In the beginning of the now off-season for the Jackets, I was tasked of coming up with what went wrong for the Blue Jackets in their series with the Bruins? Well, in no particular order, I’ll tell you about some of those problems that plagued the team when it mattered most.
Riley Nash missed the rest of the series
Go figure that the loss of Riley Nash would be as huge of a hole as it apparently was. He had a pretty forgettable first season in Columbus, but his grit and depth proved exponential in a seven-game series. While Nash scored three points (one goal, two assists) in his seven playoff games, John Tortorella was tasked with trying to fill the void Nash left in the lineup, whether with the likes of the promising talent of Alexandre Texier or the enigma of Alexander Wennberg. Trade deadline acquisition Ryan Dzingel struggled before cracking his first and only points of the playoffs with a goal in Game 5.
It might not have mattered too much against the Lightning in their quarterfinals sweep, but the Blue Jackets being left without Markus Nutivaara, ever since Game 2 of that opening series after being leveled into the boards by Nikita Kucherov never helped matters. Not when you’re forced to patchwork the back-end with the likes of Adam Clendening, Scott Harrington, and Dean Kukan. Vladislav Gavrikov finally made his NHL debut in Game 5 and also received ice-time in Game 6.
You know you’re golden with the Norris potential of All-Star Seth Jones (third on team with nine postseason points) and Zach Werenski. And let’s not forget the loss of Ryan Murray, who can never catch a break when it comes to his health. In the midst of perhaps his best NHL season to date, Murray was lost after sustaining an upper-body injury against the Lightning in February. Another trade deadline acquisition, the former Bruin and Stanley Cup champion, Adam McQuaid, never played again after taking an elbow from Andrew Shaw in the final stretch of the regular season. Think how big his — physical — presence would have been against his former mates.
Let alone what his defensive presence would have meant with the losses of Murray and Nutivaara.
Dried up power play
Remember how bad the power play was for the Jackets, dating back over the last two regular seasons? Go figure that would be among the very best assets for the club in their sweep over the Lightning, and in the early portion of their series versus Boston.
The Blue Jackets featured the No. 1 power play during their playoff run, and closed out their first-round sweep of the Bolts at that unsustainable 50% mark (5-for-10) over the four games. Of course, four games are a small sample size no matter how you slice it, but you knew it wasn’t going to remain that easy.
Columbus scored three power play goals in their series with Boston on 21 chances. As of this writing, only the Blues had more chances of all the second-round playoff teams (22), but the Jackets were actually middle-of-the-pack in terms of goal production. Only the Stars had converted more (four). The Jackets finished their eight playoff games with a 25.8% clip, which is rather good, small samples and all, but the regression began to creep up. Particularly in Games’ 4-6, when the team went 0-for-10 with the man-advantage. That includes going 0-for-4 in Games’ 4 and 6 respectively.
Another impressive element of the Jackets’ power play was how hard they were on the puck, passing quickly and striking against the Lightning. Their zone time with the puck in that round would carry the momentum, but that eased up against the Bruins, and overall, power play and otherwise, the team was chasing the play more and more. Boston was only 3-of-19 on the power play against Columbus, but they were able to get more scoring across the board.
Don’t take bad penalties
Among what went well for Columbus in round 1 — not taking penalties — became another downfall in round 2. Taking bad penalties. In not taking penalties against the Lightning, the Bolts were limited in breaking out their league-best power play from the regular season, and only went 1-for-6 for the series. But against Boston, as we saw the series play out, the Jackets were not as fortunate in staying out of the box. That can happen in a physical series. In Game 4, the Bruins capitalized on two of six overall chances. Coming into the series, the Bruins’ power play was second to the Jackets, but their unit struggled through the first three games (1-for-10). They finished 2-for-9 over the last three games of the series, as the Jackets failed to convert over the same stretch.
Lack of 5v5 scoring
But really, when you’re getting down to the root cause issue of what plagued the Blue Jackets during their playoff run against the Bruins, look no further than their lack of scoring when 5v5. For their series against Boston, they scored just seven goals at 5v5, one goal at 4v4, and then three on the power play. Conversely, Boston had 14 goals 5v5, and outscored Columbus 9-4 in that area over the last three games.
Even in their Game 3, 2-1 victory, the Jackets did just enough offensively and were massively bailed out by the stellar goaltending of Sergei Bobrovsky. In Game 4, they took a 2-1 deficit into the third period, but the aforementioned 0-fer on the power play and inability to crack Tuukka Rask continued to be an issue. The Game 5 third period flurry that saw the clubs trade six goals back and forth may have sparked hope. But any of that was out the window as Game 6 chugged along. Even just trailing by one goal, 1-0, into the third period, Rask was every equal to the play of Bobrovsky, and as it turned out, they really hadn’t dented Rask that badly in Game 5 as Tortorella said postgame.
