The Columbus Blue Jackets are at the halfway point of their regular season, with 28 games done, 28 games to play. It’s time to take another look at my preseason “5 Bold Blue Jackets Predictions for 2020-21,” see how those predictions are panning out and make new predictions for the second half.
Those original predictions were made on Jan. 13, 2001 – and a lot has happened to the club and the roster since then. Old faces out, new faces in; a vote of confidence for coach John Tortorella from management (despite the team’s record); and, I’m happy to say, the return of the “5th line,” with fans finally back in Nationwide arena (although in limited numbers).
The Blue Jackets’ Season So Far
It would be misleading to say that the season has been hot-and-cold for the Blue Jackets in 2020-21. It is more accurate to say that the season so far has been lukewarm-and-cold. The longest winning streak has been two games, which the team has accomplished only three times.
Columbus closed the first half of the season on a three-game losing streak. The longest losing streak was five games (in which they earned one point for a shootout loss), and there have been four two-game losing streaks. But Game #28 went from a 4–1 lead to an overtime loss. To fans in the stands, that loss must have looked like a snapshot of the season so far.
A few notes on those winning and losing streaks:
- The pair of losses to the Florida Panthers to end the first half of the season marks the fourth time the Blue Jackets have lost two games in a row to the same team. (Nashville Predators to start the season, Chicago Blackhawks and Predators again in the five-game losing streak, now the Panthers.)
- None of the two-game winning streaks involved the same team.
- The Blue Jackets have allowed only one “loser point” (overtime or shootout loss) in the six games that comprise the three two-game win streaks.
- In the 16 games that comprise losing streaks of two or more games, the Blue Jackets have earned five loser points. That means that they were within one goal (made or saved) of winning each of those five games.
- In the three two-game winning streaks, Columbus outscored its opponents 21–13.
- In the five-game losing streak, the Blue Jackets were outscored 9–17.
- In the current three-game losing streak, they have been outscored 6-14.
- In the five two-game losing streaks, Columbus’ opponents outscored the Blue Jackets 18–37.
When your losing streaks outnumber your winning streaks, and when the longest winning streak was only two games, there isn’t any “hot” to this point.
The Preseason Bold Predictions…And How They Look Now
The longer the season goes on, the worse my preseason predictions look. (To see my scorecard at the one-quarter point of the season, take a look at this article.)
Prediction #1: Atkinson Will Bounce Back (but Won’t Lead the Team in Goals)
Cam Atkinson certainly has bounced back this season, one short of the team lead in points (20), tied for the team lead in goals (10), and leading the entire NHL in shorthanded goals with four. (He also had a couple of excellent shorthanded opportunities in Game #27, but the Florida Panthers goalie, former Blue Jacket Sergei Bobrovsky, robbed him both times.) His .357 goals per game and .714 points per game are a big step up from last year’s .273 and .591.
However, I predicted that Oliver Bjorkstrand would be the Blue Jackets’ leading goal scorer this season. His two goals in Game #28 tied him with Atkinson for the team lead in goals (and an assist gave him the team lead in points). Sniper Patrik Laine didn’t figure into my preseason predictions, since he had not yet joined the team. Of his nine goals this season, seven have come in his 18 games with Columbus. He’ll need a real return-to-form to challenge for the team lead in goals. Even if he matches his pre-2020-21 average of .452 goals per game through the rest of this regular season, he’ll have 19 goals as a Blue Jacket. That might be enough to edge out streaky scorers Atkinson and Bjorkstrand.
Prediction #2: Dubois Won’t Make Waves
With a trade request and a new two-year contract, I expected Pierre-Luc Dubois to act professionally and give his all for the Blue Jackets until he was traded. Let’s just say I was completely wrong about this and move on. (See my previous update to find out how I really feel about this particular “Bold Prediction.”)
Prediction #3: Foudy Will Force Himself into the Top Six
Liam Foudy, a first-round draft pick (#18 overall in 2018, Columbus), played in 12 of the Blue Jackets’ first 14 games this season, recording three assists. Only twice did he record more than 15 minutes of time on ice. That certainly doesn’t qualify him as having played in the Blue Jackets’ “top six.”
Foudy is currently assigned to the Cleveland Monsters of the AHL. And he’s currently rehabbing from an injury. He may or may not be recalled to the big club later in the season, but it’s pretty clear right now that he has not “forced himself into the top six.”
Prediction #4: The Goalie Tandem Will Stay Intact
Just days before the 2020-21 season began, I wrote “Blue Jackets Will Need Both Goalies for Compressed 2020-21 Season.” In my Bold Predictions, I wrote that neither Joonas Korpisalo nor Elvis Merzlikins “will become a dominant No. 1 goalie” for the Blue Jackets this year. My Bold Prediction was actually: “…barring injury, we’ll see stretches when Korpisalo and/or Merzlikins is on a hot streak and holds the goal for several straight games. …”
Up until Merzlikins’ injury on Feb. 3, the two goalies alternated games. One on, one off. No hot streaks, no holding the goal for a stretch of games. Merzlikins played six periods of hockey before getting injured again. He returned to the ice as the starter in the Blue Jacket’s final game of the first half against Florida, again in rotation with Korpisalo. Odds are good that Tortorella will continue to alternate goalies for the next stretch of games.
