Monday December 1st, 2014

It's starting to look as though Ryan Johansen might not become the franchise center for the Columbus Blue Jackets after all.

But he could turn out to be a pretty nice No. 2 behind Connor McDavid.

That the stumbling Jackets, currently last in the NHL with six wins and 14 points, would be a position to acquire the highly coveted prospect was almost inconceivable two months ago. Columbus came into the season looking to build on its first playoff appearance in five years, better for the experience, armed with a deeper roster and ready to move up the Eastern Conference ladder.

Instead, the Jackets have struggled to ice an NHL-caliber lineup, with casualties piling up on the ice almost faster than they can be stretchered off.

NHL
Blue Jackets C Artem Anisimov expected to miss two to three months

How bad has it been? According to Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch, tonight will see the Jackets lose their 161st man-game to injury ... in just their 24th contest of the season. Do the math and you get a roster that's been down an average of seven regulars each and every night.

That number is being inflated (again) by Artem Anisimov. The team announced on Monday morning that the second-line center will miss two to three months while recovering from a triceps injury he suffered in Saturday's 2-1 loss in Nashville. He'd previously missed eight games this season to a concussion.

With Anisimov out of the lineup, tonight's game against Florida will mark the eighth time this season that the Jackets have played without three of their top four centers. That vacuum has taken a painful toll, forcing natural wingers into the middle and contributing to a face-off success rate that's dropped from ninth in 2013-14 to 22nd this year. That leaves them spending too much time either chasing the puck or trapped in their own end, where a battered defense is being lit up for a league-worst 3.56 goals-against per game.

It's tough to compete under those circumstances. So much so that GM Jarmo Kekalainen will have to consider doing something more than calling up another kid from AHL Springfield or picking up a spare part from one of the league's worst defenses off the waiver wire. He owes a better effort to the fans and to the guys in that room who've been battling nightly under these impossible conditions.

But don't be surprised if the move he makes isn't a game changer. After all, fate can be both cruel and kind. And if there's a silver lining to this nightmare season, it could be a 20% chance next June to grab McDavid and turn Johansen into a No. 2.

Flyers in death spiral

The week ahead could all but end the Flyers' playoff hopes. Losers of eight of their past nine games and already seven points out of eighth spot in the East, they've headed west for a murderous trio of games against Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose. The players are rallying around coach Craig Berube, but outsiders are wondering if he could survive an 0-3 trip. "It's not all his fault," a scout told SI.com. "He's got Andrew MacDonald and Michael Del Zotto out there 20 minutes a night so that says a lot about what he's got to work with [Ed. note: MacDonald was scratched on Saturday]. But they can't afford to be dead in the water for three-quarters of the season. They need a response on this trip. They need to make a statement. If they don't ... nothing would surprise me."

You have to feel for Berube, who was so good last season but can't seem to keep the troops focused this year. His options are limited, although the MacDonald benching might not be the last. Don't be surprised if another veteran like Vincent Lecavalier or R.J. Umberger gets to watch a game or two upstairs on this trip.

Beyond that though...well, you know the old saying. You can't fire 20 players.

 

NHL's world junior eligibles: who goes?

NHL
SI.com's 2014-15 NHL Season First Quarter Awards

Although Hockey Canada sent out its World Junior Championships camp invites today, it could conceivably add six eligible players who are currently skating in the NHL before the roster freeze at 11:59 on Dec. 19. The question is, will any of those players be made available to them?

Florida's Aaron Ekblad, terrific as an underager at last year's WJC, is out of the question. So is Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon.

That leaves four options: Jonathan Drouin of the Lightning, Bo Horvat of the Canucks, Curtis Lazar of the Senators and the Rangers' Anthony Duclair.

Drouin, a healthy scratch at times this season, is a possibility, especially given the relationship that Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has with Team Canada. If he's not playing, and contributing regularly, with Tampa Bay there's a chance the Drouin could be be released to skate for Canada, but there are some concerns that his heart might not be in it. Consider him a long shot.

Horvat has been really solid of late for a Canucks team that keeps finding ways to win, so it seems unlikely that GM Jim Benning will want to risk changing his roster.

That leaves Lazar and Duclair. Both could both be allowed to play ... if they want to.

Ottawa GM Bryan Murray has said that he has great respect for what the tournament does for young players and is willing to discuss it with Lazar. “We'll get into December and make a decision,” Murray told the Ottawa Sun. “I don't think I'd let him go for the whole training camp but certainly for the tournament. The conversation will take place with Curtis first. If he has a great desire, we'll consider it.”

With just one assist in his last nine games and his ice time hovering around 10 minutes, Duclair's status with the Rangers is clearly in flux. If he's released, expect him to be airlifted in at the last minute.

• McDavid on Team Canada's 29-man WJC roster

Up in smoke

NHL
Power Rankings: Surprising Islanders seize top spot

The least surprising omission from Canada's camp roster? Islanders first rounder Josh Ho-Sang. The Niagara forward has been critical of Canada's selection process in the past and while undeniably one of the country's most skilled players, he's not seen as someone who would mesh with a strict team-first approach. “They'd pick me before [Ho-Sang],” a scout told SI.com. “That kid hasn't met a bridge he didn't want to burn and then he'll say, 'I'm just being me.' And that's the problem. [Hockey Canada] wants kids who'll buy in without hesitation. They want kids who say 'we' not 'me.'”

Blueline battle

Chris Bigras was an early cut at Colorado's camp this fall. Now there are whispers that the same thing might happen to him when Team Canada's World Junior selection camp convenes later this month.

Bigras is one of the 11 who have been invited to camp by Hockey Canada. As one of two returnees from the squad that failed to medal in Malmo, Sweden last January (Winnipeg Jets first rounder Josh Morrissey is the other), he's considered by many a favorite to earn one of the seven spots that are available. But loyalty only goes so far with Team Canada, especially with the host nation having gone a record five years without a gold medal. And the word is that Canada has better options to help get it back to the top of the podium.

It's expected that Darnell Nurse (Edmonton) and Madison Bowey (Washington) will do the heavy lifting for Canada as the shutdown duo. Morrissey Haydn Fleury (Carolina) are the likely second pair. That leaves Bigrasmfighting with Travis SanheimShea Theodore and Samuel Morin for the final three spots. Morin almost made the Flyers out of camp and at 6'-7'', 225 pounds, he brings a physical presence that could make an impact in shutdown situations.mSanheim, Philly's 2014 first rounder, is big, mobile and moves the puck well. Anaheim prospect Theodore is a possession monster who can QB a power play and key the offense with his puck skills.

Bigras' experience will earn him a long look, but as a scout told SI.com this morning, “The [WHL] guys just blew past him. They've made strides this year that he hasn't.

“That's not to say he won't make the cut, but Bowey and Fleury and Sanheim look like better players right now. And Morin is such a beast. You get in one of those nasty games against the States, that's a guy you want out there keeping them honest.”

Looks like that shapes up as one of the most intriguing battles in this year's camp.

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