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Blue Jackets eager to prove doubters wrong without Bobrovsky, Panarin

Players, GM think they can be successful after departures of top goalie, forward

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

The Columbus Blue Jackets said they're angry and offended about the narrative that has followed them since goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and left wing Artemi Panarin signed with other teams July 1.

"All of a sudden just because we lose a couple players, we're supposed to be a lottery team or no good?" Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said in a recent phone interview. "It's aggravating to me and it's insulting to those guys. I'm mad. I'm mad for the players that are here."

Kekalainen's emotions are backed up by facts.

Three teams have more wins in the past three seasons than Columbus' 142. Ten of their active players appeared in at least 200 games with the Blue Jackets in the same time frame, including defensemen Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, and forward Cam Atkinson, who has a team-high 100 goals in the span, including 41 last season.

Columbus reached the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season for the first time. Coach John Tortorella is running training camp for a fourth straight season, another Blue Jackets first.

By all indications, the Blue Jackets have the foundation in place and the stability in the organization to warrant belief that they will stay a consistent winner this season.

Video: Top five plays of 2018-19: Atkinson

Instead, the talk since July 1 is how they should fall to pieces because of who they lost; Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner as the League's top goalie who signed with the Florida Panthers, and Panarin, their leading scorer from the past two seasons who signed with the New York Rangers after setting a Blue Jackets record for most points in a season with 82 in 2017-18 and topping it last season with 87.

Columbus also didn't re-sign forwards Matt Duchene (signed with the Nashville Predators) and Ryan Dzingel (signed with the Carolina Hurricanes), but the skepticism comes mostly from replacing Bobrovsky and Panarin.

It's misguided, Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said.

"If we were a team that has won a bunch of Stanley Cups and maybe lost guys and are changing an era, I'd get it," Foligno said. "We haven't really done anything, which is why I kind of laugh at what this expectation is of our team. Even with those guys, it wasn't like we were winning championships."

But the Blue Jackets did sweep the Presidents' Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning last season for their first playoff series win. Bobrovsky had a .932 save percentage and Panarin had five points (two goals, three assists) in the series.

Video: CBJ@TBL, Gm1: Foligno cashes in on breakaway

The difference this season and the reason the Blue Jackets believe they can and will prove their critics wrong this season is because the players who remain part of the core group said they believe in the culture of accountability and success they've created in the past three seasons.

"When I came here eight years ago, we were holding on to anyone we could; it's not like that anymore," Foligno said. "It's not, 'Come to the Blue Jackets because we need you,' it's 'Come to the Blue Jackets because you want to be here.' I think that culture has changed dramatically."

Culture doesn't make proven No. 1 goalies. Columbus doesn't have one, which maybe more than any other reason is why there is doubt about its ability to be a playoff team again.

Joonas Korpisalo, the favorite to take over as the No. 1 for Bobrovsky, has played 90 NHL games across four seasons, starting 81. His competition, Elvis Merzlikins, has never played an NHL game.

"We believe in them," defenseman Seth Jones said. "You can see it in camp. They look quick, energized, ready to go. They understand what is at stake."

Foligno said he's noticed Korpisalo playing more square to the shooter than in past seasons.

"How exciting for him to know that it's not going to be the same as it always is," Foligno said. "You're not competing for the backup job, you're actually getting the chance to play 40, 50, maybe 60 games this year. That's got to be a thrill."

The Blue Jackets have already talked about changing their style of play to help the goalies. It'll be a change from the past, when Foligno said they took Bobrovsky for granted, at least until the playoffs last season.

"We're going to concentrate on being above the puck, make these guys feel we have numbers back, not get into the odd-man rushes," Tortorella said. "We changed our style in the playoffs versus Tampa, so I think it really feeds nicely into how we're going to approach it."

The Blue Jackets don't have one player who can take over for Panarin, but they said they believe they have enough in the group to make up for the production loss.

Kekalainen said center Pierre-Luc Dubois was the best in fitness testing in training camp and the expectation is that will translate to a "monster" season. Dubois had 61 points (27 goals, 34 assists) in 81 games last season. Could he be a 75-point center this season?

Video: CBJ@OTT: Dubois chips in loose puck for second goal

Jones and Foligno mentioned forwards Josh Anderson (27 goals, 20 assists) and Oliver Bjorkstrand (23 goals, 13 assists) and the expectation for them to improve on their numbers from last season with more opportunity after Panarin opted to play in New York. Could they each be 30-goal scorers?

Gustav Nyquist should help. The forward, who signed a four-year contract with Columbus on July 1, had 60 points (22 goals, 38 assists) in 83 games split between the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks last season. He has scored at least 40 points in each of six full NHL seasons.

"We're going to prove a lot of people wrong," Atkinson said. "People have already written us off. Let them."

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