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Playoff Preview: Game 1 Blue Jackets at Maple Leafs

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Rookies everywhere you look!

London Knights v Peterborough Petes Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Who: Columbus Blue Jackets at Toronto Maple Leafs
When: 8 PM Toronto time, Sunday August 2, for the first Leafs game in August
Where: Toronto Hub
Cannon?: Toronto is the home team, but it seems they are using both teams’ horn in every game, so there’s only one way to not have the cannon sound
How to watch on TV: Sportsnet, TVAS, NHLN, FS-O
How to watch streaming: Sportsnet (requires TV login or paid subscription), NHL Live (aka Rogers NHL Live, also requires paid subscription), this game is not on CBC Gem.

We’ve told you everything we can think of about this matchup:

So now, I’m going to go to the other side of the ice and ask The Jacket’s Cannon’s Pale Dragon for some opinions.

We think John Tortorella is very good at using his players in the best way, recognizing their skills and trying to fill the team’s needs. But no coach is perfect. What player or players do you think he uses too much or in the wrong way?

It’s tough to read too much into usage this season, with the team leading the league in man games lost. With key players being out, AHL guys rotating in, and stars slumping offensively, Torts was in a position of having to throw stuff at the wall each night to see what would stick. That being said, a major miscast player is Boone Jenner. In his younger days, he looked like a promising top 6 power winger. He scored 30 goals in 2015-16! Since then, he has lost a step and his finishing ability dropped off, and two years ago he was moved to center. This speaks more to the dreadful lack of center depth in the organization than it does to his natural abilities there. He is legitimately good at winning faceoffs (another team weakness) and he hits A LOT, so he’s been framed as a checking line center. The problem is, his defensive numbers are really not very good at all. He plays Torts hockey, so Torts trusts him. He was the second most-used forward on the team this season, based on minutes per game, behind Nick Foligno and ahead of guys like Pierre-Luc Dubois, Gustav Nyquist, and Oliver BJORKSTRAND. That’s way too much for a guy who doesn’t drive play well and doesn’t suppress shots. This article from January describes his shortcomings: https://www.jacketscannon.com/2020/1/28/21110924/boone-jenner-minutes-defense-center-columbus-blue-jackets-struggles-not-great-bob

Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins were never expected to help their team into the playoffs. What’s your confidence level in them now, and who is going to get the starter’s chair?

There was one person who expected them to lead this team to the playoffs: General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen. He didn’t seek a trade or veteran signing when Sergei Bobrovsky left, because he trusted that at least one of these guys could step up and be the guy. Fortunately, each one stepped up at different points in the season and helped carry the team to success. Because of the team’s defensive structure, I think they can win with either goalie in net. I do think success is more likely with Elvis Merzlikins. He took nearly 3 months before he won an NHL game (against Bobrovsky, as it turns out), but since then I think he has shown enough to be the long term answer. Both goalies signed new, two-year contracts during the break; Merzlikins will make $1.2M more per season. I think that reveals who the front office has more confidence in. As for this series, the consensus among fans seems to be that they want Elvis to start, but everyone expects Torts to pick Korpi for Game 1. No matter who he chooses then, the talent on the bench gives him the luxury of having a short leash if either runs into trouble. I would bet that both play in this series.

Columbus has used a lot of players this season, and is bringing a big roster to the hub. Who is flying under the radar as a good player no one has heard of?

After 20 years of being mostly a small market bottom-dweller, I’m used to most Columbus players flying under the radar, ha! My first answer is Vladislav Gavrikov. The 24 year old defenseman joined the team last spring after spending his developmental years in the KHL and on the Russian national team. This season he found a home on the second pair next to David Savard. As has been the case for Savard in every of the Torts era, this became a great shutdown pairing. Gavrikov doesn’t do any one thing in a way that catches your eye, but he does all of the little things which make him effective. He’s an unnoticeable defenseman in a good way, like a defensive back in football that quarterbacks throw away from.

The other dark horse that I think can be an X factor is Emil Bemstrom. The 21 year old winger led the SHL in goals as a teenager last season. His best skill was an already NHL-level one-timer from the left circle. Unfortunately it took him awhile to adjust to the speed and physicality of the NHL game. I’m sure he would have been sent down to the AHL for a spell had his contract allowed it. As he started to gain confidence, he got hurt in December. Once he came back, however, he started to show his potential. His shooting percentage jumped 5 points and he averaged 3 more minutes per game. He had 5 goals in his last 8 games before the shutdown. Being stuck on the fourth line may limit him, but he is getting extra minutes on the second power play unit and I think he can make a mark there...if someone can get him the puck.

