The 2019-20 Blue Jackets season is barely a week old.
Are we having fun yet?
I don’t know what you expected coming into the season, but for me, it’s this. As in everything we’ve seen through this 2-3-0 start. And though we’re only five games in, the range of dynamics that feature some good, bad, and ugly are what you can expect when you consider the Blue Jackets have the youngest roster (25.7) in the entire NHL as of opening night.
Then you throw in three players who made their NHL debut this season alone, and five on the roster in the calendar year going back to April. That’s a lot of youthful promise mixed with growing pains.
I’ve made it no secret that the goaltending was my biggest question mark and wild card. And so far, it might be too early to say anything would necessarily alleviate that concern. But I’m not really worried over the long haul. From a macro outlook, I believe that Elvis Merzlikins can make the necessary adjustments to acclimate himself to the NHL, North America, the size of the ice, facing the world’s best players every night, and the tricky angles he’ll continue to navigate against. At least, all of those concerns as it pertains to Merzlikins are valid and must be taken into consideration before casting any kind of affirmation one way or the other.
It sounds like his relationship, by all accounts throughout training camp, is going swimmingly with former NHL veteran and Blue Jackets goaltender coach Manny Legace. Listen to Bob McElligott’s Friday chat with Legace on the CBJ in 30 podcast, in which Legace dives into how he helps Merzlikins with the mental state of adjusting into the NHL.
Fresh off an impressive win against the Hurricanes, we’re seeing the flashes that Joonas Korpisalo has within him, and so far, he’s the clearcut number one goaltender to this point.
Others might concern themselves more with the offense or special teams, and those are valid as always. But seeing what the ‘young guys’ can do is part of what I was looking forward to. I won’t promise they will supplement the amount of scoring, both in numbers and range of dynamics, lost in terms of who left via free agency, but we’ll see the glimpses and hopefully the full-on emergence and breakout of these impact players.
Guys such as Alexandre Texier will continue to refine and find the back of the net. Oliver Bjorkstrand looks to be continuing his evolution, including creating and finishing his own goal last night.
Gustav Nyquist is a solid veteran, who hopefully flourishes, and sooner than Riley Nash last season. (Well, he’s already got one more point to this juncture than Nash a year ago).
I think the penalty kill will be alright, but it did start off allowing five power play goals to the Maple Leafs, Penguins, and Sabres — three of the top 16 power play units with Buffalo ranked first.
It’s the power play that I’m hoping will actually, finally, take shape. The first power play of the season against Toronto was sloppy and disorganized. But they did convert on a later opportunity, directly off a face-off won by Nick Foligno three seconds into it, with Atkinson scoring one of his two goals of the young season.
Against the Penguins it improved a little more, with five shots on their lone chance of the game, and a little more presence in the offensive zone. Their opportunities against Buffalo were among the best so far, again, with a goal coming 10 seconds in, directly off another face-off, and again, Atkinson burying the goal. The last opportunity of that game was the best, with six shots and a second goal after sustained offensive zone pressure.
Against the Ducks, however, the power play — and the rest of the overall play — reverted back to sloppiness, with two shots on three power play chances, including a short-handed goal by Anaheim. Against then-undefeated Carolina, the Blue Jackets were 0-for-3, but again, showed a little more promise on their third opportunity in which that sequence saw them generate four shots with sustained pressure and moving the puck.
It was enough to inspire this gem of a tweet.
Sometimes the PP looks like a PP. There’s just no Reimer reason #CBJ— William Chase (@WillChase_) October 13, 2019
One thing that’s sure to help teams across the league are the new face-off rules this season, in which teams have the option of which circle the draw will be. This should certainly help the Columbus power play in working their strong side, such as how the Jackets have converted on a couple of their opportunities so far.
The test remains to see if the Jackets can continue to improve when chasing the puck and having to reload up through the neutral zone because that’s still a hit or miss hot mess.
I set my expectations accordingly over the summer when contemplating this season. I did pick them to be over the projected point total of 84.5 points, explicitly setting them at 87 and fifth in the division. That might not be enough to make the playoffs but I will take near 90 points in a transition year.
As The Columbus Dispatch’s Brian Hedger wrote recently, patience is a key for Tortorella and the Blue Jackets this season, and that word reverberates during the game telecasts and in one-on-one interviews with players and coaches. It sounds simple but it’s a vital reminder as part of a young maturation process plays out, and that subtle eight-letter word is going to remain a constant theme as the season rolls on.