Oliver Bjorkstrand

Blue Jackets look to Swedish players for scoring punch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Columbus Blue Jackets are looking to Sweden to help fill the scoring void left by departed star forward Artemi Panarin.

More specifically, the Blue Jackets are relying on a quartet of Swedes – two of them rookies who haven’t played in North America before – for some scoring punch as they open the season Friday night against Toronto at Nationwide Arena.

Twenty-year-old Emil Bemstrom and 26-year-old Jakob Lilja played together on the same Swedish elite league team last year, and both made the Blue Jackets’ opening night roster out of coach John Tortorella’s notoriously rigorous training camp.

Bemstrom, a fourth-round pick of the Blue Jackets in the 2017 draft, was a scoring machine in Sweden. Lilja was signed as a free agent and impressed the Blue Jackets in the prospects tournament in Michigan. Both could end up skating together on the fourth line on either side of veteran Riley Nash.

”It’s a really different game,” Lilja said. ”Smaller ice, so like if you lose the puck in the wrong places it’s creating scoring chances right away. The players are really skilled, so you don’t want to lose the puck to them. Overall, it’s like a high-speed game. Even at the pro level in Sweden it’s really defensive. So just better players and smaller ice, so everything goes a little bit faster.”

The other two members of the Swedish coalition will be expected to bear more of the burden as the Blue Jackets try to return to the playoffs for the fourth straight season.

Center Alexander Wennberg, 25, will try to fulfill the great promise he showed three seasons ago when he put up 59 points for Columbus and seemed poised to break out. Veteran Gustav Nyquist is a solid top-six forward who was signed as a free agent after registering 60 points last season with Detroit and San Jose. The two are slated to skate together on the second line.

Rookie Alexandre Texier is expected to take Panarin’s place on the top line with center Pierre-Luc Dubois and winger Cam Atkinson . Team veterans including captain Nick Foligno, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Boone Jenner and Josh Anderson all will have to step it up to compensate for the loss of Panarin’s team-leading 87 points a season ago.

No worries about the blue line, though.

Zach Werenski and Seth Jones continue to make up one of the best defensive pairings in the NHL, and there is some good depth behind them.

Joonas Korpisalo will be given a chance to be the everyday goalie after the free-agent departure of Vezina Trophy-winning stopper Sergei Bobrovsky, who is now with Florida. Rookie Elvis Merlikins also will see time in the net.

Last season was filled with drama surrounding the pending departures of Panarin and Bobrovsky. Tortorella said none of that is hanging in the air anymore.

”I think as the season begins here and all the questions start coming our way, I think there’s an inner camaraderie about the definition of guys wanting to be here,” he said. ”I think that’s really important, to have a team that’s going to try to be competitive in this league and stay competitive, is people wanting to be here. We have that. I think they’re rallying around that. This will grow as the season goes on.”

Werenski’s contract, goaltending are top questions for Blue Jackets

Getty
1 Comment

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 Columbus Blue Jackets.

1. What will Zach Werenski‘s contract look like, and when will it get signed?

This is currently the most pressing issue for the Blue Jackets.

Werenski is one of the team’s core players, helps form one of the league’s best defense duos alongside Seth Jones, and has had an outstanding start to his NHL career with his best years still in front of him.

Based on his current level of production he should be in line for a huge contract (maybe something in the seven-or eight-year, and $8 million per year range?) and the Blue Jackets certainly have the salary cap space to accommodate it. It is just a matter of when it actually gets signed and how much it’s for.

Like all of the remaining unsigned RFA’s (and there are a lot of significant ones) it is probably going to be a lengthy waiting game while everyone waits for the first shoe to drop around the league.

[More: 2018-19 In Review | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. Who is going to emerge as the starting goalie?

This is the position that is going to make-or-break the Blue Jackets’ season.

Sergei Bobrovsky may have had some issues in the playoffs, but he was also a major reason why the team managed to reach them in four of his six full seasons as the starting goalie.

Bobrovsky was a two-time Vezina Trophy winner in Columbus and one of the best, most productive goalies in the league during his tenure. That is not an easy thing to replace, and right now the Blue Jackets have no proven goalie on the roster.

The in-house candidates are Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins and it remains to be seen whether either one is capable of being a No. 1 starter in the NHL. Korpisalo has a sub-.900 save percentage over the past three seasons as a backup, while Merzlikins is 25 years old and has never played a game in North America. He is an intriguing option, but is a complete unknown at this point. If neither one is capable of stepping up to take control of the job it will be a major problem for the Blue Jackets that will become general manager Jarmo Kekalainen’s top priority to fix.

3. How will they replace the offense they lost this summer?

Pretty much everyone in hockey was anticipating a free agency exodus out of Columbus this summer with Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Bobrovsky all moving on to new teams. That is a lot of offense walking out the door, especially as it relates to Panarin who has been one of the NHL’s most dynamic offensive players and was the one true game-changing forward the team had.

That is obviously a lot to replace, but it doesn’t end there as there are another set of questions that arise with the players that are returning.

Among them: What if Cam Atkinson isn’t a 40-goal scorer again? What if Oliver Bjorkstrand, after scoring 23 goals, regresses? Will Pierre-Luc Dubois take another big step in his development? All of that can add up and only add to what the Blue Jackets need to replace this season.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.

Blue Jackets’ Panarin scores controversial goal after puck hits protective netting

10 Comments

Do you want more discussions about expanded replay in sports, and especially in the NHL? Well, if you do, I have some good news for you because you are probably going to get a lot more of them after Columbus Blue Jackets forward Artemi Panarin scored a controversial goal in the first period of Game 4 against the Boston Bruins on Thursday night.

