Blue Jackets loaded up for Stanley Cup run
The Columbus Blue Jackets won Monday’s NHL trade deadline (trophy still being commissioned) and did it without swapping out left winger Artemi Panarin or goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, two high-profile components who are likely to pack up as unrestricted free agents come July 1.
Panarin is pegged to be the UFA market’s biggest cash winner, the Russian wizard all but guaranteed to see long-term offers at $10 million a year or more (early betting has the Rangers in the lead, followed by the Kings). Bobrovsky also should enjoy a beefy payday, even with his numbers a bit softer than most of his previous six seasons in Cannonland.
General manager Jarmo Kekalainen, a former Bruins forward, opted to keep those two primo UFAs and fill in around them with an impressive foursome of rentals, led by ex-Senators forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. He also added rugged ex-Bruin defenseman Adam McQuaid (via the Rangers) and backup goalie Keith Kinkaid (via the Devils).
Cost of the haul: one roster player (Anthony Duclair to the Senators), three prospects, and five draft picks (including a pair of first-rounders to Ottawa in the Duchene swap).
That leaves the Jackets with only a pair of picks for the upcoming June draft in Vancouver. Unless Kekalainen gets busy with follow-up deals — his focus elsewhere at the moment — the Columbus draft table might turn into a two-day cribbage tournament.
Kekalainen took a novel approach, one fraught with risk on a couple of levels:
1. All of the acquired players are also UFAs, none with any known hankerin’ to make Columbus their long-term home. Kekalainen did an artful, masterful job of retaining his core roster talent, but if everyone flees town in July, he will have yielded an extremely high premium in draft picks — one he feels is mitigated by a stash of talented prospects he has incubating in juniors and overseas.
2. Though all four new guys are upgrades, particularly Duchene and Dzingel up front, they were brought aboard for what is a relatively short window (six weeks) and with the pressure to provide immediate impact ratcheted high, given where the Jackets sit in the standings. They don’t have time to find a fit. Heading into the weekend, the sons of John Tortorella were just barely clinging to a playoff spot in the East, with but one point separating the Blue Jackets, Canadiens, Penguins, and Hurricanes. A single point. And right now, the math looks like two of those four will end up DNQs.
To the first point, Kekalainen didn’t sound worried when he addressed the Columbus media immediately after Dealing Day came to a close.
“We still have great prospects left,” he said. “And we’ve got some time to get back some draft picks. Most of the time the draft picks take five years before they’re going to help you, so if we gave up a 2021 draft pick, do the math, it’s 2026 when they’re going to make an impact on the Blue Jackets. So we have time to figure that out.”
The kids that provide Kekalainen some comfort are all centers, including Liam Foudy (OHL London), Emil Bemstrom (Djurgardens, Sweden) and Alexandre Texier (Kalpa, Finland). All three recent draft picks (2017-18) have the potential to step in next year, filling the voids up front if Duchene and Dzingel were to walk. Again, potential. And if they come aboard, they’ll have the luxury of time to figure out their fit and finish.
“Bemstrom leads the Swedish league in goal scoring,” noted Kekalainen. “Compare the names that have done that at his age (19), the list of names . . . you get Peter Forsberg, you get Markus Naslund, you get [Daniel] Sedin, you get Kent Nilsson. I am not saying he is going to be one of those guys, because I never do that, but . . . he has done some significant things. He has 20 goals in the Swedish league at age 19. He’s on the men’s national team. Nobody really talks about it. But every time I talk to a general manager, that’s the first guy they ask about. Or they ask about Liam Foudy, who is on fire in London. Or they ask about Alexandre Texier. And it’s a “no” every time [they ask]. It’s a nonstarter.”
There is no hedge, however, for the second point, the need for the acquired hands to fit right in and produce with a team in a pressure cooker.
Based on their pedigree, it should work, with Duchene and Dzingel bringing needed pop up front and the ever-willing McQuaid (if he remains healthy) adding muscle and a documented intolerance for nonsense to the backline corps. Unless things cave for Bobrovsky, Kinkaid is likely to have the least impact of the bunch. He was added as an upgrade over backup Joonas Korpisalo.
