Zach Werenski

What is the Columbus Blue Jackets’ long-term outlook?

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Pending Free Agents
Josh Anderson (RFA)
Gabriel Carlsson (RFA)
Pierre-Luc Dubois (RFA)
Vladislav Gavrikov
Jakob Lilja (RFA)
Joonas Korpisalo (RFA)
Ryan MacInnis (RFA)
Elvis Merzlikins (RFA)
Devin Shore (RFA)
Kevin Stenlund (RFA)

The Core

The Columbus Blue Jackets do not have the elite goal-scorer or dangerous playmaker that top-tier NHL teams have, but they do possess a few critical components of their foundation to build a long-term successful roster.

Zach Werenski and Seth Jones anchor the Blue Jackets’ blue line and make up one of the top defensive pairings throughout the NHL. Their steady play helped goaltender Joonas Korpisalo become an All-Star this season and Elvis Merzlikins look like a seasoned veteran in his rookie season between the pipes.

Pierre-Luc Dubois continued his development as a top-line center and was in position to match his 61-point total from a season ago. However, Cam Atkinson and Josh Anderson’s production dropped off dramatically. Atkinson only netted 12 goals in 44 games this season, while Anderson scored one time in 26 games. Both players missed time with injuries this season (along with most of the Blue Jackets’ roster) but couldn’t produce offensively the way they have in the past.

Despite Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin leaving the organization last summer, the Blue Jackets remained in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race up until the NHL Pause a few weeks ago.

The experience gained in the spring of 2019 when the Blue Jackets secured a playoff spot and won a series for the first time in franchise history paid dividends for the team this season.

Long-Term Needs

The Blue Jackets averaged 2.57 goals per game in the 70 games they played this season and desperately need to add more playmakers. The lack of production from Atkinson and Anderson hurt dramatically and injuries contributed to them becoming one of the bottom-five teams in goals per game this season.

One area of concern is depth at the center position. Dubois is on track to become a building block every successful team needs in the middle, but the roster lacks playmakers behind the promising young player.

Alexandre Texier showed promise this year before a back injury derailed his season and John Tortorella believes he could fill a gaping hole in the lineup.

“The thing I like about Tex is I think he understands how to play low in that (center) position,” Torts told the team website. “A lot more comes into play as a centerman when you don’t have the puck in your end zone, a lot more reads like a defenseman, and I think he has the intelligence to do that.”

Columbus does not have the sexiest roster in the NHL, but they do have the right pieces of the puzzle to be a playoff team for the next several seasons.

Long-Term Strengths

While Tortorella’s antics during press conferences have been entertaining, he had one of his strongest seasons behind the bench and proved to be one of the NHL’s best bench bosses. The Blue Jackets did not have a 50-point scorer and proved to be greater than the sum of their parts with a strong season following a tumultuous summer.

The Blue Jackets sustained a league-leading 15 overtime/shootout losses (including a mistake which produced an epic postgame press conference) and could have pulled away from a crowded playoff wild-card race if a few of those outcomes went their way.

Jones and Werenski are two world-class defenders and Dubois is growing into a dynamic center but Columbus needs to fill out its roster. The Blue Jackets’ front office must find the right corresponding pieces to skate alongside their foundational players in order to take the next step as a franchise.

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

A best on best mythical tournament: 23-and-under team

Jack Eichel #9 of the Buffalo Sabres prepares for a faceoff during an NHL game against Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold, Pro Hockey Talk will be creating full rosters for an imaginary best on best tournament over the next three Thursdays.

The first team to enter the competition will be a roster comprised of players 23 years of age or younger. Think a Team North America in 2020. In recent years, younger players have made an instant impact at the NHL level and this team is filled with already established superstars.

Line Combinations

First line: Sebastian Aho – Connor McDavid – David Pastrnak

Thoughts: Leon Draisaitl has benefitted greatly from playing alongside McDavid this season and the addition of two dynamic goal scorers (Aho, Pastrnak) should produce an explosive top line. Aho’s ability to light the lamp and create plays should be a perfect fit to round out the group.

Second line: Andrei Svechnikov – Auston Matthews – Patrik Laine

Thoughts: Matthews has the puck-handling skill and on-ice vision to be an elite distributor with Laine alongside him. The size of all three forwards will be tough for most defensive pairings to handle.

Third line: Kyle Connor – Jack Eichel – Mikko Rantanen

Thoughts: Can this line match up with the opposition’s best and still produce offensively? The trio has the skill to be a top line for most NHL teams, but these three will be relied upon to play a smart, efficient, two-way game.

Fourth line: Matthew Tkachuk – Dylan Larkin – Mitchell Marner

Thoughts: The inclusion of Larkin over a Mathew Barzal or Elias Pettersson will raise some questions, but he was the best option to be a fourth line center and contribute on the penalty kill. Matthew Tkachuk will provide some toughness and size to add an important element to the group.

