With some rotations taking place at the bottom part of the lineup as extended camp tryouts continue, the 1-0-0 Toronto Maple Leafs are in Columbus for the Blue Jackets’ 2019-20 season opener at Nationwide Arena (7 p.m ET, TSN4).
After pushing their chips in for a run at the post-season with the acquisitions of pending UFAs Ryan Dzingel and Matt Duchene and ultimately falling short in round two of the playoffs, everyone knew Columbus would look like a much-changed team come 2019-20. Up front, the Jackets lost both Duchene and Dzingel to free agency as well as Artemi Panarin, who became the highest-paid winger in the league after signing in New York.
Perhaps most hard felt will be the loss of now-Panther Sergei Bobrovsky in net, though. From 2016-17 through to the end of last season, Bobrovsky ranks second among all goalies in GSAx (goals saved vs. expected), stopping just under 65 goals more than expected based on what his team gave up over the 190 games.
Replacing him will be long-time Blue Jackets backup Joonas Korpisalo, who was once looked at as a breakout candidate stuck behind one of the better starters in the league. Now 25-years-old and with a decent sample size of games under his belt, the outlook for Korpisalo has dimmed somewhat. Since 2016, Korpisalo has stopped 17 goals fewer than expected with an .899 Sv% over 59 games. You never know what will happen when a goaltender goes from occasional backup to everyday starter, but the pressure is on and what happens this season may make-or-break Korpisalo’s NHL career.
The most talked-about healthy scratch on NHL opening night, Jason Spezza will make his debut with the Leafs tonight, substituting in for Nick Shore. A lot of the intrigue over Spezza comes in what he might bring to the power play, but barring major injuries, he won’t get huge minutes there anyway. Having his shot, zone-entry skills and playmaking presence on the second PP unit isn’t without value, but how impactful Spezza is defensively at 5-on-5 and on the PK will determine his usage this year.
Nic Petan and Justin Holl will also play tonight in place of Dmytro Timashov and Martin Marincin as Mike Babcock appears to be embracing a more active rotation at the bottom of his lineup, at least in the early part of the year.
Having passed through waivers already, Petan has the most to prove of this group. Offensively, he arguably has the most upside of the players currently in contention for a spot on the wing with Frederik Gauthier. Timashov, Shore, and Agostino (who remains with the Marlies for now). There are still big question marks as to his fit in the lineup, but the model for Petan should be clear: Watch Trevor Moore (or Tyler Ennis from last season), and bring that level of tenacity in your forechecking and puck tracking.
It was a little surprising to see both Petan and Spezza enter the lineup at the same time considering their similar situational utility. Presumably, the coaching staff would value the powerplay ability of those two more, while preferring the penalty-killing ability of Timashov and Shore. The idea of getting all of the Leafs‘ depth pieces involved in the season early — and hopefully more often throughout the entirety of the year — makes a lot of sense, though, with the stretch run and playoffs in mind.
Tonight’s game will serve as a good early test for the Leafs. While Columbus has been written off by many after their losses in the offseason, they have a blue line that is big, mobile and can move the puck, which in addition to the threat the likes of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski pose offensively, will give the Leafs‘ forecheckers a bit more of a challenge than the Senators’ blue line group did as far as getting home, turning pucks over, and generating zone and cycle time at 5v5. They’re also a hard-checking team that will lay the body and look to establish their forecheck from the outset.
Fans that are looking ahead to the matchup against a rested Montreal team tomorrow won’t be thrilled to learn that Frederik Andersen will not be in net for tomorrow’s HNIC season debut. Andersen gets the start tonight.
Game Day Quotes
Mike Babcock on the Blue Jackets’ skill on defense:
They’ve got real good D. They breakout clean. They’re one of the top five teams in the league breaking out. Everyone can talk about a whole bunch of things, but it’s called talent. You’ve got to get it in, and when the puck arrives you’ve got to be physical. That’s got to be a priority tonight or else we’ll spend too much time with them on our D.
Babcock on where he sees the room for growth with Auston Matthews this year:
His speed through the middle of the rink on offence, his speed through the middle of the rink on defence, his ability to play defence fast so he doesn’t have to spend any time on defence. Then, his ability to check it back in the Ozone. None of those things are what you guys talk about. The shot and all that — he has those things. But what you’re trying to do is build up the program until you’re an absolute complete player. I think he has a chance to be the best two-way center in hockey. To me, that’s our focus. In the end, you win championships like that and that’s what he wants to do.
Babcock on Justin Holl getting into the lineup:
What we’re going to do is we’re going to start with a little rotation. Now, we’ve still got some guys playing for the Marlies that are in that roation, too. What you’ve got to do is you’ve just got to be dependable. We’ve got a new guy running the [defence], so everybody’s got a new lease on life. In the end, if you’re not confident in the player, you don’t get them out there. Holl has worked hard this summer, worked hard last summer, and he’s improved a ton. Now here’s an opportunity for him.
Jake Muzzin on the team’s goals for this season:
One of our focuses at camp was to create more 5-on-5 chances and more O-zone time. You look at the team’s that are really successful in the playoffs at went all the way, they led the league in O-zone time with the puck, so that was an area of our game that we want to improve on and focus on. We were able to do a lot of it [against Ottawa], and I think that was the reason for all the Dmen shots.
Head-to-Head Stats – 2018-19 Season
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#24 Kasperi Kapanen – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #42 Trevor Moore
#61 Nic Petan – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #19 Jason Spezza
#8 Jake Muzzin – #94 Tyson Barrie
#44 Morgan Rielly – #83 Cody Ceci
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #3 Justin Holl
#31 Frederik Andersen
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Scratched: Dmytro Timashov, Martin Marincin, Nick Shore
Injured: Zach Hyman, Travis Dermott
Marner – Tavares – Matthews
Nylander – Kerfoot – Spezza
Columbus Blue Jackets Projected Lines
#42 Alexandre Texier – #18 Pierre-Luc Dubois – #13 Cam Atkinson
#71 Nick Foligno – #38 Boone Jenner – #77 Josh Anderson
#14 Gustav Nyquist – #10 Alexander Wennberg – #28 Oliver Bjorkstrand
#15 Jakob Lilja – #20 Riley Nash – #52 Emil Bemstrom
#27 Ryan Murray – #3 Seth Jones
#28 Zach Werenski – #58 David Savard
#4 Scott Harrington – #65 Markus Nutivaara
#70 Joonas Korpisalo
#90 Elvis Merzlikins