You’ve made it to the back half of your work week and that means it’s time for a fresh episode of Better Lait Than Never to help power you through to the weekend. This week, I’m talking Leon Draisaitl quotes, Kool-Aid season predictions, and a whole lot more.
To kick off this week’s podcast, I got started with a question my boy Woz asked all of you on our social media channels this past week pertaining to which Oiler has to have the best season of their career. Is there an obvious answer? Are there a bunch of guys that are probably feeling the heat? With season predictions at the front of mind, I jumped into some of my own predictions for the year as we inch toward the start of the preseason. From there, I dove into a few of the quotes Leon Draisaitl dropped on 32 Thoughts this past week, and specifically how he taught himself how to play on only one leg during the playoffs. To me, if he’s teaching himself to play on one leg then the rest of the NHL is in a world of hurt once he’s back and healthy. Lastly, I wrapped up the episode with another round of voicemails to get your take on what’s been going on over the last week in your life.
The Columbus Blue Jackets were a pretty mediocre team in 2021–22. They finished 21st in the National Hockey League with a 37–38–7 record, missing the playoffs by 19 points and ultimately earning the right to select No. 12 in the 2022 NHL Draft (luckily, thanks to the lopsided Seth Jones trade with Chicago, the Blue Jackets also made the No. 6 selection this year).
The Blue Jackets scored their fair share of goals, finishing 14th in the league with 262. Unfortunately, they were also one of just five teams to allow 300 or more. While starting goaltender Elvis Merzlikins had a pretty solid year, backup Joonas Korpisalo struggled mightily in his 22 appearances and didn’t do his team many favors in its bid for a playoff spot.
Of course, Columbus’ shortcomings extended far beyond Korpisalo’s performance in goal. Patrik Laine, Boone Jenner, Adam Boqvist, Zach Werenski, and Alexandre Texier all missed significant time while recovering from injuries, and the team’s defensive personnel had all kinds of trouble in all situations. The Blue Jackets’ power-play (18.6 percent) and penalty-killing (78.6 percent) success rates fell short of the NHL-average marks.
Fear not: David Jiricek, Denton Mateychuk, Kent Johnson, Cole Sillinger, Corson Ceulemans, and Yegor Chinakhov collectively represent the Blue Jackets’ future. Even so, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen went to work this summer with the goal of bringing in some immediate help.
KEY ADDITIONS & DEPARTURES
Additions Johnny Gaudreau, LW Erik Gudbranson, D Kirill Marchenko, RW Mathieu Olivier, RW
Departures Oliver Bjorkstrand, RW (SEA) Alexandre Texier, C (Swiss) Dean Kukan, D (Swiss) Gabriel Carlsson, D (WSH)
Left winger Johnny Gaudreau is a massive addition for the Blue Jackets and immediately becomes the team’s best player. He’s a premier forward in the National Hockey League and is capable of taking over games all by himself. It was also refreshing to see a top player actually choose Columbus on the open market, given how it’s often been the reverse in recent years – remember Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, and Sergei Bobrovsky?
The Blue Jackets also signed right winger Patrik Laine to a four-year extension. While the $8.7 million cap hit seems a little high, Laine has been a ton of fun to watch ever since he arrived in Columbus and it’ll be fascinating to see whether he’s able to click with Gaudreau on the top line.
Unfortunately, to fit the hefty Gaudreau and Laine deals under the salary cap, the Blue Jackets had to ship Oliver Bjorkstrand off to the Seattle Kraken for pennies on the dollar. Bjorkstrand is an excellent top-six winger who just turned 27 and has four years left at a perfectly reasonable $5.4 million cap hit, and you can be sure the Blue Jackets would’ve preferred to move pending UFA Gustav Nyquist instead. But them’s the breaks.
Kirill Marchenko is a really interesting player – we’ll talk about him more in the “rookies” section – but his impending arrival doesn’t change the reality that is the Blue Jackets’ underwhelming center depth. With all due respect to team captain Boone Jenner and Columbus’ own Jack Roslovic, there might not be a bona fide top-six pivot on that roster. But that’s where Johnson and Sillinger come into play …
Zach Werenski is a top-pairing offensive defenseman who is under contract for a verylong time (just north of $9.5 million until 2028). Vladislav Gavrikov is a very capable two-way top-four lefty, but he’s also a pending UFA. Adam Boqvist only just turned 22 earlier this month and has sky-high potential. But that’s basically where it ends for the Blue Jackets on defense … at least, for now.
