Matt Duchene

Columbus Blue Jackets: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

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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 surprises and disappointments for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Elvis enters the building as goaltending surprises for Blue Jackets

If any position in sports challenged the saying “You get what you pay for,” it would be NHL goaltending.

The Blue Jackets haven’t just watched Sergei Bobrovsky fall short of his $10M asking price with Florida already. They’ve also seen their $2M tandem of 25-year-olds (Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins) provide some of the best goaltending since John Tortorella took over as Blue Jackets head coach.

If forced to guess, people might postulate that Korpisalo would drive that bus. While his development’s been bumpy since Columbus took measures to keep him during the expansion draft, Korpisalo at least had NHL experience. As much as people loved the idea of putting on blue suede shoes and making bad Elvis jokes, could the Blue Jackets expect Merzlikins to convert nice Swiss league numbers to acceptable backup work?

Nope. Instead, Korpisalo has been solid but unspectacular, when he hasn’t been hurt. Meanwhile, Merzlikins has been a smash hit.

Speaking of surprises and prices, there could be more up ahead. Both Merzlikins and Korpisalo are pending RFAs. What’s even a fair contract for Merzlikins, especially if the NHL doesn’t resume action until 2020-21?

Torts walks the walk

For some time, the feeling was: whether John Tortorella is actually a good coach or not, he at least provides entertaining press conferences. When the Torts rage boils over, snarky folks are the biggest winners.

Tortorella’s backers must feel vindicated, as the Blue Jackets sit in the playoff bubble even after the team lost Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin — along with facing wave after wave of injuries.

Much like Barry Trotz nurturing strong numbers for Islanders goalies, there’s a chicken-and-the-egg situation in Columbus. Merzlikins deserves credit for his strong .925 save percentage this season, but surely Torts helped make life easier for Elvis.

Take a look at Hockey Viz’s coaching impacts and you’ll see that Tortorella seems to be getting more and more effective during his time as Blue Jackets head coach:

Pretty impressive stuff from Tortorella.

Numerous health-related disappointments for Blue Jackets

Chalk up the Blue Jackets’ crushing run of injuries to bad luck … I think.

There is one thought: maybe certain style choices increase the risks of injuries. Tortorella’s teams are notorious for being gritty, and most obviously blocking shots. Could that make his players more susceptible to injuries? Maybe such issues wouldn’t just crop up because of single seasons, but rather multiple years of playing that way?

Overall, I’d still say it’s mostly bad luck.

The Blue Jackets should definitely be careful though, particularly if the NHL opts to squeeze in some portion of the rest of 2019-20 while holding a full 82-game campaign in 2020-21.

Offensive disappointments for Blue Jackets

Look, any reasonable person expected Columbus to have a tougher time scoring goals without Artemi Panarin (and, to a lesser extent, Matt Duchene). Even so, when Pierre-Luc Dubois is your leading scorer at 49 points through 70 games, it’s dishonest not to put offense on the list of disappointments.

This is likely the more reasonable knock on Tortorella’s ultimately-worth-it focus on defense than injury concerns. Certain Blue Jackets would likely put up bigger numbers in a more open system; it just likely wouldn’t be the wisest strategy overall.

There are disappointments within those disappointments for the Blue Jackets:

  • To some extent, it’s a bummer that Sonny Milano never quite found his place. Not surprising, but a bummer, as there’s talent there.
  • Alexander Wennberg didn’t rebound to his most promising form. Instead, he sits at a middling 22 points in 57 games, including just five goals.
  • Josh Anderson suffered through a disastrous 2019-20 season. Along with injuries, Anderson enjoyed almost zero puck luck, scoring a single goal on just a 1.6 shooting percentage (four points in 26 games overall). That hurts after Anderson scored a career-high 27 goals and 47 points in 2018-19, and fell just short of 20 goals in 2016-17 and 2017-18.

My guess is that Anderson can still contribute as a power forward once he gets healthy. Those numbers almost certainly were affected by injury issues to some extent, too. Even so … ouch.

***

Overall, the surprises are more pleasant than the disappointments ended up being painful for the Blue Jackets. It’s truly remarkable that they’re in almost the same spot in 2019-20 as they were in 2018-19.

What should we expect if there’s more for 2019-20, and then in 2020-21, though?

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.

Revisiting 7 of the NHL’s biggest offseason trades

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With the first half of the 2019-20 NHL season complete and the trade deadline just a couple of weeks away we wanted to take a quick look back at seven of the biggest trades that were made during the offseason and how they have worked out.

Let’s dig in to them.