Prediction #5: Zach Will Outshine Seth
Both Seth Jones and Zach Werenski started slowly this season. Then came February. Werenski got hurt and Jones got hot. Of the Blue Jackets’ 13 games in February, Werenski played six. Jones, on the other hand, played all 13 games, starting the month with a six-game point streak and scoring at least one point in nine of the 13 games.
So far Jones has not only out-produced Werenski offensively, lately, he’s looked a lot more like the all-round defenseman he’s expected to be. Werenski will need to get hot to “outshine” Jones in the second half of the regular season.
Bold Predictions for the Blue Jackets’ Second Half
It’s definitely time to let go of those preseason predictions. Let me start fresh with a few new Bold Predictions:
Prediction #1: The Forward Lines Start to Stabilize
Tortorella switched up his lines constantly during the first half of the season, not only from game-to-game but often from shift-to-shift. I can’t really criticize that – it was a constant search for players who worked well together. And for the most part, it was a fruitless search.
When the current round of tinkering is done, I expect to see some stability for the remainder of the season. If not lines of three, I expect to see at least pairs of players taking to the ice together regularly: perhaps Laine with Jack Roslovic, Boone Jenner with Atkinson, Riley Nash with Max Domi (with Nash in a mentoring role?), and maybe Alexandre Texier with Eric Robinson.
Prediction #2: The Blue Jackets Won’t Be in a Playoff Position at the Trade Deadline. This season’s trade deadline is Apr. 12. That’s one month and 15 games from now. And it’s not a cakewalk by any stretch of the imagination. The Blue Jackets play four times each against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes, as well as two more games against the Panthers. That’s 10 of 15 games against the teams currently holding the top three spots in the Discover™ Central Division. Did I mention that Columbus also has a game against the Chicago Blackhawks in the coming month? Those would be the same Blackhawks that the Blue Jackets are chasing for that fourth and final playoff spot.
Prediction #3: At Least One Familiar Face Will Be Traded
The Blue Jackets have a number of pending unrestricted free agents, including defenseman David Savard, team captain Nick Foligno, and center Riley Nash. All have something to offer to a team that’s truly in a position to compete for the Stanley Cup this season. Additionally, Columbus has a pair of very capable goaltenders with a year remaining on their contracts at very reasonable salary cap hits. (Heck, one might even suggest that Korpisalo is criminally underpaid at $2.8 million.)
Unless Columbus goes on a tremendous roll over the next couple of weeks, I don’t expect all five of those names to be on the Blue Jackets’ roster after the trade deadline. The biggest question might be finding a trading partner. While the three skaters, as pending UFAs, would be ”rentals” for the rest of the season and playoffs, a team acquiring one of them would need to have salary-cap space available. The Blue Jackets might have to retain salary as well as accepting a well-paid player in return. (The club most likely would be willing to do so if appropriate draft picks and/or prospects were included in the deal.)
On the bright side, if any of the UFAs leave in trade, they have the option of returning to Columbus in the summer. (That would depend, of course, on the Blue Jackets’ desire to have the player return and salary cap space.) On the even brighter side, if any of the UFAs is traded and an agreement to return is reached, it likely will happen after the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft on July 21, 2021. If the player isn’t under contract, that’s one fewer player taking up space on what’s turning out to be a complicated “protected list” for the Blue Jackets.
Prediction #4: The Desperately Needed First-Line Center Doesn’t Appear
Even before Dubois was shipped off to the Winnipeg Jets, GM Jarmo Kekäläinen was on the phone trying to find his replacement. And, as Elliotte Friedman of SportsNet reports, the search is continuing. There was some hope that Domi would be able to elevate his play. Didn’t happen. Roslovic has shown some potential, but that hasn’t worked out either. (Of the 100 players who have taken the most face-offs this year, he is dead last at 32%.)
Even dangling one of the goalies won’t be enough to land a proven No. 1 center. The only asset that might come close is Laine – and he’s the bedrock reason the Blue Jackets need that top-line center. Friedman says Merzlikins would be a good fit with the Edmonton Oilers, but probably not until the off-season.
Prediction #5: I Will Be Wrong On At Least One Prediction
Is this a trick question? Think it through: If I score 100% on Predictions # 1–4, is Prediction #5 wrong? Or does the fact that it’s wrong actually make it correct? Give me your best logical and grammatical answer in the Conversation below.
Pessimistic, But Not Hopeless
If I’m as wrong on the midseason Bold Predictions as I was with the preseason Bold Predictions, the Blue Jackets might be in fine shape when the trade deadline hits. There’s one thing about which I’m pretty certain right now: The Blue Jackets need to win at least half of the next dozen games – without giving up “loser points” – to be in a position to make a run at a playoff spot down the stretch.
Pete Bauer is both a hockey fan and player. As a columnist for The Hockey Writers.com, he covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, NCAA hockey, and NHL trends, statistics, and history. He’s considered the go-to guy for info on the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NHL Players’ Association and other hockey-related legal mumbo-jumbo. He’s a frequent guest on a variety of podcasts. You’ll find all of his THW columns here. Pete is also the author of over a dozen books on photography, digital imaging, and graphics, including “Photoshop CC for Dummies.”