Maybe I’ve mis-catgeroized just what the Columbus Blue Jackets are. They aren’t an elite team, but they are a good team. And that’s okay.
The Blue Jackets have been rounding into form — I mean, they were as of the start of this writing Sunday — at the most opportune time with the trade deadline less than a week away and with the playoff races heating up. That’s been a theme for Columbus lately, thinking back to the 10-game win streak late last season and the cohesiveness of that unit with the arrivals of Thomas Vanek, Ian Cole, and the return of Mark Letestu. This year’s bunch regrouped from a season-worst five-game skid following the All-Star Break, out west, and sweeping the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals competitors.
The penalty kill unit has been nearly perfect (46/50 since Jan. 1) and the power play had been showing renewed signs of life, though goalless over the last five games. Last season, the team was propped up by Sergei Bobrovsky standing on his head in goal on a nightly basis, bailing out an underachieving offense for much of that season.
This season, we’ve seen the offense bail out Bobrovsky on more than one occasion. That’s not as much a shot at ‘Bob’ as it is the offense playing to their strengths — 139 goals 5v5, 6th in NHL / 3.19 GF/GP, 10th — and what we have come to expect from them in recent seasons. Cam Atkinson, who shook off the early-season slump last season and caught fire after his injury, helps lead the revival now during a career-year.
Not Elite But Good — Important to Know The Difference
I get caught up in thinking about this team in the playoffs and doubting their prospects if they’re up against virtually anyone. Whether that be the league-best Lightning, Maple Leafs, or Penguins. But let’s not focus on that. Even I’m overly optimistic about the current state of the club and where they’re headed. Another series against the Capitals would be really intriguing, and maybe, just maybe, the Jackets could finish business this go-around. The Jackets have played well against the Capitals since last season’s playoffs, winning the season series 3-1 this year.
I also think it’s easier to get too caught up in the fact this team hasn’t gotten out of the first round in its 19 year existence. I’m not absolved of that, saying many a time that this team needs to get out of the Quarterfinals. Of course they do. But that frustration stemmed from the fact this franchise, for all of its 19 years, has not, and is the only team not to make to the second round.
But it’s not really 19 years; flush away the first decade.
That era of
Blew Blue Jackets hockey doesn't count. Not really. The club had one good season under Ken Hitchcock in 2008-09, finally making the playoffs. A barely competitive club before and after that immediate playoff ouster by the Red Wings, things didn’t begin to form and take shape until the John Davidson era in 2012. And when Todd Richards relieved Scott Arniel late that season, with GM Jarmo Kekäläinen’s entering into the fold soon to follow in 2013. So, really, this franchise is in a seven-year rebirthing if you think about it. We’ve seen an identity take shape. A consistent approach, at least, as much as we’ve come to know. With John Tortorella at the helm, at least two-straight playoff berths, and probably a third, in the process and a wealth of talent that the Jackets’ franchise has never known prior.
So Back to The Present
I don’t know where this club will go as the season nears its finish or if they’ll even get out of the first round of the playoffs, but I’m not going to worry about that. Seeing the team win and flourish this time of year is obviously better than the alternative. You still consider trades for Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin but it’s nice to see “Vezina” Bob back, and Panarin having fun and being productive. If it enhances the return on their trade value, while helping the club to its third-consecutive playoff berth, so be it.
I mean, you’re looking pretty good with the teams’ current construction:
Cam Atkinson, Josh Anderson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Ryan Murray, Seth Jones, and Zach Werenski have all been very noticeable.
I’ll be relieved to be past the Bob/Panarin saga, one way or the other. Although one can’t deny the question mark in goal once the team does move past Bobrovsky, and whether or not they bring in a comparable veteran replacement, is Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins ready for the show?
The off-season and upcoming summer will be able to usher in a new era of sorts. Cap space will be up for grabs, and even if you can’t land that marquee free agent, you might not need to. Matt Duchene has been loosely connected to the Blue Jackets and that could be a really interesting dynamic via trade, pairing with Dubois and Atkinson on the first line.
But what really separates this team from the best in the East?
Well, for starters, layers.
Layers of depth down the middle. When Alexander Wennberg is your 2C, paid closer to being a 1C, or at least a 2C that should actually play like a 2C but plays more like a 3C at best, and arguably features the production of a 4C, then there’s one problem. It’s established that the Jackets’ first line can go up with anyone in the league. It’s the drop-off following that line. Wennberg and Nash are making a combined $26,900,000 through 2022-23, and have combined together for three goals this season.
Then think about the second and third lines of the Lightning, Maple Leafs, Penguins.
The teams just don’t compare head-to-head. Not yet. But the Blue Jackets have a very competitive team, that has a pretty good forward cast. Individually, we see what the likes of Boone Jenner and Oliver Bjorkstrand, to name a few, bring to the table. We’re dreaming when we can put twice the likes of an Artemi Panarin on the first and second line. Must be nice when you have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on your first two lines. Or John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri down the middle.
One thing to keep in mind is future salary cap purgatory that teams like the Maple Leafs and Lightning will have to contend with in the not-so-distant future. The Leafs have decisions to make. But that’s not a point of emphasis for Columbus at this time; rather, we’ll see if the draft continues to rise up like it has with Dubois and potentially with the likes of a Kole Sherwood or Vitaly Abramov in Cleveland. Reap the benefits of discovering talent and drafting well, sign a few good free agents and piece around that blend. That’s really the crux of it. The Blue Jackets are a good team; they’re not elite. Are they Joe Flacco?
The Lightning became the best team — regular season-wise — over the last few years. There was a time when I thought the Jackets could contend with the Lightning. They swept Tampa Bay in 2016-17, outscoring them 13-5, before the Lightning flipped the tables last season, sweeping the three games and outscoring the Jackets 12-4. And this year, like last year, the Lightning are a juggernaut. I thought the same with the Penguins back in 2014, when the Jackets went six games with them, and the Capitals. I think they can play with the Capitals right now. The Penguins are deep, but more than anything of late, seem to be in the heads of the Blue Jackets. Their next win would be the first against Pittsburgh since the 2017 playoffs.
Though some of us are wary of the trade deadline mania, I’m looking forward to it. Soon, we’ll begin to gather the answers we’ve been pondering for some time.