The Nazem KadriTyson Barrie trade

Toronto Maple Leafs received: Tyson Barrie, Alexander Kerfoot, 2020 sixth-round pick
Colorado Avalanche received: Nazem Kadri, Calle Rosen, 2020 third-round pick

How it’s worked: This is one of those trades where everyone is probably getting just what they thought they would get. And exactly what they wanted. Kadri gives the Avalanche a center to drive their second line, has been a huge part of their improved depth, and is scoring on a 30-goal pace (again) over 82 games. Barrie is under a far more intense microscope in Toronto, is the type of player that always be prone to criticism due to his style of play, and had a brutal start to the season. (Who didn’t on that team?) But he has looked like a completely different (and better) player under Sheldon Keefe than he did under Mike Babcock (who hasn’t?). Not sure how the Maple Leafs handle him and Jake Muzzin beyond this season (both free agents) but for right now it’s been a hockey trade where both teams benefitted.

The Phil Kessel trade

Pittsburgh Penguins received: Alex Galchenyuk, Pierre-Oliver Joseph
Arizona Coyotes received: Phil Kessel

How it’s worked: Nobody is winning it right now. This was always a weird trade from the Penguins’ perspective because they didn’t get the better player and they didn’t really save a ton of salary cap space. Kessel has been slightly more productive than Galchenyuk, but he’s definitely not Phil Kessel anymore. There’s no way the Coyotes are happy with four even-strength goals in 55 games. Galchenyuk, meanwhile, has just been a terrible fit with the Penguins. He works hard, he plays hard, he does his best, but it’s just not working. It will be a surprise if he remains with the team into March. The development of Joseph will make or break this trade for the Penguins, while the Coyotes have to hope Kessel has another big postseason in him.

The Jacob Trouba trade

New York Rangers received: Jacob Trouba
Winnipeg Jets received: Neal Pionk, 2019 first-round pick

How it’s worked: Probably not the way anybody expected it to work. Trouba was part of the Rangers’ big offseason and resulted in him getting a HUGE contract. He was also part of a mass exodus off of the Winnipeg blue line that also saw it lose Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot, and — apparently — Dustin Byfuglien.

The twist here is that Pionk has  been the better player this season and one of the few bright spots on an otherwise bad defense. He has been the more productive player across the board offensively, while Trouba has quite literally had one of the worst defensive impacts of any player in the NHL. Granted, he’s playing on a dreadful defensive team, but he has not been good. Given his salary they are going to need a lot more. The Jets used that first-round pick to select Ville Heinola, a promising young defenseman that had an eight-game cup of coffee in the NHL to start the season and looked impressive.

The J.T. Miller trade

Vancouver Canucks received: J.T. Miller
Tampa Bay Lightning received: Marek Mazanec, 2019 third-round pick, conditional 2020 first-round pick

How it’s worked: The Lightning desperately needed to shed salary to get Brayden Point re-signed, and Miller was an obvious choice to go. It seemed like a risky move for the Canucks to give up a future first-round pick given where they were in their rebuild, but Miller has been one of their most impactful players, biggest game-changers and is helping to drive their run toward a Pacific Division title. An increased role and a bigger opportunity to shine is resulting a career year, and there is not much to suggest it is a fluke. As long as the Canucks make the playoffs and that first-round pick is in the bottom half of the round this is a win for the Canucks, and simply the cost of doing business for a cap-strapped Lightning team.

The P.K. Subban trade

New Jersey Devils received: P.K. Subban
Nashville Predators received: Steve Santini, Jeremy Davies, 2019 second-round pick, 2020 second-round pick

How it’s worked: The good news for the Devils is that they didn’t give up anything too valuable here. The bad news is Subban’s days as an elite player may be behind him and they still owe him $18 million over the next two years. It’s not that Subban has been bad, but he hasn’t been a $9 million per year player, either. It’s simply been a tough spot for a defenseman that plays his style to be in. The goaltending behind him has been bad, there isn’t a lot of forward talent around him, and the team as a whole has simply underwhelmed. Nashville, meanwhile, used its new salary cap space to sign Matt Duchene. He’s been fine, even if the team itself hasn’t.

The James NealMilan Lucic trade

Edmonton Oilers received: James Neal
Calgary Flames received: Milan Lucic

How it’s worked: “Our contract we don’t want for your bad contract you don’t want.” During the first month of the season this looked like it was going to be a laugher for the Oilers when Neal could not stop scoring goals, but he has just eight goals since Nov. 1 and has been a complete non-factor outside of the power play. Lucic has just been a non-factor. In the end, both players are exactly what we thought they were at this point in their careers, just in different sweaters.

