Why the Blue Jackets Will Surprise the West

As we approach the start of the NHL season, the head game of ranking teams in both conferences has begun. Over at SBNation, we brought in a panel of highly paid experts interested observers carefully selected focus groups oh, who am I kidding - Zona asked a bunch of people what they thought over beers and cheese fries.

Anyhow - once that rigorous testing was done, several teams came in the middle of the pack, including Columbus, with many predicting the Blue Jackets to return to the playoffs this season. 

Here's a look at the rankings for the bubble:

6.  Nashville Predators    6.91
7.  St. Louis Blues    7.18
8.  Columbus Blue Jackets    8.27
9.  Anaheim Ducks    8.55
10.  Minnesota Wild    10.64

We'll have pre-season predictions and our own guesses as to how the West will shake out later this week, but let's take a quick look at why the Jackets may just make that leap.

Strengths:

With a major roster turnover that saw almost half the active roster at one point or another sent on their way by trade or free agency, this is not the Blue Jackets team of old. It's difficult to determine exactly where their strengths are this early, but we've seen a few flashes and hints.

 

  • Speed - While many have focused on Jeff Carter's pure offensive production, his skating ability is equally impressive, with seemingly effortless strides that eat up ice. The Jackets had already been working to become a more aggressive "puck pursuit" team, and the additions of Carter and hot rod skaters like Maksim Mayorov, Ryan Johansen, and (potentially) Cam Atkinson to an offense that already offers Rick Nash, Matt Calvert, Antoine Vermette, and Derick Brassard is a very scary proposition for clubs that build their defense around positional play or attempting to beat attackers to the puck.
  • Defensive Firepower - In the past, many Blue Jackets games could be described as a defensive struggle where someone would be forced to score - particularly when looking at the contributions from the blue line. With the additions of James Wisniewski, Radek Martinek, and David Savard, the team appears much more comfortable driving offense from the blue line, with new PP coach Todd Richards emphasizing the defense's need to shoot. Though the Jackets will be without the "Wiz" for the first 8 games of the season, it opens an opportunity for Grant Clitsome to continue his impressive NHL debut, particularly on the power play. Don't be shocked if it's a d-man like Wisniewski, Clitsome, or Fedor Tyutin who leads the Jackets in assists this year.
  • Puck Control - As the NHL lineup has taken shape, one of the most impressive features of this Blue Jackets team is an almost Detroit-like level of puck control. Passing is clearly improved, but the team also seems much harder to take off the puck, and more aggressive in forcing takeaways of their own. This is an area you can expect 2010 4th overall pick Ryan Johansen to shine in - his puck handling skills have been on near-constant display, and he's quite good at using his reach to help make life difficult for his opponent.
  • Youth - In part due to injuries and suspensions, this team is likely to have at least four rookies - possibly 5 - in their opening night lineup, at least three of whom seem likely to stick for the majority of the season. Unlike an Edmonton situation, though, this is not a case where the team will be requiring the freshman class to shoulder their load - more that they are being used as the accent pieces to compliment established veteran performers, very much like the Chicago Blackhawks of 3-4 seasons ago. 
  • Stability - With an end in sight to the arena lease issues that plagued the team over the last several years, and a deal on the table to keep them in town until at least 2039, there's a mental weight off the players and front office - no concerns about a potential sale or the club being told to look at relocation options - and they can feel the city has committed to their success in the long term, as well.

 

Weaknesses:

Of course, for all the reasons it could go well, there are reasons it could all go wrong. Let's break a few of those down, as well.

 

  • Youth - Even though the team is not going to ask players like David Savard or Ryan Johansen to step up to the first line or top defense pairings, they'll still be looking to the kids to step from the AHL or a WHL schedule into the grind of a full NHL season - and that comes with a lot of risk should one of them falter, be injured, or simply prove not to be as prepared as they seemed in pre-season action.
  • Steve Mason - Though Mason seems to have made some solid improvements to his game under new goaltending coach Ian Clark, the fact remains that his performances have been in the pre-season. We don't know how the new and improved Mase will look when it's Pavel Datsyuk or Joe Thornton bearing down on him. If Mason struggles, this team will be looking to Curtis Sanford or Mark Dekanich...less than reassuring news.
  •  Defensive Play? - In adjusting to the more aggressive style favored by Scott Arniel, the team gave up many more scoring chances last year. Though they're making improvements and adding a much better two-way #1 center in Jeff Carter, and a stalwart blueliner in Radek Martinek, that still has to be an area of concern. The team will also work on adding a second "lower key" style of play for back to back or quick turnaround games.
  • Schedule - Though their early schedule and final month are actually pretty favorable, the team has a brutal stretch from New Years through the start of February where they play 10 of their 14 games on the road - including a set of all three California teams in four nights to start and end the trip. If the Jackets are scrapping for a playoff spot at this point in the season, January could well be the make or break month. Should they be above the bar come Feb. 7, they're golden. If they're more than 4-6 points out, it gets ugly.

 

Why the Jackets will Surprise You:

But, you say, if I'm not a fan in Columbus, why do I care? 

Many evaluations of the team, particularly by publications like The Hockey News, have seen the team's history and the disappointing finish after a hot start last season, the state of the goaltending, and discounted the offseason additions. Most rankings tend to place the team in 10-12th place.

But they are seeing trees, not a forest.

The Blue Jackets' roster finally fits the style of their play - and the confidence level has risen accordingly. 

Rick Nash continues to be one of the best power forwards in the NHL, and the addition of Jeff Carter makes him even more dangerous because it forces defenses to try and stop both instead of focusing on a single point of failure. 

You have a team playing exciting hockey, a power play that will constantly be a scoring threat, a defense that combines a powerful punch with improved shutdown ability, and a goaltender who appears to have regained the Calder Trophy winning form that put him into the NHL spotlight.

This is a team that feels like it is ready to step onto the larger stage and show the haters, the doubters, and the apathetic that there is hockey in Columbus, and it will be damned good hockey at that. 

Climb on board.

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