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How aggressive should Blue Jackets be at trade deadline?

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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.

Five great NHL performances sneaking under the radar this season

On Friday we looked at five players having slow starts this season and are no doubt looking for a fresh start with the new year.

Now we want to look at some players on the other end of the spectrum.

Players that have enjoyed great starts and are not really getting much attention for it.

1. Teuvo Teravainen, Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes acquisition of Teravainen is one of the great steals of the decade.

All it cost was a couple of draft picks and the ability to take Bryan Bickell’s contract off Chicago’s hands.

In the years since, Teravainen has become one of the most important core players on one of the league’s best up-and-coming teams. Sebastian Aho is the superstar and Andrei Svechnikov makes the highlights, but Teravainen is the one helping drive the bus to success.

He scores at a top-line rate, is one of the best possession drivers among all NHL forwards, and is one of the most overlooked, impactful players in the league. How good is he at dictating the pace of play? When he is on the ice at 5-on-5, the Hurricanes give up just 46 total shot attempts per 60 minutes and controlling more than 60 percent of the total attempts. Both are best in the league.

You know who could really use a 25-year-old top-line forward signed to a cap-friendly deal for the next five years? The Blackhawks.

2. J.T. Miller, Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks raised a lot of eyebrows over the summer when they traded a future first-round pick to Tampa Bay for Miller. He is a fine player, but did not seem to be enough to move the needle much in their rebuild. And given where there the team has finished in the standings the past few years there is always the possibility that draft pick could be very high.

But so far Miller has been a perfect fit for the Canucks and is putting together a career year.

Entering play on Friday he is on track to shatter all of his career highs offensively with underlying numbers that place him among the league’s elite forwards. His shot-attempt and expected goal differentials are both in the top-10 league wide.

He spends a significant chunk of his ice-time playing on a line with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, and that certainly helps his cause, but there’s a lot to be said for being able to establish a chemistry with top-line players and take advantage of your minutes. Miller is doing exactly that.

3. Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights

At his peak Pacioretty was one of the most dangerous goal scoring forwards and one of the biggest salary cap steals in the league, and I don’t know that Montreal ever fully appreciated what they had with him. When they traded him to Vegas before the 2018-19 season they did so at a time where his career seemed to be heading toward its downward decline. But he is showing this season that he still has some elite hockey left, even after turning 31 in November.

He is in the middle of one of the most productive seasons of his career and is currently on pace for his first 30-goal season in three years. He is also producing at a near point-per-game clip, has the highest shot rate of his career, and is leading the Golden Knights — a top contender in the Western Conference — in every meaningful offensive category.

4. Ivan Provorov, Philadelphia Flyers

Provorov’s restricted free agent situation this past summer was one of the most intriguing ones in the league. The Flyers have used him like a top-pairing defender, but he has not always performed like one. Despite that, they still committed to him with a six-year, $40.5 million contract.

If he performs like the Flyers hope he can and expect him to perform, it’s a steal.

If he does not, it becomes a problem.

So far this season the former situation has played out. He’s been great for a Flyers team that has exceeded expectations and is hanging around in a wildly competitive division.

He is excelling offensively and has been the Flyers’ top performing defensive defenseman across the board.

5. Anthony Duclair, Ottawa Senators

Duclair is only 24 years old. He has top-six talent and was at one time a highly regarded prospect and the centerpiece of the trade that sent Keith Yandle from Arizona to New York. He has played more than 320 games at the NHL level and for his career has averaged a 20-goal pace per 82 games. And despite all of that, he is still playing for his fifth different organization in six years.

A lot of teams missed here (one badly) and right now Ottawa is benefitting from it.

Duclair is one of the bright spots in what is yet another dismal season of Senators hockey and with 20 goals in 36 games has already matched his career high and is on pace for 45 goals this season. The only players with more goals entering play on Friday are David Pastrnak, Jack Eichel, Alex Ovechkin, Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon, Sebastian Aho, and Leon Draisaitl.

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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: Bruins end slump; Blackwood baffles Penguins

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Three Stars

1. Mackenzie Blackwood, New Jersey Devils

If the Devils are going to dig themselves out of the big hole they made to start 2019-20, it’s highly likely that Blackwood will be the goalie who helps them do it.

