With the Columbus Blue Jackets flirting with the bottom of the league and the draft lottery, it is time to play the kids

It’s time for the front office and coaching staff to accept the reality: this is a lost season, and there is no better time for the kids to get valuable reps than right now.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Of course I wrote most of this before the Jackets pulled out a victory in Arizona last night. The overall point still stands, however.

The Columbus Blue Jackets, on the heels of a five game losing streak they finally managed to snap in Arizona, are now just 6 points away from the bottom of the league Detroit Red Wings. With last night’s win, the team managed to keep pace with the equally dismal Chicago Blackhawks  The Blue Jackets were expected to struggle to open the season - the team had question marks in goal and there were questions surrounding the goalscoring and special teams. Treading water until the team managed to find itself was going to be imperative for the team to have any chance of extending their playoff streak to four straight seasons.

Instead, everything that could go wrong for this team has gone wrong.

The Columbus Blue Jackets sit 30th in the league in goals per game at 2.33, ahead of only the Red Wings. The team is 25th in goals per game, allowing 3.47 on average. The power play is predictably terrible again, 27th in the league at 12.5%. The penalty kill has nose dived from a top ten unit last season to 24th in league at 76.1%. The Jackets have a shooting percentage at 5v5 of just 5.5%, 29th in the league (ahead of only the Red Wings and Blackhawks). The team as a .907 SV% at 5v5, good for 27th in the league. The team has just two wins in regulation, none of them since October 16. Forwards are failing to score, defensemen are being forced to try to generate offense in their stead, and the team is getting burned for odd man rushes multiple times a period as a result.

Individual players who were looked at to be leaders on this team are struggling as well. Cam Atkinson still does not have a 5v5 goal this season. After a hot (by his standards) start, Alex Wennberg has two points since the Blue Jackets’ last regulation win. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are very clearly pressing, attempting to cover for forwards who cannot generate offense by themselves, and as a result are getting caught out of position and allowing odd man rushes by the boatload. Ryan Murray, the glass man, is hurt again. Alexandre Texier has been hurt. Josh Anderson has two points this season, both which came in one game. The leading scorer, Pierre-Luc Dubois, has more penalty minutes than he does points. Sonny Milano, while an offensive spark plug, cannot help himself from taking penalty after penalty and would probably have been scratched if this team could afford it, but they can’t.

i could get keep going, but you get the idea. Basically, the Columbus Blue Jackets are bad. Worse than anyone expected them to be.

The team cannot possibly be this bad the rest of the season (barring injuries). Guys should start scoring occasionally again, if not enough to offset the giant hole they’ve dug themselves with the terrible start to the season. But, with this team’s playoff hopes fading by the period, perhaps it is time for management to recognize the inevitable: this is not a playoff team this season. Because they are the Blue Jackets, they’ll probably rip off an eight game winning streak in mid-to-late March and probably play their way out of a top five pick, because that’s how things go. But, with the playoffs all but lost, it’s time to start acting like it.

What I’m saying is: play the kids big minutes, regardless of struggles or results. Let them get reps that will matter when this team is ready to contend for the playoffs again.

We have seen this work before. In 2007-08, the Chicago Blackhawks had a couple rookies in their lineup named Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. You might’ve heard of them. The Hawks let their two rookies go, both finished as Calder finalists, and they eventually utilized the experience learned from those reps (where the Hawks missed  the playoffs) to carry the Hawks to three Stanley Cups.

The Jackets might not have anyone as talented as Kane, but they have talented youngsters. Guys like Emil Bemstrom, Alexandre Texier, and yes, even Sonny Milano. These guys, right now, are the future of the club, for better or for worse. We have seen flashes of each guy producing (including Emil Bemstrom scoring his first career goal last night against the Arizona Coyotes), and it’s time to let them shine.

Regardless of results.

Take Emil Bemstrom. His confidence has to be low - he came to Columbus as a goal scorer and went a month into his NHL career without scoring a goal. Coaches haven’t been giving him power play time. His time on ice has dipped to just 10:11 per night. Last night, he finally found himself on the ice on the power play. Thanks to a spectacular individual effort (and a fortuitous bounce), he was able to find his first NHL goal. And it was a power play goal to boot!

