The up-and-down season for the Columbus Blue Jackets continues, as they went 1-2-0 for the week. That is the record we expected before facing Chicago, Carolina, and Florida, but it didn’t unfold as we predicted. Playing the Blackhawks at home — and a Blackhawks team without Seth Jones — should have been a winnable in game. Instead, the Jackets gave another lackluster effort and lost, 4-2.
There was little hope going into a road trip against two of the best teams in the East, but the Jackets shocked us and a national television audience by blanking the Hurricanes 6-0 on Thursday. It has been rare that the Jackets have been able to put it all together on offense and defense simultaneously, and to do it for a full 60 minutes. They had blown a 4-0 lead to those Hurricanes less than two weeks earlier, and gave up seven unanswered goals. That they learned their lessons from that game and didn’t collapse again is an encouraging sign of growth.
Alas, it was too much to hope that the lessons learned and confidence gained from the win in Carolina could carry through to the Panthers game on Saturday. The Jackets got down 2-0 early, and things spiraled from there in a 9-2 loss. Now, there’s no shame in losing to the best team in the league. The Panthers have been scoring in bunches against every opponent lately, including dropping 9 goals on the Tampa Bay Lightning in late December.
As painful as that game was to watch, we have to be prepared for the fact that there are more games to come like this. There is still a lot of work to be done on team defense. What I hope for now is that games like this stop becoming a weekly occurrence. That would be progress. At the same time, you hope to see more games like the Carolina game, even if it’s not something that the group can string together for several games in a row.
What is the reason for the inconsistency? Is it youth and inexperience? Lack of cohesion? Coaching? It’s probably a little bit of everything. To solve the first two, there is no other option but patience. Give the young talent a chance to play, and let them play through their mistakes. We’ve seen Cole Sillinger and Yegor Chinakhov blossom this month after struggling through December. That process is invaluable for their development as NHLers.
You would expect team cohesion to be an issue more at the beginning of the season, as so many new faces found their place. Instead, the team started hot but after two months started to have issues. Injuries have played their part in shuffling the lineup, and now COVID cases have as well. The only lineup change from Thursday to Saturday was Sillinger going on the COVID list. His absence highlighted the lack of center depth at the NHL level in this organization. There’s no short term fix for that.
As much as I’d like a stable lineup, the fact is we have more changes coming. Gregory Hofmann informed the team that he will not return following the birth of his daughter in Switzerland. As a result, his contract will be terminated. He will resume his career in the Swiss league (and perhaps in the Olympics?). Max Domi and Joonas Korpisalo are unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, so they are almost certainly going to be traded by the deadline. Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic are pending restricted free agents, and they could be moved as well if the front office feels like they can’t re-sign either for the right term or dollar amount in the summer.
Finally, we get to coaching. Brad Larsen is in his first year as an NHL head coach, and there are growing pains there. Like John Tortorella, at times he has put too much faith in the veterans. As the Jackets fall farther out of a playoff position, he should spread the minutes out more. That can minimize fatigue, and give the younger players a chance to prove themselves and earn the coaches’ trust.
Another question I have is the defensive coaching. When assembling this staff, Sylvain Lefebvre was intended to coach the defense. He was dismissed shortly before training camp due to his refusal to get a COVID vaccine. Steve McCarthy was promoted from the Cleveland Monsters, and while he had a good reputation as an up-and-comer I wonder if he’s in over his head this year. Certainly taking over on short notice is not easy. He may yet become a viable NHL coach, but the team should look for a more established coach to fill that role next season. Someone with NHL head coaching experience could be beneficial there as a mentor and sounding board for Larsen.
In the short term, I expect the Blue Jackets to continue meeting my preseason expectation of “bad, but fun.” In 36 games, they have scored five or more goals eight times. That’s cool! They’ll probably finish at or around 80 points, exceeding most preseason projections, and will finish above eighth place in the Metro, which is where most experts placed them. That’s a sign of the team being somewhat ahead of schedule on the rebuild. If you squint, it’s not hard to see how this team could take another step forward next season, with the infusion of some more talent and with a year of experience under the belt for the young players and young coaches.
Due to Tuesday’s game against the Islanders being postponed, the Jackets get a five day break between games. Hopefully that team is used to practice a lot. The break also allows Jakub Voracek and Cole Sillinger to clear COVID protocols in time to be in the lineup on Thursday. On Thursday and Friday, the Jackets play the Flyers and Penguins, respectively. It will have been two years since facing these two division foes.