Zach Werenski

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Blue Jackets can be much better people think

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The 2019-20 NHL regular season has not even started and already the Columbus Blue Jackets are being almost completely written off.

This is a development they are very well aware of, and one they are not responding kindly to.

Coach John Tortorella is “pissed” about it. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen thinks it’s a slap in the face to the core of the team. Cam Atkinson is ready to prove everybody wrong.

The doubters are not without their reasons, and for much of the offseason I was right there with them. How could you not be?

The Blue Jackets were the last team to get in the Eastern Conference playoff field last spring and were hit harder by free agency than any other team in the league, losing franchise players Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, as well as trade deadline acquisitions Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. That is a ton of talent and production to walk out the door, and with Gustav Nyquist (a very good player!) being the only significant outside addition to the team, it’s easy to have lowered expectations.

But Kekalainen made a fairly strong point in support of his core earlier this month when he said this to The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline:

“I’m a little aggravated by the doubters, to be honest with you,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said, “because it shows disrespect to our core group that’s brought us all the success we’ve had in the last three years.

“(Three) teams have more regular-season wins than we do (142) in the last three years, and we had 108 points the season before (Artemi) Panarin arrived here. I’m a little bit upset about all that, and I’m getting fed up talking about it.”

Obviously a general manager is going to go to bat for their team and believe in the roster at the start of the season. But he’s also not wrong here. Only Tampa, Washington, and Boston have more regular season wins than the Blue Jackets since start of the 2016-17 season, and only two of the players that left this offseason (Panarin and Bobrovsky) played a significant role in compiling that record. Out of those two, one of them (Panarin) was not even there in the year they won the most games and compiled the most points during that stretch.

But let’s focus on replacing those two since they are the most important.

The wrench in all of this is that Bobrovsky was there for all three seasons and was probably the most important part of that success, especially during the 2016-17 season (the pre-Panarin year) when he won his second Vezina Trophy. That is a difficult thing to replace, and the Blue Jackets are going to open the year relying on two completely unproven starters in Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. Obviously their success or failure as NHL goalies will play a massive role in what the Blue Jackets can do this season. But I’m not ready to totally eliminate the possibility of Merzlikins being good.

The thing is, they don’t need to totally replace Bobrovsky for the Blue Jackets to have a chance. They just need to be decent. The Blue Jackets were one of the better defensive teams in the league last season and were among the top-seven in suppressing shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances during 5-on-5 play (via Natural Stat Trick). Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are an elite defense pairing, and when paired together can help lock down a significant chunk of every game.

That will help any goalie. As long as the Blue Jackets can maintain that defensively they won’t need a superhero in net.

And while the departure of Panarin, and to a lesser extent Duchene, leaves a big hole at forward the cupboard is not completely bare. Nyquist won’t replace Panarin’s offense or game-breaking ability, but he is a legitimate top-six forward. Atkinson has been a top-10 goal-scorer for about four years, and they have an exciting prospect in Alexandre Texier ready to make the jump to the NHL.

Then there is third-year center Pierre-Luc Dubois, an already dominant two-way player that seems to be on the verge of a breakout season (read about that here).

It’s not that Blue Jackets won’t miss the players that are leaving — they obviously will — but they still have enough high-end talent (and capable depth) that the season isn’t going to be a lost cause before it even begins. A lot will depend on the goalies, but they have enough around them to support them and keep them competitive.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Werenski’s blueprint; Female referees gaining experience

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta still wants to own an NHL team. (Sportsnet)

• The structure of Zach Werenski‘s new deal could be used as a blueprint for future RFA deals. (TSN)

• What does the Werenski contract mean for Bruins RFAs Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy. (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

Alex Galchenyuk is starting to build some chemistry with Evgeni Malkin. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

• It looks like Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger is planning to start the season with Rasmus Ristolainen. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• What will the Blues bottom-six forward group look like come the start of the regular season? (St. Louis Game-Time)

• Barrett Hayden might be the most important addition for the Coyotes this season. (Arizona Republic)

• Female officials are thrilled to get NHL experience. (NHL.com)

• The Nashville Predators will look to dethrone the St. Louis Blues. (Predlines)

• The Lightning could easily find a way to use Patrick Maroon and Kevin Shattenkirk on their lethal power play. (Raw Charge)

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.