First D pairing: Zach Werenski – Cale Makar
Second D pairing: Thomas Chabot – Charlie McAvoy
Third D pairing: Rasmus Dahlin – Adam Fox

Thoughts: The second pairing will likely match up against the opposition’s best, but each combination has a strong mix of complementary characteristics. I initially thought it would be tough to find a strong group of mature defensemen in this age range, but these players have established themselves as high-end D-men.

Starting Goalie: Carter Hart
Backup Goalie: Ilya Samsonov

Just Missed: Mathew Barzal, Quinn Hughes, Travis Konecny, Elias Pettersson, Ivan Provorov

Captain: Connor McDavid
Alternate captains: Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy

Analysis

This team should not struggle to score with a ton of fire power in the offensive unit. With two of the top three and six of the top 10 goal scorers from the current season, it will be hard to contain this prolific group of forwards.

Two areas of weakness for this team are its ability to play a strong two-way game in even strength situations and kill off timely penalties. Players of this ilk have the ability to play any style but the question will be if players like Eichel and Marner could buy in to a defensive oriented role.

Additionally, their goaltenders are unproven but have the talent needed to play against the world’s best.

Nevertheless, the amount of skill on this team should help them overcome any obstacles and be a formidable challenge for any opponent. The roster has several established leaders, but young stars of the NHL are always eager to prove they belong in the conversation with the game’s best. Channeling that emotion in the proper way could be the difference between a successful tournament run or an early exit.

Surprising omissions:

Quinn Hughes: The young blueliner has been sensational for the Canucks. He is currently in a tight race with Makar for the Calder Trophy awarded to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the NHL. But the team will need size on the backend and cannot carry three undersized defensemen.

Elias Pettersson: The Swedish center is an excellent talent but didn’t fill a need when creating the lineup. While his talent is immense, this is a player that received the short end of the stick in order to build the most complete roster.


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

The Buzzer: Werenski, Gaudreau, and Ovechkin all shine in big wins

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Three Stars

1. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. He recorded his league-leading 12th multi-goal game of the season in the Capitals’ 4-3 win over the Minnesota Wild, scoring two goals from his signature spot on the ice. He is now at 45 goals for the season and is just two back of Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak for the league lead. You can read more about Ovechkin’s big game and the Capitals’ big win right here.

2. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames. Gaudreau found out on Saturday that his grandfather passed away before their game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He came back on Sunday with a huge performance for one of his biggest supporters. Gaudreau was dominant for the Flames in a 3-0 win over the Florida Panthers, scoring a goal, recording an assist, and even drawing a penalty shot in the first period. After a slow start to the season offensively Gaudreau’s production has really started to pick up in recent weeks, averaging a point per game (25 points in 25 games) since the start of January.

3. Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets. Werenski was a beast for the Blue Jackets in their come-from-behind win against the Vancouver Canucks, playing 25 minutes, scoring the game-tying goal (his 20th of the season) in the third period, picking up an assist, and finishing the night as a plus-two. The Blue Jackets desperately needed this win and it is not a stretch to call it a potential season saver. With Seth Jones sidelined due to injury a lot of the Blue Jackets’ workload on defense is going to fall on Werenski, and he has been brilliant this season. You can read more about their big win on Sunday night here.

More Standout Performances From Sunday

  • Cory Schneider recorded his first shutout in more than a year for the New Jersey Devils in a 3-0 win over the Anaheim Ducks.
  • Anze Kopitar scored two goals and Cal Petersen was a wall for the Los Angeles Kings by stopping 42 out of 43 shots to help them put a stop to the Vegas Golden Knights’ winning streak. Read more about the Kings’ win here.

Highlights of the Night

Trevor Lewis helped the Kings pull the upset over the Vegas Golden Knights on Sunday night with this beautiful spin-o-rama goal to beat Marc-Andre Fleury.

Derek Grant had a huge game for the Philadelphia Flyers with an assist on Michael Raffl‘s shorthanded goal, and this beautiful goal for himself. Read more about the Flyers’ big win here.

Ovechkin’s second goal of the night came on this beautiful passing play between him, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Ilya Kovalchuk.

Blooper of the Night

Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson absolutely levels Devils forward Kevin Rooney behind the net and earns himself a two-minute minor for interference.

Factoids

  • Werenski is the first Blue Jackets defensemen to ever score 20 goals in a single season. [NHL PR]
  • Artemi Panarin extended his point streak for the New York Rangers. [NHL PR]
  • Ovechkin now has 144 multi-goal games in his career, putting him into fifth place in NHL history. [NHL PR]

Scores

Philadelphia Flyers 5, New York Rangers 2
Calgary Flames 3, Florida Panthers 0
New Jersey Devils 3, Anaheim Ducks 0
Columbus Blue Jackets 5, Vancouver Canucks 3
Washington Capitals 4, Minnesota Wild 3
Los Angeles Kings 4, Vegas Golden Knights 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.

Blue Jackets rally for potential season saving win

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Thanks to an offensive outburst in the final seven minutes of regulation on Sunday night, the Columbus Blue Jackets were able to pick up a massive win against the Vancouver Canucks that they absolutely needed to have.