Lately, the 22-year-old has been rotating nice wins (.968 save percentage or higher in three victories) with tough losses (.889 or lower in three defeats). Friday represented one of the nicest wins yet, as he stopped 38 out of 39 of the Penguins’ shots to help the Devils steal a 2-1 decision.

Natural Stat Trick places the Penguins’ expected goals at 3.55, and their high-danger chances at 14 at all strengths, so Blackwood was the clear difference-maker in that narrow triumph.

2. Tomas Tatar, Montreal Canadiens

The Habs got revenge on the scoreboard after Alex Ovechkin landed that devastating hit on Jonathan Drouin, and Tatar was a big catalyst for that rally.

Yes, his goal was an empty-netter, but Tatar already had a top-three-worthy night when he piled up three assists. If you’d prefer his linemate Phillip Danault (1G, 2A, nothing on that ENG), that’s fine, too. Being boiling up some righteous indignation, the plus side of Drouin getting shaken up might be that Claude Julien went back to Tatar, Danault, and Brendan Gallagher as a line ever so briefly. Via Natural Stat Trick, they generated two five-on-five goals for in just 42 seconds of TOI together. Piping-hot take: maybe keep them with each other a little bit longer?

Overall, Tatar was an absurd possession beast on Friday, generating a ridiculous 80% Fenwick Four. By any measure, he was spectacular, and there’s a compelling case for Tatar being placed above Blackwood as the top star of the night.

3. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins

Attempting to defense the Bruins’ top line must be agonizing, as Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak just bring so many strengths to the table. It might be especially frustrating to try to contain Marchand, though.

Not only will he trash talk you (and back it up), but he’s also very smart and elusive, finding openings even when there’s just a bit of space to work with. Marchand played a big role in Boston ending its winning streak, and also extending Toronto’s torment, by scoring two goals, including the game-winner.

But, yeah, that troll game is also there.

Highlight of the Night

Zach Werenski had been off to a bit of a slow start scoring-wise for the Columbus Blue Jackets this season, but the 22-year-old is gaining some serious steam lately. Werenski scored the overtime game-winner for Columbus on Friday, extending his goal streak to three games (three goals, one assist).

(Some might vote for the Ovechkin hit as the clip of the night, though.)

Factoids

  • Via NHL PR: Zdeno Chara became the fourth defenseman in NHL history aged 42 or older to generate a three-game point streak. Chris Chelios has done it twice, and holds the best run with a four-game tear. The other two (Doug Harvey, Tim Horton) make it quite the list.
  • Another aging defenseman stat from NHL PR: Shea Weber became the third active NHL defenseman to generate at least a five-game point streak at age 34 or older. Chara did it in 2011-12, while Mark Giordano has two streaks of seven games. Weber also scored his 209th goal, placing him 18th all-time among NHL defensemen, via Sportsnet.
  • Saucy one from Sportsnet: the Maple Leafs and Oilers have the same point percentage (.531) in 64 games since Jan. 1, and Edmonton actually has one more win (30 to 29).

Scores

BOS 4 – TOR 2
NJD 2 – PIT 1
MTL 5 – WSH 2
CBJ 3 – STL 2 (OT)
OTT 2 – PHI 1

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.

The great line nobody is talking about

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When we think about the best lines in hockey, our mind immediately goes to the Bruins’ perfection line of Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron. Or we think of the trio in Colorado made up of Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon. Those are the two best lines in hockey right now, but there’s three players in Montreal that are being overlooked.

Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher aren’t superstars in the same way that Bergeron, Marchand, Pastrnak, Rantanen, MacKinnon and Landeskog are, but they’ve made up an important line since the start of last season. Not only does that line match up against the opposition’s best forwards, they usually tend to dictate the terms of the game night in and night out.

General manager Marc Bergevin deserves a lot of credit for helping create this line. Yes, Claude Julien put them together, but Bergevin went out and acquired two of the three players when they weren’t exactly in high demand. Gallagher was drafted before Bergevin arrived, but Danault was acquired, as a prospect, from Bergevin’s former team, the Chicago Blackhawks. And Tatar was thrown into the trade involving Max Pacioretty by the Vegas Golden Knights.

Individually, their offensive numbers don’t pop. Danault has nine points in 15 games, while Tatar and Gallagher both have 13 points in 15 games. But take these three players, put them together and watch them dominate.

