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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.

Surging Blue Jackets finally getting some help

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The Columbus Blue Jackets have been one of the NHL’s hottest teams over the past month-and-a-half, riding a 12-2-4 run over their past 18 games. They have the league’s third-best record (behind only St. Louis and Pittsburgh) during that stretch and have played their way back into playoff contention in the Eastern Conference, entering play on Wednesday in a tie with the Philadelphia Flyers for the second wild card spot.

What makes this run even more impressive is the team has been absolutely ravaged by injuries during that stretch.

The list of injuries includes…

  • Forward Cam Atkinson, a 40-goal scorer a year ago, has missed the past 12 games.
  • Forward Josh Anderson and defenseman Ryan Murray have not played since Dec. 14 (15 games).
  • Rookie defenseman Andre Peeke has not played since Dec. 17.
  • Oliver Bjorkstrand, who had 12 goals in his first 36 games, has missed the past 11 games.
  • Alexandre Texier, a rookie forward the team had high hopes for at the start, has missed the past seven games.
  • Starting goalie Joonas Korpisalo has missed the past eight games.

On Wednesday the Blue Jackets finally got some good news on the injury front when the team announced that Atkinson and Peeke have been activated from injured reserve (Peeke has since been assigned to the AHL).

Atkinson is expected to be in the lineup on Thursday for a huge game against the Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes are just two points ahead of the Blue Jackets in the standings.

The Atkinson is significant because he is such a huge part of the Blue Jackets’ offense and has been one of the most underrated goal scorers in the entire league the past few seasons. Over the previous three seasons he scored 100 goals in 227 games, a rate that averages out to 36 goals per 82 games. That production is down a little so far this season, but a lot of that drop has been driven by a significant dip in his shooting percentage.

He was already starting to see a bounce back before the injury, scoring five goals in his past eight games.

Blue Jackets keep surprising

Expectations were low for the Blue Jackets at the start of the season after the team lost Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel in free agency. Add in the recent injury situation on top of a slow start, and this team has every possible excuse to have completely gone in the tank. That has not happened.

Even with all of the free agency departures the Blue Jackets still had reasons for optimism this season (we looked at that here and here) because of the young talent still in place. Zach Werenski and Seth Jones form one of the best defense duos in the league, and they have been their usual steady selves this season. Pierre-Luc Dubois is also an emerging star in the NHL and becoming a legit No. 1 center that can impact the game on both sides of the ice.

But perhaps the biggest factor in their ability to remain competitive has been the emerge of Korpisalo, and most recently, Elvis Merzlikins in net.

Goaltending was always going to be the big X-Factor for this team and would strongly dictate what the team could do.

Merzlikins has been the big story over the past couple of weeks as he has stepped up in place of the injured Korpisalo. After losing each of his first eight decisions in the NHL, he is now 6-2-0 in his past eight games with a .950 save percentage. That includes back-to-back shutouts in his past two starts.

It is not realistic for him to keep playing at that high of a level, but as long as he and Korpisalo (once he returns) do not completely fall apart the Blue Jackets are going to have a great chance to not only stay in this race, but also shock the NHL and potentially return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Especially if they can start getting some more of their key players (Bjorkstrand, Murray, Texier, Anderson) back in the lineup.

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: Lightning score 9 goals; Predators lose big in Hynes debut

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Three Stars

1. Carter Verhaeghe, Tampa Bay Lightning. They are back. The Lightning won their eighth game in a row on Tuesday night by running the Vancouver Canucks out of the building in a 9-2 win. There were a lot of players that could have been a star in this one, including Brayden Point (four points) and Steven Stamkos (two goals). But top star honors go to Verhaeghe for his first career hat trick. Entering play on Tuesday the 24-year-old rookie had just two goals and four assists this season in 28 games. He topped that goal total against the Canucks. The nine goals tied a franchise record for the Lightning.

2. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Arizona Coyotes. The Coyotes were able to inch back ahead of the Vegas Golden Knights for first place in the Pacific Division (tied in points, but Arizona has played one fewer game) thanks to their 5-2 win over the Florida Panthers. Ekman-Larsson was a beast in this game with a goal, two assists, four shots on goal, and finishing as a plus-two while playing a game-high 24 minutes. Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall also had big games for the Coyotes were able to get two points while playing with their third-string goalie (Adin Hill).

3. Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets. As if the free agent departures were not enough to deal with, the Blue Jackets have also been dealing with a seemingly never-ending list of injuries. Despite all of that they are still right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, and this guy is one of the biggest reasons why. He scored two third period goals on Tuesday to help lead the Blue Jackets to a 4-3 win over the Anaheim Ducks. They are now tied with the Philadelphia Flyers for the second Wild Card spot in the East with 50 points. Werenski now has 15 goals for the season, tops among all NHL defenseman. That puts him on pace for 30 goals this season.

