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Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include the Columbus Blue Jackets rebounding instead of tanking; Patrik Elias approaching milestones amid a miserable season; and notes on Slava Voynov, Las Vegas, Toronto, Buffalo, Edmonton and Calgary.
FIRST PERIOD: Tank? No thanks. The Blue Jackets have rebounded instead
He winced. He wrinkled his nose.
“I don’t like that word,” he said. “I don’t want to be associated with that word.”
That word? Tank.
John Davidson heard it connected to the Columbus Blue Jackets not long ago. The morning of Nov. 30, they had gone 2-13-2 in their last 17 games. They were last in the NHL standings.
It’s not that people didn’t understand the reason: an injury epidemic. It’s that people figured the Jackets would be better off giving up on the season, getting a top draft pick and adding a talent like Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.
By people, we don’t just mean media members. We mean NHL general managers. Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen received lots of calls from colleagues eager to, ahem, help.
But Davidson, the president of hockey operations, declared publicly the team wouldn’t tank. Kekalainen didn’t make major moves. Players started to rejoin the lineup – goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, most notably.
Now the Jackets are back. They entered Thursday night on a seven-game winning streak, one away from the franchise record, and Kekalainen called the playoffs “a very, very realistic goal.” The Jackets were 13-15-2 through 30 games this season. They were 12-15-3 through 30 games last season, and they made it.
“When you’re not winning, just take the circumstances aside, people want change,” said Davidson. “And they’re people on the outside, not on the inside. If we felt we needed a lot of change, we’d make change. But we don’t.
“We were the youngest team in the league going into the season. We’ve had a lot of adversity. And you don’t go out and do things that could become foolish that are going to hurt the goal that you’re trying to achieve.”
Tanking would have compromised the Jackets’ competitive integrity. It would have sent a bad message to fans who have seen only two playoff appearances since the franchise joined the NHL in 2000-01. It would have sent a bad message to players who bought into a blue-collar identity, clawed back into the playoffs last season and still had so much hockey to play.
Davidson and Kekalainen once helped build the St. Louis Blues into contenders without tanking, and they have started to build the Blue Jackets into something. They just haven’t been able to put it on the ice.
At one point, the Jackets were missing 11 players accounting for $32 million in salary. Considering the roster limit is 23 players and the salary cap is $69 million, that’s basically half a team.
They entered Thursday night having already lost 197 man-games to injury. The average NHL team lost 245 man-games to injury over the full 82 games last season. Ten teams lost 198 or fewer.
“It’s not that we’re a bad team,” Davidson said. “We didn’t have our assets. When we have our assets, we’ll battle with people.”
Not that it has been easy to keep the faith. Kekalainen said as guys kept getting hurt, there were a few “you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me moments.” Coach Todd Richards said: “Each time you lose, I think it drags you down a little bit lower.”
“You wondered about hope,” Davidson said.
The Jackets will tell you they never lost it. They will act offended at the suggestion. But Davidson will tell you they had to work hard to hold onto it.
“We had to collect our thoughts and have chats with people and have an understanding that, ‘Listen, this is tough,’ ” Davidson said. “When you have 11 guys out at one time, that’s not normal. Three, four, five guys? You go through it. Eleven? That’s different. So we just had to deal with it, get healthy as quickly as possible and keep the right attitude.”
Nick Foligno volunteered to go from wing to center, even though he hadn’t played there since junior. Richards had wingers switching sides, fourth-liners playing first-line roles, call-ups filling in. Kekalainen spackled holes on defense by acquiring Jordan Leopold from the Blues for a fifth-round pick and Kevin Connauton from the Dallas Stars off waivers.
Bobrovsky has been the biggest reason for the rebound. The 2013 Vezina Trophy winner, who missed seven games because of injury, entered Thursday night having won seven straight with a 1.63 goals-against average and .950 save percentage. Boone Jenner has been another big reason. He entered Thursday night with five goals, six points and a shootout winner in seven games.
Brandon Dubinsky returned last week. Fedor Tyutin returned this week, creating a nice problem for a change – a logjam on defense. Kekalainen traded defenseman Tim Erixon to the Chicago Blackhawks for winger Jeremy Morin.
The Jackets are still without Artem Anisimov, Scott Hartnell, Nathan Horton, Mark Letestu and Ryan Murray. That’s two centers, two scoring wingers and a 21-year-old defenseman drafted second overall in 2012. They still have to close a significant gap and leapfrog several teams in the standings.
But now hope has been upgraded to belief, or optimism, or maybe something stronger, that they can do what they did last season.
“You can’t keep doing this year after year and think you’re going to do it every time, because you aren’t,” Richards said. “The odds will be against you. But I think there is a little bit of confidence knowing that we have done it.”
SECOND PERIOD: Amid miserable season, Elias approaches milestones
This has been a hard season for Patrik Elias and the New Jersey Devils. Elias is 38 years old and has been hampered by injuries. He has three goals and 12 points in 27 games. The Devils are 11-16-6 for 28 points. Entering Thursday night, they were sixth in the Atlantic Division, 14th in the Eastern Conference.