“Inexplicable” is a good word to describe Erik Gudbranson’s new four-year deal with Columbus. Gudbranson is on the wrong side of 30, he plays hard minutes, and he was still very much a bottom-pairing defender in his renaissance with the Calgary Flames last season. Now, he makes more than every Blue Jackets defenseman not named Werenski. Gudbranson is likeable and always puts forth an honest effort, but describing his track record as “spotty” would be an understatement. The Blue Jackets will be his eighth team in eight years.
There are some other interesting players on the Blue Jackets’ blueline – Jake Bean has some offensive talent, Andrew Peeke is solid in his own zone, and Nick Blankenburg gave it his all after signing as a free agent from the University of Michigan in the spring – but this team really needs Jiricek, Mateychuk, and Ceulemans to live up to their draft potential.
Elvis Merzlikins is still “the man” between the pipes in Columbus, even if his 2021–22 season was probably the worst of his NHL career. The 28-year-old netminder posted a 27–23–7 record, a .907 save percentage, and two shutouts in 59 games, and, according to Evolving-Hockey, he allowed 6.54 more goals than expected. All in all, he wasn’t great, but he certainly didn’t fall off the face of the planet. He should be just fine throughout the duration of his new five-year, $5.4 million-AAV contract.
Joonas Korpisalo, on the other hand, is coming off an extremely challenging year. The big Finn — who is 15 days younger than Merzlikins — went 7–11–0 in 22 appearances, and his .877 save percentage ranked last among all goaltenders with at least 15 games played last season. He was, however, playing through a hip injury that eventually required season-ending surgery. After earning a $2.8 million salary in both the 2020–21 and 2021–22 seasons, Korpisalo signed a one-year, $1.3 million deal with the Blue Jackets in May and will have the chance to redeem himself in 2022–23 now that he’s back to full health.
Brad Larsen is entering his second year as head coach of the Blue Jackets after spending the previous seven seasons as an assistant under Todd Richards and John Tortorella. The 45-year-old from Nakusp, British Columbia has a lot to work on with his group in the wake of last year’s defensive struggles.
Larsen’s staff will also have to reconfigure the team’s forward and defense combinations to account for the arrivals of Gaudreau and Gudbranson, as well as the loss of Bjorkstrand. Gudbranson thrived last year in Calgary with Darryl Sutter at the helm, but can Larsen find the same success in managing the veteran defender? Which center should play with Gaudreau? Should Sillinger, Johnson, and Yegor Chinakhov start higher in the lineup this year? Larsen’s staff will have to answer all these questions, and more.
We’ll kick things off with Marchenko, who finally signed his entry-level deal with Columbus in May after spending his first four post-draft years in Russia. The 22-year-old right wing emerged over the past two seasons as a legit top-six forward for SKA St. Petersburg, an impressive feat for a player of his age in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Chinakhov is another young Russian winger with a ton of offensive skill. He’s not really a “rookie” anymore — he played 62 NHL games with Columbus last year — but he’s only just scratched the surface of what he can do in the NHL. Expect Chinakhov to see some PP time with Gaudreau, Laine, and/or Jakub Voracek this season.
Finally, we’ll take a look at the two players who made the jump from the University of Michigan to the NHL late last season: Johnson and Blankenburg. Columbus selected Johnson with the No. 5 pick in 2021, and he more than lived up to that billing over two seasons with the Wolverines; Blankenburg is a tiny right-handed defender who was a ball of energy on the ice in his cup of coffee with Columbus in the spring.
1. How will Johnny Gaudreau handle his shift to a new team? Gaudreau has only ever known the Calgary Flames, and he was fortunate enough to play on an outstanding line with Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm last season. We’re not saying Gaudreau didn’t play a huge part in that line being one of the NHL’s most dominant combinations, but he’s not going to have the same players around him in Columbus – for better, or for worse. While the Flames’ old first line was a dominant two-way unit, we might see Gaudreau revert to his 2018-era high-octane all-offense self with the Blue Jackets.
