With the NHL’s proposed plan to return to play, the Columbus Blue Jackets find themselves in the playoffs for the fourth season in a row. They will be included in the play-in series against the Toronto Maple Leafs to determine the top 16 teams. Considering the Blue Jackets’ limited playoff success last season with a sweep of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round, the fan base is as confident as ever.
However, in a season full of injuries and new faces that took over, who can we expect to lead the Blue Jackets to the round of 16?
Seth Jones and Company Are the Biggest Factors
The difference-maker I intended to analyze here was Seth Jones, but after more thought, I’d like to mention the Blue Jackets’ defense core, since they will be the key to playoff success. The blue line was active this season, blocking shots at an unbelievable clip. This should be a source of confidence for the team. Even though Jones sustained an ankle injury and the defense struggled without him, Jones will be ready to return when games resume, to help lift the blue line to the level of play from earlier in the season.
Jones, who blocked 123 shots and played structured defense, alongside Zach Werenski, one of the top-scoring defensemen in the league with 20 goals this season, could be one of the best defensive pairs in the postseason. David Savard is also strong, ranked second with 163 blocked shots, and add Vladislav Gavrikov, Ryan Murray, and Markus Nutivaara to the mix, who all play strong team defense, and the Blue Jackets have one of the best defense cores in the postseason. The defense alone could carry Columbus on a deep run.
Young Players Key for the Blue Jackets
It’s the year of the rookies for the Blue Jackets, so some of the young players could make all the difference in the postseason. Players like goaltender Elvis Merzlikins could be crucial for the team’s success. Solid goaltending is key in the playoffs, and he can provide it. In his rookie season, he had five shutouts and a four-game stretch in which he recorded three shutouts against some of the NHL’s top teams like the Boston Bruins and Vegas Golden Knights. We don’t know yet if Merzlikins or Joonas Korpisalo will be in nets but there is no denying Merzlikins could help the Blue Jackets win the play-in round.
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Emil Bemstrom, with his accurate and wicked shot, has what you look for in a goal scorer. He only scored 10 goals and 10 assists this season, but he has shown he is capable of going on a hot streak, and he set a franchise rookie point streak record in November with three goals and three assists in a five-game stretch. Like Merzlikins, Bemstrom has an opportunity to be a strong contributor in his rookie postseason.
The final young player who could be crucial to the Blue Jackets’ postseason success is Liam Foudy. He may not find his way into the lineup, but if he does, he would be a major offensive weapon. He played just two games for the franchise this season, with one assist, but he showed great skill with his decision-making and playmaking ability which are well developed for a player his age (20).
Atkinson, Foligno, and Bjorkstrand the Difference Makers
Despite the importance of the Blue Jackets’ young players, the biggest difference-makers will be the veterans. Cam Atkinson could be the postseason leader for the team. He has become a sensation in Columbus because of his goal-scoring ability, including 53 goals in the past two seasons. I expect him to play with a determined attitude this summer and bring an offensive boost to his team.
Another key veteran is captain Nick Foligno. He will not be expected to lead the team in scoring, but he will provide leadership. He has become the face and heart of the organization. You can expect him to push his teammates to be their best and he will make sure his team ready to play.
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Finally, we have Oliver Bjorkstrand, who has shown incredible growth from the beginning of last season to this season. He was clutch in last season’s playoffs and scored the game-winning goal in Game 4 against the Lightning to seal the organization’s first postseason series win. He has also been the most consistent goal scorer this season and leads the team with 21 goals. Expect him to continue to lead the team as he pushes the Blue Jackets toward a play-in round win.
These are the players to watch when the Blue Jackets enter the play-in round in hopes of a long playoff run because of their skills on and off the ice. If they rise to the occasion, I expect the Jackets to take this series in five games.