The Real Signs of Progress for the Blue Jackets

A trio of players prove the progress we’ve seen the Blue Jackets make as an organization is real.

Sonny Milano fought hard and earned himself a spot on the Blue Jackets roster during this year’s training camp.

On a previous Blue Jackets team, a roster spot would’ve been given to him because he was a high draft pick. If not then, definitely the next year. And in that world, he’d probably end up like Derick Brassard: respectable enough numbers, but asked for too much, too soon, only to thrive later with another team when he matures and can handle the spotlight.

Instead, in his third year pro, there was a feeling this was his last best shot before getting jumped on the depth chart by a prospect like Vitaly Abramov. But he claimed it. And while he most certainly won’t keep up the pace, scoring 5 goals and 1 assist in his first 9 games, it seems like, at 21 years old, he’s here to stay.

John Tortorella might be the perfect coach for a player like Milano. He notices little things–such as wingers not wanting to get too deep on the backcheck and making the extra pass when a shot will do. The coach knows those mistakes are part of the game, as evidenced by his “safe is death” mantra since coming to Columbus, but he also won’t let them go unannounced, which matters with a young team.

Sonny has shown he’s ready to work, improving his game, focusing on little plays and defensive responsibilities that, while important, aren’t the stick tricks that got him thousands of views on YouTube or had people buzzing about him when he was selected 16th overall in the 2014 draft.

If he learned one thing from the Calder Cup run with Lake Erie, where he played mostly on the fourth line, it was to always be ready, no matter where your name is listed on the scorecard. He’s taking it all in stride, keeping his head down, and working hard. As he should.

There was a point in David Savard’s career when it seemed like things were heading for an early divorce from the Blue Jackets.

He was fine, but not spectacular. Conditioning was a question mark, leading to a personal call-out from president of hockey operations John Davidson.

Savard felt like one of the guys who had a difficult time separating himself from the pack, not unlike we’ve seen with Scott Harrington recently. Yet over the last few years, but last year especially, he’s become an above average top four defender. I don’t hesitate to say any team in the league would like Savard on their backend, not to mention he’s signed to a team-friendly $4.25 million per year contract through 2021. Because he’s been around in some capacity since 2011, it’s easy to forget he’s only 27, just now in the prime of his career.

It’s not hard to envision a scenario where Savard would’ve been asked to do more and struggled as a result. After his breakout 2014-15 season when he put up the more-than-respectable statline of 11 goals and 25 assists for 36 points, it wouldn’t have been unexpected to see him touted as the number one defenseman, the future of the Blue Jackets blue line.

Since the arrival of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, though, there have been no illusions that he’s anything but a second pairing defender who’ll log big minutes when you need him, and play a solid but quiet game when you need his dependability. He’ll never be in the conversation for the Norris Trophy, but that shouldn’t be the measuring stick we use for players like Savard. He makes the right play nine times out of 10, and when he makes a mistake, he fights like hell to make it up. You need those kinds of players on your side.

Then there’s Joonas Korpisalo. To be fair, this says as much about Sergei Bobrovsky as it does Korpi, but it’s still worth noting.

Korpisalo hasn’t been outstanding at the NHL level, but even those struggles are important learning experiences. The Blue Jackets have tended to keep a veteran on the roster to fill the backup goalie spot, but Korpisalo, at 23 years old, has a chance to make a mark. He’s expected to get 20 or so starts this season, and to vie for a good playoff spot in the tough Metro division, the Jackets could use every win.

If he’s smart, he’s learning everything he can from Bobrovsky in practice. Bob is unquestionably one of the best goalies on the planet right now, but as we all know, there’s no such thing as a sure thing in sports, and a great backup is just about one of the most important things you can have on your hockey team. Whether he takes the crown or becomes a valuable trade piece remains to be seen, but either way, he’s a player to watch.

If you think of some of the toughest teams in the past decade or two, they’ve almost always had two goalies who could put up an All-Star performance on any given night. Remember when the Canucks had Roberto Luongo in goal and Cory Schneider as his backup? Remember when the Red Wings beat up on the Blue Jackets with Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood? The Ducks run with Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov? Even the Penguins last year to some degree, with Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray giving them exactly what they needed.

Korpisalo has a ways to go before he helps enter the Blue Jackets into that conversation, but they’re halfway there with Bobrovsky. No backup goalie in Columbus history has had a better shot to learn, be patient, and show his worth over a full season.

These guys show there’s more to the sport than splashy trades or free agent signings. Sometimes the best thing you can do is have patience, trust in your player’s abilities, and surround them with coaches and mentors who bring the best out of them.

Milano, 16th overall pick in the 2014 draft; Savard, 94th overall pick in the 2009 draft; Korpisalo, 62nd overall pick in the 2012 draft. Any one of these guys could’ve been cut loose at various points in their development and it wouldn’t have been met with a ton of resistance. Now, without a major trade piece in return like Matt Duchene, it’d be nearly unthinkable.

This is what happens when you draft well and develop your prospects.

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