Matt Duchene

Blue Jackets Trade
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How aggressive should Blue Jackets be at trade deadline?

We need to talk a little more about the Columbus Blue Jackets because they are one of the most fascinating teams in the NHL right now.

Not only for their recent hot streak, but for what might still be ahead of them over the next couple of months.

Thanks to their win in New York on Sunday night, capped off with an Oliver Bjorkstrand goal with 26 seconds to play in regulation, they hold the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference and are one of the hottest teams in the NHL. They are 15-2-4 since Dec. 9, while their overall record through 50 games is actually one point better than it was at the same point a year ago. Considering their offseason and the almost unbelievable run of injuries they have experienced once the season began, they are one of the biggest surprises in the league.

It all creates a pretty interesting discussion for what their front office does — or is able to do — before the NHL trade deadline.

1. They are in a position to buy, not sell

That is not up for much debate, either. This is the same team and front office that went all in before last season’s trade deadline at a time when they were still on the outside of the playoff picture. Not only are they in a playoff position right now, they are just one point back of the New York Islanders for the third spot in the Metropolitan Division.

There is also this: Their upcoming schedule through the trade deadline and end of February really softens up with only five of their next 16 games coming against teams that currently rank higher than 19th in the league in points percentage. Three of those games (two against Philadelphia, one against Florida) will be against teams they could be directly competing with for a playoff spot.

There is a chance to gain even more ground and solidify their spot even more.

2. What they need and what they have to spend

What they have to spend: A lot. The only teams with more salary cap space to spend ahead of the deadline are the New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators, and Colorado Avalanche. Out of that group, only the Avalanche will be in a position to buy. The Blue Jackets, in theory, could add any player that is theoretically available before the trade deadline.

What they need: At the start of the season the easy — and expected — answer here would have been a goalie given the uncertainty of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins and their ability to replace Bobrovsky. After some early struggles, they have turned out to be the Blue Jackets’ biggest bright spot as that tandem has combined for the second-best five-on-five save percentage in the NHL and the third-best all situations save percentage. They have been great, and especially Merzlikins with his recent play.

What they really need now is some scoring. Getting healthy would help a lot (Cam Atkinson just returned to the lineup; Josh Anderson, Alexandre Texier are still sidelined) but they do not have a single player in the top-77 of the league in scoring (Pierre-Luc Dubois is 78th), and only two in the top-120 (Dubuois and Gustav Nyquist).

As a team, they are 24th in the league in goals per game.

Looking around the league, obvious forward rentals would include Tyler Toffoli (Los Angeles Kings), Chris Kreider (New York Rangers), Ilya Kovalchuk (Montreal Canadiens), and Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Ottawa Senators). Potential trade options with term still remaining might include Jason Zucker (Minnesota Wild) or Tomas Tatar (Montreal).

3. The problem: How aggressive can they be?

The downside to their “all in” trade deadline a year ago is that it absolutely decimated their draft pick cupboard for two years. They were left with just three picks in the 2019 class (none before pick No. 108) and as it stands right now they have just five picks in 2020, with only one of them (a first-round pick) slated to be in the top-100.

While players like Texier and Emil Benstrom are good prospects, their farm system is not the deep and the younger players currently on the NHL roster (Dubuois, Seth Jones, Werenski) are players they are going to build around.

That seriously limits what they can do.

Is general manager Jarmo Kekalainen in a position to trade another first-round pick to add to what is a pretty good, but probably not great team? Is there a player available that can a big enough difference to make that worth it? If there is, that player can not be a rental. It has to be a player that has meaningful term left on their contract and can be a part of the organization beyond just this season.

Even if you assume the Blue Jackets will not be able to maintain their current hot streak (and they will cool off at some point) they have at the very least put themselves in a position where they are going to be in the playoff race with a very good chance of making it. This is also not a team in a “rebuild” mode, either. When you are in that position you owe it to your fans and the players in that room to try to win. For the Blue Jackets, it is just a matter of how much they can do and how aggressive they should be over the next few weeks.

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.

Hurricanes’ Hamilton suffers nasty looking leg injury in loss to Blue Jackets

(UPDATE: The Hurricanes announced on Friday that Hamilton suffered a broken leg.)

The Carolina Hurricanes dropped a tough 3-2 decision to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night. That result was not their biggest concern from the game.

The concern is the status of defenseman Dougie Hamilton after he exited the game late in the second with what appears to be a nasty leg injury following a collision along the boards.

You can see the play in the video above.

He was unable to put any weight on his leg as he was helped off the ice.

Coach Rod Brind’Amour didn’t have much of an update after the game, simply saying that it “doesn’t look good.”

