I got a text from a friend last week who used to live in Columbus and who has since moved to Atlanta. It read, simply: "Are the Jackets actually this good, or is it pre-season smoke and mirrors?" Truth be told, I wasn't sure how to answer at first. In a worth, it can be "yes" to both, and that's what I tried to convey.
On one hand, no one will ever be able to deny that the Jackets weren't a "good" team last season, or that they didn't deserve to be a playoff team. It's largely the same team coming back, so, why shouldn't we expect them to be good again?
That said, pre-season is a strange animal, at times. First and foremost, I wouldn't call it smoke and mirrors per se, but in my opinion not too many NHL teams should lose a lot of home pre-season games in a vacuum. Most teams send barely enough "NHL" players on road games, and so the talent disparity almost always favors the home team. So, that the Jackets went 4-0-0 at home should be no surprise, especially when you look at the talent level that teams like Pittsburgh and St. Louis sent over compared to their full roster as a whole.
So, where the Jackets showed their stripes this pre-season was their road games: 3-1-0, and only losing by one goal in Pittsburgh (with the asterisk that Crosby and Malkin, again, didn't play).
But, what did we actually learn from all of this?
- Here was my official response to my friend in the text message above: "I think it means their prospects are good. So, the 2017 Jackets should be *this* good." My running joke about baseball spring training is that a great record in the spring merely means that your AA/AAA teams are better than everybody else's AA/AAA teams. And, some of that is true here, too. The Jackets showed in Traverse City that they have one of the deepest high-level prospect pools in the NHL, and that carried over into the pre-season as well. The Jackets had a LOT of young guys sprinkled throughout their lineup in the pre-season, and those guys didn't look out of place. Alexander Wennberg, Marko Dano, Kerby Rychel, Josh Anderson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Anton Forsberg, Michael Chaput. That's just the first few names off the top of my head. There's a good chance that almost none of these guys will be with the Jackets in a month or so when Boone Jenner is back. All but Bjorkstrand will be in the AHL. Hot damn, that's a lot of high-level talent that is very, very young still.
- To follow up on that, young guys that are on the bubble are, by nature, going to play harder than veterans who are, for the most part, trying to ramp up their bodies and their compete levels. I think that's why we saw such a very good record in terms of wins and losses in the pre-season. Our young guys are better than their young guys.
- So, what I mean there, I guess, is that my baseball analogy holds here: our AHL team should be very, very good. And, given the pedigree of many of those guys, that should mean that our NHL team will be reloading with young talent over the next few years. So, in three years' time, I expect a lot of these guys to be good NHL players, which will mean that the Jackets have brought in a lot of good young talent, arguably more than other teams. So, yes, I expect that by 2017 this team will be very, very good.
- But, that doesn't mean they won't be good now, either. Far from it. This team didn't tinker much with what worked for them last season, in that they didn't go out and reinvent themselves after getting bounced in the first round. They were content to let their young guys grow, and outside of bringing in Scott Hartnell they left it alone. It stands to reason that, assuming no major regressions, they will be better than last year's team. So, yeah, they can still be a playoff team now, and in the future they can be a Cup contending team.
- Positive: they played well, and we haven't even seen Ryan Johansen and Ryan Murray yet, and Boone Jenner will come back too. The Jackets were missing their three best young skaters, and still were tough to beat in the pre-season.
- Negative: we haven't seen Ryan Johansen and Ryan Murray yet, and Boone Jenner is out for a month. Quite simply, while it's great that Johansen is signed, Murray is progressing, and Jenner will be back soon, we don't know what to expect from the Ryans when they play, and Jenner will need to some to get back into the flow of things.
- The Jackets scored 28 goals in 8 games. They scored 3.48 goals per 60 minutes. That is, how you say, very good. They scored 28 goals on 191 shots, good for a 14.7% shooting percentage. For the season last season, they had a 9.3% shooting percentage. This is, obviously, a nice improvement, albeit in a small (and flawed) sample size.
- That said, is it sustainable? The Jackets were also out-shot in all but one of their games, and by a wide wide margin. In eight games, they were outshot 288 to 191, and in the seven games in which they were out-shot, six times it was by double-digits. They were out-shot by 23 shots in the final game. They were outshot during the season last year as well, but consider: in 82 games, they were outshot by only 93 shots. In eight exhibition games this season, they were outshot by 97 shots. This is NOT good, though again, we don't know how much of it was systemic tweaks versus actual expectations. It's certainly something I'm going to watch as the season starts.
- So, suppose the Jackets' shooting percentage regresses back closer to their average from last season. That would have cost them 10 goals in the pre-season. Suffice it to say, they're not going 7-1-0 if they do that. The question is, then: how much of that shooting percentage was the result of luck versus getting great scoring chances? It's impossible to tell, and we'll need to wait and see.
- On the flip side, the Jackets' goalies only allowed 17 goals on 288 shots. That. Is. INSANE. That's a .941 save percentage. More insane? The two guys who will be on the NHL squad combined for a .954 save percentage. Sergei Bobrovsky faced 134 shots, and stopped 127 of them (.948 sv%). Curtis McElhinney faced 85 shots, and stopped 82 of them (.965 sv%). If there's a silver lining to getting outshot so badly, it's that the goalies got plenty of work and showed that they're in mid-season form, at least. That said, that number might be unsustainable, too, as the other teams go with more proven lineups and ramp up the intensity.
So, what do we know? Well, there are certainly a lot of things to be excited about. The team scored consistently, even without its best goal-scorer and with a lot of young guys getting their feet wet in an NHL training camp. The future looks bright. The goaltending was phenominal. And, the team found ways to win even being outshot by a large, large margin.