Zach Werenski, Blue Jackets work out three-year, $15M extension

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When NHL training camps open later this week, Zach Werenski will not be on the list of likely restricted free agents waiting to sign an extension with their team.

The Columbus Blue Jackets announced on Monday that the 22-year-old defenseman has agreed to a three-year $15 million extension, as first reported by NHL Network’s Kevin Weekes. Werenski played all 92 regular season and Stanley Cup playoff games last season for the team. He scored 11 goals and recorded 44 points during the regular season.

“Zach Werenski is one of the best young defensemen in the National Hockey League and we couldn’t be happier that he will continue to be a foundational player for the Columbus Blue Jackets,” said Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen. “He is a gifted offensive player that has continued to improve in all facets of the game and will be an elite player for many years.”

The three-year pact buys one RFA year for Werenski and two RFA years that gave him arbitration rights, per Cap Friendly. The extension will expire after the 2021-22 season where the blue liner will be eligible for arbitration and one year away from unrestricted free agency. He’ll make $4 million per season in the first two years and then $7 million in the final year, which would give him a large qualifying offer.

Despite things coming down to the final days before camp opened, there was never a doubt on Werenski’s side that he would be back with the Blue Jackets. His agent, Pat Brisson, told the Columbus Dispatch in August that he had been speaking with the team during the summer and was confident the defenseman would not miss any time. The team had similar feelings. “He’s a good player. We like him,” said Kekalainen. “We want to give him a fair contract and continue. We’re not the least bit worried.”

As Adam Gretz noted last month, since the start of the 2007-08 season, there have been only four defenseman who have played at least 100 games, averaged at least 0.50 points per game, and had a shot-attempt differential greater than 52 percent. Werenski is one of them along with Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty and Charlie McAvoy.

Could this be the first of the RFA dominos to fall this week as teams get together officially later this week? Certainly Werenski’s contract could have an affect on what fellow blue liners McAvoy and Ivan Provorov end up doing with their respective teams.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Tortorella sour about Blue Jackets’ off-season exodus

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Say ‘mass exodus in Columbus’ to John Tortorella and sit back and enjoy the fireworks.

After winning their first playoff series in franchise history, and doing so in such emphatic fashion by sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning after their historic regular season, three of the biggest names who helped get them there took their talents elsewhere this summer.

Sergei Bobrovsky signed a mammoth deal in Florida. Artemi Panarin signed an even bigger deal in New York with the Rangers. And Matt Duchene, who was brought in at the trade deadline, and perhaps one of the three that had the best (but still not great) odds of re-signing, left for the sights and sounds of Nashville.

It all made for a bit of a sour summer for Torts.

“I’m pissed,” Tortorella told The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline in a wide-ranging interview. “Yeah, I’m pissed. I’m pissed for my players. I’m pissed for my organization. And I’m pissed on behalf of my city.”

Tortorella let loose in the interview in a very Tortorellan way. He said he has tremendous respect for the players that left in the mass exodus, but if it was about winning, well…

[MORE: Panarin to Rangers | Bob to Panthers | Duchene to Predators]

“Don’t talk about god—- winning, like you want to go somewhere to win. It’s right there in front of you,” he said. “I respect them all. But I don’t want to hear “I want to win” when it’s right f—— here. I respect them, but I’m really pissed. It was right there, where we were really progressing.”

Columbus’ summer hasn’t included much, with only Gustav Nyquist being the notable addition — a move that Tortorella called a very good one by general manager Jarmo Kekalainen.

