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Season Preview: Blue Jackets ready to keep the momentum going

Coming off three straight playoff bids, Columbus is gunning for another strong year

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

Whether it was Mike Priest, Jarmo Kekalainen, Nick Foligno or anyone who is associated with the Blue Jackets, many a summer conversation went the same. 

First, it usually began with, "How much fun was that?" a reference to the team's four-game sweep of a historically good Tampa Bay team in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Those around both Columbus and the NHL took note of the raucous atmosphere in and around Nationwide Arena and the explosion of passion around the Blue Jackets. 

Then, the conversation would quickly shift to something along the lines of, "It's too bad, isn't it?" That, of course, was a reference to the free agency decisions of leading scorer Artemi Panarin, starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and trade deadline acquisition Matt Duchene.  

The implication is that while last spring was fun, darker days are ahead for the Blue Jackets. A look at the national prognostications drives that home. Of the 20 writers to forecast the upcoming season, just one -- Nicholas J. Cotsonika -- has picked the Blue Jackets to return to the playoffs. Sports Illustrated's preseason NHL power rankings have Columbus rated 25th of 31 NHL teams; The Athletic has the team 23rd in its poll; theScore ranks the team 27th.  

It didn't take Kekalainen, the team's general manager, long to bristle at the talk during his comments at the team's media day in early September.  

"I'm a little aggravated by the doubters, to be honest with you, because it shows disrespect to our core group that's brought us all that success that we've had in the last three years," Kekalainen said. "Three teams have more regular season wins than we do (in that span), and we did have 108 points the season before Panarin arrived here.  

"I'm a little bit upset about all that and getting fed up talking about. We're going to surprise some people with the young players we have coming in." 

Foligno admitted he's heard the same talk, from experts and casual observers alike. He has a similar reaction as his general manager. 

"They'll say it to you, but not to be rude, but a lot of them don't have a clue what they're talking about," he said. "They're just going by what they're reading or what they're seeing out there. It's hard for us because we live it every day. I see it. Sometimes, your shiny new things go away, but you don't realize that the foundation is there. There is other people coming up that have been surpressed by it.

"That's what I'm excited about. There's some really good players in our system that haven't had a chance to have the spotlight because of certain players. Sometimes you see a team really come together because of that." 

If it seems like there could be a chip on the shoulder of the team, you wouldn't be wrong. That's the term head coach John Tortorella used when speaking at the start of camp, and being doubted is often one of the most powerful motivators in sports. 

But if the Blue Jackets are to keep alive a three-year postseason streak, it will have to come via more than just inspiration. Columbus will have to play good hockey as well, so how do the Blue Jackets plan to go about that? 

Here's a collection of news and notes to know about the Blue Jackets going into the season, which begins Friday at Nationwide Arena vs. Toronto. 

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Lines to know: Tortorella says he hasn't set lines yet, but the same trios have spent most of training camp together. 

On the top line, that includes 20-year-old rookie Alexandre Texier skating in the spot vacated by Panarin next to center Pierre-Luc Dubois and veteran winger Cam Atkinson. No one seems to doubt Texier's talent, and he doesn't lack for confidence, so he could be ready a big role despite having just two NHL regular-season games under his belt.  

Dubois, meanwhile, has put together two standout seasons and is one of the best mixtures of size and skill in the NHL. At 21 years old, he'll be counted on to be a leader. Then there's Atkinson, who Tortorella points to as a key piece of the puzzle coming off a franchise record-tying 41-goal campaign. 

"He's a huge piece this year to where he has to be even better," Tortorella said. "The conversation I had with him this summer, he kept improving, 40 goals, but we are going to need more out of him. And I believe we'll get that. I think he knows there's more there." 

The plan also appears to be pairing Swedish forwards Gustav Nyquist and Alexander Wennberg together, a move that seems designed to kick-start Wennberg some. Nyquist enters as the team's big fish in the free agent market, a player who will be counted on to match his career average of 50 points per season and perhaps even top last year's career-high mark of 60. 

Wennberg, meanwhile, has seen his production drop from 59 points two years ago to 25 a year ago. Tortorella, though, seems excited by the progress made this fall by the center who just turned 25.  

"Wenny came in with the right concentration of what he has to do to improve as a player, and that is carrying the puck, playing in traffic with the puck," Tortorella said. "That means he has the puck, and he has certainly shot the puck when he's had the opportunity. He's played very well in camp."  

Those two have been paired with Oliver Bjorkstrand, the young forward who was red-hot to end last season on the way to a career-high 23 goals. Thirty tallies would seem to be on the table, but he'll have to be at the top of his game from the word go to get there. 

That would leave Foligno to be paired with Boone Jenner and Josh Anderson in the reuniting of a heavy line that helped the team set its identity a year ago. It's an intriguing mixture of grit and skill, as the three combined for 62 goals a year ago including Anderson's career-best 27. 