Columbus scored four goals in the final seven minutes of regulation to erase a two-goal deficit and storm back for a 5-3 win.

Zach Werenski scored his 20th goal of the season to tie the game with less than five minutes to play in regulation, while Emil Bemstrom scored the game-winner just three minutes later. Gustav Nyquist added an empty-net goal with 10 seconds to play.

It may not be much of a stretch to say the could be a season saving victory in Columbus.

Even though Columbus entered the game in a Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference (and improved that standing with Sunday’s win) they had a couple of hurdles standing in their way.

For one, they had been mired in a massive slump that had seen them lose 10 out of 11 games.

They are also about to face an absolute gauntlet of a schedule that will see them play their next seven games against Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Boston, Washington and Toronto. Every one of those teams currently occupies a playoff spot.

But perhaps their biggest issue is the fact every team they are in competition with for a playoff spot has two or three games in hand on them.

That matters quite a bit, and when you dig into the projected point paces and possible points that are still remaining the Blue Jackets were starting to get themselves in trouble.

Just look at the current Metropolitan Division/Wild Card standings for the teams after Washington (The Capitals still hold the top spot in the Metropolitan Division) as of Sunday night.

The Blue Jackets are clinging to one of those wild card spots based on current points, but with only 15 games remaining there are only so many points left for them to collect. Based on their current pace and the games they still have remaining, the Carolina Hurricanes (currently outside the playoff picture based on total points) are still on pace to finish with more points than Columbus this season.

Now, these are just projects and current paces and games in hand do not necessarily mean “wins” in hand. A lot can still happen when the games actually get played. But it does at least give a sense of how big of a swing Columbus’ win on Sunday was and how much work still needs to be done to get one of those spots. A loss on Sunday would have put them at a 92-93 point pace.

No matter what happens this has been an incredible effort by the Blue Jackets this season given all of the free agency departures over the summer and the absurd injury list they have dealt with all season (and are still dealing with now).

As for the Canucks, this one has to hurt. This looked to be a game they had completely wrapped up and it all disappeared in a matter of minutes. For the time being they fall out of the top-three in the Pacific Division but still hold one of the Wild Card spots. They still have games in hand on a lot of the teams around them, but the current injury situation that has them without Brock Boeser and starting goalie Jacob Markstrom is going to make things a little uncomfortable down the stretch.

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 suffer worst injury yet: Seth Jones out 8-10 weeks

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The Blue Jackets received their worst injury news yet: Seth Jones is expected to miss 8-10 weeks after surgery. The surgery addressed a sprain and hairline fracture of his ankle. It’s the latest bit of injury news on a tough Tuesday for such updates.

Seth Jones injury likely keeps him out of Blue Jackets playoff push

If that recovery window holds, Jones would miss the remainder of the regular season (which ends on April 4). Hockey players sometimes beat even optimistic recovery windows, though, so we’ll see.

Jones suffered the injury during this play on Saturday:

Jones leads the Blue Jackets in average time on ice (25:17), ranking sixth overall in the NHL. Jones earned his third All-Star appearance in 2019-20, generating 30 points in 56 games.

John Tortorella must find a way to replace a versatile player, not just a star. Jones spends almost as much time on the PK (2:25 SH TOI per game) as he does on the power play (2:34).

It will be interesting to see who steps up in Jones’ jarring absence. Zach Werenski has already been logging more than an extra minute of ice time per night (23:44 to 24:52) since Ryan Murray went down with an injury, with David Savard and Vladislav Gavrikov seeing similar increases. We’ll see if Torts can spread out that added burden in a way that keeps the Blue Jackets competitive.

About the only (weak) argument you can muster is that perhaps Jones’ loss might be exaggerated by some. There are certain measures, such as Evolving Hockey’s RAPM charts, where Jones looks great, but maybe not mind-blowing:

Seth Jones RAPM injury

To clarify: I don’t think such an argument goes very far, aside from maybe if you’re trying to choose between Jones vs. other of the NHL’s best.

The Blue Jackets have done a marvelous job limiting high-danger chances against (maybe carrying over from their sweep of the Lightning?). If the Blue Jackets can hang in there without Jones, it would be one heck of an argument for Torts as a Jack Adams candidate.

Banged-up Blue Jackets

Again, Columbus already faced waves of injuries this season.

Alexander Wennberg recently joined a list that includes Murray, Joonas Korpisalo, Cam Atkinson, Josh Anderson, Alexandre Texier, Brandon Dubinsky, and Dean Kukan. Jones shows that their injury list is a galling mix of quality and quantity.

The Blue Jackets deserve ample credit for hanging in the East playoff races, but they don’t enjoy much margin for error:

There are at least occasional reasons for optimism, mind you. Jackets Insider’s Jeff Svoboda reports that Anderson, Atkinson, and Korpisalo all were on the ice on Tuesday, if nothing else.

The larger point remains: it would be quite the story if the Blue Jackets can make the playoffs, especially after losing Jones.

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.