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Reviewing February 2022: Rumors of Jackets’ demise were greatly exaggerated

Some new heroes stepped up

Toronto Maple Leafs v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Ben Jackson/NHLI via Getty Images

Previously: October, November, December, January

RESULTS

W 5-4 @ WSH
W 4-3 (OT) @ BUF
W 2-1 @ MTL
L 2-6 @ CGY
W 7-4 @ CHI
W 7-3 vs. BUF
W 4-3 vs. TOR
W 6-3 @ FLA
L 0-4 @ CAR
L 2-3 vs. PIT

The re-worked schedule for February looked like a doozy for the Columbus Blue Jackets, with a season-long five-game road trip, and a final week featuring four games against playoff teams in six days across three cities. The result? Seven wins, which matches November for most this season. That month had two more games than this one. In all of December and January, they totaled eight wins.

The road trip record was 4-1, which set a franchise record for most wins in a five-game road trip. They won two games in that challenging final week, and played well in all but the Carolina game (where they felt the effects of a road back-to-back).

There are some big crooked numbers on both sides of the ledger, which lead to this extremely accurate observation:

STANDINGS

The Jackets finish the month where they were when they entered the All-Star break, in fifth place in the Metro. The gap has shrunk, however, with eight points gained on fourth place Washington. The Jackets are 10 points behind and have a game in hand. Playoffs are still unlikely, but it’s close enough that another hot streak could make things interesting.

Even without playoffs, it’s an improvement over last season. Those Jackets had 18 wins in 56 games; this team has already won 27 games through 53 games. Most expected them to finish near the bottom again, but this team is instead in the mediocre middle. Progress!

For those looking ahead to the draft, the Jackets are 12th worst by points percentage. Chicago is eighth.

STATS

CBJ Stats through February 2022

Stat February January December November October 2020-21
Stat February January December November October 2020-21
5v5 CF% 47.17 (25th) 45.81 (27th) 47.88 (23rd) 49.47 (19th) 47.36 (25th) 46.51 (27th)
5v5 FF% 47.95 (22nd) 44.72 (27th) 45.96 (27th) 49.35 (20th) 45.56 (31th) 47.03 (27th)
5v5 Save % 91.28 (20th) 88.86 (29th) 92.14 (15th) 88.92 (31th) 93.95 (8th) 91.28 (22nd)
5v5 Shooting % 10.85 (6th) 9.39 (11th) 10.85 (2nd) 8.92 (10th) 7.02 (20th) 7.19 (30th)
5v5 xGF% 46.83 (24th) 41.94 (29th) 44.41 (28th) 50.61 (13th) 44.77 (30th) 46.09 (26th)
GPG 3.90 (8th) 2.93 (15th) 3.00 (14th) 3.91 (3rd) 2.75 (16th) 2.39 (29th)
GAPG 3.40 (20th) 4.36 (31st) 3.56 (23rd) 3.36 (26th) 2.75 (12th) 3.29 (25th)
PP% 26.1 (6th) 8.6 (32nd) 6.3 (32nd) 19.4 (14th) 25.0 (9th) 15.4 (27th)
PK% 85.7 (9th) 83.0 (11th) 58.8 (32nd) 90.0 (4th) 77.8 (21th) 79.0 (20th)

By the underlying numbers, the record reflects who the Jackets actually are: not a horrible team, but far from playoff caliber.

The good news is the power play is definitely back on track, and the penalty kill remains strong despite the absence of Alexandre Texier and Eric Robinson.

The goal scoring is fantastic. I see a high shooting percentage and I wonder if it’s luck, but it has been high since November so I’m starting to think this team is actually better at shooting the puck than in recent history. Guys with great shots like Laine, Chinakhov, Boqvist, etc. make a difference.

THREE STARS

Honorable Mention: Andrew Peeke

Coming into the season, we hoped that Zach Werenski could continue to play well even without his longtime partner Seth Jones. So far, so good. What was unclear was who his new partner would be. Due to a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness, it had been a revolving door. Jake Bean and Adam Boqvist got the shot, despite being offense-first players like Z. The results were mixed. With Peeke in that spot, however, it looks like a natural fit.

The team added those two young, offensively-gifted defensemen in the off-season, and it seemed like this was a new identity for the team. You do still need some players who can play defense, and be counted on to shut down the opponent in tight, late game situations. We knew Vladislav Gavrikov was that kind of player, but he appeared to be the only one. Peeke has now developed his game a lot, and has shaped himself into that same kind of player, in the David Savard mold. That he is a right handed shot also helps fill a big hole. He brings a ton of physicality every night. He leads the team by 29 in blocked shots (109) and trails only Sean Kuraly in PIM and hits.

Third Star: Jack Roslovic

Sometimes we come to a conclusion about a player based on early results, and are slow to adjust even after the recent results improve. What I’m saying is perhaps we should reconsider Jack Roslovic. After struggling earlier and getting banished to the fourth line, the local product had a pretty solid month. Despite averaging just 10:54 per game, he was sixth in points, tied with Gus Nyquist. His six points (two goals, four assists) make up a quarter of his season totals. He is still well behind his 58 point pace from last season, but is just five points behind his best season in Winnipeg (29 points in 71 games).

