This has definitely not been the season that Jackets fans had hoped for in September or even the season it seemed like it would be in late October. Sitting outside of a playoff spot with a week to go before the trade deadline is less than ideal. With the Devils now seven points ahead of the Jackets with 23 games left, the only spot left for them in the playoffs may be the eighth seed and a first round matchup against Tampa Bay, a team they have struggled mightily against this year.
Even if they went on a tear and somehow got the sixth or seventh seed, they would likely find themselves playing the Penguins or Capitals in round one, two other teams they have not played particularly well against. The loss yesterday to Pittsburgh was not encouraging–a team built around speed looked slow and lethargic compared to the Pens (even more amazing when you consider the Jackets are the younger team) and the Jackets’ Vezina-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky again struggled to solve the Penguins.
Many fans are frustrated. They want results and are tired of waiting. I certainly understand this, but I also think that perspective is needed and last year’s unexpected season probably had us thinking the team was closer than it was just as the prior season’s disastrous performance had us thinking the team was further away that it actually was.
I’m going to take you back in time to April of 2016 at the end of that disastrous season when I wrote the following on another site:
So, a Jackets team that is capable of winning the Cup has those basic ingredients–an elite defenseman, an elite center, solid goaltending and forward depth. The Jackets do not possess all of these things, clearly and you could argue that the 2015-16 Jackets had none of those things. So, what is a reasonable timeline to get to the destination?
I am going to argue that the Jackets are closer than you think, but that the timeframe to get there is longer than you want it to be. I believe this team can compete for a Cup in three years.
Three years. This is year two. Yes, it seems that the team has taken one step forward and one step back since then, but things are still on schedule.
Let’s start by looking at elite defensemen. Zach Werenski and Seth Jones is as good of a pair as any in the NHL. In 2016, this was still a question mark because we hadn’t seen Werenski. This has been solved. Beyond the top pair, there are some issues that will need to be addressed, but this could be resolved through players in the pipeline. Markus Nutivaara has really shown his worth this season. Gabriel Carlsson is still in Cleveland. Vladislav Gavrikov will spend another year in the KHL–shout out to the NHL for deciding not to go to the Olympics! Before he was hobbled with injuries, Ryan Murray was solid. Beyond Jones, the right side is the weakness. Savard has had a horrible year. David Savard will get another chance next year likely paired with Nutivaara or Carlsson as Jack Johnson will not be back. Maybe a new partner will reinvigorate him. If not, one of the lefties will need to take that spot. Either way, keep in mind that Jones and Werenski will play monster minutes in any future playoff run and the bottom pair will play minimal minutes. They just need to get a top-four that works consistently.
Pierre-Luc Dubois has exceeded expectations. His even-strength CF% within 1 is second only to Artemi Panarin for Jackets’ regulars (Zac Dalpe is the statistical anomaly at #1 due to small sample size). His size, speed and willingness to drive to the net could make him a player in the mold of Ryan Getzlaf. He’s the center the franchise has always needed. There may be growing pains, but the potential is there and the work ethic also seems to be there.
Forward depth. Let’s start with the positive. The Jackets have a wealth of options on the right side. Josh Anderson, Cam Atkinson and Oliver Bjorkstrand can all be scoring threats and they do it in their own unique ways. Anderson’s size and speed make him a tough guy to defend. Atkinson also possesses speed, but has more agility and creativity. Bjorkstrand is a sniper who is also become a solid defender despite his size. Meanwhile, Vitaly Abramov has picked up right where he left off last season in the QMJHL. It is unclear if he’ll make the team next year or spend a year in Cleveland, but Abramov has a high upside.
On the left side, Panarin has been everything he was billed to be, but he has also impressed me with his play away from the puck more than I expected. Matt Calvert always gives 100 percent. Other than those two, this has been part of the team’s struggles this season. Before yesterday’s injury, Nick Foligno has not looked as quick as he has when the team is at its best.