"It's a fun line because I think we can do a lot of different things," Foligno said. "I think we're obviously heavy and we can skate well, and then we can also get down low and grind and also be defensively responsible as well. We pride ourselves on being a line that doesn't spend a lot of time in our own end. That's going to really help our team. I think we really feel comfortable playing with each other since we played together quite a bit last year and had a lot of success." 

And the fourth line to start will feature Riley Nash centering two of the following three wingers: Sonny Milano, Emil Bemstrom and Jakob Lilja. 

A different style: One thing Tortorella has returned to this fall is the need to play a different style than the "Safe is Death" mantra the team has embraced in the past few years while spurred on by a talented backline that can add offense. 

But the head coach has also been clear that he doesn't expect to park the bus in front of his own net, either. There's no plan to try to win games 2-1, though the Blue Jackets would surely take those.  

Instead, the hope is to let the teams young goalies get their feet wet without being peppered with high-quality scoring chances like 2-on-1s and 3-on-2s.  

"We're not just falling back and waiting for people," Tortorella said. "We're going to forecheck. We need to be concentrating when we don't have the puck as far as not gliding when you're chasing a guy vs. taking two hard strides quickly and you're above them, because that stops a lot of teams' offense right away. I saw that in the Tampa series. It just bottled them up right away because we were above them. They had to skate through us. 

"You give a good offensive player a chance to get a foot in front of you, that's when offenses develop because they have some ice to play on. That's the biggest concentration we've talked about. We're not changing how we're going to play." 

Defensive depth: If there's one unquestioned strength of the Blue Jackets on paper, it's the team's defensive corps. 

The Blue Jackets already have had to shuttle one of the team's playoff defensemen, Adam Clendening, back to AHL Cleveland, while promising rookie Andrew Peeke was one of the last cuts despite a strong preseason. 

That's because Columbus goes eight deep on the blue line, led by All-Star standouts Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Their exploits don't have to be explained to Blue Jackets fans, and both enter the season healthy, a changeup from a year ago when Jones was out for the start of the season with a knee injury while Werenski was continuing to get back in the flow of things because of offseason shoulder surgery. 

The depth keeps going from there. Ryan Murray was playing at an All-Star level a season ago before an injury ended his season, but he has looked like himself in preseason and could pair with Jones to start the campaign. Dependable veteran David Savard is coming off of a season in which he finished strong on both sides of the ice, while Markus Nutivaara also came on late and possesses one of the league's best breakout passes from his own zone. 

Then there's Dean Kukan, whose end-of-season breakout was fueled by tremendous poise on the puck; Scott Harrington, the battler who earned his keep a season ago while setting career highs in games and points; and Russian import Vladislav Gavrikov, who had little left to prove in his home country.   

Intriguing goaltending: We've written extensively over the preseason about the team's goaltending, but it should be a fascinating battle to watch. 

The Blue Jackets' pair of 25-year-olds has talent will have to prove its worth on the ice as it goes about replacing Bobrovsky. One option is the more experienced Joonas Korpisalo, who came to camp intent on earning the No. 1 job he's watched Bobrovsky fill the past four seasons. The other is Latvian import Elvis Merzlikins, who comes from a decorated European career but has spent the last month getting acclimated to the North American game. 

The two have worked extensively with goalie coach Manny Legace this fall. Their chance to turn heads around the NHL is now upon them.  

Three Thoughts 

1. One thing Tortorella has talked about extensively this fall is getting a strong start from Bjorkstrand, who had just three goals in his first 30 games a season ago before potting 20 in his last 47. That includes a run of nine goals in the last 10 game as the Blue Jackets were cementing a postseason spot. He's proved he can do it on a big stage, but now the head coach wants to see the Danish sniper be consistent all season. 

2. An poll of hockey experts released Tuesday had Jones as the No. 2 candidate for the Norris Trophy this season behind only Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman. Jones was a chic candidate for the honor going into last season as well, but he admitted he had some ups and downs in his game at times and ended up finishing ninth in the voting. He was dominant in playoffs, though, and looked to be at a new level this camp, so it will be fun to see how that carries into the season. 

3. One thing that's been interesting to me is that computer models generally have the Blue Jackets ahead of their human counterparts. This breakdown of preseason projections by Sean Tierney shows Columbus as right in the middle of the NHL pack this season, and that's with the models' questions about the team's untested goaltending, while most human prognosticators seem less bullish on the team (see above). The computer projections tell me the Jackets should have a strong core of skaters. If the goaltending is above average, this should be a really good team.  

Stats To Know (via #NHLStats) 

  • The Blue Jackets enter the season looking for a fourth consecutive season with at least 45 wins, a feat achieved 16 times in NHL history. Columbus is one of three franchises with an active streak of at least three straight 45-win seasons (Washington has five straight, San Jose four).  
  • Werenski, 22, has 38 goals over the past three seasons, placing third in the NHL at his position in that span. He needs 12 goals in 2019-20 to become the 15th blueliner in NHL history to score at least 50 goals before age 23. 
  • With another 20-goal performance in 2019-20, Dubois would become the first player in Blue Jackets history to begin his NHL career with three straight 20-goal seasons. 
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