(Jamie Sabau, Getty Images)

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.

Comments (17)

  1. “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.”

    I could maybe give the “the fast track to mediocrity”, but to success? Probably not. At least they don’t look like a joke so far this year.

  2. Great read! I am a Blue Jackets fan and I have been most impressed by our play. I do believe we have the youth to help make the push for the sprint of what we are calling a season. They have done a great job in battling back in both games this season. I really think Bobrovsky is to credit for our comebacks. Last year once the Jackets were down they completely gave up.

    • “our” and “we” holy jesus.

      • Yeah, God forbid a fan should be enthusiastic about his team. Better to be detached and clinical.

        I never say “our” and “we” myself (more because I’m a grammar nazi), but a lot of fans do. It’s not a crime.

      • Oh you know, just Scumbag Steve, doing his thing.

        As a Blue Jackets fan, I am still cautious. There is a lot of hockey to be played between then and now and the CBJ haven’t won a game in regulation yet. They’re working hard though and that’s what we want.

        • Unlike Good Guy Greg to the rescue right?? :)

          I never use “us” and “we” because I’m not part of the team. I’m a fan, yes, but saying “us” and “we”, you might as well skate the Stanley Cup around the ice before the first game of the season too.

          There’s nothing wrong being a little cynical and detached :)

  3. I sure wouldn’t mind CBJ being on the bubble – love a good underdog and man, what a great story if they’d started the season 2-0 over the Preds & Wings (obviously they didn’t, but they came pretty close) – but I’d rather they miss the playoffs by a bit than squeak in there. They could use a Mackinnon.

  4. The scary thing about Columbus is they traded away 1 All-Star player and got two very good players in return. Then have Wisniewski and Johnson, who have the potential for points, on the blue line. In a shortened season with a larger variety of ‘good’ players then previous seasons……what is the likelihood the team goes “what do we have to lose?” and plays balls out?

  5. I’m sorry to rain on the parade, but there was no reason that the Jacket’s should have been close. The Wings hit like three posts in the first period and though these data are not available by the eye test completely dominated the Jackets in possession and shot differential.

    Sure if Bobrovsky posts 0.932 for the whole season, they would have a shot. But you’re asking Bobrovsky to be Tim Thomas (just look at the goalies who posted a .930+ save percentage for a full season over the past decade). http://www.hockey-reference.com/leaders/save_pct_top_10.html. Every one of the teams those goalies played for made the playoffs.

    The Jackets have some good young players, but they’e also made some terrible moves: the Vermette trade, the first Jeff Carter trade, oh and Jack Johnson. Imagine if this team still had Voracek and the pick that became Sean Courturier (or Dougie Hamilton)? Then you might be talking about a playoff bubble team.

    I’m calling small sample size on this one.

    • Again, I’m not basing this one the first two games of this season, but on the moves they have made in the last year. I admit, I’m going with my gut rather than numbers, which I generally don’t like doing.

      I agree, they’ve made some lousy moves as well, but I honestly think this is a team that could be in the mix. Bobrovsky won’t post a .930+ save percentage, but I don’t think he’ll have to.

    • If you’re going to go the “didn’t deserve to win” route, I guess it’s worth pointing out that the Red Wings only tied the game up on a powerplay they never should have had. The refs called a hook on a blatant Abdelkaider dive.

  6. The thing that people outside of Columbus don’t have a firm grasp on is the attitude change from the team. Getting rid of Vermette, Carter, and (I’ll say it) Nash and picking up players who appear to give 100% every night is a HUGE improvement.

    Players seem to be either go with the flow types (Vermette and Nash, Joe Thornton, etc.), problem children (Filatov (every where he has been) and Carter in Columbus), or guys that take the bull-by-the-horns and enforce the proper attitude in a locker room (Chris Pronger, etc.)

    For far too long the CBJ haved been filled with “good guys”, “nice guys”, guys you take home to meet your mom type guys. It is nice to watch a team of guys that actually appear to have cajones.

    Hockey isn’t about individual stats, hockey is about how good of a TEAM is working together. This is the best TEAM we’ve had in Columbus for a long, long time.

    • I could see that.

      It’s not that any of the guys they added are, necessarily, better than the guys they got rid of, but it’s definitely possible that they’re just all on the same page now, and weren’t before.

      It also doesn’t hurt that they added no less than 5 good skating hard workers over the last 12 months (I think 8 or 9 if you go back to the start of last season) and, arguably, subtracted zero (Nash moves, but didn’t always seem to work). Even if, as in Johnson’s case, he doesn’t use his mobility well or work smart, if every guy on the ice can and do move their feet, that can cause a truckload of problems for the other team.

  7. If they weren’t in the Central I would say maybe. As you point out the division is a little less the dominant division it was last year, but is still the best by far in the west and half their schedule will be playing those teams. Just mathematically I think 2 come from each the northwest and pacific as the points will stay within the divisions and don’t see them beating out St. Louis or Chicago. Buy agree they will be competitive and underrated as far as watchability goes

    • Well that didn’t come out with what I meant to say…hit post before I meant to. Basically meant that think too many points will be accumulated within divisions and mathematically don’t see 4 getting in from the central. See St. Louis and Chicago being locks and can’t imagine Columbus accumulating more than Detroit or Nashville, and even if they do, may not be enough as the other divisions might see a surprise with so many interdivisional games.

      Basically I am going to stick to reading and let the author write. Appreciate the article and site.

      • That’s a fair point. They will be in tough against the Central Division, but I think they’ll be in the mix and won’t make it easy on Detroit or Nashville.

  8. Ranger fan here: I think you guys look excellent, underrated to say the least. It’s amazing what a few changes can do. I think Cam Atkinson is realllly a sepcial player, and I believe he’s Zach Parise Caliber. His anticipation and poise is extraordinary for his age. I like Nash and all in New York, but we really miss dubinsky the most. It’s amazing how difficult he is for teams to play against, and I think with Nash out of the picture, the team plays a completely different hockey game in Columbus. Yes, you’re not there yet, not enough offense, but if you guys use a New Jersey Devils game plan where you create most of your offense from the point, and look for garbage goals off rebounds back door and in front, I think you guys have a lethal group of players to make that work for you.

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