With the Blue Jackets trailing, 2-0, Panarin scored his fifth goal of the playoffs to cut the deficit in half and bring his team back into the game. The controversy comes due to the fact that before Panarin scored, the puck clearly hit the protective netting above the glass and fell back into play, a development that was missed by all four officials on the ice.

It was not missed by the Bruins, who immediately protested the non-call.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

There were two problems for the Bruins.

First, that sort of play is not one their coaching staff could have challenged as coaches only have the ability to challenge plays for offside and goalie interference.

The other problem is that the Situation Room in Toronto can only get involved and call for a review of plays that hit the protective netting if it “immediately” results in a goal.

What does that mean?

Here is what the NHL rule book says:

“For pucks that hit the spectator netting undetected by the On-Ice Officials, “immediately” shall mean the following:

a) When the puck strikes the spectator netting and deflects directly into the goal off of any player;

b) When the puck strikes the spectator netting and falls to the ice and is then directed into the goal by the player who retrieves the puck.

In both of the above scenarios, the NHL Situation Room must have definitive video evidence of the puck striking the netting in order to disallow the goal.”

Neither of these situations apply to this goal, as the puck did not bounce directly into the net after hitting the spectator netting, and it was not scored by the player who immediately retrieved the puck (that would be Oliver Bjorkstrand). Once Bjorkstrand played the puck and passed it to Panarin in front, the Situation Room could not get involved to review the play.

This sort of thing has happened before, and oddly enough it actually happened between these same two teams in the same building back in 2014.

The Bruins aren’t going to be happy, and it is probably something that will be addressed over the summer as a potential addition to the replay system, but the current rule is pretty clear on what the replay system could and could not do on this particular play once it was missed by the on-ice officials.

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: Spectacular debut to end season; Many records broken

15 Comments

(UPDATE: Here’s the full Round 1 schedule with dates and TV info.)

Round 1 matchups are set

The Predators winning the Central Division was the biggest tournament-altering moment of the last night of the regular season. You can now see all eight series matchups here, with additional information.

Those who didn’t make it …

Get to cross their fingers and hope that their team wins the 2019 NHL Draft Lottery. Get the lowdown in this post.

Kucherov, Lightning hit 128

In a remarkable moment of symmetry, both the Lightning and Nikita Kucherov will end 2018-19 with 128 points. On the way, the Bolts tied the NHL record with 62 wins. This post is basically the factoids on those specific accomplishments, and they’re really something.

Three Stars

1. Ryan Poehling

For Poehling, this wasn’t just the last game of the season, it was also his first NHL game. So what did he do? He celebrated it with a hat trick and a shootout-winner, that’s how. Yes, it is indeed worth a post of its own.

In what was one of the other highlights of the night, legendary announcer Bob Cole ended his broadcasting career while Poehling began his in a memorable way:

2. Robin Lehner

Lehner put a bow on a remarkable regular season, making 29 saves for his sixth shutout of 2018-19. He did so in just 46 games played (43 of those being starts), going 25-13-5 with a tremendous .930 save percentage.

With Thomas Greiss being almost as good in 2018-19, it’s unlikely that Lehner built up the volume of games (and to some voters, most importantly wins) to be a serious Vezina threat. Nights like these should stand as a reminder of just how special his season has been.

Then again, Lehner and Greiss combined to win the William Jennings Trophy for the lowest GAA, so they get fitting recognition as a tandem.

Now, the question is: can he back it up during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs? For all of the Penguins’ flaws, they have a knack for making even the hottest goalies look cold.

3. Oliver Bjorkstrand

If the Blue Jackets hope to upset the mighty Lightning, they’ll probably need more than just a strong series from Artemi Panarin and for Sergei Bobrovsky to finally overcome the ghosts of playoffs past.

Someone like Bjorkstrand pitching in would really help. He’s been absolutely on fire during the last 10 games, firing in an impressive nine goals and two assists for 11 points. Bjorkstrand managed all of his assists in one game: Saturday’s 6-2 thumping of the Senators, where the winger also scored a goal.

Bjorkstrand’s shown signs of being a dangerous player in the past, including at lower levels than the NHL. He could be an X-factor in the first round … if Columbus manages to keep things close, at least.

Highlight of the Night

Scratch that, let’s call this what it is:

One more Gritty video

Gritty vs. goalies? The Flyers are embracing their history, right?

Factoids

Scores
TBL 6 – BOS 3
STL 3 – VAN 2 (SO)
MTL 6 – TOR 5 (SO)
CBJ 6 – OTT 2
BUF 7 – DET 1
NJD 4 – FLA 3 (OT)
CAR 4 – PHI 3
NYR 4 – PIT 3 (OT)
NYI 3 – WSH 0
NSH 5 – CHI 2
DAL 3 – MIN 0
EDM 3 – CGY 1
WPG 4 – ARI 2
LAK 5 – VGK 2
SJS 5 – COL 2

For the third consecutive postseason, NBC Sports’ coverage of Stanley Cup Playoff first-round games on NBCUniversal cable networks (NBCSN, USA Network and CNBC), as well as NHL Network, will air side-by-side and will be available for streaming on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app in local markets alongside regional sports network game telecasts. (Local blackouts apply in Las Vegas and Pittsburgh in the first round).

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 prospect Bjorkstrand to join Denmark at Worlds

Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand is set to join Team Denmark in at the World Hockey Championship in the Czech Republic.

According to reports, Bjorkstrand could play in Denmark’s game against the Russians on Wednesday.

Bjorkstrand had 63 goals and 118 points in 59 Western Hockey League games with the Portland Winterhawks.

The 20-year-old added 13 goals and 12 assists in 17 playoff games. The Kelowna Rockets eliminated the Winterhawks on Sunday.

He represented Denmark at the World Junior Hockey Championship earlier this year registering four goals and an assist in five games.

Bjorkstrand was the Jackets third-round selection (89th overall) in 2013.