Liam Foudy has made the roster. Will he play? And what should we expect?

Liam Foudy will definitely play, and based on his usage in the exhibition and in his two call-ups in February, he’ll get middle six minutes. He’s fast and physical, which means he plays Torts hockey. The knock on him in his draft year was that he was a tremendous athlete, but may lack high end hockey skill. I thought that was an accurate description based on what I saw in the training camp scrimmages, but then against Boston he made a great pass to set up Jenner’s game-opening goal. What impresses me most about him is that he knows where he is supposed to be on the ice. That’s not always the case with these young players. I think he fits the CBJ identity of hustling, hitting, and just all around out-working the opponent. The nice thing is he adds more size and speed and skill on top of that, which is an improvement over the guys he replaces (like Nathan Gerbe).

Seth Jones is back and healthy, what will be his impact on the team?

Getting Jones back is huge. His loss was felt deeply. So much of the team’s defensive structure is based around him playing big minutes. During a 27 game streak this winter in which the team lost just 3 times in regulation, Jones played 25 minutes a game and the team allowed just 1.67 goals per game. That includes a 2-1 loss to Colorado where he played 23 minutes and scored a goal despite breaking his ankle in the first period. In the 14 games in his absence, the team allowed 3.42 goals per game. Werenski’s xGF% wasn’t harmed, but his actual GF% took a massive hit (allowing an additional 1.26 goals per 60). There is a sample size issue here, but in this case it lines up with the eye test. I think there was also the psychological impact of losing a team leader like that, in a season with so many injuries. Cam Atkinson got hurt in the same game, so that’s half the leadership group out of the picture for the remainder of the season. I know I’d be playing worried that I’d be the next one to get hurt.

Finally, what is your prediction for this series? How do you see it playing out?

All outcomes seem plausible here. If forced to choose, I’d say Leafs in 4. There will be at least one overtime game, if not two, but I also see at least one game being a rout. I give the edge to Toronto because there is just too much high-end talent there. Anything can happen in a short series, but for Columbus to win they need to continue to have elite defending and goaltending, and they need to find ways to produce offense more consistently than they have all season. There are players capable of stepping up offensively but I can’t say with certainly which one actually will.

Thanks so much to Pale Dragon for doing this, and if you want to see what we said to their questions, you can find that here:


The most recent lines from the practices on Saturday are:

Columbus Blue Jackets

Foligno-Wennberg-Atkinson
Texier-Dubois-Bjorkstrand
Nyquist-Jenner-Foudy
Robinson-Nash-Bemstrom

Werenski-Jones
Gavrikov-Savard
Murray-Kukan
Harrington-Nutivaara

Korpisalo/Merzlikins

The starting goalie is a mystery, which is a thing John Tortorella finds amusing.

Late breaking news!

Oh, ho ho. “Torts” is so funny.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Nylander - Matthews - Hyman
Mikheyev - Tavares - Marner
Robertson - Kerfoot - Kapanen
Clifford - Gauthier-Spezza
Johnsson-Engvall

Muzzin-Holl
Rielly-Ceci
Dermott-Barrie
Sandin–Marincin

Andersen
Campbell


I’m not sure we were expecting to really see this OHL to NHL rookie duel in this series, but both Liam Foudy and Nick Robertson proved they deserve their roster spots.

Robertson is the youngest player under contract to any NHL team for 2019-2020, so he is obviously the youngest player in this playoffs. He’s been strong in practice, and was good in the exhibition win. He’s got the tools to be an x-factor on that third line both by being surprisingly aggressive, and with his shot.

Foudy, who is 20, and was drafted in 2018, is one of the best athletes to come through the NHL draft is a while. He is very, very fast, and set some track and field records as a teenager. He doesn’t have the history of goal-scoring, but he brings speed to the Blue Jackets, and they are a young team already, and yet also not. They have a lot of over-30 forwards who play big minutes, so having a little youth in a meaningful role is important for them.

And that’s your preview, and you’ve got lots to read in the eight hours before the game, so get to it!