Cam Atkinson only had two goals in the playoffs to go along with six assists, and no goals at all in the second round. His last goal of the playoffs was of the empty-net variety to close out Game 3 against the Lightning. Artemi Panarin co-led the Jackets with five goals for the playoffs, along with Matt Duchene, while Panarin only had one power play goal to Duchene’s three. Panarin was your 5v5 leader with three goals for the playoffs.
Overall, it felt like the Blue Jackets just failed to adjust as the series played on, similarly to last year against the Capitals. If you’re not getting the scoring when you need it, you’re on borrowed time in the playoffs.
Can whatever went wrong be fixed?
So if you made it this far, you’re wondering about the team next season and how things can be rectified. We don’t know what changes could happen, but we know about the age-old uncertainty of the big four UFA, and at least two likely departures in Bobrovsky and Panarin.
By all accounts, from the man himself, Matt Duchene seemed to really embrace the city of Columbus, his time as a Blue Jacket, and enjoyed the opportunity of playing for a contender in the playoffs. But then, nearly any team and situation is better than the Senators.
His buddy, the former Ohio State product, Ryan Dzingel came along for the ride, and though his minutes were diminished by the hands of Torts at times, was all but seemingly ready to sign an extension from day one.
“There’s a very high chance of that if they want me” Dzingel had said after his arrival to Columbus.
But that was in February, and before struggles and diminished minutes came his way. I think he would still be a nice asset for the right price, and if Duchene stays (more on that), maybe the familiarity helps sway his decision. Remember, Dzingel scored 49 goals over the last two seasons.
As great a member of the Blue Jackets Bobrovsky has been during his time in Ohio, his shining moment came during the playoffs. Outside of one horrendous period, he was the shutdown ace we came to love during his Vezina winning seasons. Bobrovsky stole games the way you need your best goaltenders to be in the playoffs, and he gave his team a fighting chance every night, win or lose.
Bobrovsky might be gone now, but it’s the right call, when you factor in his age (31 in Sept.) and years likely desired by his camp on his next contract. I can’t fault him for seeking the deal he deserves, but from Columbus’ vantage point, it just doesn’t seem likely the two come to any sort of extension.
But then you're also excited as the Elvis Merzlikins era is ushered in. He’s a bit of an unknown, as all we have to go by is his scouting profile and international numbers. It would appear he and Joonas Korpisalo would duke it out in the crease next season, but what if they traded Korpisalo and kept a backup like Keith Kinkaid in house?
Even if Panarin is gone, we saw the continued emergence of Atkinson in a record-setting campaign, 41-goals, tying Rick Nash for the most goals in an individual season for the franchise. Oliver Bjorkstrand came on strong in the second half of the season, and had nine goals over his last 10 games, on the way to putting up a career-best 23 goals. Bjorkstrand was 24th among all NHL players with 18 goals from Jan. 1 through the end of the regular season.
You’ll have third-year center Pierre-Luc Dubois, still just 20-years-old, and who has yet to miss a game in his career after upping his career scoring totals this past season. Josh Anderson was as essential as any Blue Jacket over the final month. And then possibly, the return of Duchene. The Blue Jackets are the only team that can offer Duchene the 8-year max deal, unless he opts for testing the market and taking perhaps larger dollars elsewhere on a 7-year term.
As far as the Blue Jackets are concerned, and Jarmo Kekalainen said as much following the end of Game 6, money is not a factor and the organization wants players that want to be in Columbus. By all accounts, Duchene seems to check that box, at least based on his personality and attitude upon his arrival.
#CBJ GM Jarmo Kekalainen had some strong feelings about his unrestricted free agents heading into the offseason.— Brian Hedger (@BrianHedger) May 7, 2019
"We’re going to have (those) type of players on our team next year, that want to be here, want to be Blue Jackets and are proud to be in Columbus.”
Full quote -> pic.twitter.com/2QPgCi7rcG
Duchene has a young family, he's on his third team in as many years, and he experienced the city of Columbus while also playing for a budding Eastern Conference contender. While some balk at Kekalainen’s aggressive deadline moves, the three-month trial run with Duchene might be just enough to entice him that Columbus is the type of city and team he wants to spend the prime years of his career with. Columbus features building blocks, and Duchene could see how his future looks based on his very presence on the team over last couple months. But that’s speculative at best right now.
And then there’s the kids of the organization, including Texier and Gavrikov, Liam Foudy, Sonny Milano, Kole Sherwood, Kevin Stenlund, Daniil Tarasov, and Trey Fix-Wolansky, all within the organization, and further along than any draft picks the media reminds you about that the Jackets surrendered at the deadline.
One last thing you may be wondering.
How would the loss of Panarin affect those around him like Atkinson and Dubois? Fair question, and while Panarin is a game-breaker that isn’t easily replaceable, the Jackets feature scoring depth, particularly on the wings. If you’re building a team, you want stud defenseman (Jones and Werenski), a young star center (Dubois), an established All-Star center (Duchene?) and a young franchise goaltender (Merzlikins?).
It’s day two of the offseason. We have a ways to go yet.