COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Columbus Blue Jackets played under a cloud last season created by two stars who didn’t want to be there.
The team still made the playoffs and had a signature triumph for the franchise with a stunning first-round playoff sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and forward Artemi Panarin are now yesterday’s news in Columbus and the team remains confident. That’s due to a core of veteran players who have been together for three consecutive playoff appearances, and some flashy prospects that appear ready to play in the NHL.
“We’ve gone through everything: expectation, counted out, wondering what’s going to go on, Dumpster fire, whatever you want to call it, and we found our way through it, we navigated through it,” captain Nick Foligno said. “I think we have really good stability now in our locker room, I think our core has been together awhile now and really understands each other. I’ve got great guys to lean on.”
Coach John Tortorella is already tired of talking about life after Bobrovsky and Panarin. He told reporters at the season-opening media session that he wouldn’t answer questions about them anymore. He’s also had it with the predictions of doom.
“It’s put a huge chip on my shoulder before it’s even started here,” Tortorella said. “Usually I have a chip on my shoulder about something else. … 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. So we’re going to go about our business the way we think we need to go about it.”
The bottom line is that veterans like Foligno, Cam Atkinson or Pierre-Luc Dubois are going to have to turn in career seasons to make up for Panarin’s 87 points from last year. And either veteran Joonas Korpisalo, rookie Elvis Merzlikins or someone else is going to have to be a reliable, everyday goalie.
“I’m looking forward to this year because they want to be here, they want to be in this city,” Tortorella said. “That’s really important as we keep on pushing through here. I think it can galvanize you to be a better person and better player when you’re happy with where you’re at, who you’re doing it with.”
Blue Jackets’ Season:
WHO’S HERE: F Gustav Nyquist (22-38-60 last year with Detroit and San Jose)
WHO’S NOT: G Sergei Bobrovsky, F Artemi Panarin, F Matt Duchene, F Ryan Dzingel, D Adam McQuaid.
Blue Jackets Key Players
With the loss of Panarin, veteran scorers will be asked to give more. The Blue Jackets still have one of the best blue lines in the NHL with all-stars Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, who just inked a three-year contract extension. Forward Josh Anderson seems ready to take charge, while it could be a make-or-break year for underachieving centre Alexander Wennberg.
Fans kept waiting for general manager Jarmo Kekalainen to make an off-season blockbuster deal that never came. As a result, a group of familiar players will try to fill the void left by Panarin. The bigger question is the goaltending.
The Blue Jackets caught fire down the stretch last season, won an Eastern Division wild card slot in the 81st game and pulled off a stunning first-round playoff sweep of the Lightning, the NHL’s best team. Columbus was ousted in the second round by Boston but energized a hungry fan base. Unless some familiar names can pick up the slack, Columbus could be on the outside looking in this time around.
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Mitch Stacy, The Associated Press