Brad Larsen has taken notice. Roslovic was swapped with Cole Sillinger during the Florida game, so is now getting second line minutes playing between Nyquist and Oliver BJORKSTRAND. Due to the aforementioned injuries, he has also gotten the chance to play on the penalty kill. That seems to have helped get him more engaged. All of his points came at even strength, and he even had a +5 rating for the month. Not bad for someone considered a defensive liability.

If this positive trend can continue, it changes the front office’s strategy. When Roslovic was struggling, it was assumed he could be dumped at the trade deadline, or in the summer as a pending RFA. Now, it may again be worth considering re-signing him. A 25 year old middle six center with speed who can play on special teams? That’s a useful player at the right salary and term.

Second Star: Jean-Francois Berube

Who? Exactly. The veteran journeyman was signed in the summer to provide goalie depth in Cleveland. With Daniil Tarasov on the IR with a hip injury (which was recently announced as season-ending), and then both Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo suffering lower body injuries in practice, Berube got the chance to start an NHL game for the first time since April 2018. With as poorly as the goaltending had been in December and January, even just average play from Berube would have been upgrade. Instead, he was legitimately great. A 3.25 GAA doesn’t look impressive, being only a little better than Elvis’s own ugly 3.50. But when you consider that Berube faced nearly 40 shots per game, 10 more per game than Elvis? Well that .924 save percentage is genuinely great, and manna from heaven for this team.

Beating Buffalo didn’t tell us much, but then he stood tall against the potent offenses of Toronto and Florida.

He raises another intriguing trade question. Would a team give up an asset to bring him in as their backup, or third string insurance? Or does he make sense to be re-signed as next season’s backup? Tarasov’s recovery should have him healthy enough to play in the preseason, but he could need time in Cleveland to get back into game shape. Berube could ride the bench in Columbus in the meantime.

First Star: Patrik Laine

The number one story of the month was the long-awaited hot streak from the Finnish sniper. Beginning with two assists in a win over the Rangers in late January, Laine had points in 11 straight games. Eight of the games were multi-point games, including the first four. Five of the games were multi-goal games, with a hat trick at Chicago. He totaled 21 points in the 11 games.

He is third on the team in points and second in goals, despite playing 19 fewer games than leader Boone Jenner. He is at 36 points in 33 games for the season (19G, 17A), which makes him look like the former #2 pick, and one we traded a valuable piece for. The closest he has come to this pace was 70 points in 82 games in his second season.

When he accepted a one year qualifying offer in the summer, neither side knew whether he could regain his form here. Things looked grim in January, after his injury and his father’s passing. Now he’s healthy, comfortable with the city and the team, and playing with confidence. He looks like a player worth a long term contract, like an elite 23 year old winger who can be part of the core of this team as the window of contention opens in a year or two.

NEEDS IMPROVEMENT

Trade Bait

The two most obvious players on the trade block were the unrestricted free agents, Joonas Korpisalo and Max Domi. Korpisalo has not played since the end of January, and prior to his injury he wasn’t playing well. In 14 starts he’s 6-8-0 with a 3.82 GAA and .887 save %. We can hope that teams remember the Korpi that played in the 2020 bubble, but I don’t think are any GMs left who are THAT dumb.

Domi has been...fine? Not terrible, but not exactly boosting his stock. He had five points in February, and that’s basically been his total every month, whether injured or not. I still think there’s a market for him as a third line energy guy who can score, and I think that we could get a late first round pick for him. I just don’t think we could get anything more than what we got in the Nick Foligno trade.

Tanking

One wonders if this recent run of success has any effect on the plan for this season. Are we still big sellers, or does the front office let this group ride it out? I still think the two UFAs are gone no matter what, just to get something in return. But now I am less certain about guys with team control beyond this year, like Roslovic or Nyquist. Their trade could come this summer, or next deadline, or not at all. They still have something to add to this team.

Will the Jackets be buyers? Absolutely not. Even if they get closer to a playoff spot, they’re not good enough to hang with the top teams in the East in a playoff series. They may think that the rebuild is on a faster schedule, however, and trade returns may take the form of NHL players or NHL-ready players, i.e. guys that can contribute in the near future rather than longer term prospects or draft picks.

As a final note about tanking: it’s not something I’m ever going to root for. The point of tanking is never to make a bad team. It’s to move good players that don’t fit the timeline, and give young players a chance to play, and in that process the team is less good overall and you get high draft picks. Hanging your hopes on the bounce of a lottery ball isn’t fun. What is fun is winning hockey games. It doesn’t matter if the stakes of those games are high or low. Each win is a lesson learned for this young team, and a boost to their confidence. If they lose a game, then the improvement in their draft lottery odds is a consolation. It’s not the goal going into the game.