Did he get a fortuitous bounce? Sure. But sometimes that’s what a young player needs to get going. We will see together if this gets Bemstrom onto the scoresheet more regularly, but it’t going to feel like a weight is off his shoulders and he can play his game now. Bemstrom should, at a minimum, be awarded with more consistent power play time. His best weapon is his shot - playing guys without that elite skill in his place does not do the player or the team any favors. The power play is abysmal of late and Bemstrom actually found a way to score anyway, he might as well get an extended look. Not doing so is coaching malpractice.

How about Alexandre Texier? He’s just coming off an injury, but was impressive in his Columbus debut late last season. He has been billed as a center and deserves a look at the position. Look, at this point, Alex Wennberg is not the guy. Wennberg has struggled yet again to open the season, posting just 1-1-2 in his last ten games (to go along with 11 total shots on goal). It’s clear at this point that the Wennberg of 2016-17 was the anomaly and nothing he’s done before or after that has convinced fans that he can be the second line center this team needs, whatever his contract or head coach thinks. Alexandre Texier could be that player, though. Many doubted Pierre-Luc Dubois (your writer included) could step in and play the role of first line center when he was thrust into that position (stunner) Alexander Wennberg couldn’t live up to the role thrust upon him. Instead, he has developed into one of the best young centers in the game. Perhaps it is time for the coaches and front office to learn the lesson of the very recent past and give another rookie a chance that Wennberg has failed to take advantage of.

Finally, there is the elephant in the room: Elvis Merzlikins and his recent demotion to AHL Cleveland. Since his (admittedly terrible) first start against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Merzlikins has been the better goaltender than Joonas Korpisalo (small sample size caveats apply). Don’t believe me? Here are the stats (thankfully researched by our own BrightNSunny yesterday):

Since 10/6, which was the Pittsburgh 7-2 loss debacle, here are the goalie stats:
Elvis: .911 sv %, 2.7 GAA, 1.04 GSAA, .857 high-danger sv %, average shot distance of 31.71 ft
Korpi: .895 sv %, 3.06 GAA, -1.04 GSAA .760 high-danger sv %, average shot distance of 38.01 ft

At 5v5:
Elvis: .947 sv %, 1.49 GAA, 1.21 GSAA, .867 high-danger sv %, average shot distance of 33.14 ft
Korpi: .921 sv %, 2.26 GAA, -1.21 GSAA, .800 high-danger sv %, average shot distance of 40.21 ft

Korpisalo played pretty well last night. He made several big saves, including on shorthanded breakaways that the power play was kind enough to cough up in front of him. That being said, the second goal allowed was one he absolutely should have had and he was caught out of position several times and lost the puck when he thought he had it covered only to be bailed out by his defense. Korpisalo has not improved with regular starts as was expected - he remains sub league average in goals against and save percentage not just this season but for his career. Sure, Elvis looked brutal to start this season and is transitioning to the North American ice. But he has improved with each appearance and has looked more comfortable with each save. The split in goaltending appearances is wholly unwarranted and is actively doing a disservice to a player who was agreed to be the best goalie not yet in North America by scouts and front offices the league over. It might take him time to find his game, but his game could be league average, something Korpisalo has not been since his rookie season.

I fully recognize I’m asking for the moon here and never going to get it. The coaching staff is going to ride their veterans into the ground in a vain attempt to get back into the playoffs. Instead of giving kids a chance, the fans are being treated to (stats from last night): 18 minutes of Nick Foligno, 19 minutes of Alex Wennberg, 18:30 of Cam Atkinson, and just 13 minutes of even players like Pierre-Luc Dubois (who had less TOI than Scott Harrington last night).

Coaches coach for their jobs, especially when they and the front office spent all offseason stating loudly for all to hear that this is still a playoff team. Empirically, that is not the case this season, but the team’s staff will not recognize the obvious.

Perhaps they will at the All Star Break when this team is well and truly buried in the bottom 10 of the league standings and at that point will do what is best for the future of the franchise.

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