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Blue Jackets brain trust defiant as Columbus enters training camp

Kekalainen, Tortorella have a chip on their shoulders as team begins preparations

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

John Tortorella isn't the biggest consumer of hockey media, but even he can't avoid hearing the talk surrounding the Columbus Blue Jackets this season. 

After the departures of leading scorer Artemi Panarin, starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and No. 1 center Matt Duchene, many around the hockey world feel Columbus is going to take a step back this year. 

Torts doesn't fire up NHL Network all that often in his down time, but the message has still been delivered to the Blue Jackets' coach. 

And yes, as you might expect, he's fired up about it.  

"I don't really give a (crap) about what people say as far as what they think is going to happen with the team," Tortorella said at the team's annual media luncheon Wednesday. "I don't read it, but I have everybody that I see tell me about what hey have read. It's put a huge chip on my shoulder before it's even started here.  

"Usually I have a chip on my shoulder about something else -- about the conditioning of the team, or this guy wasn't ready, whatever it may be, I'm fighting with Jarmo. I don't know, it could be a number of things.  

"But this one here, it's in place and has been in place for me for a number of weeks now as people talk at me." 

CBJ TRAINING CAMP: Full schedule plus information on Saturday's open practice

And while Tortorella is known as a heart-on-his-sleeve kind of guy, he's got the opposite as his boss in Jarmo Kekalainen. 

But even the reserved Blue Jackets general manager has a similar feeling as the team he's assembled gets ready to start training camp Thursday. 

Video: Torts talks offseason, training camp

"We're very, very confident in our core group," Kekalainen said. "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. … 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." 

It might sound cliché -- the "no one believes in us" soundbite in sports seems as old as the soundbite itself -- but the Blue Jackets do seem to be fully embracing the position they're in heading into the campaign. 

Yes, the three players mentioned above -- as well as deadline acquisitions Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid and Keith Kinkaid -- are not returning. But Columbus has built a culture of success with three straight playoff appearances highlighted by last season's first-round sweep of Tampa Bay before the Jackets pushed Boston in a grueling six-game series. 

Only three NHL teams have more regular-season wins than the Blue Jackets the past three seasons, and Columbus is one of three teams in the league with three straight 45-win campaigns. In other words, it's a franchise that has established as solid a footing as any in the NHL under Kekalainen and Tortorella. 

As for the question marks the team faces, there is also confidence the holes can be filled. The biggest one might be in net, where the Blue Jackets will turn to four-year second-stringer Joonas Korpisalo and European rookies Elvis Merzlikins and Veini Vehvilainen. 

What the Blue Jackets lack in experience -- the team goaltending roster has just 90 career starts, all belonging to Korpisalo, an NHL low entering the season -- they make up for in talent. 

"it's very high, otherwise we would have done something about it, something differently," Kekalainen said when asked about his confidence level in the goaltending unit. "We have two very talented young goalies who really haven't gotten their opportunity to show they can play in the NHL, and now they'll get that opportunity." 

GOALIES: Merzlikins, Vehvilainen make progress in Traverse City

As for any holes in scoring created by the departure of Panarin -- who set the franchise record for points in 2017-18 and then broke it last year -- there are some patches in place. First, it bears repeating that 12 of the top 13 point scorers from last year's team return. The team also added veteran free agent Gustav Nyquist, who had a career-high 60 points last year and has averaged 50 per 82 games in his career, and the list of returning Blue Jackets who could add to their career-high goal totals is lengthy.  

From rapidly improving youngsters Pierre-Luc Dubois, Josh Anderson and Oliver Bjorkstrand to rookies Alexandre Texier and Emil Bemstrom to talented defensemen Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, there's reason to expect players can keep rounding into their best selves as they gain more experience.  

"Not one particular person can do the things Bread does," Tortorella said. "You do it by a group of players stepping up. ... I think everybody needs to continue to improve. We have players that are young enough that are still learning the need to expect that out of themselves. We are happy about the progress of this team, but we didn't get out of the second round last year. So we're going to have to improve. That's incumbent upon everybody to have that type of mindset." 

Everything will require a team effort, from goal scoring to a slightly less risky, more gritty style of play that can take pressure off the young goaltenders as they ease into the season.  

But there's no lack of confidence among the Blue Jackets braintrust -- or the players -- going into camp. No matter what is said, Columbus maintains it has built a young, talented roster that will be able to withstand the rigors of the NHL season.  

"I have a tremendous amount of confidence in the core of this group and the right type of arrogance that we displayed, albeit we don't get out of the second round, but I thought we played some really good hockey even in that second round when we were eliminated," Tortorella said. "I just don't want us to lose that. We just have to close our ears and worry about ourselves and go about our business the right way." 

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