Saturday, January 14, 2017

First Place at the Turn. But Wait! There's More!

Joonas Korpisalo wins a big one.
The Columbus Blue Jackets reached the mid-point of their season, and remain in first place in the NHL on the strength of a solid win by Joonas Korpisalo.  The big Finn got his glove engaged early, and did a good job swallowing pucks against the surging Tampa Bay Lightening.  The Bolts were surging due to the energy provided by the ceremony for the retirement of Marty St. Louis' jersey by the home team, and the Jackets had to contain their charge.

Eventually the Jackets found their legs, potted 2 goals and an empty netter to pull away and win 3-1 to maintain their first place position against the streaking Washington Capitals.  To me, the ice firmly tilted in the Jackets favor when the newly constituted second power play unit got on the ice, with Seth Jones and Ryan Murray on D, and William Karlsson, Brandon Saad and Scott Hartnell as forwards.  This group put on pressure to score, and seamlessly transitioned into 5 on 5 play when the power play was over.  This evidently got the attention of the first power play unit, which responded by scoring on its next opportunity instead of just passing the puck around.  So far that second unit has only seen the ice one time.  I can't wait to see what happens when they get familiar with one another. And I like the pressure to score they put on the first unit.  Healthy competition.

So, the first half of the season is in the books, and the Jackets end up in holding first place.  A very creditable effort.  So what will we see in the second half of the season?  Scarily, I think this team could get better, and perhaps challenge for a President's trophy.  Crazy?  Absolutely!  But here is why I think this is possible.  It starts with Joonas Korpisalo, and it ends with Markus Nutivaara.
Markus Nutivaara.

Let's start with Joonas Korpisalo.  With the crazy run to the Calder Cup Championship by the Lake Erie Monsters, I forgot the magnitude of the  importance of Korpisalo's contribution to the Blue Jackets last year.  A lost team in a lost season, the goal tending corps decimated by injuries, and along comes the young Finn to stake the team to a 13-3 run to let them complete the year with a winning feeling.  I may have forgotten, but John Tortorella and the leadership core of the players have not forgotten.  It was the only real success they enjoyed last year.  So to say that they are comfortable with Korpisalo in net is an understatement.

If you superimpose that 13-3 run from last year on top of the way Bob is playing, this team starts to look really scary good.  Korpisalo doesn't really need to be that good for the team to have success, but he might need it if he wants to keep the number 2 job.

Before I go on, I'd like to quickly digress about Anton Forsberg.  I am disappointed for him that his initial shot at the number 2 spot didn't work out.  But I think this guy is a good goal tender, he just needs to learn to play with confidence in the NHL, and so far he has been unable to do that.  But I think it will come.  Hang in there Anton!  The likelihood that Vegas is going to snatch Korpisalo will be growing ever higher, so organizationally we need Anton Forsberg to succeed.

Okay, back on topic.  The second thing I wanted to talk about was the importance of Markus Nutivaara's contribution.  The fleet defenseman brings a real turn of speed and composure to the third pairing.  He is simply fantastic for a rookie playing in North America for the first time.  But let's examine more closely what he has been able to do.  In order to accommodate the rookie in the lineup, Nutivaara's line mate, Ryan Murray shifted to the right side, as they are both left shot defenseman.  This put Murray on his backhand for probably the first time in his career, and it took awhile for Murray to get comfortable there.  It is a credit to the young defenseman that he could make such a shift in the midst of an NHL season.  But here of late I have noticed that Nutivaara has been playing the right side, which puts Murray on his forehand again.  And last night I saw Nutivaara circle behind the net, gather Murray's pass on his back hand and go steaming up the ice.  Markus' ability to play the right side raises interesting possibilities.

Zach Werenski, also a left shot defenseman,  has had an amazing rookie campaign of his own.  And he has stood up well to the white hot pressure of playing on a top pairing with Jones.  But he is now at a point where he is playing more games than he has ever played in any given year.  And he is showing some of the normal signs of struggle that young players go through when the entire NHL decides that it is worth their while to mess with your game.  If the heat starts to get a little much, it may be well to give him some relief from that top pair so he can still get the minutes in.  So if Nutivaara can play the right side, I am immensely curious to see what would happen if you paired Werenski with Nutivaara at times.  That is a defensive pairing that could REALLY skate, and it might open up some real possibilities offensively.  In addition, it allows you to move Murray up with Jones, which may yet be the best pairing on the team.  That Wereneski can move that pairing around as a rookie is a real testament to his talent and ability to play at a high level.

So as crazy as it seems, even though the Jackets are in first place, there are some real reasons to think that they may get better as we go down the stretch.  And there yet remains a great deal of talent in the AHL should people start to falter as the heat gets turned up (thinking Bjorkstrand on the top PP unit here).

Tonight its the Panthers, and Torts said Joonas might get the net again.  This is not Gerard Gallant's Panthers, so lets hope the Jackets can do some damage tonight!


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