The Justin Faulk trade

St. Louis Blues received: Justin Faulk, 2020 fifth-round draft pick
Carolina Hurricanes received: Joel Edmundson, Dominik Bokk, 2021 seventh-round draft pick

How it’s worked: After years of speculation and rumors the Hurricanes not only finally traded Faulk, but they sent him to the defending Stanley Cup champions. Faulk is the bigger name and the better player, but objectively speaking there has not been a huge difference in the performance of the two players this season, while the Hurricanes didn’t have to give Faulk the huge contract the Blues did. Bokk is an intriguing prospect (2018 first-round pick) for them, and they still have a pretty deep blue– and young — line to build around. Faulk still figures to be a huge part of the Blues going forward.

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.

The Buzzer: Predators building momentum; Eichel nets milestone goal in loss

Matt Duchene #95 of the Nashville Predators
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Three Stars

1) Alex Iafallo, Los Angeles Kings

Iafallo scored the opening goal, the game-tying goal and eventually the game-winning goal as he recorded his first career hat trick in the Kings’ 3-2 overtime win against the Arizona Coyotes. Los Angeles outshot Arizona 16-3 in the third period but couldn’t tie the game until Iafallo connected at 17:06 of the final frame. Kings captain Anze Kopitar added two assists as the Kings snapped a five-game losing streak.

2) Matt Duchene, Nashville Predators

Duchene recorded a goal, an assist and the game-deciding tally in the shootout to help John Hynes and the Predators capture a 6-5 victory against the New Jersey Devils. The 29-year-old broke a six-game goal drought when his shot deflected off a Devils defender in the third period. Duchene also converted a slick forehand-backhand maneuver in the extra session as the Predators overcame a third-period deficit for the second straight game.

3) Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres

Eichel reached the 30-goal milestone for the first time in his NHL career with a short-side snipe in the Sabres’ 3-1 loss against the Montreal Canadiens Thursday. The Sabres captain is quietly putting together an impressive season but is correctly left out of the Hart Trophy conversation due to Buffalo’s position in the standings. Rasmus Dahlin and Eichel are excellent building blocks, but the remainder of the Sabres roster leaves a lot to be desired.

Highlights of the Night

Pavel Zacha mesmerized the crowd at the Prudential Center with this forehand-backhand-forehand deke early in the first period.

The six-game absence didn’t affect Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher as he recorded the go-ahead goal with a clever backhanded shot.

Roman Josi won’t receive credit for the assist but he showed off his terrific vision with this beautiful cross-ice pass. Filip Forsberg would eventually net his first goal of the game following the play.

Injuries

  • Kyle Okposo exited Thursday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens after sustaining an upper-body injury early in the first period. Sabres coach Ralph Krueger told the media following the loss that Okposo did not suffer a concussion.
  • Oliver Ekman-Larsson suffered a lower-body injury midway through the second period after a knee-on-knee collision with the Kings’ Dustin Brown. Arizona’s captain finished his shift but then went to the dressing room and didn’t return.

Stats of the Night

Scores

Montreal Canadiens 3, Buffalo Sabres 1

Nashville Predators 6, New Jersey Devils 5 (SO)

Los Angeles Kings 3, Arizona Coyotes 2 (OT)


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.

Matt Duchene, Filip Forsberg rally Predators past Devils

Matt Duchene scored in regulation and the shootout-deciding goal in the Nashville Predators’ 6-5 win against the New Jersey Devils.

Filip Forsberg scored twice and lit the lamp in the opening round of the skills competition as the Predators erased a third-period deficit for the second straight game. Mattias Ekholm and Nick Bonino also scored. Pekka Rinne added 27 saves.

Despite two goals from Pavel Zacha and two points from Nikita Gusev, the Devils picked up their fourth loss in the previous five games.

Predators ready for playoff push?

If Nashville has its eyes on the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, now is the right time to climb up the standings. After an impressive win against the Eastern Conference-leading Washington Capitals Wednesday, the Predators collected another important road victory and are currently two points out of the wild card with two games in hand on both the Vegas Golden Knights and Arizona Coyotes.

Even though the Devils are near the bottom of the NHL standings, the Predators should be proud of their effort which resulted in two points in the second leg of a back-to-back on the road.

“We are showing a lot of character right now,” Duchene said on the NBCSN telecast following the win. “We didn’t have any passengers tonight, everyone was going.”

