The Columbus Blue Jackets made the playoffs this season for just the third time in franchise history. The team may have fallen to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 5 games, but there was valuable experience gained for many members of the team, including rookies Zach Werenski and Oliver Bjorkstrand.
Next season, the Blue Jackets will look to take that experience and use it to take another step forward for the franchise: winning a playoff series. With time off this spring, however, the team can learn some lessons from each team remaining in the playoffs on how to succeed in the postseason. Let’s take a look at some of those lessons.
Lesson from the Nashville Predators: Your goaltender has to be your best player
Pekka Rinne has been outstanding for the Nashville Predators this postseason. He boasts a .940+ save percentage and a sub-2.00 goals against average and has helped to lead his team into the Western Conference Finals. Rinne has been the backbone of the Nashville Predators during their playoff run, playing his way into the Conn Smythe conversation as the playoffs have progressed.
For the Blue Jackets, Sergei Bobrovsky struggled mightily in the postseason after having a Vezina-caliber regular season. Bobrovsky’s numbers dipped in the postseason where he allowed nearly 4 goals per game and saved just .882 percent of his shots faced. That is not good enough for the Blue Jackets to succeed.
Recent history suggests that a hot goaltender can carry a team in the postseason: Matt Murray last season, Jonathan Quick in years past. For the Blue Jackets, a team built around their All Star netminder, the team needs him to perform at the level he is capable of to have a chance at postseason success.
Lesson from the Ottawa Senators: A number one defenseman can carry a team
Erik Karlsson is a wizard. What he has done for the Senators this nothing short of outstanding. He has registered 2-12-14 for the Senators in 28:29 minutes per game. That’s outrageous. He has contributed on the offensive end and used his skating ability to neutralize opponents for nearly 30 minutes a night in these playoffs en route to a 2-1 series lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Obviously, the Blue Jackets do not have a single defenseman as great as the Norris Trophy finalist. However, they DO have a first pairing that can do what Karlsson does. Zach Werenski and Seth Jones will come into next season with a year of chemistry under their belt and together they form one of the strongest pairings in the NHL. Seth Jones is a true number one defenseman in the NHL and Zach Werenski is the most offensively talented blue liner in club history. Together, they can develop into a shutdown pairing that contributes at both ends of the ice. That type of experience and talent that can play 25+ minutes a night in the playoffs is absolutely priceless.
Lesson from the Anaheim Ducks: Strong center play is invaluable
The Anaheim Ducks have had the luxury of trotting out Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, and Antoine Vermette this postseason. The Ducks have also taken the step of putting two centers on the ice in situations where they desperately need a faceoff win - this has allowed them to “cheat” a bit on faceoffs, to anticipate the puck drop. If the first center is tossed out of the circle, the other center can step in. In addition to faceoff success, the Ducks have used their centers to shut down opposing playmakers, antagonize opponents (see: Ryan Johansen’s comments about Kesler), and take on whatever challenge is necessary.
The Blue Jackets struggled to get production from their centers this postseason. Brandon Dubinsky was exposed, Alexander Wennberg had an awful postseason by every metric, and William Karlsson was turned inside out by Evgeni Malkin’s line. That is not good enough if the Blue Jackets hope to have any success in the postseason, they’ll have to find better success out of the center position. Wennberg has to perform and produce offense. Brandon Dubinsky has to defend well. Karlsson and Lukas Sedlak have to contribute in some way, be it generating offense or otherwise. The center position was a position of weakness for the Blue Jackets in this postseason - it cannot be that way going forward.
Lesson from the Pittsburgh Penguins: Injury luck matters immensely
The Pittsburgh Penguins are defending Stanley Cup champions. They are talented, balanced, and can hurt an opposing team in so many ways. Or, they can, if they are healthy. Currently, the Penguins are ravaged by injuries throughout the lineup, but it is their blue line that has seen the bulk of man games lost: Trevor Daley, Kris Letang, and Justin Schultz have all missed time. In addition, Tom Kuhnhackl has missed time, Patric Hornqvist has an injury, and others have missed parts of games. It adds up and currently a combination of injuries and sloppiness has the Penguins trailing the Ottawa Senators 2-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Blue Jackets only had one player miss the entirety of the playoffs - Ryan Murray. Zach Werenski was injured in Game 3 and missed the final two games of the series. In comparison, they were lucky and healthy in their series. To win in the playoffs, the team has to have a bit of luck and catch some breaks. Staying healthy in the postseason is one such break that can make the difference between an early tee time and an extended run into the postseason.
The Blue Jackets gained valuable experience this postseason. Hopefully they are taking lessons from each of the teams who have gone farther than them in the playoffs and learning how they can apply those lessons to their game and use that going forward.