The Columbus Blue Jackets have had many rough weeks throughout their history. But perhaps it was this past week that might go down as one of the darkest for them in recent memory.
Winning in the NHL can come at a great cost. The Blue Jackets saw firsthand how true that statement was. They defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 5-2. Then the next day, the receipts were due.
A Costly Week
On Friday afternoon, the Blue Jackets made several announcements regarding their roster. The biggest of all was the news that Zach Werenski is expected to miss the rest of the regular season with a torn labrum and separated shoulder. He tried to hit Flyers forward Travis Konecny but missed and then hit the boards awkwardly. Head coach Brad Larsen said postgame that the news on Werenski was not good at all.
This news alone changes the whole complexion of the season for the Blue Jackets. There is no simply replacing a player like Werenski given all the things he brings to the table.
But that wasn’t all. The Blue Jackets lost two other defensemen in the same game. Nick Blankenburg suffered a fractured ankle and high-ankle sprain and is expected to miss 6-8 weeks. He finished the game and even scored a goal from 195 feet out. He gutted it out when the team desperately needed him.
Also Erik Gudbranson left the game Thursday due to an upper-body injury he suffered. His status is more day-to-day according to Larsen however he did not play in the game Saturday against the New York Islanders.
Then to top things off, Jake Voracek and Sean Kuraly were each added to IR while Adam Boqvist was moved to LTIR to allow the Blue Jackets room to make the necessary callups. Those callups became Gavin Bayreuther, Jake Christiansen and Marcus Bjork, who scored in his NHL debut on Saturday night.
Get Used to This For Awhile
While Gudbranson seems like the closest defenseman to return, the other ones are not. This means Bayreuther, Christiansen and Bjork will be regular defensemen for the foreseeable future barring injury.
If you thought the defensive situation was desperate before, look at them now. Going into Saturday’s game against the Islanders, the Blue Jackets started six defensemen in which not one of them amassed at least 220 games on NHL experience. They will fall on the short end of the experience factor not only this season but for future seasons as well.
Give the Blue Jackets credit for Saturday night. They played the Islanders tough getting to overtime. There were good performances throughout the lineup. But when they needed to protect a late 3-2 lead, the experience of the Islanders came through and eventually helped them win the game.
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The Blue Jackets by no means are going to give up on their season while it’s still the middle of November. However the reality of the situation suggests that a potential path to the playoffs is a daunting one. The industry has the Blue Jackets anywhere between 1% and 4% chance to make the playoffs as of Sunday morning. So you’re telling me there’s a chance?
This is where the Blue Jackets are going to have to answer some tough questions. How do they navigate this until healthy bodies get back? What do they do about certain players and their development? How do they approach the trade deadline and the rest of the season beyond that?
This is where the Blue Jackets need to swallow their pride a little bit and look at the bigger picture. The bigger picture suggests that they can still make the most out of this season even if the playoffs are not in the cards. How can they do that?
Do you see what’s going on up I-71 in Cleveland?
Take Advantage of the Monsters
The Cleveland Monsters are off to a great start in the AHL. At 7-5-0 in their first 12 games, they stand third in the North Division. To take it one step further, they are tied for third in the AHL in goals scored with 44.
The Monsters are a fun team who play with structure and are enjoying good results. This is where the decision comes in for the Blue Jackets.
Do they a) Bring the young guys up now and get NHL experience in their current environment? or b) Send some guys down to the current situation in Cleveland, enjoy success and develop in a good atmosphere?
There is a strong argument to be made to take full advantage of what the AHL has to offer this season. The Monsters have their projected goalie of the future in Daniil Tarasov, their projected top defenseman of the future in David Jiricek and one of their top projected wingers in Kirill Marchenko each helping the team in their own way to this good start. They also added Joona Luoto to the team after being activated from the injured/non-roster list Sunday.
Those players are surrounded by good talent and the results show in the standings. Now let’s take this one step further. Who should join them? Here’s an idea. Why not Kent Johnson?
Johnson is ready to play after dealing with a nagging injury. However he was a healthy scratch on Saturday night. If there’s anyone in the organization that needs to be playing games, it’s Johnson. If Larsen elects to go with a similar lineup than the one he had Saturday, then who do you take out?
Many will point to Emil Bemstrom. He played well in Cleveland and has earned his chance back in the NHL. But there is a clock ticking on him. Waiver rules state that “a player does not need to pass through waivers if the player has not been on the NHL active roster for a cumulative 30 days since last clearing waivers, and has not played in 10 or more NHL games.”
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Bemstrom cleared waivers on Oct 10 and was called up to the Blue Jackets on Nov 7. Should he stay on the Blue Jackets past the above threshold, he would need to be exposed to waivers again.
We wrote earlier in the season that the Blue Jackets should consider assigning Johnson to Cleveland for development purposes given the forward logjam. If Johnson isn’t playing in the NHL, he needs to be playing somewhere. The Monsters give him a chance to do just that while getting the desired top minutes and development at center.
Put the Young Players in Best Position Now
The Blue Jackets finally have a chance to take advantage of this unlike in past seasons. The Monsters could become one of the best teams in the AHL while giving the young players all a chance to develop. The long game is the best approach in this situation.
Why not allow Johnson and Marchenko to play the top line, develop chemistry and get confidence playing the pro game? The Blue Jackets top-six is pretty full these days. There is a case to have them in the NHL developing. However this is not one of those times. If Johnson is an everyday player that’s one thing. He hasn’t reached that level yet.
The Blue Jackets are going to be in tough all season without Werenski and an inexperienced blue line. The time has come for the team to still make the most out of the situation. If their young players make significant progress developing, then it’s a win. It’s time to change expectations for this season.
Take advantage of the Monsters. Development is more important right now than anything else on their plate. Their future depends on it.
I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2022-23 season will mark nine seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager. Please take note of the updated Twitter handle: @mark_scheig.