The 2018-19 Columbus Blue Jackets are a riddle. Wrapped in an enigma. On paper, this is the best team the organization has ever put on the ice. Its top line features two wings capable of putting in over 30 goals and perhaps the first true top-line center the Blue Jackets have ever had in their history. On defense they feature a top defensive pairing that, arguably, has two Norris Trophy candidates (albeit one will start the season on the IR). In goal, they have a two-time Vezina winning goaltender. Is there another team in the league that can say this? No.
Yet, if you have read the season previews of the experts, you would come away thinking that this Jackets team was appreciably worse than the one that made the playoffs the last two seasons. The Jackets continue to be the Rodney Dangerfield of hockey, grabbing at their red tie, searching for some respect. Certainly, their playoff performances have not helped. All-world goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky, has yet to put in a performance equal to his Vezina-winning status in the playoffs. The Jackets offense went missing after going up 2-0 on the eventual Stanley Cup winners, the Washington Capitals.
So, it isn’t surprising that few of the experts were willing to go out on the limb and predict great things for the Blue Jackets in the 2018-19 season. Further complicating matters are the contract situations of the aforementioned Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin. The situations, particularly Panarin’s, received more off-season attention from the hockey media than the additions of Riley Nash and Anthony Duclair to a forward group that was already quite deep. There has been a lot of gnashing of teeth over the Jackets not moving Panarin in the off-season. However, any trade of Panarin will be a trade the Jackets lose in the short term. Therein lies the problem.
If you are Jarmo Kekalainen and you look at this team and you know it is better than last year’s and you know that last year’s team had the misfortune to play the team that won it all in the first round, do you make a knee jerk move that makes the team appreciably worse in the short term? What if you think the team, as built, is capable of winning a Cup this year?
We know the answer, as we prepare for Panarin to take the ice on opening night for the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Jackets stuck to their guns, didn’t accept offers for Panarin that they viewed as too low to allow them to compete for a Cup in favor of staying the course and making a run for a title. Most of the experts expect Panarin to be dealt at the deadline, but many of the same people assumed he’d be moved draft weekend. There is always the possibility that Panarin is moved at the deadline, but this only happens if the Jackets are out of playoff contention, which seems unlikely given what we know about the team. Bobrovsky is even less likely to be moved given the limited value of goalies, even great ones, in trade. So, enjoy watching them play what may be their final seasons with the Blue Jackets.
The assumption seems to be that somehow the Panarin and Bobrovsky situations will be such a distraction that Columbus won’t be able to overcome this and will miss the playoffs after a trade deadline fire sale. This seems to ignore the fact that both Panarin and Bobrovsky will want to have great seasons to justify long-term contracts netting them $10 million per year or more. This is especially true for Bobrovsky who just turned 30. A bad season for Bobrovsky could damage his market value, regardless of the Vezinas on his resume as teams might question “is he starting to slow down.” Likewise, it would be in Bobrovsky’s best interest to play well in the playoffs for once.
Another factor lost in the supposed turmoil is the Jackets depth. The top line is a bona-fide top line when a year ago it was a serious question mark. Meanwhile, the depth the team lacked in 2017-18 has returned through a combination of underrated off-season moves and development of players in the Jackets’ organization. Oliver Bjorkstrand, who had a solid first, full NHL season last year is poised to put up better numbers this season and has landed on the second line where he should receive more ice time and be freed up to play a more offense-first role. Sonny Milano will start the season on the fourth line…but it is a fourth line featuring free agent additions Riley Nash and Anthony Duclair, which could quickly see its ice time increased if the third line struggles to find the net. Every line has two wings capable of putting in 20 plus goals. Every line has a bona fide NHL center, which has not always been the case for the Blue Jackets. The biggest question will be whether coach John Tortorella, fresh off a contract extension, will learn from ice time mistakes he made in the playoffs and truly adopt his own “safe is death” motto to allow players like Milano to learn from their mistakes without being stapled to the bench.
The next question is whether Alex Wennberg will actually earn the second line center position he has been gifted the last two seasons. There is no denying that he regressed last season–look at his game score numbers, look at his power play performance, which was a large part of the team’s struggles on power play. His pre-season performance was lackluster, at best. He’s already been demoted to the second power play unit. The Jackets making a run for the Cup will hinge, to some extent, on Wennberg performing to the level of play some would like to attribute to him or the Jackets finding a replacement at the deadline (hey there, Matt Duchene).
There is some question about the performance of what I will term the “Underperformer Line” featuring Boone Jenner, Brandon Dubinsky and Josh Anderson. It is probably unfair to Anderson to lump him in as an underperformer last season as he had to deal with injuries and bounced up and down the lineup without consistent line mates. Jenner and Dubinsky, on the other hand, struggled mightily. Particularly Dubinsky, who had to deal with scurilous rumors from the team’s road trip to Vegas. All accounts are that Jenner and Dubinsky were leaner at camp, but neither left an indelable impression in the pre-season games in which they appeared. If they struggle, it is probably less of an issue as the “fourth line” can easily replace them, but it would be best for the careers of all three players if they bounced back, if not to prior form, to something better than a typical third line.
With all of the above taken into account, despite the angst of the experts, the Jackets will likely make the playoffs. I also think that Bobrovsky will play the best we’ve ever seen in the playoffs to get them out of the first round–his next contract may depend on it. From there, it is up to Tortorella, Wennberg, Jenner and Dubinsky, in particular, to address the issues that held the team back last season or for the coaching staff and management to overcome those issues prior to the trade deadline.
There are plenty of reasons for anxiety if you are a Blue Jackets fan. But, like Slim Pickens at the end of Dr. Strangelove, you’re already riding the bomb down, might as well enjoy the ride.