2. Can Cole Sillinger take another step? Not many 18-year-olds are capable of putting up with the rigors of a full NHL season, but Sillinger didn’t seem to mind. The 6-foot-2, 203-pound center racked up 16 goals and 31 points in 79 games last year, and there’s a chance he might see some plum minutes alongside Gaudreau and/or Laine in 2022–23. The Blue Jackets need someone to come in and seize that No. 1 center spot. Step right up, Sillinger.
3. What, exactly, is Boone Jenner? For a while, it looked like Boone Jenner had pretty much settled in as a bottom-six center. The veteran forward peaked with 30 goals way back in 2015–16 but failed to even reach 20 in any of the next five seasons, bottoming out at just 11 in 70 games with Columbus in 2019–20. But, after being named captain last fall, Jenner exploded with 23 goals and 44 points in just 59 games while averaging a career-best 20:28 per night. Jenner is a meat-and-potatoes guy who might not be the best fit next to Gaudreau, but he’ll be able to hit 40 points again in a full season…right?
Gaudreau will make the Blue Jackets more competitive, although we would’ve liked to have seen him on a line with Bjorkstrand. Alas, a Gaudreau–Laine duo sounds pretty lethal. But the Blue Jackets’ defensive group still leaves a lot to be desired, particularly if Larsen and Kekalainen envision Gudbranson in a top-four role. At this stage in his career, Gudbranson is strictly a bottom-pairing option – but he’s not being paid like one, and his contract might’ve cost the Blue Jackets one of their top forwards.
Both Merzlikins and Korpisalo should be better, and the young ‘uns will likely take some steps forward, but the Blue Jackets aren’t quite ready to return to the playoffs. Still, that prospect pool is as exciting as any in the league, so be sure to keep an eye on Columbus going forward.
Matthew Phillips may already be 24 years old, but we still believe he has the ability to be a legitimately impactful player in the National Hockey League if given the opportunity.
With 31 goals and 68 points in 65 games last season, Phillips set new Stockton Heat records in practically every offensive category and finished as one of the AHL’s top players at any position. He was instrumental in the Heat winning three playoff rounds.
Phillips is one of the older prospects on this list, but he’s also one of the better ones.
Matthew Phillips Right wing
Born Apr. 6, 1998 (age 24) in Calgary, Alberta
5’8”, 165 pounds
Selected in the sixth round (No. 166 overall) by CGY in 2016
In a league typically dominated by veterans, Phillips was the highest-scoring AHL player still eligible for the Calder Trophy last season. The eight players ahead of him on the league scoring leaderboard were all 26 or older, while Phillips was 23 for all but the final three weeks of the regular season.
Phillips was absolutely dominant in North America’s second-best league last year and likely would’ve seen some more NHL games if the Flames hadn’t been the league’s healthiest team (even their COVID outbreak affected practically the entire team at once, meaning the Flames were fully healthy again by the time they were ready to resume play).
Jakob Pelletier and Phillips combined to form a lethal duo on Stockton’s top line. Both players played off each other very effectively and they remained together throughout the season.
Phillips and Pelletier are pretty similar in a lot of ways. Both are undersized players who play like they’re six inches taller with relentless energy, speed, and fearlessness.
Stockton Heat Calgary Wranglers head coach Mitch Love had all positive things to say about Phillips in conversation with FlamesNation:
He’s a competitor. You look at his size and you maybe underestimate his ability in terms of getting things done, but he finds a way. He’s so intelligent, he wants to be a difference-maker. I saw a lot of growth in his leadership. He was a fourth-year pro last year with the organization, he was really good for our young players, puts a lot of work into his craft. It’s really hard for me to find anything in his game, in his day-to-day pro life that you can critique. He’s a type of guy that you want on your team, he’s a type of guy you want to coach. We’re excited to have him back again and again, hopefully he has a good strong training camp with the Flames and pushes for games there.