Danault has played over 156 minutes with Tatar and almost 170 minutes with Gallagher this season, according to Natural Stat Trick. When the trio is on the ice together, they control nearly 60 percent of the shot attempts. Again, keep in mind that they nearly always draw the most difficult assignment of the night.

Last night, at even strength, the trio matched up against the vaunted Perfection Line for most of the night. Keep in mind, the Bruins were playing their second game in two nights, but that still doesn’t take away from the job the Danault line did against them.

Pastrnak managed to score a power-play goal in the first period, which Bergeron helped set up by winning the offensive-zone faceoff. But Marchand saw his 13-game point streak come to an end.

Check out this go-ahead goal by Tatar. Before the puck goes into the net, it was Gallagher that forced the puck away from Pastrnak in the neutral zone. The Canadiens went the other way in transition and they end up scoring. That came just moments after the Bruins’ winger tied the game.

31 seconds later, Paul Byron made it 3-1.

That’s what this three-man unit does for the Canadiens. When Claude Julien starts a period, he usually turns to them. When he needs an energetic shift to spark his team, he turns to them. More often than not, they deliver.

“They’re pretty easy players to play with,” Gallagher said of Danault and Tatar last month, per the Montreal Gazette. “For me, they seem to find me quite a bit and that’s probably why I end up with more shots. They’re very good playmakers and for me to kind of stick to my game is kind of what I try to do.

“I think the three of us enjoy playing together, we enjoy the challenges that the coaching staff gives us every game. That’s something that we’ve had to embrace and I think it’s been good for all three of us.”

The Habs have players with more individual talent. Max Domi, for example, led the team is scoring with 72 points last year and Jonathan Drouin can do things with the puck than most players can only dream of. But these three, when together, are the team’s engine.

Without their chemistry, there’s no way the Canadiens are as good as they are right now. Montreal will have to continue scratching and clawing for every point in the standings, but they can do so knowing they have this group of three leading them into battle every night.

So yeah, they probably won’t get the recognition they deserve nationally because they aren’t the biggest names in the game (they don’t even have a nickname yet), but they have to be considered one of the five best lines in hockey right now.

MORE: Habs’ Domi using special sticks to further diabetes awareness

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.

Canadiens snap Bruins’ winning streak: 3 takeaways

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If the Montreal Canadiens are going to escape the constant state of mediocrity they have been in the past few years these are the types of games they need to win.

Not only a divisional game against one of the best teams in the league, but against a team that played the night before, was playing its third game in four nights, and was probably vulnerable against a rested team.

This was a big test to see if they could take a step forward and they passed it in a wildly entertaining 5-4 win, snapping what had been a six-game winning streak for the Bruins.

1. it was a Big night for the Canadiens’ unsung heroes. Specifically, defensemen Victor Mete and Ben Chiarot. Entering the game Mete had scored one — one! — goal in 134 NHL games and he managed to top that total on Tuesday night alone, scoring two goals in the win.

Then, just a few minutes after Bruins forward Charlie Coyle had a goal disallowed on an offside review (more on that in a second) Chiarot scored his first goal as a member of the Canadiens for the game-winner.

Paul Byron and Tomas Tatar were the other goal-scorers for Montreal, but it’s expected that they will provide offense on occasion. Getting three goals from the duo of Mete and Chiarot was an unexpected surprise for the Canadiens.

2. Claude Julien made a bold call that paid off. Midway through the third period it appeared as if Coyle had given the Bruins a 5-4 lead, only to have it wiped away on an offside challenge by Julien. It was an incredibly bold call given the circumstances because the Bruins’ entry into the zone was ridiculously close and it wasn’t a slam dunk that the play would get overturned. Considering the Canadiens could have found themselves behind and  shorthanded (as is the penalty for a failed challenge) if it did not go their way it could have easily backfired. Fortunately for Julien and the Canadiens it went their way.

3. David Pastrnak is still unstoppable right now. The bright spot for the Bruins had to be Pastrnak scoring yet another goal. That gives him 15 on the season and makes him the first player since the 2005-06 season to score at least 15 goals through his team’s first 15 games when Simon Gagne, Dany Heatley, and Daniel Alfredsson all did it. He also added a little excitement to the closing seconds when he nearly set up a game-tying goal with an incredible rush into the Montreal zone.

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.