Getting to know the New Central: Columbus Blue Jackets

Ah, we meet again...

For the 2021 NHL season, the divisions have been temporarily re-aligned. As a result, the Columbus Blue Jackets get to face a different set of opponents than they have faced the last seven seasons in the Metropolitan Division. Three of the new rivals in the Discover Central Division are franchises we grew quite familiar with in the old Central Division of 2000-2013. Since a lot has changed, the site managers of the division’s blogs thought it would be useful to share insight on each of our teams, to bring everyone else up to speed. Special thanks to Taylor Baird at Defending Big D for coming up with the format and schedule.

For any of you reading this who have come from one of the other sites, welcome! Feel free to sign up and hop in the comments today and throughout the season. We love to discuss hockey and other stuff here and get the perspective of those outside of Ohio. (Trolling will not be accepted, however. Please keep it civil.)

Check out the other posts in this series:

Detroit Red Wings
Nashville Predators
Florida Panthers
Carolina Hurricanes
Chicago Blackhawks
Dallas Stars
Tampa Bay Lightning

1) How would you describe your team’s style of play?

John Tortorella hockey, baby! The Blue Jackets are a physical team that is difficult to play against, win or lose. Prepare to play a full 60 minutes — and based on last season, probably an overtime period as well. Don’t be fooled by the Corsi numbers; the strategy was to allow zone entries, but then steer the opponents to the side. Long distance, low danger shot attempts were allowed, but high danger chances were more difficult to come by (5v5 HDCA/60 was 8.82, the second lowest figure in the league behind Minnesota).

Despite that 2.04 xGA/60 (third best, behind Minnesota and Boston), the xGF/60 was a lowly 2.2 (tied with the Islanders for 8th worst) and actual even strength goals per 60 were just 2.16, ahead of just Detroit, Dallas, and Los Angeles. Offensive woes were not helped by the anemic power play, whose 5.31 goals per 60 were ahead of only Anaheim, Detroit, Ottawa, and Chicago. Not great company! If you see Jackets fans curse the name of Brad Larsen, he has been in charge of the power play since 2014 and only for half a season in 2016-17 was it anything above average.

2) What players should opposing fans know the name of - and why?

You are likely already familiar with the likes of Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, and Pierre-Luc Dubois. Here are some other players worth knowing, who will have a major role if this team is to be successful:

Joonas Korpisalo/Elvis Merzlikins: Try saying these names three times fast! This is our goalie tandem, and both excelled in 2019-20. Korpi was red hot in December and earned an All-Star berth, but suffered a knee injury and could not participate. Elvis struggled in the first three months of his rookie season, and spent most of December stapled to the bench. He had to take over as starter after Korpi’s injury and was lights out for January and February. At one point he earned five shutouts in an eight game span. Korpi was the hero in the Toronto bubble, posting two shutouts against the Maple Leaves and a .941 save percentage and 1.90 GAA in nine starts. He made an insane 85 saves in a 5OT loss to Tampa.

Oliver BJORKSTRAND: The Maestro led the Blue Jackets in goals last season (21) despite missing 21 games to injury. He would have been on pace for 35 goals and 60 points over an 82 game season. He was rewarded with a five year contract extension at the start of camp which will kick in next season. He is projected to play on the top line with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Alexandre Texier.

3) Why could your team win the division?

The addition of Max Domi gives the Blue Jackets two legitimate scoring lines. Cam Atkinson bounces back from a season marred by injuries and poor shooting. The power play finds a way to be at least average. Both goalies stay productive working in a tandem. The key players stay healthy, after a season ravaged by injuries.

4) Why could your team be the caboose of the division?

The injury bug strikes again, especially on the blue line which lost depth in the trades of Ryan Murray and Markus Nutivaara. The goalies struggle splitting time, given that each is more effective as a work horse. The power play continues to waste two minutes and kill momentum. The cloud of Dubois’ trade demand hangs over the locker room and causes continued distraction like the Panarin/Bobrovsky situation two seasons ago.

Now, I don’t actually see the Jackets finishing in either first or last place. I think it will be a battle among the teams fighting for second through sixth, and the factors listed above will determine whether Columbus ends up on the right or wrong side of a very thin line between fourth and fifth place.

5) On a scale of baby kitten to Tiger King, what’s the potential of the heated matchup of your team with your new division mates?

This is fun, because there’s a lot of history with these opponents. (All time CBJ record against each in parentheses)

Baby Kitten: Dallas (27-27-0-6). There’s just not much history to speak of between these clubs. We both saw unprecedented success under Ken Hitchcock, and that’s about it. Both teams play a similar style, so I think this series will be a good one. Expect a lot of 1-0 and 2-1 games. Boring as hell for neutral fans, but tensions could flare and move this up the rankings.

House cats: Chicago (34-41-2-10). Blackhawks fans are by far the most obnoxious and annoying to visit Nationwide Arena, but with empty stands there’s not as much to get worked up about this season. With Jonathan Toews out long term with illness and an unproven goalie corps, I don’t expect much on the ice either.

Detroit (39-43-1-12, 0-4-0 playoffs). As Winging It In Motown pointed out, the Red Wings are still the only playoff opponent to not lose a game to the Jackets. That being said, the 2021 Wings are a far cry from the hegemon that dominated the Central in the aughts. Of course we’ll always have special place of hate for them due to proximity to the Ohio State/Michigan rivalry. And let’s never forget Vinny Prospal’s Point.

Mountain Lions: Carolina (21-17-0-3). The Hurricanes are the one Metro rival to join us in the new Central. The games have been highly competitive even before the Bunch of Jerks revival in 2018-19, but I feel like this isn’t as much of a rivalry as it should be.

Nashville (27-48-1-11). This was an organic rivalry in the late aughts/early teens. It became a point of frustration that the Blue Jackets could not get a win in Bridgestone Arena (9-29-1-6 record). More recently, there have been several players to switch sides, including Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene.

Florida (23-8-0-2). Historically, this is not a team that Jackets fans gave much thought to. After the last two off-seasons, however, that has changed. The Panthers hired Bill Zito out of the Columbus front office to be their new general manager, and he quickly added former Jackets Alexander Wennberg, Markus Nutivaara, and Anthony Duclair (also Kevin Connauton on a PTO). Last year the Panthers signed Anton Stralman and Sergei Bobrovsky. Elvis winning against Bob on New Year’s Eve was one of the biggest highlights of last season. Both sides are going to have a lot to prove in each game this year.

Tiger King: Tampa (10-17-1-4, 5-3-2 playoffs). There was little doubt what the #1 rivalry would be. That’s what playoff series in back-to-back seasons will create. First was the shocking upset sweet in 2019, then August saw Tampa’s revenge on the way to their Stanley Cup championship. The latter series saw all four Tampa wins decided by one goal. Who among us will ever forget the marathon, six hour, five overtime ordeal in Game 1? Even without Nikita Kucherov, the Lightning are still the class of the division, and a team the Jackets will seek to measure themselves against.

Alright, Cannonites. It’s your turn to share your own rivalry rankings in the comments. Who should be higher or lower relative to my list? Feel free to expand on my other answers as well.

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