Unless Phillips comes into training camp and completely blows the doors off the competition (like Oliver Kylington one year ago), it’s unlikely he’ll start the season with the Flames. Head coach Darryl Sutter is typically one to deploy a veteran-laden fourth line, and the Flames are pretty flush with top-nine wingers as the roster is currently constructed.
If this isn’t the year for Phillips, he may never stick with the Flames. He’s set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer unless he plays 79 games with the Flames this year, which is pretty unlikely at this point. It’s not hard to imagine Phillips electing to leave for a team with less depth on the wings where he could get a chance to stick in the NHL.
Phillips should’ve gotten a longer look with the Flames down the stretch in 2020–21 (especially when Brett Ritchie was on the top line), but it’d be hard to fault the Flames if they go with what they have now. Jonathan Huberdeau, Andrew Mangiapane, Blake Coleman, Tyler Toffoli, Dillon Dube, and Pelletier is a pretty good group of top-nine wingers.
But, even if he doesn’t make it in Calgary, we still feel Phillips has the potential to become a secondary scoring piece in the NHL. He’s already proven he can be one of the very best players in the AHL. He has very little left to prove down there, and it’d be a shame if he never got a shot with an NHL team.
There were expectations surrounding the newest expansion team in NHL history. After all, with how the Vegas Golden Knights started their existence off, it would be a tough act to follow. However, the Seattle Kraken took the other fork in the road. They stumbled out of the gates and never recovered from that point on, plummeting to the very bottom of the league and staying in the basement.
In the offseason, the Kraken did make some interesting additions, but will it be enough to help them get out of the depths of the division?
Improved offensive options
Seattle’s expansion draft left them with a squadron of good middle-six forwards. All of them were capable second-line players and very good third-liners. That being said, the Kraken lacked a true game breaker up front. It ended up being costly as they would score the 4th least goals in the NHL last season.
This year, they’re fielding a forward corps of… good middle-six forwards. Okay, just kidding, they’ve added a couple of pieces that should prove to be top-6 level players. For one, Oliver Bjorkstrand was stolen away from the Columbus Blue Jackets for pennies. He’s been overlooked as a play-driving centreman, someone who is good at everything and especially at creating chances for his teammates. It’s something that was lacking last year for the Kraken and should address the need for a true top-line option.
As well, the Kraken wrestled Andre Burakovsky away from the Stanley Cup champion Avalanche. He was never going to sign the same deal to stay in Denver and Seattle did well to capitalize on the opportunity. Burakovsky arrives off the back of a 61-point season, but questions remain about his ability to be an offensive leader instead of a passenger. The Swede mainly was a complimentary piece with the Avalanche but should see an elevated role in the Pacific Northwest.
These additions bolster an already pretty deep lineup. Jordan Eberle was his ever-reliable self with the Kraken, while Jaden Schwartz looks to bounce back after a pretty injury-riddled season last year. Both are capable of second-line production and should be counted upon to do so for Seattle. Yanni Gourde, Jared McCann, and Alex Wennberg are more than good options to fill out their top three lines.
The biggest highlights however are their two young centremen. Matty Beniers and Shane Wright are the future of the Kraken franchise and are probably the highest-end talent this team has to boast. That being said, they still are relatively unproven at the NHL level. Expectations are heavy on their shoulders and eyes will be on them to see if they’ll produce like a Nathan MacKinnon, or an Alexis Lafreniere in their first full season of NHL hockey.
Solid if unspectacular defence
It goes without saying that some things don’t show up on the stat sheet. There’s no better player that exemplifies this than Jamie Oleksiak, who emerged as a physical shutdown defenceman during his second stint with the Dallas Stars. The same remained true with the Kraken as he held down the fort with his usual hard-nosed presence and ability to snuff out opposing offences. Oleksiak will continue to be relied upon as the rock for the Kraken on the back end.
A second pairing of Adam Larsson and Justin Schultz also doesn’t sound so bad. Larsson had a rough go in Edmonton mainly because of who he was traded for, but he’s still a good defenceman that plays a reliable two-way game without too many holes. Schultz is a borderline top-4 option even with all the ups and downs of his NHL career. He’ll bring a veteran presence to the back end while also providing for more potential offence from the blueline.
