Nick Wass/Associated Press
To hell with the bye week blues. If NHL teams are supposed to incur a post bye week letdown, someone forgot to tell the Columbus Blue Jackets. This is the fourth article on potential postseason opponents of the Washington Capitals, the others being: a round-up of the least desirable match-ups by round, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the New York Rangers and Islanders.
The Columbus Blue Jackets are 10–3-1 since their week-long break, kicking off their return to action with a 7-0 thrashing of the New York Islanders. That’s not to say that the Blue Jackets haven’t had their ups and downs this season.
A PLAYERS’ MEETING WITH JOHN TORTORELLA MAY HAVE BEEN KEY TO EXITING MID-SEASON STRUGGLES
Following a franchise-record 16-game win streak, ended by the Capitals in a 5-0 defeat on January 5, Columbus compiled a record of 7–9-1. Around that point in time, just before mid-February, the players held a meeting with Head Coach John Tortorella, who’s been known for animation and emotion throughout his career, “asking him to be a little easier.”
While the importance of this players’ meeting with Tortorella has been downplayed, it’s hard not to notice the team’s resurgence since that point in time; perhaps just a coincidence, or Tortorella has found a more effective way to convey better defense and motivation to play harder and with more passion. Their improved play has also coincided with the arrival of Oliver Bjorkstrand, a recall from their AHL affiliate, who has added a spark to the Blue Jackets’ lineup. Regardless, the Jackets have regained their earlier form. With eleven games left in the regular season, they find themselves even in standings points with the Capitals. From this point forward, I think Blue Jacket players will apply the effort Tortorella implores, and I don’t see them being intimidated by any opponent.
I found a single pundit to predict that the Blue Jackets would make the playoffs this season (as a wild card). Some skepticism was warranted, as the Blue Jackets were predicted by some to make the playoffs in 2015-16 but finished last in the Metropolitan Division due to inconsistent play and an unimpressive 34-40-8 record. Tortorella was hired after Columbus lost its first seven games. In 2016-17, the team has set club records for points and wins. Tortorella deserves strong Jack Adams Award (Coach of the Year) consideration for the turnaround. Credit is due as well to assistant coach Brad Shaw, who has worked wonders with the defense.
The Blue Jackets seem to me like a younger version of the Capitals, with perhaps not as much versatility in the way they can play due to their relative inexperience. Like the Caps, the Blue Jackets have balanced scoring (11 players with 10 or more goals), they’re top five in the league in most goals scored and least goals allowed, and they’re top ten in penalty kill and power play. Paul Berthelot, who covers the Blue Jackets for HockeyBuzz, described the Blue Jackets as a “crash and bang” team, physical and able to grind their opponents down, but also somewhat penalty prone.
Having a career year, forward Cam Atkinson leads the Jackets in points, but when they play as a line, the trio of Brandon Saad, Alexander Wennberg, and Nick Foligno have been most productive. Atkinson definitely benefits from playing with center Boone Jenner and winger Brandon Dubinsky too. Sam Gagner has been pivotal on the fourth-line, playing wing or sometimes center alongside veteran Scott Hartnell, and either Lukas Sedlak or Bjorkstrand.
I tried to find a weakness of the Blue Jackets and the only one I can find impacts their offseason: they have four players with no-trade clauses (NMC), but only two of them are among their best 11 players; so unless those NMC clauses are waived, the Blue Jackets will lose one of these three solid young forwards — Josh Anderson, William Karlsson, or Sedlak — unless Vegas Golden Knights General Manager George McPhee blows it in the Expansion Draft (I don’t see Jenner being exposed; and there is a slight chance defenseman David Savard would be picked if exposed).
A key to the Blue Jackets’ resurgence this season starts with goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who is the odds-on favorite to win this season’s Vezina Trophy (best goaltender) over Capitals’ netminder Braden Holtby, Minnesota Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk, and other quality goaltenders. Bobrovsky is top five in several goaltending statistics: wins (first), save percentage (first), goals-against average (first), and shutouts (tied for fourth).
TRADE DEADLINE MOVES
The core of the Blue Jackets have remained healthy, but any depth weaknesses they may have had, General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen sagely addressed them at the NHL Trade Deadline, acquiring veteran defenseman Kyle Quincey from the New Jersey Devils, and winger Lauri Korpiikoski from the Dallas Stars.
Blue Jackets defenseman Ryan Murray suffered a broken right hand and is expected to be sidelined for the remainder of the regular season; in steps Quincey on the third defensive-pairing alongside Markus Nutivaara. A fast skater, Koprikoski can play on the penalty kill unit, and at the very least, would serve in a backup role and play if Sedlak and/or Matt Calvert face setbacks in their recoveries, or another forward gets injured.
The Blue Jackets defense used to be suspect, but this is no longer the case. Besides Bobrovsky’s excellent form, another big reason is the play of rookie defenseman Zach Werenski, who’s contributing at both ends of the ice and deserves Calder Memorial Trophy (Rookie of the Year) consideration. Werenski has as many points this season as Capitals defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. In fact, only six teenaged defensemen in NHL history have more points in a season than Werenski. With 11 games still remaining, he’s looking up to legendary names like Ray Bourque, Phil Housley, and Larry Murphy, having just passed Bobby Orr and Scott Stevens. Paired with fellow youngster Seth Jones, they could form one of the best defensive pairs in the NHL for quite some time. Even the veteran pair of Savard and Jack Johnson has improved under Shaw.
Even though the Blue Jackets lack marquee names like Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, or Patrik Laine, make no mistake there’s plenty of youthful talent in Columbus. Besides Werenski, there are four other rookies in their top rotations and many young players on top of that. In fact, Columbus is ranked as this season’s youngest NHL team at an average age of 25.5 years. This puts the Blue Jackets in prime position to be playoff contenders over the remainder of this decade; exactly how far they go each season could depend on Tortorella’s effectiveness at pushing the right buttons.
THE BATTLE BEGINS
Despite the youth, I don’t look past the possibility of the Blue Jackets potentially beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs, or even winning the Metropolitan Division in the regular season; you may do so at your own peril. All of this is in play, which makes the Capitals’ remaining games against the Blue Jackets as much a playoff precursor as any. The Blue Jackets hold a slight edge in the season series so far with two wins (one in OT) and one loss (although the Jackets regulation win will not count if tiebreakers need to be employed so Caps are ahead on that more important count). Two crucial matches remain; one this week, and the last one following ten days later. The Caps need to pick up a minimum of three points, and hold the Jackets to two points in order not to lose this season’s series and even more is at stake regarding playoff positioning; the Caps just need a regular win to secure the third tie-breaker (head-to-head).
By Tim Foisie