Reviewing March 2023: Road Weary
The hits keep on coming
Previously: October, November, December, January, February
L 2-4 vs. SEA
L 2-5 @ OTT
L 4-5 (OT) @ PIT
L 2-5 vs. STL
W 6-5 (OT) @ SJS
L 1-4 @ LAK
L 4-7 @ ANA
L 2-7 @ VGK
W 7-6 (OT) @ WSH
W 5-4 (OT) vs. NYI
L 2-8 @ MTL
L 2-6 @ NYR
L 1-2 (OT) @ BOS
First of all, what a brutal hand dealt by the schedule makers. Just three games at Nationwide Arena in the month of March (thanks, in part, to the NCAA men's basketball tournament). When the schedule came out, I was worried what this month late in the season would mean for a playoff push. I thought that, perhaps, this would be where the wheels came off.
Instead, the wheels came off in October and this schedule looked good for the tank, for those concerned with such matters. If the wins in the month have you worried, take a step back and look at the whole body of work this month: this is still a very bad team that is still losing A LOT. It's just that San Jose was somehow worse – at least until this last week.
The Bedard Sweepstakes race is in high gear now, with four teams clearly separating themselves from the pack: #29 San Jose is nine points behind #28 Montreal. The Sharks are one point ahead of Anaheim, with Columbus and Chicago two points behind at 54. Columbus has a game in hand on the other three, which is a bad thing here. Everyone here understands the assignment, with none having won more than three of their last ten. Those OTL loser points may prove costly, however (the Sharks have three of those in their last ten).
To quote Gutter from PCU: I knew it would be bad. I did not know it would be this bad.
Brad Larsen: I didn't exhale?
Columbus media: Works for me! Good answer!
Honorable Mention: YOU
Thanks for the support as we re-launched this new site!
Third Star: Kent Johnson
KJ is definitely getting more comfortable with the NHL with every game. His underlying numbers are getting worse but he's producing points more consistently, so that's what is earning him more minutes. Whatever. This is really just an excuse to post his Legg goal again:
Second Star: Liam Foudy and Emil Bemstrom
It feels appropriate to hightlight two players in one spot here. Both are prospects who were near the top of a less deep pipeline; both had their pro careers derailed by injuries and COVID; and both struggled to stick in the NHL lineup.
This season, however, both have played more and have grown more comfortable with regular playing time. It's what always needed to happen, but the circumstances didn't align until now.
After waiting so long for his first regular season NHL goal, Foudy now has six goals, all since February 18. He put up 4/3/7 in March and 54.73 xGF% at 5v5. I'm under no illusion that he can be a top 6 forward, but he's clearly a reliable checking line winger who now has some hockey skills to match his size and quickness.
Bemstrom, meanwhile, averaged just 12:24 per game (11:03 at 5v5) but put up 2/4/6 and led the team in all of the possession numbers, including a 58.63 5v5 xGF%. My question for him is, is there a spot for him long term? The list of available forwards with NHL-level ability next season is long, and enough have a higher ceiling than he has shown. He could be trade bait, and a player that I see doing well in a new environment, with more playing time.
First Star: Patrik Laine
Prior to an unfortunate triceps injury suffered in practice, Laine was arguably the best player of the month. He had a 61.54 5v5 GF%. That outpaced the xGF% but with a shot as good as his, that makes sense. He put up five goals (second only to Boone Jenner's six) but also added eight assists. Before his injuries he played two games at center...and it kind of worked?
I'm officially not worried about Laine. The injuries are unfortunate, but when healthy he is a great weapon. This is a player worth building around, along with Gaudreau and Werenski (and perhaps Johnson and Marchenko).
The list of players out for weeks or longer grew: Merzlikins, Olivier, Laine, Gudbranson, Blankenburg. If there's any good news it's that Sean Kuraly came back much quicker from an oblique injury than expected, and there's a chance that Justin Danforth could play in a handful of games after recovering from a torn labrum suffered in late October.
It is obvious that injuries have played a massive role in the team's performance this year, but the big question is: how much? That's something we'll dive into more after the season is over. It's clear to me that there are issues beyond the injuries, but am I being too harsh?
Look at those stats above again. The goaltending was actually pretty good in February, but you can credit Joonas Korpisalo for that. That earned the Jackets a nice trade package from LA, and Korpi has continued to do well for a team that could be dangerous in the postseason.
New arrival Michael Hutchinson has had to come on in relief frequently for injured or ineffective goalies. Elvis Merzlikins has continued to struggle upon returning from a leave of absence following the death of his grandmother. He has the skill to be successful, but can he put it all together consistently? I want desperately for him to work out here. He's a great guy. But the more we wait the more I worry this is another Steve Mason situation, and the best thing for both parties could be a new beginning apart from each other.