crown on Sat. May 18 on NBC and the NBC Sports app in the Preakness Stakes, which will not feature Maximum Security.

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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.

Avs in position to build on current success

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No matter how far the Colorado Avalanche go in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, they have all the makings of a long-term powerhouse in the Western Conference.

Assuming, of course, they don’t screw it up.

After dominating the No. 1 seed Calgary Flames and easily dismissing them in five games, the Avalanche head into Tuesday’s Game 3 against the San Jose Sharks tied in their Round 2 series, in a position to grab the upper hand thanks to a fast, skilled roster and an aggressive style of play.

Put it all together and they have been one of the most impressive teams in the playoffs so far.

It is even more impressive when you consider how much they are leaning on youth to get them to where they are.

When you look at the top-10 skaters in ice-time for the Avalanche this postseason, they have an average age of just 24 years old.  That is nearly two years younger than the top-10 players on any other team still going in the playoffs (the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders’ top-10 average is 25.8 years of age; the other seven playoff teams together average 27.2 among their top-10 most used skaters).

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Of the eight teams still playing in the playoffs, none of them are relying on youth as much as the Avalanche are.

That core includes 23 year-old Nathan MacKinnon, who might be the most valuable asset in the NHL when everything is taken into account, 22-year-old Mikko Rantanen, and a pair of 20-year-old defenders in Samuel Girard and Cale Makar.

As good as all of them are right now, it is possible, if not likely, that they still have not hit their peak level of performance in the NHL. Better days should be ahead for almost all of them.

Now, you might be looking at an Avalanche team that barely snuck in the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in a watered down Western Conference and think that it is insane to look them as a long-term powerhouse. Especially with teams like Calgary, San Jose, Vegas, Winnipeg, and Nashville still lurking and not looking like they will be going away anytime soon.

It is not an unfair point to make.

But keep in mind something about this Avalanche team.

MacKinnon and Landeskog both missed at least eight games during the regular season due to injury. J.T. Compher, one of their promising young players, only played in 66 and they still have a player like Tyson Jost that has a ton of untapped potential. Girard was in his first full-year of NHL action and Makar did not play a second of regular season ice-time. The latter two players have the look of a potentially dominant defense duo if they develop as the Avalanche hope they will. They have already seen some time together in these playoffs and have yet to show their age and inexperience. If anything, they have shined and been a big part of the team’s success.

They also have the most important and most difficult pieces to acquire when it comes to building a consistent contender — top-tier, high-end, franchise players at the top of the lineup (MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Landeskog).

But it is not just what the Avalanche have on their roster right now that makes their future so bright.

It is the potential for what they can potentially add around what they have on their roster right now that makes their future so bright.

First, the Avalanche have two first-round draft picks in 2019. Their own pick, as well as the No. 4 overall pick in the draft they acquired as part of the Matt Duchene trade (which also landed them Girard).

That No. 4 pick should, if all goes according to plan, result in another high-end talent entering the organization.

Perhaps even more important than that, they also have a ton of salary cap space at their disposal this summer.

Assuming an $83 million ceiling (as it seems that it will be, or at least in that general area) the Avalanche couild have around $36 million in salary cap space this summer with only 10 roster spots to fill.

Now, a healthy portion of that space will have to go to Rantanen who will be due a new contract as a restricted free agent. But even if he ends up getting upwards of $9-10 million, that is still going to leave the Avalanche with at least $25 million in cap space. That should — should! — make them a player for just about any unrestricted free agent that is available in the NHL this summer. That is the advantage they have given themselves by getting MacKinnon and Landeskog on contracts that are, for lack of a better word, steals.

That cap space, combined with their draft assets (two first-round picks, their own second-round pick, and two third-round picks, one of which will be the first pick in the third round, again the result of the Duchene trade with Ottawa) could make them a player for any veteran that enters the trade market.

With the money they have to burn under the cap, they could realistically go after any player they wanted as long as they wanted to spend it.

The Avalanche still have a ton to play for this season and have put themselves in a position where they could really do something special if they can take care of business at home these next two games. So no one on the ice or in their front office is probably looking too far ahead. The eyes are still on the prize in front of them.

That doesn’t mean we can’t look ahead. No matter where this season ends up going, the Avalanche have put themselves in a position where they could become the team in the Western Conference as long as they make the right moves starting this summer. Obviously a lot of this depends on the development of players like Makar, Girard, Compher, Jost, and the yet-to-be-chosen No. 4 overall pick, but everything is there for them to build a championship level team. Now they just have to do it.

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.