The Columbus Blue Jackets, who ended their 2012-13 season with a furious 19-5-5 run, narrowly missing the Stanley Cup playoffs but a mere tie-breaker, embark on a new season, in a new conference – Eastern Conference – and division – in the newly-formed Metropolitan Division.
On many levels, it has been both a tumultuous and exhilarating past year for the Blue Jackets: the arrival of a new President of Hockey Operations, former St. Louis Blues President of Hockey Operations John Davidson, the horrid 5-12-2 start to their season, the firing of former General Manager (GM) Scott Howson and the immediate hiring of Jarmo Kekalainen, the trade which sent a notice throughout the National Hockey League (NHL) at its trading deadline, when the Blue Jackets acquired Slavic sniper Marian Gaborik, culminating in their frenetic push towards a playoff run.
Through all of the tumult, the Blue Jackets emerged as a team who has finally, via the efforts of Davidson and Kekalainen, begun building the foundation, one structured for sustained, long-term success. They’ve done it via assembling solid scouting and personnel executives and through their recent NHL Entry Draft and revamped development system. For its long-suffering fans, there is now hope.
However, with all of the optimism, Davidson (particularly) has been preaching patience, often using the phrase, “brick by brick” to describe his vision and approach towards building this organization, for once, the right and sustained way. Davidson was adept at doing this to a far more rabid fan-base, the St. Louis Blues, a fan-base which previously experienced a 25-year consecutive playoff appearance streak but had now seen their team plummet to the depths of the NHL’s worst record. Davidson reached out to their fans, empathized with their angst and relentlessly and patiently built the Blues organization into one of the NHL’s elite teams before arriving in Columbus.
Although the Columbus fan-base is not as experienced, particularly as it relates to tasting the Stanley Cup Playoffs, having been swept in four straight games during their only appearance in 2009, it is by no means less hungry. But, given the false hope offered in previous regimes, combined with a taste of the playoff race, last season, while hungry, Davidson and Kekalainen are the perfect stewards to deliver a solid, consistent, winning organization, albeit in a somewhat incremental manner.
So, how do I foresee the Columbus Blue Jackets inaugural season playing out in their new conference? I offer my analysis based on the following factors:
Forwards/Offense – the late-season success of the Blue Jackets was primarily fueled by a combination of grit, guile and secondary scoring, at least prior to Gaborik’s arrival, finishing 25th in overall goal-scoring. Even with the arrival of Gaborik and the Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) signing of Nathan Horton, this is an offense that has struggled to score goals. However, that is not to say that their offense won’t be improved during the upcoming season. In addition to Gaborik and Horton, the Blue Jackets are hoping for a return to form from RJ Umberger who has struggled during the past two seasons, particularly at the beginning of the season. The hope is that Brandon Dubinsky returns to the goal-scoring form of a few seasons ago when he scored at least 20 in two consecutive seasons. The other scoring is hoped to come from Artem Anisimov, providing he can escape the ‘injury bug’ that has plagued him the past season. But perhaps the key to an increase in scoring is the development from two of its young guns, Ryan Johansen and Cam Atkinson. If all of that falls into place, it can help take the pressure off of Vezina Trophy (NHL’s best goaltender) recipient Sergei Bobrovsky as well as compete in the new conference, with its emphasis on speed, finesse and puck-possession.
Defense/Blueline – for an area that has historically been an Achilles Heel, the Blue Jackets defensive corps has become its bedrock. They are anchored by solid, all-around defenseman Fedor Tyutin who was clearly its best overall defenseman as well as Jack Johnson who provides great leadership. The two combined are huge minute-eaters and combine both skill and physicality. Nikita Nikitin, who rallied late in the season after a horrid start and rookie Dalton Prout who surprised with a physical presence and shutdown capability, anchor the second defensive pairing. 2011 UFA signing James Wisniewski and rookie Ryan Murray will partner on the third defensive pairing. Much is anticipated for Murray, the 2012 NHL Entry Draft’s 2nd overall selection who provides a solid, steady, all-around game and should develop into a big-minute defenseman for years to come. Tim Erixon and David Savard will provide additional blueline help throughout the season.
Goaltending – with Bobrovsky nabbing the Vezina trophy, the goaltending is obviously solid. Bobrovsky was in the Top 5 of every statistical goaltending category, finishing 2nd in Save% with a .932 Save% and tied for 3rd in Goals Against Average (GAA). Besides the 2-year, $5.625 million per season contract that Bobrovsky signed during the off-season, he receives additional, albeit non-monetary assurance from now being the workhorse starter in net for the Blue Jackets as Steve Mason was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers at the NHL’s trade deadline. While it’s hard to expect Bobrovsky to mirror his surreal 2012-13 campaign, particularly in returning to the conference in which he once played (Flyers), his success is tantamount to the Blue Jackets’ fortunes. In short, as they say, as Bobrovsky goes, so go the Blue Jackets. It will be interesting to see how Bobrovsky fares in the Eastern Conference. Like a pitcher in baseball, he is returning to the conference in which most of the Eastern Conference “has the book” on him. If you recall, due to last season’s NHL lockout, Bobrovsky faced only the Western Conference opponents, most of whom had rarely faced him. During Bobrovsky’s rookie campaign in Philadelphia, he began to struggle later in that campaign.
Special Teams – this is a tale of two special team aspects, the good – 11th overall in the penalty kill (PK), last season – and the bad – 28th on the power play (PP). Having Gaborik for a full season should help the power play but he, like Wisniewski and Anisimov, have to remain healthy. Otherwise, their lack of high-end offensive prowess will saddle them, no matter the PP scheme.
Intangibles/X Factor – this is really the factor that will dictate their fortunes for this upcoming season. The Blue Jackets are leaving a conference – the Western Conference – that has been long-known for brutally physical play, otherwise known as “lumberjack hockey” and joining the Eastern Conference, a conference that’s known for speed, finesse and puck-possession. How they adapt their style of play and personnel to fit the new conference opponents will go a long way in deciding their outcome.
Additionally and as mentioned, above, Bobrovsky is returning to the conference in which he struggled towards the end of his rookie campaign and his second season, although his second season was as the backup to Ilya Bryzgalov and a workhorse goalie like Bobrovsky’s performance would have been impacted. One other note regarding Bobrovsky being able to duplicate his Vezina Trophy-winning performance: only one goalie in the history of the NHL has been able to post a Save% above .930 for two consecutive seasons and that was Dominik Hasek who performed that feat in a five of six season stretch.
On the positive side, a factor that works in the Blue Jackets favor is in their moving to the Eastern Conference is allowing the Blue Jackets’ players to remain in the Eastern Time Zone, something the team and its families certainly welcome. The Blue Jackets, since their inaugural season of 2000-01, led the NHL in games played out of their time zone. Also, since the trade of former captain and franchise player Rick Nash, the Blue Jackets are now an ‘all in’, ‘one for all’ type of team, one in which has a solid locker room and a team that welcomes the underdog role.
It will also be interesting to see if the furious finish translates into the following, longer season or if another slow start like the prior two seasons will saddle their playoff aspirations.
Prediction: 4th Metropolitan Conference, 9th overall, Eastern Conference. In entering a new conference, with a new style of play, along with the transitory period of adapting to their new rivals for which they’ll now play on a recurring rather than sporadic basis, positioned against a team with a new identify, I believe that the Blue Jackets will be in the Eastern Conference playoff race, although I believe they’ll just fall short, finishing 4th in the Metropolitan Division and 9th overall in the Eastern Conference. While I hope that I’m also wrong, I also wouldn’t bet against this scrappy bunch.