As I watched the Columbus Blue Jackets battle back from a 2-0 deficit against the Detroit Red Wings Monday night, I was struck with a terrible thought. I tried as hard as I could to dismiss it, but it just wouldn’t go away. The more I thought about it, the harder it was to avoid.
I think the Blue Jackets will make the playoffs this season.
I know, I know: I’m crazy. The Blue Jackets were the worst team in the NHL last season and it wasn’t even close, as they finished 9 points behind Edmonton with a 29-46-7 record. There biggest move in the off-season? Trading away their best player and face of the franchise, Rick Nash. They lost the draft lottery to Edmonton and lost their 2nd-overall consolation prize, Ryan Murray, to a season-ending shoulder surgery. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.
And yet, I still find myself thinking that this is a playoff team.
I’m not basing this opinion just on how they performed against the Lidstrom-less Wings, a game they lost in the shootout, though seeing that game did reinforce some of the opinions I already had of the team. I just don’t think the Blue Jackets are anywhere near as bad as they were last season and, while they won’t be winning a Division title any time soon, will battle for one of the final playoff spots in the West all season.
To put it simply, I like the changes that the team has made over the past year and think they’re on the fast track towards success.
It starts with the goaltending, an area that has been a complete disaster for the Blue Jackets over the last three seasons thanks to GM Scott Howson badly overrating Steve Mason after a Calder-winning rookie year. While it’s absolutely shameful that it took Howson this long to realize that Mason isn’t and shouldn’t be a starting goaltender in the NHL, he finally went out and got a replacement: Sergei Bobrovsky.
It was a deal that was met with some ridicule, as Bobrovsky struggled in his sophomore season with the Flyers. But Bobrovsky is a much better goaltender than Mason. Bobrovsky is the reason I was completely baffled when the Flyers acquired Ilya Bryzgalov prior to last season, as he performed well enough in his rookie season to earn the starting job in Philadelphia, then had it immediately taken away after some rough outings in the playoffs.
During the lockout, Bobrovsky was superb in the KHL, posting a .932 save percentage and 1.94 goals against average. He has continued that strong performance through the first two games of the NHL season. He needs a repeat of his performance from 2010-11, but I think he is fully capable of doing it. That pushes Mason to a more appropriate backup role, with Curtis McElhinney on the farm for insurance.
In front of the goaltenders, the Blue Jackets have a surprisingly solid defence corps. The pairing of Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski will have the most ice time, which is a concern because Johnson is objectively terrible, but they are backed up by some good depth. Nikita Nikitin joined the Blue Jackets part way through last season and was one of the few success stories. Alongside Fedor Tyutin, he ate up some very difficult minutes with good results.
On the bottom pairing, the aging, yet still effective, Adrian Aucoin mentors 22-year-old John Moore, who struggled in his rookie season last year but should be better under the tutelage of Aucoin. Add in capable young defencemen like David Savard and Tim Erixon who will be able to step in at a moment’s notice, and you have an area of strength for the Blue Jackets in what was previously an area of weakness.
Another area where they improved is at center. Though having Derrick Brassard line up as the first line center instead of Jeff Carter seems like a step backwards, the Blue Jackets have loaded up on defensively responsible, two-way centers, including the two that they got back in the Rick Nash trade. I seemed to be one of the few that actually liked that trade for Columbus, and beefing up their center depth with Dubinsky and Anisimov was one of the main reasons. Both players, but Anisimov in particular, should improve their numbers offensively given more opportunities in Columbus. Add in the highly-skilled Ryan Johansen in his second NHL season and the Blue Jackets now look like a team that focusses on the middle of the ice, a major change from the Rick Nash era.
Speaking of Johansen, one of the main things that intrigues me about the Blue Jackets this season is their youth. James Mirtle has them as the youngest team in the NHL, but it’s not typical youth. Columbus doesn’t have a single player on the roster under 20. The youngest is Johansen, who turned 20 last July, while the core of the team is between 23 and 28. This is a team that has the benefits of youth without being completely inexperienced. Instead, their key contributors are heading into what should be the prime of their careers.
On defence, Tyutin is the fifth oldest member of the team at 29. Wisniewski’s 28, while Johnson and Nikitin are 26. At forward, Brassard and Nick Foligno are 25, Anisimov is 24, and Cam Atkinson and Matt Calvert are 23. Over a compressed, 48-game schedule, I feel certain that this youth will benefit the Blue Jackets, as fatigue and recovery times will be less of a concern.
That youth also makes the Blue Jackets results this season more than a little unpredictable. Will Johansen have a breakout year and help drive the Blue Jackets into the postseason? Will the pint-sized Cam Atkinson stick on the top line and provide the same kind of scoring punch to the Blue Jackets lineup that he did in the AHL this season? Is Anisimov poised for a big year offensively after playing primarily on the third line in New York? A breakout year by any one of the Blue Jackets’ young players is impossible to predict, but could make all the difference to how the season goes in Columbus.
One of the main things I noticed in their game against the Red Wings is how scrappy the Blue Jackets are, getting under the skin of their opponents and drawing penalties. The Blue Jackets were second in the league in powerplay opportunities last season and it seems likely that will be the case again. Both Johnson and Wisniewski excel on the powerplay. It’s the one area where Johnson actually looks like the player he’s supposed to be. Full seasons from those two defencemen will make for a more effective powerplay, which could win them more than a few games.
The Blue Jackets also have the benefit of not being taken seriously. Early in the season, many teams will treat them lightly and will be in for a rude awakening. The Blue Jackets are going to be a pain in the ass to play against, at the very least.
I don’t have much in the way of statistics to support my position that the Blue Jackets will make the playoffs. Their underlying possession numbers from last season were not impressive. It should be noted, however, that Dubinsky and Anisimov were two of the best possession forwards on the Rangers last season. Their respective Corsi rates were third and fourth on the Rangers, with Dubinsky putting up impressive numbers while being buried in the defensive zone against tough competition all season. A full season from Wisniewski could make a major difference in the Blue Jackets’ possession numbers as well.
One of the main issues facing the Blue Jackets is the strength of their division. The other four Central Division teams all finished with over 100 points last season, but the Red Wings lost Lidstrom, the Predators lost Suter, and I wouldn’t trust Corey Crawford as a starting goaltender for the Blackhawks. It’s tough to say that one of those teams will falter, but it’s certainly possible.
Look, I know I’m sticking my neck out on this one. It’s a crazy prediction that may only make sense in my sleep-deprived brain. But I thought it and now I’ve written it. See you in 46 games.