If the Predators can string a couple of victories together, they can erase a disappointing first half in a hurry. Nashville will take on Vegas at Bridgestone Arena Saturday before embarking on a critical four-game road trip through Western Canada.

Can Zacha turn the corner?

Zacha became the first Devil since Mike Cammalleri to score a shorthanded goal and power-play tally in the same game per Devils’ statistician Craig Seiden. The 22-year-old forward showed off his silky hands when he converted a nifty deke to even the score at 1-1 early in the first period. He would later benefit from a deflection when he knotted the score again in the middle frame.

The Devils invested a lot of draft capital in Zacha when they selected him with the sixth overall pick of the 2015 draft. The Czech forward has been largely inconsistent throughout his brief NHL career and has failed to live up to his draft status thus far.

There is not a magic formula for player development in the NHL. Each individual improves his ability and adjusts to the demands of the sport at a different rate. Will Zacha’s performance Thursday be a building block toward his path to stardom? The Devils have a few of the right pieces with Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes and others, but Zacha’s maturation could be an X-factor in the Devils’ quest to turn things around.


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.

Predators facing difficult road in playoff push

Take a quick glance at the Nashville Predators’ spot in the Western Conference standings and it would be easy to conclude that they are in a lot of trouble when it comes to making the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

After losing to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday, they remain six points out of a playoff spot with four teams still ahead of them in the Wild Card race. Recent history suggests their chances of overcoming that deficit this late in the season would be very, very low (like under 20 percent low) because of how difficult it is to gain ground in the standings. Keep in mind that at this same point in the season last year the St. Louis Blues were only two points out of a playoff spot before going on their second half run to a championship. It’s just not something that’s easy to do.

The one thing the Predators have going for them is the fact they have more games remaining than any other team in the Western Conference, with multiple games in hand on every team they are chasing. That helps.

That is a point that forward Matt Duchene emphasized on Monday before their game against Toronto, while also talking about how he thinks the team as currently constructed can make up that gap without needing any outside help.

Via NHL.com:

“We love our group in here. I think everyone is happy with the talent we have, and it’s time to start playing the way we’re capable of. I don’t think we’re really missing anything in this room. We’re not looking at [the trade deadline] right now. We’re looking at the task at hand, and this is our group.”

“You look at us right now. You know it looks bad on paper, but with the games in hand we have, we have a great opportunity to put a little streak together here,” Duchene said.

He’s not wrong. The games in hand are a great opportunity for them, but it’s a little more complicated than just having some extra games remaining.

First, even if the Predators win all of those extra games they would still fall short of a playoff spot given their current pace. They would still need to make a couple of points somewhere else the rest of the way.

Here are the teams in the wild card race at the moment, as well as their current point paces.

They have two head-to-head games remaining against Arizona and Vegas. Winning those in regulation would be very important for the Predators’ chances.

Complicating matters even more is that the extra games in hand comes with a built-in drawback. They are playing more games in a shorter period of time, which means a condensed schedule, more back-to-backs, and less rest the rest of the way. As the folks at Predators blog On The Forecheck noted this week, the Predators have a league-high eight sets of back-to-backs remaining this season. In four of those back-to-backs, they will be playing a road game against a team that is rested, also tied for the most in the league. Those are not easy games to win.

Adding to all of that is the fact the Predators’ remaining opponents currently have a points percentage of .572, tied for the third-toughest remaining schedule in the league. They also play the majority of their games on the road.

It’s asking a lot to get through that and make up the necessary ground in the playoff race.

This remains a somewhat baffling team.

Their 5-on-5 performance has been mostly outstanding, and exactly what you would expect from a contending team with the roster that looks this good on paper. They control the pace of the game and have one of the league’s best 5-on-5 goal differentials. They take care of business when the game is even-strength.

It’s when the game turns into a special teams and goaltending matchup that they are unable to matchup with anyone.

The latter point — goaltending — has to be the big concern down the stretch. Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros both have sub-.900 save percentages on the team (both mostly hurt by their performance on the penalty kill) and given the tight schedule the rest of the way they are both going to have to play, and play a lot. Better performances from both — especially on the penalty kill — would solve a lot of the Predators’ perceived problems.

Trouble is, even if that happens the team has given itself such a big deficit to overcome, with an unforgiving schedule the rest of the way, that it is still going to take quite a run over the next few weeks to get back in this.

The door is still open, but it is closing fast.

MORE:
NHL Power Rankings: Looking at top Stanley Cup Contenders
The 6 coaches and general managers that can impact NHL playoff race
The 10 players that can impact NHL playoff race

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.