The Columbus Blue Jackets have serious problems.
The Columbus Blue Jackets are 3-5-2 in their last ten. There are injuries facing the team, sure, but not all of their woes can be explained away by injuries. To cover the players who are hurt right now: Ryan Murray is out with a “body” injury. Alexander Wennberg is out with a back injury. Brandon Dubinsky is out with a broken face after losing a fight with 30 seconds to go in a game. Cam Atkinson is out with a broken foot.
Of those four, Ryan Murray was having the best season. He was an anchor on the blue line after Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, clearly outplaying both Jack Johnson and David Savard as he made his way to the second pairing with Markus Nutivaara (who has taken steps forward this season in his own right).
Now, the bad news: the other three players were not contributing offensively in any meaningful way this season before their injuries.
Brandon Dubinsky: Before his injury, Brandon Dubinsky had posted just 3-9-12 in 31 games played this season, including just 4 points in his previous 11 games. Dubinsky has posted a team best faceoff win percentage of 54%, a CF% of 47.9%, generally playing well despite 65.4% defensive zone starts. His defensive prowess is missed, even if his offensive contributions this season have waned.
Alexander Wennberg: Wennberg had a solid if unspectacular start to this season, registering 9 points in the month of October. Unfortunately, he registered exactly one point in November as he missed some time with an injury. In his last week before his injury, Wennberg did appear to be rounding into form, registering a goal and three assists before being shelved with a back injury. The Columbus blue Jackets need Wennberg to play to his capabilities as a center (likely second line when he returns thanks to the emergence of Pierre-Luc Dubois) because playmaking centers are hard to find, especially on this roster. Wennberg was nearly a 60 point player last season, and was on pace for just 44 this year. He needs to regain last season’s form, quickly.
Cam Atkinson: Atkinson, despite signing a brand new contract that will keep him here for an additional seven seasons, was having a dreadful offensive season. He had put up just 6-7-13 in 32 games played. Cam Atkinson’s shooting percentage has been discussed this season (its dip below career average, mostly) so let’s take a look at it. Cam Atkinson’s 5v5 shooting percentage by season (per Natural Stat Trick): 8.9, 8.5, 9.3, 7.0, 10.3, 9.3, 7.9. So, his 5v5 shooting has dipped a bit this season, but not horribly out of line with his career average. His power play shooting, though? AWFUL. He’s shooting a cool 0% on the power play his season. Last year, he threw up an outrageously unsustainable 25.6% shooting percentage. The rest of the his career, Cam has averaged 12.46% on the power play. With Cam now being replaced by Artemi Panarin on PP1 (and the hilariously bad struggles of the power play in general), how much can we realistically expect him to improve when he returns?
In addition to the struggles mentioned above, the Blue Jackets have three veteran regulars who are in the lineup right now and are struggling mightily.
Boone Jenner: With a noted caveat that he has looked better in his recent games after moving to center (Jenner has even won more than 50% of his faceoffs in four of the last five games), Jenner has struggled this season. He has just 4 points since November 22, less than ideal for a player who had 30 goals two seasons ago (which now must be seen as an aberration) and 18 last season. Jenner’s offense has dried up in a contract year, and the team must begin to wonder: do we pay Jenner for his 30 goal season, or for the regression that we have seen since then?
Jack Johnson: This is all you need to know about Jack Johnson this season, the man who has turned back into a pumpkin after last season:
#CBJ defense pairs 01/04 vs COL, 2-0 L:— Jeremy Crowe (@307x) January 5, 2018
16:38 TOI, 65.9% Corsi, 56.4% scoring chances
14:31 TOI, 82.3% Corsi, 82.2% scoring chances
9:07 TOI, 23.6% Corsi, 21.4% scoring chances
#CBJ defense pairs since Werenski's return on 12/29 (4 GP):— Jeremy Crowe (@307x) January 5, 2018
64:10 TOI, 55.3% Corsi, 54.2% scoring chances
52:22 TOI, 57.3% Corsi, 62.1% scoring chances
48:07 TOI, 34.9% Corsi, 33.2% scoring chances
Beginning to see a trend...
Nick Foligno: Nick Foligno has been flat out bad this season. He opened the season playing center, a position he has not played regularly since he was in junior hockey, and struggled (which is completely unsurprising, as it is not his natural position). His problems have continued since he switched back to the wing, however. Foligno has registered 3-1-4 since December 1st, and just six points since Halloween. His relative Corsi is -3.3, worst in his career by a mile. His xGF% is 48.48%, 4th-worst among forwards with at least 50 minutes TOI at even strength. The captain is supposed to lead the team, and he does: in hits and penalty minutes, the two statistics we do not need him to lead the team in. Nick Foligno might not be a 70 point per game season player, but he is currently on pace for 27 over the course of an 82 game season. He has to be better. Period.
