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Blue Jackets Have Weathered the Worst Case Scenarios

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Much has gone wrong this season

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Late in February, as the Blue Jackets limped towards the trade deadline, I recalled a conversation I had before the season with the Blueshirts Breakaway podcast. I was asked what was the worst case scenario for the Jackets this season.

In order to respond, I first had to tell the story of the two seasons after the 2014 playoff appearance. As a brief recap (not that you all need it): 2014-15 saw the Jackets suffer over 500 games lost to injury. They played like a playoff team when full healthy, but that was only the first couple weeks and final month of the season. In 2015-16, any high expectations for the season were shattered by an 0-8-0 start, a hole which the team was unable to dig out of.

Therefore, when asked about the worst case scenario for the 2017-18 Jackets, I replied the the worst case scenario had already happened to the team twice, and therefore was unlikely to happen again. Surely so many injuries could not happen, and the depth of the team was improved if it did. A slow start featuring underperforming players wouldn’t happen, would it, because Torts would get the team in shape during camp like he did in 2016.

Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Injuries

This season has been nowhere as bad as 2014-15 injury-wise, but nonetheless the training staff has been kept busy. Even worse, the injuries have been poorly timed. Only 3 players have played every game (Artemi Panarin, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Oliver BJORKSTRAND). Among the top 10 point scorers on the team (note, some here received healthy scratches, but most of these were actual injuries):

  • Seth Jones missed 3
  • Cam Atkinson missed 16
  • Nick Foligno missed 4
  • Zach Werenski missed 4
  • Alexander Wennberg missed 15
  • Josh Anderson missed 15
  • Boone Jenner missed 7

Atkinson and Wennberg’s injuries overlapped, and were at the same time as Brandon Dubinsky’s injury. Key defenseman Ryan Murray has missed 37 games, yet once he returned from injury both Dean Kukan and Markus Nutivaara left the lineup, severely damaging the blue line depth.

Compare the timing of injuries to the results. Look at the spike in shot production once Atkinson and Wennberg returned. Notice how the shots allowed went up when Nutivaara went out. (Charts from Hockey Viz and NHL Injury Viz)

Slow Starts/Underperformance

Ah, the other worst case scenario. Despite the team sitting comfortably in playoff position over the first couple months of the season, several players were performing below expectations. Examples:

Boone Jenner missed the start of the season due to a back injury. Once he arrived, it took a while to get going. In his first 30 games, he had just 3 goals and 7 assists. In the 14 games since the trade deadline (most of which spent with Wennberg and Thomas Vanek), he has 5 goals and 4 assists.

Artemi Panarin leads the team with 25 goals and 44 assists, but through his first 25 games he had just 5 goals and 11 assists. That means he put up 20/33/53 in the subsequent 51 games.

When Atkinson got injured, he had scored 6/7/13 in 32 games, and had earned a healthy scratch at one point. He was showing signs of improvement before getting hurt, but was on a 13 game goalless streak. Fortunately, in the 28 games since returning he has 13/12/25 and has clicked with Panarin.

Finally there’s Nick Foligno, forced to play out of position at center for most of the season. He has 7 points in 13 games since returning from an ankle injury, and has shown chemistry first with BJORKSTRAND/Milano and then Panarin/Atkinson.

Meanwhile, veterans Brandon Dubinsky and Jack Johnson have struggled all season, with little signs of improvement even as the team won 10 games in a row.

And yet...

Despite these obstacles, the Blue Jackets are close to returning to the playoffs. This of course would be the first time in franchise history they would reach the postseason in consecutive seasons. With the exception of Josh Anderson, the key players are all back healthy. Some savvy trade deadline acquisitions improved the depth. With that health and the new-found line chemistry, the Blue Jackets have regained their confidence and have hit their stride at exactly the right time. This has been a valuable experience to persevere through these setbacks, and we will hopefully see the benefits of that in the postseason and future seasons as well.