Other notable performances from Tuesday

  • Artemi Panarin had three points for the New York Rangers as they were 5-3 winners over the Colorado Avalanche. Read more about their win here.
  • New coach, same result for the Nashville Predators. They lost John Hynes’ coaching debut in the music city by a 6-2 margin to the Boston Bruins. They have now lost five out of their past six games.
  • Alex Ovechkin scored two goals for the Washington Capitals as they were big winners over the Ottawa Senators.
  • Anders Lee scored the overtime winner for the New York Islanders as they were winners over the New Jersey Devils.
  • The Montreal Canadiens lost their seventh game in a row, this time losing to the Detroit Red Wings. Frans Nielsen scored two goals for the Red Wings while Filip Zadina continued his strong play with another goal.
  • Another game-winning goal for David Perron as the St. Louis Blues snapped their three-game losing streak with a win against the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks lost Logan Couture to injury in that game. Read more about it here.
  • On the same day they were added to the NHL All-Star Game (read more about that here) Kris Letang and Tristan Jarry played great games for the Pittsburgh Penguins in a 4-3 win over the Vegas Golden Knights.
  • Elias Lindholm provided all the offense for the Calgary Flames in a 2-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. For Lindholm, it was the 500th game of his NHL career.

Highlights of the Night

Dougie Hamilton might be the best defenseman in the NHL right now (read about it here), and he scored a beauty in overtime for the Carolina Hurricanes. They also signed Justin Williams to a one-year contract on a big Tuesday night for them. Read more about that here.

What an incredible individual effort here by New Jersey Devils young star Nico Hischier.

The Lightning scored six goals in the second period, including these three in under a minute.

 

Blooper of the Night

It takes a lot of confidence to try this move in a game, especially when you are losing at the time. It will probably make your coach pretty unhappy if you end up losing the game. Fortunately for Andrei Svechnikov, the Hurricanes won.

Factoids

  • Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan gets his 200th win with the team. [NHL PR]
  • Alex Ovechkin’s two goals move him into a tie with Teemu Selanne for 11th place on the NHL’s all-time list. [NHL PR]
  • Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak now has an 11-game point streak, the longest active point streak in the NHL. [NHL PR]

Scores

Tampa Bay Lightning 9, Vancouver Canucks 2
Arizona Coyote 5, Florida Panthers 2
New York Islanders 4, New Jersey Devils 3 (OT)
Washington Capitals 6, Ottawa Senators 1
Carolina Hurricanes 5, Philadelphia Flyers 4 (OT)
New York Rangers 5, Colorado Avalanche 3
Detroit Red Wings 4, Montreal Canadiens 3
St. Louis Blues 3, San Jose Sharks 2
Boston Bruins 6, Nashville Predators 2
Calgary Flames 2, Chicago Blackhawks 1
Pittsburgh Penguins 4, Vegas Golden Knights 3
Columbus Blue Jackets 4, Anaheim Ducks 3

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: Hat trick for Rantanen; Hutchinson shines for Maple Leafs

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Three Stars

1. Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche. After routing the St. Louis Blues in their most recent, the Avalanche have now won back-to-back games thanks to their 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Saturday. Mikko Rantanen shined in this one with three goals on three shots in the win. He has 15 goals and 31 total points in only 26 games this season. That is a 47-goal pace over 82 games.

2. Michael Hutchinson, Toronto Maple Leafs. Hutchinson has been having a miserable season for the Maple Leafs and has struggled to find his game from the very start. He has now won three consecutive decisions for and stopped all 33 shots he faced on Saturday against the New York Islanders to record his first shutout of the season. The Maple Leafs are now on a 9-0-1 over the past 10 games and are 15-4-1 in their first 20 games under new coach Sheldon Keefe. In Hutchinson’s first six starts this season he went 0-5-1, only once had a save percentage higher than .875 (never higher than .897), and allowed at least four goals in every game, including four games where he allowed five goals. He has allowed just five total goals in his past three starts.

3. Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks. Markstrom found out he is going to the All-Star game on Friday to replace Marc-Andre Fleury (read more about that here). He played like an All-Star on Saturday against the New York Rangers. Markstrom’s 36 saves helped the Canucks steal a 2-1 win over the New York Rangers to maintain their hold on a top-three spot in the Pacific Division and keep pace with the Vegas Golden Knights and Arizona Coyotes. He has been one of the Canucks’ best players this season and really solidified their goaltending spot as he continues to play for a big contract this summer.

Other notable performances from Saturday

  • The San Jose Sharks won their second game in a row and snapped the Columbus Blue Jackets’ point streak with a 3-2 win.
  • Eric Staal scored a controversial goal in overtime to lift the Minnesota Wild to a big win over the Winnipeg Jets. Read more about that play here.
  • The Edmonton Oilers scored four consecutive goals to stun the Boston Bruins. David Pastrnak scored his league-leading 31st goal of the season for the Bruins.
  • Chandler Stephenson continued his strong play for the Vegas Golden Knights since being acquired in a trade from the Washington Capitals, recording two points in a come-from-behind overtime win against the defending Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues. His goal, the overtime winner, is already his fifth goal in 16 games with the Golden Knights. Before this season he never scored more than six goals in a single season.
  • Sam Reinhart had a big game for the Buffalo Sabres as they chased Sergei Bobrovsky early in a 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers. Read more about Bobrovsky’s struggles here.
  • Matt Murray had a strong game for the Pittsburgh Penguins to help them get a 3-2 overtime win against the Montreal Canadiens.
  • Tyler Johnson scored a late third period goal to help the Tampa Bay Lightning extend their winning streak to six consecutive games.
  • Clayton Keller scored two goals for the Arizona Coyotes in a big 6-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. The Coyotes did lose starting goalie Antti Raanta to a lower-body injury in the win. Read more about that here.
  • Rocco Grimaldi‘s two points and Pekka Rinne‘s 23 saves helped the Nashville Predators snap what had been a three-game losing streak in a 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings.