It won’t likely replace the loss of the team’s top point producer, a top-line center and a No. 1 goalie, however. The team will be looking for its youth to step up, including 19-year-old Alex Texier, who showed well for the club at the tail-end of last season, including eight playoff games.

The team will also be looking to Joonas Korpisalo to take the No. 1 job between the pipes in camp.

Tortorella said the whole thing has left him not having to worry about instilling a chip-on-the-shoulder mentality on the remaining players.

“I’m saying, ‘Hell with them, we want to be here, let’s get it together and get going.; I wish them nothing but the best, but I’m pissed that they leave Columbus, because I think we’ve got a really good thing going here,” he said.

Meanwhile, regarding restricted free agent Zach Werenski, Torts told Portzline that he’d be “disgusted” if his player was to missing training camp.

“I just don’t want him to miss a beat here,” Tortorella said, raving about how Werenski has grown as a player.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Blue Jackets still have reasons for optimism after free agency exodus

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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.

The 2018-19 season was the most successful one in the history of the Columbus Blue Jackets franchise.

They went all in at the trade deadline to load up for a postseason run, made the playoffs for the third year in a row (first time they have ever done that), and then upset the Presidents’ Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning in a stunning four-game sweep to advance to Round 2 for the first time in team history. While the end result was not what they wanted, it was still the first time fans of the team had ever had something to be truly excited about. Management paid a heavy price to reach that point (trading several draft picks and prospects) and then watched over the summer as a free agency exodus saw the departure of Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Sergei Bobrovsky.

Those exits have left some significant holes on the roster, especially in net where they have no proven replacement for a two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie.

It is possible — if not likely — that the team regresses this season, especially in a Metropolitan Division where every team is loading up on talent.

Even with all of that working against them, there are still reasons for Blue Jackets fans to have some cautious optimism about the short-and long-term outlook of the team.

Among them…

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

Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are an elite defense pairing

The Blue Jackets may have lost All-Stars at forward and in net, but they still have two of them on their blue line. The Werenski-Jones duo has been one of the best in the NHL over the past three seasons. During that time they have played more than 3,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey with the Blue Jackets outscoring their opponents by 16 goals and controlling more than 52 percent of the total shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances. Jones turns 25 at the start of the season while Werenski will only be entering his age 22 season, meaning both of them should still be on top of their game for the foreseeable future with still room to improve. The rest of the blue line might need some work, but finding even one defender of this caliber is a difficult task. The Blue Jackets have two of them.

Cam Atkinson is better than you might realize

He may not be a star or total point producer on the level of Panarin, but Atkinson has been one of the league’s best goal-scorers for the past four years and is coming off of a career-high 41-goal effort during the 2018-19 season. While he might be due for a slight regression from that mark, only 11 players have scored more totals goals than him since the start of the 2015-16 season. Only nine have scored more even-strength goals. A lot will be made over what they lost this summer, but they still have some good veterans returning and Atkinson is at the top of that list.

Gustav Nyquist looks like a strong addition

Is he going to completely replace what the Blue Jackets are losing in Panarin? No he is not. But that doesn’t mean he can’t still be a great pickup, especially at that salary cap hit. You know every year he is going to give you 20 goals, 50 points, and help drive possession. He is an excellent all-around player.

They have a ton of salary cap space to play with

Even when taking into account the money they will need to re-sign Werenski this summer, the Blue Jackets have more salary cap space than all but two teams in the NHL, meaning they have the flexibility to make in-season additions to help fill weaknesses, whether they be in net or on the wing.

Pierre-Luc Dubois could be their next star

He is our X-factor for the Blue Jackets this season. Dubois is trending toward becoming an impact player in the middle of the Blue Jackets’ lineup and could be on the verge of a monster season based on what he has done over the first two years of his career. If he continues on that trajectory and takes a big leap in his development it will go a long way toward helping the Blue Jackets replace what they have lost over the summer.

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.