They say that if a team is out of a playoff spot by American Thanksgiving, they are unlikely to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs. Through the games of November 20, the Columbus Blue Jackets have a record of 7-10-1 and points percentage of .417. This puts them in a tie for 25th place in the league and 14th in the East, seven points out of playoff position. The frozen turkeys haven’t even thawed yet, and it’s safe to say this bird is cooked (so to speak).
I’ve had lots of chats in person and online in the last few weeks, trying to wrap my head around how the Jackets got to this point, and what the future holds for them. Here are some assorted thoughts about all of that.
We aren’t even supposed to be here today
Through 18 games last season, the Jackets were 12-6 and in a wild card position. They cooled down and finished with 81 points, 19 points behind the eighth seed. It was not a surprise or even a disappointment for that team to miss the playoffs. This year’s edition was still going to face an uphill battle in a deeper Eastern Conference, but the addition of Johnny Gaudreau and growth of young talent led me to believe/hope that this team could still take a step forward. Maybe finish around 90 points, then make another 10+ point improvement into the playoffs in 2023-24.
Instead, the Jackets are well behind last year’s pace, currently on track to finish with 68 points. This is behind even the woeful 2021 team, which played at a 70 point pace. The Achilles Heel of last year’s team was defense, which set a franchise record for goals allowed (297, 3.62 per game). A new defensive system was supposed to have solved the problem, but the players look even more lost and the results say it all: 4.33 goals allowed per game, for an increase of 0.71 goals allowed. That’s really bad!
This team had its issues at full strength, but now face further difficulty with eight players on the injured reserve, including four of the top seven defensemen, the starting goalie, and two of the most prolific forwards from last season. In total, over $38 million in cap dollars is on the injured list.
With all that has gone wrong, many fans have already started turning to next summer’s draft for salvation. After a few years with question marks at the top, this class is believed to have at least three generational talents, and still more perennial all-star types in the top 10. A last place finish would guarantee a team a spot in the top three, and the best chance at moving up to #1 or #2.
I myself can’t get excited about that yet, however. There’s just so much that can change between now and then, whether that’s the Blue Jackets playing better or worse, or other teams at the bottom going through their own ups or downs. We can’t control that, nor can we control the outcome of the draft lottery, which historically has failed to provide any assistance. Just once did we move up: in 2016, from #4 to #3, and we likely would have ended up with Pierre-Luc Dubois in either case.
What I really can’t get behind is fans that are now so sold on the draft lottery idea that they get disappointed when the Blue Jackets actually win a game (as they have in four of the last six games, incidentally). I’m paid to write about this team, so I have to watch most of the games. I’m a quarter season ticket holder so I attend 1-2 games a month. I even flew halfway around the world to watch this team play! So, as a consumer, I ultimately want to be entertained. Wins are fun! Blowout losses are not. I could settle for hard-fought losses, but even then I want the team to get rewarded when they play well. They need reinforcement that playing the right way is worth it. They need to learn how to win.
I also fear that rooting to lose is bad karma. I can remember how much fans in Arizona and Buffalo were into the race to the bottom in 2015 to win the Connor McDavid sweepstakes. In the end, neither got that top prize and both have remained stuck at the bottom of the league ever since (save for Arizona’s appearance in the 2020 bubble playoffs). It’s not like this is a roster to be discarded after the draft anyway. Most of the pieces are here: proven players on long-term deals like Gaudreau, Werenski, and Laine and future stars on ELCs like Johnson, Sillinger, Jiricek, etc. They can’t afford to get used to losing.
Finally, a slight improvement on the Jackets’ current pace still keeps them comfortably in range of a lottery pick. Looking over the last five drafts and the teams that won the top two picks (not including expansion Seattle who picked second in 2021), five out of nine had better points percentages than the Jackets currently do. Last year’s Montreal team won 22 games. The Jackets can beat their share of bad teams and still finish comfortably in the bottom ten.
Montreal (2022): .335
New Jersey (2022): .384
Buffalo (2021): .330
New York (2020): .564
Los Angeles (2020): .457
New Jersey (2019): .439
New York (2019): .476
Buffalo (2018): .378
Carolina (2018): .506
Hastily Made Cleveland Monsters Roster
Some want the best young players currently under contract to be sent to the Cleveland Monsters of the AHL. The idea is that losing their skill makes the Jackets worse and helps drive down their results, and the Monsters — currently 8-5-2 and in thrid place in the North Division — would get an infusion of talent that could play big minutes and get used to winning together.