Now, the bad news (all information via CapFriendly):
Nick Foligno: under contract through 2021 at $5.5 million per season, full no movement clause until 2019, modified no trade clause until 2021
Brandon Dubinsky: under contract through 2021 at $5.85 million per season, full no movement clause until the end of this season, modified no trade clause until 2021
Boone Jenner: restricted free agent after this season ($2.9 million cap hit)
Ryan Murray: restricted free agent after this season ($2.825 million cap hit)
Cam Atkinson: under contract through 2025 at $5.875 million per season. full no trade clause until 2020, modified no trade clause until 2025
Jack Johnson: expiring contract after this season ($4.357 million cap hit)
Alexander Wennberg: under contract through 2023 at $4.9 million per season
That right there lays out a problem: these players are being paid large cap hits and none of them are living up to their deals. The Columbus Blue Jackets, to be a true Eastern Conference contender, need their big dollars to play up to their contracts. Thus far, that is not happening, by any stretch or statistics.
Are any of the struggling veterans tradeable?
Obviously, the veterans on this team are struggling, some more than others. Ryan Murray has played well when healthy this season, but he hasn’t been able to stay reliably healthy for the entirety of his NHL career. Boone Jenner has been a solid grinder, but he’s been deployed as a top six guy which isn’t his role and his offense has waned this season. Nick Foligno and his missing offense, which is due to return any day now (we hope and pray)?
As laid out above, trading one of Foligno or Dubinsky is simply not an option right now because of their contract status. Dubinsky’s becomes more tradeable after this year, when the team could ask for a list of teams Dubinsky would not accept a trade to and then shop him to the remaining teams. The situation for Nick Foligno becomes the same following the 2018-19 season. I do not believe the team would even entertain the idea of trading the captain, so we should consider that idea off the table.
Ryan Murray is tradeable, but would the team be willing to part with him right now? It is no secret that the team openly shopped him last season in search of a center, but with the regression of Jack Johnson and David Savard, the team may be reluctant to part with him. Boone Jenner has value (and would be under team control if he were traded), but what would he fetch? He has regressed over the last two seasons, and may not fetch much on the open trade market.
Alexander Wennberg is the team’s second line center (again, below Pierre-Luc Dubois) and one of the better passers on the team. Trading Wennberg does not appear to be an option as it would leave the team even more thin at center than it already is.
Cam Atkinson is untradeable because of his contract until 2020 at the very earliest.
Jack Johnson could be traded this season to a team that needs defensive depth. The value for Johnson is low at best.
Could (or should) the Blue Jackets bring in a veteran at the deadline to help?
I do not believe the Blue Jackets will make a deadline trade to bring in veteran help, despite aforementioned veteran struggles the team is currently facing.
Making a deadline trade would require the team sacrificing a younger player, exactly the players who have carried the team to where they are right now.
Some players are off the table as far as trades go, period. These include Zach Werenski, Seth Jones, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Artemi Panarin. Under no circumstances will those players be traded.
This leaves open the possibility of trading players like Oliver Bjorkstrand (second on the team in points), David Savard (a solid if unspectacular defenseman who is cost controlled for several seasons), or Josh Anderson (a player the Jackets have adamantly protected). I cannot see the Blue Jackets sacrificing any of those young players for a rental player at the deadline.
So, what next?
The veteran players on this team have to figure it out. Standing pat is frustrating to fans who want to see the team reach the same level of consistency they showed in the first half of last season, but another factor in all of this must be considered: the streak may have been the worst thing to happen to this team.
Bear with me here: the team might have believed it was better than it actually was, as the team reached heights unseen in the history of the franchise. They were the talk of the NHL and played consistent high-flying hockey where they scored at will and Sergei Bobrovsky played Vezina caliber hockey.
Now, as the team has regressed over the last calendar year, veteran players are struggling while the youth on the team is taking steps forward. Unfortunately, those veterans are locked in to their contracts and will be in Columbus regardless of performance.
The Columbus Blue Jackets veterans must find a way to regain not their historic performances from last season, but career average at worst, if this team is to have any shot of success. It is hard to do, and I don’t presume to have those answers. But making a trade is not the answer, bringing in outside playmakers will require sacrificing youth because of how contracts on the roster are currently structured, and the team is in a month of games currently that could help players like Foligno who are healthy figure it out.
40 games to go, and the Columbus Blue Jackets are three points ahead of the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, with two more games played than the teams below them in the standings. The clock is ticking to figure it out.