The third pairing is shaping up to be Carson Soucy and William Borgen. Soucy actually led the Kraken in goal production amongst defencemen, something that seems odd for a projected third-pairing defenceman. But, if he can sustain that production, it adds an element of depth to this blueline that would be very helpful. As for Borgen, he plays an unremarkable game but gets the job done. If he remains his usual self, not many Kraken fans will be complaining.
Probably the biggest difference maker this season will be seeing if Vince Dunn can make the next step up. He arrived in Seattle with high expectations after a promising four seasons with the St Louis Blues. While Dunn tied his career high with 35 points, he didn’t really take that next step forward that many expected in more important minutes. Tightening up his transition game and becoming more engaged in the offence will be the next big step in Dunn’s game. If he can do that, then Seattle’s blueline will be pretty darn good.
Goaltending that needs to rebound
The biggest glaring hole in the Seattle lineup is in net. Philipp Grubauer’s struggles last season were very well publicized. After departing from the Avalanche, the German netminder got dummied hard as the Kraken’s starter. Grubauer recorded 18 wins in 55 games, sporting an abysmal 3.16 GAA and 0.889 SV%. These aren’t the numbers that an NHL starting calibre goalie should be posting, and it’s an ugly anomaly on an otherwise solid career. Granted, the team in front of him didn’t do him much favours, but Grubauer desperately needs a bounce-back year for the Kraken to get off the ground.
As well, the backup apparent in Chris Driedger won’t be featuring much for Seattle next year. The netminder suffered an ACL injury in May and isn’t projected to return until January of 2023. Driedger too underperformed in his first season with the Kraken, a 2.96 GAA with a 0.899 SV%. Hopefully when he returns, he can return to the heights he showed during his time with the Panthers.
In the meantime, the Kraken have signed Martin Jones to be the placeholder backup until Driedger returns. Jones hasn’t exactly been starter quality since the 2017-18 season with the Sharks, and his time with the Flyers really showed how much of a rollercoaster ride it is with him between the pipes. Perhaps things will be different now that he’s closer to home, but don’t put too much stock in him performing beyond expectations.
In all, goaltending is the shakiest aspect of this Seattle team and could be the backbreaker in situations. Sometimes, it isn’t possible to outscore all of your problems.
How the Canucks stack up
While Seattle definitely has improved since their inaugural season, it probably isn’t enough to be better than Vancouver. Sure, the Kraken have two of the best centre prospects in the league, as well as some good pieces in the top 6, but it’s also not anything that the Canucks don’t have an answer for. Vancouver’s top 9 can absolutely go toe to toe with theirs, and what gives the Canucks the edge is the potential for improvement. Unlike Seattle’s lineup of mostly middle-to-late 20-year-olds or early 30-year-olds, Vancouver is on the younger side with intrigue and potential for growth. It could be the difference maker this season if Nils Hoglander or Vasily Podkolzin takes the next step forward in their development.
As for the defence, it would have to be around the same for both clubs. The Canucks have the offensive production from the blueline can mask some of the defensive lapses that they are prone to, while still doing enough to keep the puck out of their net. Where Vancouver is better than Seattle is in their transitional game, with multiple defencemen capable of breaking it out or skating out of trouble. Seattle has one or two at most, though their play in their own zone is definitely more solid than the Canucks.
Goaltending has to be given to the Canucks right now, though that could change if Grubauer can recapture his Vezina finalist self. If the Kraken get 2020-21 Grubauer, it becomes a completely different ballgame. Right now, however, with all the question marks surrounding the position for Seattle and with how solid Demko is and projects to be, there’s no question the Canucks have the edge in this category.
The I-5 rivalry will take another step forth this season. With Seattle taking a step forward and getting closer to Vancouver in terms of skill and talent, there’s going to be a lot more fireworks in more hotly contested games. That being said, the Kraken aren’t quite yet at the point to exceed the Canucks, at least on paper. They’ll most likely finish behind Vancouver in the standings, but if one or two things break right for them, it could be a very different story.