All smart, considered moves by Kekalainen, but deep down he knows the inherent risks that come with making such a dramatic change in personnel at this time of the season. He has attempted to hire a growth spurt, in a sport where growth typically comes organically and over time. He also has a coach, Tortorella, whose modus operandi is anything but providing players, be they young or old, with time and space to deliver. Some like it hot. Torts likes it hotter.
“We have our core in place,” said Kekalainen. “It’s going to be in place no matter what happens with the UFAs. We have Seth Jones. We have Zach Werenski. We have Nick Foligno. We have Pierre-Luc Dubois. We have lots of good players. We’ll have a good team next year no matter what happens to the UFAs.”
SEE YOU LATER?
Matching up with Lightning
Impressive win, 4-1, by the Bruins Thursday over Tampa Bay, though it needs to be noted once more that it was the third game in four nights for the Lightning, who also played the night before at Madison Square Garden. The runaway favorites for the Presidents’ Trophy (best regular-season record) began to peter out at the 10-minute mark of the first period and the Bruins gained momentum before finally scoring their three-goal knockout punch midway through the third.
Would it be different if they meet again in, say, Round 2 of the postseason? It’s hockey, so good luck figuring out puck bounces or final scores. But there’s no question the Bolts will be better rested and better prepared than the tired club that showed up on Causeway for its 65th game of the season.
Keep in mind, after dropping the opening game of Round 2 to the Bruins last spring, the Lightning ran the table with four straight wins. Sure, had the referees been sharper in Game 4, and called the Bolts for interfering with Charlie McAvoy, the series could have stood at 2-2 going back to Tampa. But there was little question, Tampa was the better team, particularly when judged on scoring depth, and the Bruins graded “N.I.” — needs improvement — for overall roster talent.
What would give Bruce Cassidy and crew cause to think it would be different in the 2019 postseason?
“Well, I think Grizz and Charlie have a little more experience under their belt,” said Cassidy, referring to the improved play of defensemen Matt Grzelcyk and McAvoy. “So does Jake [DeBrusk], [Danton] Heinen.”
The core remains the same, albeit with the injured David Pastrnak an unknown after undergoing wrist surgery nearly three weeks ago. The march into the postseason will be led by Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Krejci up front, followed by aged kingpin Zdeno Chara on the backline and Tuukka Rask (without a regulation loss since Dec. 23) in net.
“I guess to judge [Charlie] Coyle vs. Riley Nash, it’s a little bit early for that — and I don’t want to disrespect Riley, he did a real good job for us,” added Cassidy, focusing on GM Don Sweeney’s deadline acquisitions. “And then Marcus [Johansson] vs. Rick Nash, it’s a little early for that, as well.”
Overall, said Cassidy, he feels more confident because “some of our guys are little more battle tested.”
“That’s probably the biggest difference,” he added. “They’ve seen what it’s like to play, I don’t know how to describe it, but maybe ‘man’s hockey’ in April and May where [play] just gets elevated. You just have to be heavier and stronger on pucks — so whatever description you want to use, they probably have a much better feel for that.”
Another huge tipping factor could be the inclusion of defensemen Brandon Carlo and Torey Krug for a full playoff run. Carlo missed all of last spring because of a broken ankle and has yet to log a minute of playoff action. Krug, the Bruins’ best offensive producer from the back, was done in Game 4 vs. the Lightning, the consequence of an ugly feet-first slide into the sidewall. He exited with a 3-9—12 line across 10-plus playoff games.
Tavares heard it on Long Island
Fans are entitled to their feelings, first and foremost because they pay the freight. There’s an easy case to make that every arena and stadium in the country ought to plant a statue of a paying customer on its grounds. Right next to one of a distinguished, if not legendary, media member, no doubt.
The read here, though, is that John Tavares deserved far better than the vicious haranguing he received Thursday in his first trip to Nassau Coliseum since packing up last July to join the Maple Leafs. The night was made all the more brutal when his former Islanders, considered left for chum upon his exit, rolled up a 6-1 win over his current Blue and White.
Bad night to have a bad night.
When the Coliseum message board flashed, “Thank you, John” for his nine years of distinguished service with the Fish Sticks, the booing reached its highwater mark for the evening. Some fans tossed plastic snakes on the ice. Others wore old Tavares sweaters with such subtle hints as “Judas” taped over his nameplate.