Elias sat out five straight games and six out of seven with a groin injury before Wednesday night, when the Devils dominated the Ottawa Senators but lost, 2-0 – and were booed. Elias told reporters they didn’t deserve it and he didn’t appreciate it.
But Elias is on the verge of multiple milestones, and he deserves appreciation. He’s four goals from 400. He’s one assist from 600. He’s five points from 1,000.
“It means a lot to me,” said Elias in a quiet moment earlier this season. “It means that I obviously have been doing something right over the course of my career, especially to do it for one team.”
Especially this team.
Early in his career, the Devils were actually an offensive force. They ranked ninth, second, second and first in the NHL in goals per game from 1997-98 through 2000-01. Elias’ best season statistically came in ’00-01 when he had 40 goals and 96 points.
“That was a lot of fun, obviously,” Elias said. “But a lot of the years we were the grinding team and trapping team. It gave us a chance to win.”
Starting in 2001-02, the Devils have ranged between 14th and 30th in goals per game. Over 12 seasons, their average rank was 21st. They rank 26th this season. Yet over this period, Elias has still scored at least 20 goals eight times and more than 30 twice. He has still produced at least 55 points eight times and at least 78 three times.
“It’s not easy to score points the way that we’ve played,” he said.
Elias has gone through many linemates in New Jersey. He has gone through many coaches, some more than once: Jacques Lemaire, Robbie Ftorek, Larry Robinson, Kevin Constantine, Pat Burns, Lou Lamoriello, Claude Julien, Brent Sutter, John MacLean, Peter DeBoer. He has won two Stanley Cups and played in two other finals; he has missed the playoffs three times in four years.
He said he was most proud of “just kind of sticking through some positive and some negative years with this team. Personally it wasn’t always a great environment for me sometimes or a great fit with some of the coaches. We didn’t see eye to eye. But you learn that throughout the course of the career and you work through it, and I think that made me better.”
Asked if he could have put up bigger numbers with another team, he laughed.
“I’d probably say no, but who knows?” he said. “Different coaches played you different ways a little bit. Maybe on other teams … I’ve seen it happen many times, when a guy’s playing great for one team, they come to the other team and for some reason just don’t click. I really don’t want to speculate on that.”
Lamoriello, the longtime GM, said he considers Elias a Hall of Famer. That’s debatable. But what isn’t debatable is that Elias has been a great Devil – a guy who sacrifices, who plays in all situations, who doesn’t crave attention.
“He might be unheralded because he’s been part of an organization that has never promoted anyone,” Lamoriello said. “And yet if you win, you will be promoted, and that’s exactly what’s happening right now. His points sneak up on people. His accumulation sneaks up on people. He’s not a top-10 scorer, but he’s consistent every year in what he does, and I think that’s the key, consistency and effectiveness.”
THIRD PERIOD: Notes from around the NHL
— When the NHL suspended Slava Voynov indefinitely after his arrest for suspected domestic violence, did it have the same evidence that became public in court this week? Deputy commissioner Bill Daly declined to comment Thursday. But Daly has said in the past that the league knew more than the public did at the time, and can you imagine now if the league had not suspended Voynov, especially after what the NFL did in the Ray Rice case?
— Voynov deserves due process in court and remains suspended with pay, but the evidence is more than enough to justify his suspension under the collective bargaining agreement and amid this climate. It is also more than enough to raise questions about the Los Angeles Kings, who have supported the suspension publicly but let Voynov take the ice with the team at one practice – and received a $100,000 fine from the NHL.
— Daly confirmed NHL officials met with Bill Foley’s representatives this week to discuss the season-ticket drive in Las Vegas. “Good discussion fleshing out what they have planned,” Daly wrote in an email. “Still a work in progress.” Foley’s group, Hockey Vision Las Vegas, has put up a website: lasvegas-hockey.com. The drive is scheduled to start in February.
— Remain skeptical of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Buffalo Sabres. The Leafs entered Thursday night on a 10-1-1 run. But as we wrote last week, they set a goal of keeping their shots against at 25 or fewer. Their shots against the past nine games: 37, 38, 26, 46, 33, 42, 28, 36, 42. The Sabres are on a 10-3-0 run. But they have been outshot by more than 10 on average over that stretch. These are still two of the worst possession teams in the league.
— The Edmonton Oilers fired coach Dallas Eakins when they ranked 20th in Fenwick (percentage of unblocked shot attempts 5-on-5) and 30th in PDO (combined save and shooting percentage). The Calgary Flames extended coach Bob Hartley when they were 27th in Fenwick and ninth in PDO. In other words, the Oilers weren’t a great possession team but were better than the Flames. While the Oilers had the worst luck, the Flames had good luck. That’s not the whole story. But the standings aren’t, either.
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