E.J. Hradek is a veteran reporter for the NHL Network and NHL.com, having joined the group in 2011. Prior to working for the NHL Network, Hradek worked for 13 years as a Senior Writer with ESPN, appearing regularly on various programs across the network as an NHL analyst. His prior experience includes serving as a scout for the Dallas Stars.
We spoke with Mr. Hradek regarding the upcoming Columbus Blue Jackets season. Here’s what the veteran reporter had to say.
Eric Seeds: Sergei Bobrovsky had an excellent season last year, rebounding from a tough 2015-16 season to win the Vezina Trophy and finish third in the MVP race. How do you see him performing this year for the club?
E.J. Hradek: Bobrovsky has been a consistently good goaltender while he’s been in Columbus when he’s been healthy and last year he won those honors as you mentioned. I’m sure he wishes he performed better in the playoffs. Goaltenders in the more recent era have performed like baseball pitchers, one year is not always like the next. But I expect him to perform well as long as he stays healthy, but there is always that concern.
Eric Seeds: Zach Werenski had an excellent rookie campaign that saw him finish third in the race for the Calder Trophy. With teams having more tape on him now, should the Blue Jackets fans fear regression this season like what happened to Shayne Gostisbehere? What type of season do you see Werenski having?
E.J. Hradek: Regression is always possible. I actually got to meet him prior to his draft year and before he played for Michigan. I was very impressed with him as a smart, bright young guy. I and others have brought it up, but Shayne got better at the end of the season last year and he figured it out. Werenski is less likely to struggle, smart guys figure it out. He was great last year. Expect him to build on that this year, but you have to see it, you know? You have to have some reservation.
Eric Seeds: Artemi Panarin was brought this offseason in a blockbuster trade that saw Brandon Saad return to the Chicago Blackhawks. What do you think Panarin’s impact will be on the team’s offense and on the power play, both of which struggled in the latter half of last season?
E.J. Hradek: He’s a goalscorer. He can score from all areas. He’s a playmaker. It’ll be interesting to see how he fits in the locker room and into Torts’ system. He worked wonders with Patrick Kane in Chicago, and he’s not going to just forget that overnight. He’s a playmaker. It’s going to be a transition to Torts’ system. Developing chemistry with a guy like Alexander Wennberg is possible, but chemistry is a hard thing to predict. The team wants to be more offensive and skilled and that’s why they got him. They want to be more dangerous. In the playoffs and second half of the season, they just didn’t score. They defended well and Bobrovsky played well but a lot of their games ended 1-0, 2-1. They want to be more offensive and that’s why they got him.
Eric Seeds: The Metropolitain division was the toughest division in the NHL last season with three teams crossing the 100 point threshold, and it is shaping up to be another difficult year. How do you think the Blue Jackets stack up?
E.J. Hradek: If all goes well and everyone stays healthy, they’ll be right in the same spot with Pittsburgh and Washington. It’s a bear of a division. Carolina is a team that’s on the rise and the Rangers defense is going to be a little bit faster, and they were a wild card team last year. The Philadelphia Flyers are probably going to be little better. New Jersey Devils, even though they’re rebuilding can give you fits on any given night. The New York Islanders missed the playoffs by a point last year. But the jackets can be where they were last year if all goes right and they stay healthy, and possibly be even better.
Eric Seeds: Finally, what is the ceiling for the team this coming season? Where do you see them finishing the year at?
E.J. Hradek: If everyone stays healthy and Bobrovsky performs well, they’re going to be right there. They have a chance to win the division. Pittsburgh returns much of the same lineup that’s back to back Stanley Cup champions. Washington maybe took a step back. It’s gonna be a dog fight and I expect that they will be right there. Then we just have have to see if they can take that next step in the postseason. As they learned last year, it would’ve been better to finish first and play a Wild Card team rather than have to play the Pittsburgh Penguins right away. I expect that they’ll remember that. But at the end of the season, if everything goes well and they stay healthy, I think they’ll be right there at the end of the year.
There we have it, Jackets fans. Mr. Hradek believes a big year is just ahead of us for our beloved Blue Jackets. Only Artemi Panarin days until opening night!