If Hamilton is seriously injured and has to miss any significant time that would be a massive hole for the Hurricanes to have to try to fill. He has been arguably the best defenseman in the NHL this season and is one of the Hurricanes’ top players in every aspect of the game. He helps drive the offense, he runs the power play, he helps shut down teams defensively, he drives possession, and he is their leader in ice-time. That is not a player you just replace, whether it be internally or from outside the organization.

Huge win for Blue Jackets

As for the game itself, this was a huge game in the Eastern Conference Wild Card race as the two teams entered the game separated by just two points. Columbus’ win, combined with Philadelphia’s loss to Montreal, means that that the Blue Jackets, Hurricanes, and Flyers are in a three-way tie for the two Wild Card spots with 56 points each.

The Florida Panthers, just one point back following their 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings, are just one point back of that group with games in hand on all three teams.

The Blue Jackets were able to get the win thanks to a late third period goal from captain Nick Foligno.

Columbus’ recent success is one of the most surprising stories of the 2019-20 season. After losing four key players –including their two best players over the summer in free agency (Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel) they have been one of the most injured teams in the league this season. Even with all of that they are still on a 13-2-4 run over their past 19 games.

Cam Atkinson, their leading goal-scorer from a year ago, had been one of the key players sidelined in recent weeks. He returned to the lineup on Tuesday and recorded two points (one goal, one assist) in the win.

Elvis Merzlikins continued his great play in place of the injured Joonas Korpisalo by stopping 32 out of 34 shots for the Blue Jackets.

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Can Hynes, Predators warm up against hot Blackhawks?

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Blackhawks and Predators both find themselves out of the playoffs, but their stories have been very different lately.

While injuries pile up, Chicago is hot by recent standards. The Blackhawks are keeping their shaky playoff hopes alive with wins in six of their last nine games, scoring enough to offset problems. Their overall record sits at 19-19-6 (44 points in 44 games).

Meanwhile, the Predators keep grasping for answers.

Predators, Hynes running out of time

Nashville fans looking for an instant success were out of luck in Hynes’ Predators debut. The Bruins dispatched the Predators by an unsettling score of 6-2.

The larger recent picture looks dim. Nashville only won once in its last five games, and that was a win against the lowly Los Angeles Kings. The Predators head into Thursday with a mediocre 19-16-7 record (45 points in 42 games).

While games in hand matter, the Predators also realize that they need to stop squandering them.

“We’ve been [saying] the same stuff over and over again,” Rinne said shortly after the Predators fired Peter Laviolette and hired Hynes. “[There’s] a lot of time, a lot of time, a lot of time. But time is running out. You’ve got to change the way you do things. The bottom line is enough talking, we’ve got to start playing.”

[Our Line Starts: Is Hynes for Predators?]

Early impressions

Of course, in Rinne’s case, it would help to … you know, get some stops.

Hynes endured terrible goaltending with the Devils. Rinne and Juuse Saros disappointed wildly so far in 2019-20, and the first game under Hynes didn’t provide meaningful changes on the scoreboard.

Then again, the Bruins rank as one of the league’s toughest opponents, and that first game was a rushed process. Even with that in mind, Hynes made some early impressions on the Predators. While Craig Smith pointed to some excessive complexity during Laviolette’s latter days, Matt Duchene and others describe Hynes’ message as “crystal clear.”

“It was simple and easy to grasp,” Austin Watson said of Hynes’s practice, via the team website. “I’m sure we’ll make adjustments as we go forward or add some different tweaks, but for today, I thought it was great. You back it up with some video and then go on the ice and just try to get better today.”

[Discussing some changes Hynes can make in replacing Laviolette]

Rinne mentioned that the Predators are running out of time. They’re also running out of excuses. While the Blackhawks are finding ways to win, Nashville cannot lose games like these. Thursday figures to be a significant test for the Predators and their new coach.

Brendan Burke and Pierre McGuire will call the action from United Center in Chicago. Paul Burmeister will anchor Thursday night’s studio coverage with Keith Jones and Mike Johnson.

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 on NBCSN: Time for Predators to make their move

Predators
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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Nashville Predators and Anaheim Ducks. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This season has not gone as planned for the Nashville Predators.

They enter Sunday’s game against the Anaheim Ducks (10 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in 10th place in the Western Conference, four points out of a playoff spot, and in the middle an ugly stretch that has seen them lose three out of their previous four games.

It is all very unfamiliar territory for the Predators. After being one of the league’s best teams over the previous five years but always falling just short of climbing to the top of the NHL mountain, they tried to shake things up this season. They dealt from their depth on defense by jettisoning P.K. Subban‘s contract to create salary cap space to add another impact player at forward. Matt Duchene ended up being that player.