My main objection to this relates to the watchability factor I mentioned earlier. For my money I want to be able to watch Yegor Chinakhov and Kent Johnson. I don’t want to watch even more of Brendan Gaunce or Gavin Bayreuther.
Beyond that, though, it misses the point of the AHL. It’s not just or parking players, it’s for developing players. Cleveland is a great spot for players who have aged out of juniors or NCAA or Europe and need to adjust to the North American pro game before reaching the NHL. It’s for players to develop certain skillsets against easier competition. A player like Kent Johnson has already shown he is an NHL-caliber player. He has nothing to prove in the AHL. To the extent that he needs to develop his skills, that sharpening needs to happen against the high-level competition you find in the NHL.
People cite the advantages gained by those players who were part of the 2015-16 Monsters team that won the Calder Cup. Two of the players on that team who went on to playoff success in Columbus were Josh Anderson and Oliver Bjorkstrand. But those guys were mid-round draft picks, and needed that AHL time. The only recent top ten draft pick on the team was Zach Werenski, but he was just a short term addition. He was there only for the playoff run.
So, if you want Johnson to go there to get reps at center, I can accept that but I don’t think it should take him a full season; he can play for a month and then return. Now, if you want to make roster moves such that guys like Johnson, Chinakhov, Bemstrom, etc. are eligible for the Calder Cup playoffs next spring, that could be worthwhile. But that would only come after they had played most of the NHL season.
Tripping over the Lars Bar
Another reason cited for sending young stars to Cleveland is to get them away from head coach Brad Larsen. If this is a real concern, then it’s incredibly damning of Larsen’s performance this season. If he is that harmful to the young players, then he should be fired right away. But if you want this team to tank, then that is reason to keep him in place for the remainder of the season.
There seems to be a lot of affection for Larsen among the management, so I don’t think they would make a move mid-season. I do believe, however, that a change must be made after the season. There is a lot of time left in the season for Larsen to change my mind, but it would require such a radical change in the results and style of play that I believe it is impossible.
I knew that getting into the playoffs was a best case scenario at the start of the season, so my goal was more focused on building on what the team accomplished last season. I gave Larsen credit for how hard that team played, and how they exceeded expectations. Many players had career years or bounce-back seasons. This season, however, we have seen regression or stagnation from much of the roster. Even more alarming, this team is softer. Last season’s team was one of the league leaders in come-from-behind victories. This season’s team often folds at the first sign of adversity. How many games have seen them give up a flurry of goals in the second period, followed by 30 minutes of lifeless hockey?
The most frustrating thing to see is how much Larsen is relying on his veterans in these situations, despite the team being one of the youngest in the league, by average age. Six forwards aged 23 or younger have played this season. All average under 14 minutes per game.
Cole Sillinger (18 GP) 13:23
Yegor Chinakhov (18 GP) 13:11
Emil Bemstrom (6 GP) 13:05
Kent Johnson (15 GP) 12:39
Trey Fix-Wolansky (1 GP) 12:08
Liam Foudy (10 GP) 11:10
I should note that Chinakhov (10 points) and Johnson (9 points) are third and fourth on the team in scoring. Imagine what they could accomplish with more shifts and/or better linemates!
It’s also important that we get the top prospects big minutes so we know what their potential is. Is Bemstrom a top 9 forward in the NHL? Is Johnson a center? The answers go a long way to determining how the roster is built next season and beyond. Larsen urges “patience” with someone like Johnson, but constantly shuffles the lines from game to game or period to period. Johnson makes great plays happen whenever he’s with Gaudreau, and yet that’s not enough to earn a longer look on that line.
For those that want to tank, you don’t have much to worry about. The number of major injuries lower the team’s ceiling significantly. The gauntlet of the Eastern Conference means it will be a struggle for this team to eclipse 70 points even if they show improvement. Finally, roster mismanagement by the head coach should also play in the tank’s favor.
Beyond this season? Everything needs to re-evaluated, from general manager Jarmo Kekalainen to head coach Brad Larsen to the training and strength & conditioning staff (I think the injuries are mostly bad luck and the same staff presided over some healthy seasons, but also other seasons like this where everyone got hurt). There is a core of players here that could be a playoff team next year, especially if they can add a Connor Bedard or Adam Fantilli type player. But the question is whether the right leadership and supporting pieces are in place to allow that core to reach their potential.