“They always made it tough for the opponent when I played here,” a diplomatic Tavares said after his night standing inside the pouring rain.
Again, entitled to their feelings. There’s a very vocal group, be it minority or majority, that feels jilted that Tavares left after nine years of quality service. Frankly, for much of that time, he was more than the face of the franchise. Once beyond his visage, the whole enterprise arguably wasn’t much more than a Zamboni, a bucket of pucks, a smattering of concession stands, and some faded ticket stubs from an Islander dynasty that ended with the last of four Cups in 1983.
Misplaced ire, in my opinion. If they were really watching, Islanders fans should have placed their anger on the failure(s) of team ownership and management, which rendered the franchise a laughingstock despite the fact Tavares showed up night after night as one of the game’s rare point-per-game players.
Through it all, Tavares kept his mouth shut, did his job (at a very good pay rate, no doubt), and finally opted to beat it down Meadowbrook Parkway. He did it with dignity, class, and entirely within the rules of the CBA that allowed him to leave at age 28. He found his fortune ($11 million a year) and got to go home.
That doesn’t mean anyone on Long Island has to feel good for him, or even cheer him. Frankly, though he’d never say it, Thursday night had to make him all the happier he left. Because, like everyone else, he’s entitled to his feelings.
Now just a couple of weeks shy of his 25th birthday, Frank Vatrano recently inked a three-year contract extension in Florida that will pay out a total $7.6 million. His line as the weekend approached: 20-13—33 in 62 games. The Springfield Rifle was moved by the Bruins at the deadline a year ago for the third-round draft pick that netted Jakub Lauko, who has popped at nearly a point per game this season with Rouyn-Noranda in the Quebec League . . . Perhaps Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella is softening. During a news conference this past week, he interrupted the standard Q & A when a reporter’s cellphone, placed on his podium as a recorder, began to ring. The caller was the mother of Tom Reed, reporter for The Athletic. All smiles and charm, Torts answered the call and assured Reed’s mother he enjoyed talking to her more than to her son. “Rude of [Tom] not to call you back,” he told Reed’s mom before hanging up, “but he’s busy right now.” . . . To add Adam McQuaid, the Blue Jackets sent backline prospect Julius Bergman to the Rangers, along with two draft picks (Rounds 4 and 7). Sound familiar? When acquiring McQuaid from the Bruins at the start of training camp, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton gave up Steven Kampfer and two draft picks (Round 4 and 7). McQuaid, by the way, originally was a Blue Jackets draft pick. Then-Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli acquired him for a fifth-round draft pick that the Blue Jackets then swapped to the Stars, who used it to select Jamie Benn . . . Similar to the Bruins adding Lee Stempniak after the deadline passed, the Islanders did the same with former Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg. Like Stempniak in Boston, Seidenberg remained in Islanders camp throughout the season, then came aboard for a prorated $700,000 . . . With the player cupboard cleaned out at the deadline and nothing left to do but fire the coach, the Senators on Friday fired the coach, Guy Boucher, and replaced him for the time being with associate bench boss Marc Crawford. Just an abysmal, rudderless teardown in Ottawa. Crawford, by the way, was the Canucks forward in October 1982 who put the smack on second-year Bruins winger Normand Leveille in Vancouver that rattled Leveille’s head against the boards, his last shift in the NHL. Leveille soon was rushed to Vancouver General Hospital, where neurosurgeons saved his life with brain surgery to repair a ruptured arteriovenous malformation . . . The Sabres have nosedived again so their moves are back to under-the-radar status. But GM Jason Botterill made a shrewd pickup at the deadline, acquiring former UMass Amherst defenseman Brandon Montour from the Ducks for blue liner Brendan Guhle and a first-round pick. Montour can wheel and put up points, which fits in with other Sabre backliners Rasmus Ristolainen and Rasmus Dahlin. If Botterill can add more dependable scorers in the middle of the forward corps, the Sabres should be able to push the puck from the back end with the best of ’em . . . I can’t be the only one who winces each time David Backes drops the gloves for a fight. The proud veteran forward has had no fewer than three concussions since joining the Bruins and one led him to exit the playoffs last year on rubber legs. He teed up in fights in back-to-back games (San Jose-Tampa Bay) this past week for the first time in his career. His courage and willingness are commendable. But, enough.