Last spring, John Tortorella promised a hard-working training camp, and he has delivered. In fact, he has gone so far as to engineer three pre-season contests that have gone into OT or beyond, providing maximum ice exposure for the young candidates. Last night in Nashville, the Blue Jackets posted their second 3 - 2 OT win vs. the Predators this pre-season, in a game that featured guys desperately seeking jobs with the big club.
One of these guys is Oliver Bjorkstrand, the talented forward who was a huge part of the Monsters’ run to the Calder Cup, and played stellar hockey during his call-up time in Columbus. Entering this season, most would have said that he was a lock for the big club, but a lackluster camp has made that less of a certainty. He attempted to resolve any doubts early last night, putting the Blue Jackets on the board just 1:36 into the game. Alone in the offensive zone vs. a couple of Nashville defenders, Bjorkstrand turned the apparent disadvantage to an edge, using the defenders as a screen, and beating Pekka Rinne high with a shot the Nashville net-minder likely never saw. It was an unassisted marker, and gave Columbus the early 1 - 0 lead. From Bjorkstrand's perspective, it also hopefully settled the issue of his mailing address for the time being.
Since the days of the “Darth Vader” references, the Blue Jackets have had bizarre levels of misfortune in Nashville, and seeming fall under a trance that compels them to surrender a massive quantity of chances to the Predators, while suffering stick paralysis themselves. So it was in the first period last night. After getting the initial goal, the Blue Jackets would put only two more shots on goal in the period, and would eventually trail in that statistic 21 - 3 by the midpoint of the second period. Of course, part of the problem was the fact that Nashville brought more of its heavy hitters to the party than did Columbus — Pekka Rinne, Mike Fisher, P.K. Subban, Ryan Johansen and James Neal all were on the ice for this one, creating something of a mismatch for a roster designed primarily to get a good, hard look at those prospects surviving in camp.
The premeditated goalie switch came at 10:38 of the second period, when Joonas Korpisalo took over from Anton Forsberg, who departed with an unblemished record on 21 shots. Just 1:19 later, Zach Werenski found the back of the net from up high, and the Blue Jackets had a 2 - 0 lead, despite being horrifically outshot. Sonny Milano and Oliver Bjorkstrand had the assists. At this point, the ice tipped strongly in the Columbus direction in terms of shots and possession. Nashville managed only eight more shots for the balance of the game, while the Blue Jackets posted 16. Again, however, perceived statistical advantage did not translate to the scoreboard. P.K. Subban scored an ugly short-handed goal with just over a minute left in the second, and Viktor Arvidsson tucked home a wrap-around shot to tie the game with 7:24 left in the contest.
Once again the two clubs went to the spectacle of 3-on-3 OT, and it took only 1:17 for William Karlsson to end it, with David Savard and Milano picking up the helpers.
As John Tortorella has mentioned, results mean nothing in the pre-season. That’s a sentiment echoed by coaches throughout the NHL, who spend most of the time evaluating individual ability and readiness, and only now are beginning to turn the focus to the team game. For the Blue Jackets, several things were clarified last night (and this morning), while other questions remained:
- If there was any doubt, John Davidson squarely eliminated it last night: Zach Werenski is on this club, and deservedly so.
- Oliver Bjorkstrand likely resolved any lingering doubt, and should make the club.
- Sonny Milano continued his really strong play, and should make the club on that basis.
- The PTO experiments for Jarret Stoll, Keith Aulie, Mike Brown and Marc-Andre Bergeron came to an end this morning, as they were released from their PTOs.
- Daniel Zaar made it deep into camp, but was assigned to Cleveland this morning. I suspect we’ll see a lot of him as the season progresses.
- The back-up goalie situation remains fluid, with a strong showing by Forsberg, and a pedestrian outing by Korpisalo. Can either of them disrupt CMac’s incumbency? Will the playoff run last year in the AHL, and his pre-season play in Columbus enable Forsberg to edge Korpisalo, or will the string of good play at the NHL level win out? It’s too close to call at this point.
- What will the club do with Pierre-Luc Dubois? Davidson was very positive on the kid’s performance last night, even though he struggled mightily in the face-off circle (20%). However, Karlsson managed only 29%, and has not had high visibility in the pre-season. I think the Blue Jackets love the skill level, maturity and vision for Dubois, and are caught in that nether world between the NHL and Juniors, as he is ineligible for the AHL. The real question is whether he will benefit more from learning in juniors, or from adjusting to the NHL game. I suspect it is the latter, but that the club will use at least some of the free nine-game look to resolve the question.
- Barring a trade, if Dubois makes the roster, Markus Hannikainen, Lukas Sedlak and Josh Anderson go back to Cleveland, and they may well start the season there while the Dubois decision is made. Anderson had another forgettable night, and has generally looked bad in the pre-season. However, the other two have separated themselves from the pack, either.
One thing is certain — the Blue Jackets have choices, and could have the most dynamic and quickest team they have ever fielded. It will be intriguing to follow over the next few days. Stay tuned.