Welcome to another edition of what the hell is wrong with the Columbus Blue Jackets?
Hold up, let’s pause: The following premise of how I was going to berate the Blue Jackets for their awful play of late was largely concocted before the Jackets ended their slide with a domineering 5-0 win at Vancouver, only to play off that with a needed, and much-impressive, 4-0 victory against the Islanders Tuesday night.
And we’re back!
We wondered, since the trade deadline, where the team we expected to contend — maybe even for the division as they were just six points out of first on Feb. 25 — had been. From 35-23-3 to where they are now, 42-30-4. A 7-7-1 mark since Jarmo Kekäläinen went all-in.
There’s been the prolonged absence of Ryan Murray — Ryan Real puts together a real interesting piece lending perspective on just how valuable Murray’s been when on the ice this season — since Feb. 18.
Prior to the nine goals for in the past two games, there was the offensive malaise, even with the collection of newly assembled roster talent. Maybe they took longer than usual to jell amid John Tortorella’s line blender and player on-ice usage? Maybe line-chemistry was just that, trying to juggle the best combination.
First line, where thou have you been?
The best line all season, consisting primarily of Artemi Panarin, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Cam Atkinson had been largely invisible over the past month.
I originally started this article wondering where has Artemi Panarin been? Prior to last night, Panarin had a 13-game goalless drought, dating back to Feb. 28. That season-long slump ended when Panarin went all alone in on goaltender Thomas Greiss. Prior to the goal, he’s shown signs of life with four assists in the prior six games.
Dubois just recorded his first points for the month of March with a goal and assist against the Canucks Sunday. He was bumped to the second line for a time when Matt Duchene got to Columbus to play with Panarin and Atkinson. Maybe the culmination of 158-straight regular season games going back to last season has something to do with it for the still just 20-year-old. I have no idea, but it doesn’t seem inconceivable for something like that to happen to a young player, and with going up against the best every night in a late-season playoff push.
Atkinson’s been so good, in his best season to date, as he has set career-highs in goals (39) and points (65), and is one assist away from a new career high (27). Prior to last night, he had a five-game point drought, and for the month, has seven points (four goals, three assists).
When Seth Jones said after last Thursday’s debilitating loss to the Oilers that players have to “find a way to motivate ourselves,” I thought the choice of words were interesting. Obviously, he’s right. Because something about the team had been off since the trade deadline.
Seth Jones:— Brian Hedger (@BrianHedger) March 22, 2019
"We’ve got to find energy somewhere, and enough with the meetings, enough with the talk. We’ve got to find a way to motivate ourselves ..."#CBJ
“Got to find a way to motivate ourselves?” You’d think the team would be motivated after putting together their most decorated collection of talent to date. But Jones wasn’t wrong, because the team was in dire need of a refocus. And it wasn’t just the usual “I don’t know, we’re a good team” rhetoric.
There was the absence of Nick Foligno following his son’s bout with pneumonia — Fortunately, his son is on the mend now. I’m sure the team did miss the captains’ presence on the ice, a sentiment echoed from the coaching staff on down to the players. The team only seemed to boast an energy in his return to the lineup last night, and regardless, that urgency is needed every game here on out.
Trying to find the root problem
When things were going bad, there were many quips and rants on social media that try to dictate the root cause for the teams’ issues. I’m not immune from that.
I get those that criticize the coaching staff, because the coaches are typically the ones that either get too much praise when things go well, too much blame when things go awry. Not that criticism, in this case, isn’t justified. I’ve said before how much I’ve defended Torts, but I do think the line blender is often used as a last resort “I don’t know what else to do” fix. Although I don't necessarily equate that to the previous problems for the team.
Sure, players like routine and feeling comfortable. But if the offense is in muck, and you’re desperately trying to get out of a hole, there’s gotta be urgency from somewhere.
Those that point to Tortorella and say he should be fired, those assessments probably aren’t too far off-base if the team misses the playoffs. But I’m not sure of who you bring in his stead. Maybe that next coach has all the answers. But I still believe there is an undeniable stench that is firmly deeply-rooted somewhere within the franchise, and no matter who the coach is, the basis of the problems don't necessarily go away. No, they’re not cursed. I think the loss to the Penguins Feb. 26 took the wind out of the sails. It seems crazy to say, but win that game, and maybe the whole past month is different.
John Tortorella, the players, talk about how they don’t focus on the series of misfortunes that pile up to teams like Pittsburgh. But how can they not? The mental anguish that exists with this franchise the second one iota of expectation is placed on the team, you can almost feel it when the bubble of optimism bursts.
Things couldn’t have felt more exciting once the Jackets put all the chips on the table and went for it, acquiring Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and said let’s go!
This team shows how good they can be in small doses. Right now, things seem to be trending in a positive direction again, with Sergei Bobrovsky's third shutout in his past four starts. He has eight on the season, which is a new single-season high, and puts him tied for the league-most with Marc-Andre Fleury. Who knows, maybe Bobrovsky is playing his best hockey when it matters, and maybe this will be the playoffs that he absolutely brings his best as Pale Dragon mentioned recently.
I think with Vezina Bob they can beat anyone in a series. Even Tampa.— Pale Dragon (@PaleDragonCbus) March 27, 2019
It’s a nice thought, but I’m not ready to buy that this team has suddenly turned a corner. Call me pessimistic, but to me, this is classic fools gold, and nothing will convince me they are for real until they advance in the playoffs. Torts was right, the time for talking was over after the Oilers loss, and so far, they’ve delivered in that small sample.
If they are going to make the playoffs this season, they’ll have overcome adversity of the past month, having shaken one more miserable loss to the Oilers for consecutive shutout wins they had to have. But if they lose to the Canadiens Thursday, another win they absolutely have to have, then it may end up being all for naught.