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Blue Jackets set sights on elusive next step

Trade for Panarin, more puck possession among keys to advancing beyond first round of playoffs

by Craig Merz / NHL.com Correspondent

When the Columbus Blue Jackets acquired left wing Artemi Panarin in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks on June 23, it gave them the dynamic player they think is needed to compete for the Stanley Cup.

Even though the Blue Jackets had the fourth-most points in the NHL last season (108), their five-game loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference First Round showed the gap between Columbus and the Stanley Cup champions. It's one that Panarin, who had 151 points (61 goals, 90 assists) the past two seasons with Chicago, can help narrow and enable the Blue Jackets to reach the second round for the first time.

With the security that two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky (2013, 2017) brings, coach John Tortorella's "safe is death" mentality will look for ways to improve on a plus-54 goal differential that was third in the NHL behind the Washington Capitals (plus-84) and Minnesota Wild (plus-57).

Here is a look at the five keys for the Blue Jackets, the inside scoop on their roster questions and projected lines for the 2017-18 season:

 

5 KEYS

1. Filling holes in the middle

Alexander Wennberg is expected to center Panarin and right wing Cam Atkinson on the top line after setting NHL career-highs in goals (13), assists (46) and points (59) last season. Brandon Dubinsky is the projected No. 2 center, but his status for the regular-season opener against the New York Islanders at Nationwide Arena on Oct. 6 is in doubt while he recovers from surgery to his right wrist he had May 29. With the loss of William Karlsson to the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft, wings Boone Jenner and Nick Foligno could be the third-line center, as could Lukas Sedlak, Jordan Schroeder and rookie Pierre-Luc Dubois, the No. 3 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. Sam Vigneault was in the mix but is out 4-6 weeks with a broken finger.

Video: CBJ@NYR: Wennberg buries rebound on backhand in 2nd

2. Being puck hogs

Tortorella wants more puck possession that leads to better scoring opportunities. "We found a little bit in the Pittsburgh series we had to work so hard for our goals," he said. "We'd end up with eight or nine scoring chances and we'd get nothing. They'd get a rush and score off the rush on their first chance. That was a big part of that series. We're cognizant about keeping the puck. A big part of our identity, and it really grew throughout the season, was not being a safe team, expressing yourself offensively, but when we don't have the puck, be willing to do the stuff to get it back."

3. What about 'Bob'?

As good as Bobrovsky was in the regular season (41-17-5, 2.06 goals-against average, .931 save percentage), he was 1-4 with a 3.88 GAA and .882 save percentage in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. "That stings long inside of me," he said. "I don't like to lose and that's what motivates me." Tortorella said his confidence in him is unwavering. "I don't have a worry in the world about [Bobrovsky]," he said. "He was the best goaltender in the League last year. That wasn't a fluke. That's how well he played."

4. High goals, higher expectations

Columbus will try to avoid what happened the previous two times they made the playoffs: not qualifying the following season. "I'm not promising anything, but we know we're a better team than we were a couple of years ago," Foligno, the captain, said. "Hopefully we're a better team than we were last year just from the mental side of things."

5. Can Cam continue?

Atkinson, 28, led the Blue Jackets in scoring and set NHL career-highs in goals (35), assists (27) and points (62). He can become an unrestricted free agent July 1 and said if a new contract is not done before the season starts, talks will cease until it's over. "I don't want to worry about getting a phone call about it every two weeks," Atkinson said. "I want to worry about what I can do to help the team win, scoring goals, whatever that may be. I don't want the head games."

Video: PIT@CBJ, Gm3: Atkinson steals, nets his second of 1st


 
ROSTER RUNDOWN

Biggest lock

Defenseman Zach Werenski finished third in Calder Trophy voting behind forwards Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Patrik Laine (Winnipeg Jets). He set a Blue Jackets rookie points record with 47 (11 goals, 36 assists), surpassing Rick Nash's 39 in 2002-03. Werenski's points were the sixth-most by a teenage defenseman in a rookie season in NHL history.

Video: Zach Werenski lands at No. 50 on the list

Biggest battle

With restricted free agent Josh Anderson holding out for a new contract, there's potentially an unexpected opportunity for someone otherwise headed to Cleveland of the American Hockey League. Schroeder, if he doesn't stick at center, Tyler Motte, Markus Hannikainen, and rookies Vitaly Abramov and Sonny Milano, could earn a spot. "He may lose his job and that's the way it works," Tortorella said of Anderson. "That's healthy. That's not a threat, it's healthy."

Most intriguing addition

Motte, 22, arrived in the Panarin trade and showed some potential in limited time with Blackhawks as a rookie. Early in the season, he was left wing on the top line with center Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik. Motte, a University of Michigan teammate of Werenski, had seven points (four goals, three assists) in 33 games for Chicago before being sent to Rockford of the AHL. "We've got some guys who've got some really strong attitudes about coming in here to push for jobs," Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson said. "That's a good sign for our organization."

Biggest potential surprise

Abramov, 19, has the Blue Jackets excited although his arrival may be a season away. He was the leading scorer and MVP in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season with 104 points (46 goals, 58 assists) in 66 games for Gatineau, and had four points (goal, three assists) in four games when he joined Cleveland at the end of the season. He doesn't mind the physical play and had 76 penalty minutes for Gatineau. "Abramov's not the biggest guy (5-foot-10, 181 points) but he loves to play hockey," Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "He loves to drive to the net and score goals. He's gotten quicker and he's gotten faster. It's great to see."


 
PROJECTED LINEUP

Artemi Panarin -- Alexander Wennberg -- Cam Atkinson

Boone Jenner -- Brandon Dubinsky -- Josh Anderson

Nick Foligno -- Pierre-Luc Dubois -- Oliver Bjorkstrand

Matt Calvert -- Lukas Sedlak -- Tyler Motte

Zach Werenski -- Seth Jones

Jack Johnson -- David Savard

Ryan Murray -- Gabriel Carlsson

Sergei Bobrovsky

Joonas Korpisalo

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