Blue Jackets Face Season-Defining Stretch

It’s not uncommon for a team to be figuring out its identity seven games into a season. This is especially true for a team with as much turnover as the Columbus Blue Jackets have had over the past few seasons. Still, the Blue Jackets are at the first defining moment of the 2022-23 season, and the next three games could determine what direction the team is headed in.

Through three-and-a-half games, the situation was bleak. The Blue Jackets were 0–3 and facing a 2–0 deficit against a struggling Vancouver Canucks team. The team rallied and earned a victory, and followed that up by winning two of the next three contests.

A 3–4 record is hardly impressive, but it keeps the team in the conversation. A comeback victory over the Nashville Predators led to a competitive loss to the Penguins, who look like an early juggernaut in the Metropolitan division. That set the table for an away matchup against the New York Rangers, a conference final participant in 2021-22.

Columbus responded with a dominant 5–1 victory, riding the first complete performance of the year for the team. This is significant for a team that has proven to be susceptible to defensive lapses and paints a positive picture for the rest of the season.

Johnny Gaudreau Columbus Blue Jackets
Johnny Gaudreau, Columbus Blue Jackets (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

Johnny Gaudreau has been as advertised since his high-profile signing in July, Zach Werenski continues to be one of the most polarizing defensemen in the NHL and the early returns for players like Kent Johnson and Nick Blankenburg look promising.

Still, the team is 3–4 for a reason, and this can be attributed to the aforementioned defensive lapses, inconsistency between the pipes, and key injuries. A positive spin, like how it is better than the struggles have been self-inflicted as opposed to simply possessing less talent than divisional opponents, is certainly justifiable but that can only be the case for a little bit longer.

The next three games offer an opportunity for the Blue Jackets to show their true colors, considering the various talent levels of the opponents.

Blue Jackets vs. Arizona Coyotes

The first game of the three pits the Blue Jackets against a struggling Arizona Coyotes team that is 1–4 with a -13 goal differential. This is a must-win for Columbus to establish a .500 record and separate itself from the teams at the bottom of the league standings.

The expectations are a bit higher now after the win over the Rangers, so avoiding the customary slow start that has been present in most of the games this season will be absolutely crucial for the Blue Jackets. Players to watch out for in Arizona include Shayne Gostisbehere, Nick Ritchie, and Clayton Keller. The 2022-23 season has proven to be a step in the right direction for Gostisbehere, as the defender has flashed the offensive sparks previously seen when he was with the Philadelphia Flyers, and Ritchie has been a scoring force when finally given an opportunity to play a bigger role at the NHL level.

Still, this will be the first game for the Blue Jackets this season where a significant talent gap is present, and will also provide an opportunity to build confidence for the goaltending unit and pad the stats on offense. The potential addition of Patrik Laine would also provide a massive jolt to the team.

Blue Jackets vs. Boston Bruins

This will be a test, but the Bruins’ hot start is a little bit surprising. Boston is 5–1 without the likes of Charlie McAvoy and Brad Marchand, two of the major pillars of the team. This leaves the Bruins more vulnerable to a loss than would have been previously assumed, but the depth of the team is something Columbus will have to grapple with.

David Pastrnak has continued to blossom into one of the league’s elite goal scorers, while Patrice Bergeron continues to epitomize the high ceiling of a two-way forward. The re-addition of David Krejci has also been a helpful jolt to the team.

The formidable tandem of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman will be a challenge for the Blue Jackets, but it is less of a scare considering the solid offensive output over the most recent stretch. This is the game that will be the most difficult game in the stretch to leave with a win, but staying competitive and continuing to toe the line with the top teams in the league would be a good sign of how this core is developing.

Blue Jackets vs. New Jersey Devils

The final game of this three-game slate is against the Devils, the bottom feeder of the Metropolitan Division over the past few seasons that is showing signs of improvement. The Devils currently sit ahead of Columbus at sixth place in the Metro, but have the same number of wins and have played one less game, so it could be fair to assess the team’s situations as pretty similar thus far.

Jesper Bratt has continued to be a star for the Devils team, while Nico Hischier is playing to his potential so far this season. The scoring depth drops off from there, which is not ideal for the young team, but players like Dawson Mercer, Jack Hughes, and Dougie Hamilton should be kept an eye on.

This game could be considered very telling for both squads, as gaining any ground in the competitive division is huge. This is the first of three matchups between the two this season, so delivering the first strike should be a top priority for the Blue Jackets.

Related: Blue Jackets’ Merzlikins Must Start Living Up to His Contract

Overall, the Blue Jackets should aim to go at least 2–1 in this stretch. That would place them at 5–5 through 10 games and also in possession of two crucial division wins. Whatever the record turns out to be, this stretch will likely reveal the identity of the 2022-23 Blue Jackets.

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