On paper, the roster looks like a contender. They still have a deep defense even without Subban thanks to the presence of Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis. And while they may not have a superstar forward, but they are very deep and have seen their offense dramatically improve from where it was a year ago. They are sixth in the league in goals per game, and even though the power play is still not very good, it is not as historically inept as it was a year ago.

The two big issues that have held them back are a lack of a consistency, a struggling penalty kill, and a shocking decline in their goaltending.

The latter issue is no doubt a big driving factor in the first two.

Entering play on Sunday the duo of Pekka Rinne and Jusse Saraos has the second-worst all-situations save percentage in the NHL, ahead of only the Detroit Red Wings’ duo of Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier. In no situation are they worse than on the PK where they have stopped just 79 percent of the shots they have faced, a mark that is by far the worst in the NHL and well below the league average.

Goaltending is always going to be the one position that makes-or-breaks team’s season, and it’s not a stretch to suggest that if Rinne and Saros had spent the first half playing up to their normal levels that the Predators would be in a dramatically different in the standings. That’s also something that should give Predators fans optimism that this season isn’t yet lost. Even though they find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture at the halfway point and a few points back, they still have games in hand and have a lot of key ingredients in place to win. This is a team that is probably significantly better than its record indicates. If their goaltending can ever get itself back in track in the second half this is a team that may not go away quietly given the improved offense.

Now would be a pretty good time for that to start happening.

A four-point deficit in the playoff race may not seem like a huge gap to make up, but only about 20 percent of the teams facing such a deficit at this point in the season actually end up overcoming it. Points are hard to make up in the standings, and games in hand don’t necessarily equate to “wins” in hand. So it’s time for the Predators to try and build on Saturday’s big win in Los Angeles and try to stack some wins together to begin making up that ground, and the schedule certainly creates quite an opportunity for that.

Starting with Sunday’s game in Anaheim, seven of the Predators’ next 10 games for the rest of January are against teams that currently reside in the bottom half of the league standings.

If they are going to get back in the playoff picture and gives themselves a chance to make some noise, that process has to start now.

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.

Stars rally to win 2020 Winter Classic, leave Predators in peril

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The Dallas Stars refused to let a terrible 1-7-1 start ruin their season, and didn’t allow a big early mistake to derail them against the Nashville Predators. After falling behind 2-0 thanks largely to Corey Perry’s ejection, the Stars rallied to beat the Predators 4-2 to win the 2020 Winter Classic.

Plenty of bad blood between Stars and Predators

Perry played a big part in the Dallas Stars falling into a 2-0 hole to begin the game. Mere minutes into the contest, Perry picked Ryan Ellis‘ head with an elbow, getting thrown from the contest.

The Stars made the situation worse by adding a delay of game penalty, and the Predators eventually took advantage with those two goals. That start left most of the crowd of 85,630 — the second largest audience for any NHL game behind only the 2014 Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium — muttering, if not booing. The Stars made sure that the non-Predators contingent ended up going home happy.

Happy is not the right way to describe the mood on the ice, though.

Perry elbowing Ellis was far from the only violent moment during this outdoor game. Few were safe during the first NHL game of 2020. Notice that even aggressors were wounded, as Radek Faksa showed when he was shaken up following a questionable hit on Mattias Ekholm:

Stars win third in a row

The Stars fired Jim Montgomery not that long ago, throwing Rick Bowness right into the deep end. Bowness inspired early critics, and probably will absorb more gripes as the season goes along. But maybe this Stars team will be able to rally around their unexpected veteran coach more often than not?

Dallas improved to 23-14-4, winning their third game in a row. The Stars put themselves in a decent position to possibly get the Central Division’s third or even second seed with this run.

Instead of caving after Perry put the Stars in a bad position, they rallied. Starting with a Blake Comeau goal with a little bit more than a minute remaining in the second, Dallas rattled off four unanswered goals. After that Comeau goal, the Stars scored their three third-period goals in a 6:14 burst. One cannot help but wonder if the Stars should be more aggressive, more often.

This marks the Stars’ league-leading seventh win after trailing following a second period.

Predators in peril

When the Predators were nursing a 2-0 lead, it seemed like the headlines would be about this being a costly win. Then the Stars erased even that silver lining.

Ryan Ellis left Wednesday’s game and did not return. For a team that needs to make every game count, losing a key defenseman ranks as a brutal blow, especially if Ellis misses extended time.

The Predators saw their losing streak fatten to three games, and now stare down the barrel of a stretch where five of their next six games are on the road. For a team that’s wobbling, could that stretch push them off of a cliff?

Both teams, especially the Predators, really wanted these two points. The Stars, too, face a tough stretch soon (five of six on the road, beginning on Jan. 8). While the Predators have wilted under pressure — including this afternoon — the Stars keep showing they can roll with all sorts of punches.

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.