The Columbus Blue Jackets are one of four teams that could conceivably win the Presidents’ Trophy this year. The other three, the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks all have one thing in common: consistent, long-term success.
In a classic ‘which one of these things is not like the other’ scenario, the Blue Jackets have defied expectations and are on the brink of the franchise’s third playoff appearance.
The bad news: Many of this season’s team will be playing in their first Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Much has been made, and rightly so, of the AHL’s Lake Erie (now Cleveland) Monster’s success last year, ultimately culminating in a Calder Cup Championship. Many of these players legitimately have more playoff experience (AHL or otherwise) than the current Blue Jackets.
Zach Weresnki, Josh Anderson, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Lukas Sedlak were all vitally important to Lake Erie’s success during their Calder Cup run. Now, they’re being asked to do something much larger: replicate that performance at the NHL level.
Green as Grass
It’s downright scary once you start tallying up NHL playoff experience for some of the Blue Jacket’s most important players.
Alex Wennberg? Zero career NHL playoff games.
Cam Atkinson? Six games. Same for Seth Jones and Boone Jenner. For all the talk about Sam Gagner being a veteran player, he too has played in just six playoff games.
In fact, only two players, Scott Hartnell and Brandon Saad, are among the top 100 active players in playoff games played (these games were, of course, not with the CBJ). The Blue Jackets’ entire roster has only scored 58 career playoff goals. Take away these two players and it’s down to 24 goals.
Even soon-to-be-Vezina-finalist (winner?) Sergei Bobrovsky has only started nine playoff games. His two wins and .890 Sv% in those nine doesn’t inspire confidence.
Just Add Experience!
It’s no wonder that GM Jarmo Kekalainen took the trade deadline as an opportunity to add some playoff experience. Kyle Quincey (54 career playoff games) and Lauri Korpikoski (30 games) make up nearly a quarter (23%) of playoff games played by current Blue Jackets players. Although Quincey is a solid depth piece, especially in the absence of Ryan Murray, Korpikoski is unlikely to crack the top-12, barring injury.
It is unnerving, then, to imagine this team battling against perennial playoff teams like the Penguins or Capitals. Say what you will of the Capitals’ inability to win the big game or the Penguins’ injury issues, they still each have a locker room full of guys accustomed to playing in these games. Crosby, Malkin and Letang alone have played in four less playoff games than the entire Blue Jackets roster combined.
This isn’t to say that playoff experience is the ultimate predictor of future performance – if it were, wouldn’t the Capitals have won a Cup or two by now? And it’s true, the Blue Jackets have passed seemingly every test put in front of them this season. After all, they are the only club in the NHL that has yet to lose three consecutive games.
And individually, this has been one of, if not, the most successful seasons in team history. John Tortorella should be a finalist for the Jack Adams Award. Bobrovsky could/should win the Vezina. Werenski has been a revelation and would have won the Calder just about any other year (cough, Ekblad). Seth Jones has exceeded expectations if that was even possible from a former 4th overall pick. Alex Wennberg is tied with Joe Thornton and Artemi Panarin with 43 assists. Cam Atkinson has as many goals (34) as Patrick Kane and more than Evgeni Malkin Alex Ovechkin (33).
They are as balanced as they come, with 11 skaters posting 10+ goals and Matt Calvert knocking on the door with nine of his own.
I’m not here to suggest a long playoff run cannot be done. Nobody expected the Lake Erie Monsters to win the Calder Cup last year, but then they “went on the most dominant postseason run in the history of the American Hockey League“, going 15-2 in the playoffs. I am, however, suggesting that long-starved Blue Jackets fans (I count myself as one) understand just how green this squad really is.