Highlights of the Night

Kasperi Kapanen helped get things rolling for the Maple Leafs on Saturday with this slick assist.

Cale Makar makes it look easy as he enters the offensive zone and finds Rantanen for one of his three goals for the Avalanche.

Roman Josi had the play of the night for the Predators as they get a much-needed win against Kings.

Blooper of the Night

Ottawa Senators forward Colin White found you can not head-butt the puck in the net. Read more about it here.

Factoids

  • The Maple Leafs are now on a 10-game point streak (9-0-1) for the first time since the 2005-06 season. [NHL PR]
  • The Golden Knights’ come-from-behind win on Saturday was the first three-goal comeback win in franchise history. [Vegas Golden Knights]
  • With the Sharks’ win against Columbus on Saturday general manager Doug Wilson became the 19th general manager in NHL history to reach 700 wins. [San Jose Sharks]
  • Leon Draisaitl has recorded at least one point in all but eight games this season for the Oilers. [NHL PR]
  • Thanks to his two goals on Saturday Zach Werenski is the first defender in Blue Jackets franchise history to score 50 goals for the team. [NHL PR]
  • Canucks rookie defenseman Quinn Hughes needed just 41 games to record his 30th point this season. That is faster than any rookie Canucks defenseman in franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • Roman Josi is on a nine-game point streak for the Predators, tied with Shea Weber for the longest run by a Predators defender. [NHL PR]

Scores

Edmonton Oilers 4, Boston Bruins 1
San Jose Sharks 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 2
Buffalo Sabres 3, Florida Panthers 2
Minnesota Wild 3, Winnipeg Jets 2 (OT)
Vegas Golden Knights 5, St. Louis Blues 4 (OT)
Toronto Maple Leafs 3, New York Islanders 0
Pittsburgh Penguins 3, Montreal Canadiens 2 (OT)
Tampa Bay Lightning 5, Ottawa Senators 3
Colorado Avalanche 5, New Jersey Devils 2
Arizona Coyotes 6, Philadelphia Flyers 2
Vancouver Canucks 2, New York Rangers 1
Nashville Predators 4, Los Angeles Kings 1

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.

Tortorella regrets rant, NHL defends referee decision

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Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella ripped into the NHL and its on-ice officials on Sunday following his team’s shootout loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

Tortorella’s rage was directed at a clock mishap that saw an extra two seconds run off the clock in overtime, eventually negating what would have been a game-winning goal for Zach Werenski just before the buzzer.

The Blue Jackets went on to lose in the shootout –while also losing starting goalie Joonas Korpisalo to injury during the shootout — enraging the team’s coach.

On Monday, Colin Campbell addressed the situation from the league’s side.

Brian Hedger of the Columbus Dispatch has the entire statement (you can read it here) but the two most notable excerpts are these:

3) The penalty assessed is “too many men” which requires an assessment of the play, i.e. too many men. Kane received the pass, then the officials made an assessment of the player going to the bench and blew the whistle after deciding it was too many men on the ice. The whistle does not sound as soon as Kane touches the puck. It’s not a delayed high stick, trip, etc.

4) The on-ice officials can always adjust the clock if they feel it is required. The official timer can notify the on-ice officials that there are issues at any time from his perspective. Toronto can get involved if we see issues. Assessing when the whistle is blown is hard for us to do sitting in Toronto and not being in the building live.

That does not really offer much of an explanation as to why the time was not put back on the clock. But it seems pretty clear from Campbell that it was, in the eyes of the league, a judgment call.

The league also called Tortorella’s comments and press conference “unacceptable.”

Tortorella expresses regret

Tortorella made one more statement regarding the situation on Monday. He began his media meeting by expressing some regret for the way he handled it on Sunday.

“I’m not answering questions about last night. At least as far as how I handled myself after the game,” said Tortorella.

“I ask my team to be disciplined, and I think it’s quite honestly a big part of our loss last night, was the lack of discipline with our team. I think the coach followed through with lack of discipline after the game with you guys.”

“If I have a problem with something that has gone on in the game, with whom or with what, I think it needs to be handled internally and not in the public manner as it was last night. You need to understand that. So don’t ask me questions about it, I’m not going anywhere near it. You can ask about the game, anything you want. I owe you time today because I didn’t give it to you  last night. But that is a total lack of discipline on my part.”

Tortorella also announced that Korpisalo’s injury is a knee injury and that is going to be “weeks” before he returns.

He has been a huge part of the Blue Jackets’ recent hot streak and climb back into playoff contention. Losing him is going to be a significant issue in the short-term.

More: Referee mistake costs Blue Jackets, sends John Tortorella into rage

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.