But, there is some good news. For one, I don’t think Sonny Milano has been as bad as some would have you believe and I think maybe Torts needs to relax with the kid just a bit and find line mates who can cover for his deficiencies as he works on them. This team was at its best this year when Milano was in the lineup. The Jackets either need to give Milano another chance at second line left wing or they need to find someone else to fill that role so that Foligno can slot in on the third line.
The Jackets have center depth, it just seems that, outside of Dubois, every center is slotted about 1 spot above where they should be. Alexander Wennberg‘s 2016-17 performance was inflated by unsustainable power play production. Once Wennberg stopped producing on power play (January of last year), his overall performance trailed off and frankly, it hasn’t rebounded. I’ll probably write about this at more length, but despite what you may have read elsewhere, his struggles are real. The Jackets options are (1) upgrade Wennberg or (2) fix the problem on the second line left wing and hope that improves Wennberg’s production. Given that Wennberg is never going to produce his own goals and the Jackets’ competition has Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, the first route may be the better route, but it is also the more expensive route.
The other issue may be Brandon Dubinsky. No, I’m not all that concerned that he has “career-threatening issues” as some have reported. I’m more concerned that the reporting has created a rift and lead him to want out. Stan Fischler suggested this on a recent broadcast. Trying to move Dubinsky would be a real challenge. Beyond that, Dubi playing on the third (or fourth) line is exactly the sort of depth we need. The team may need to rebuild this relationship and hopefully certain journalists can avoid fanning the flames further.
In the pipeline and under the radar is Kevin Stenlund, who has been playing in Europe. Stenlund could challenge Lukas Sedlak next year for a roster spot or play a season in Cleveland with Abramov, which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for both players.
While it has been a disappointing season in Cleveland as well, there are still some guys there who could provide the Jackets some needed depth. Paul Bittner, Calvin Thurkauf and Tyler Motte are still young and could be nice additions to the bottom six.
The drags on the Jackets speed game and possession statistics may soon be moved. Johnson has reportedly demanded a trade, and I’d like to personally thank him for that. If reports are true that he could yield a first round pick (or more), that is very good news for the Jackets. On a sadder note, Boone Jenner is probably in need of a change of scenery. He doesn’t seem to mesh well with what the Jackets are attempting to do. He could also still yield a valuable asset in return and could create some cap space for the offseason to address some of the issues raised above and to start dealing with extensions for key players like Panarin and Werenski.
Which leaves us with goaltending. While I believe Joonas Korpisalo is an improvement over his predecessor, there remains a $9 million (plus?) question with respect to Bobrovsky after next year. That’s a conservative estimate of what the two-time Vezina winner might seek on his next contract. At 30-years-old, he’s also likely going to be seeking a six-eight year deal. That is a large commitment to a player who has yet to come up big when it matters most. The Rangers and Canadiens have two great goaltenders making $8.5 million and $10.5 million next year. They are also both out of the playoffs this year with the Rangers having sent a letter to fans breaking it to them gently that they will be deadline sellers.
There is no doubt that the Jackets would be even worse without Bob, but the question has to be asked if the team can afford to tie up that much cap space in one player. If not, this is the offseason they have to start dealing with the transition. Does that mean buying out Elvis Merzlikins’ contract with Lugano so the 23-year-old can come over to North America next year? Does that mean making a deal to acquire a goaltender in case negotiations with Bob don’t work out? Does that mean getting Korpisalo more playing time next year despite the theory that Bob doesn’t do well on long rest? Or, does it mean doing the unthinkable–trading Bobrovsky and acquiring a replacement at a lower cap hit? It is a difficult situation and one that could define the franchise going forward.
While it would hurt to miss the playoffs, I would not be bothered by getting the top 10 pick I fully expected the team to get last year. That’s another asset that can either be flipped for immediate help or, the better option in my view, kept to sustain organizational depth into the future.
Regardless, the Jackets are closer now than they were two years ago, and still on schedule. They have the center they needed. They have the defensemen they needed. And, for now, they have an elite goaltender though they need to make a decision about his future. They also have players who can yield them assets at the deadline (and, in Jenner’s case, even at the draft) if they decide to move them. The Jackets are not far away, if they can use these assets and some cap space to address their issues on the second line, they can be in a position to be a contender next year and beyond.