When the Columbus Blue Jackets opened the season with eight straight loses, the team’s management was stunned and not sure what to do. That was the message general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and president of hockey operations John Davidson left fans with in their final press conference of the season on Monday.
“I thought our team going into this season was a playoff team,” Davidson said. “There’s a lot of ‘what could have been’ type of thing. We wasted an opportunity, and that’s factual.”
It is fair to say the roster should have grown leaps and bounds. The team has had a lot of high draft picks in recent years, with a proven goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky backstopping them. Players like Boone Jenner and Ryan Johansen were supposed to be given a boost by a trade for Brandon Saad that was supposed to spark the team’s offence. And another year of Ryan Murray and David Savard on defence should have been nothing but positive.
On top of that, the team had closed the previous season winning 17 of its final 21 games, including a 13 game winning streak. The team still missed the final wild card spot by nine points, but there was certainly reason for optimism.
Then the 2015-16 season started in the worst possible way. After losing the first seven games of the season, the Blue Jackets fired coach Todd Richards and brought in John Torterella. The losing continued and Columbus finished 34-40-4-4, good for second last in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s funny with athletes, something happens and it’s tough to get out of it,” Torterella said Monday when reflecting on the slow start. “I thought at times that we were on the right road but we’re still inconsistent and it comes down to the mental part of the game. We need to fix that.”
Offence Isn’t The Problem
Scoring was surprisingly not the problem this season for the Blue Jackets. The team saw lower production from Johansen, who only contributed six goals before he was traded for defenceman Seth Jones, and captain Nick Foligno, who saw his goal totals drop from 30 a year before to just 12 this season. Nevertheless, the team was still 10th in the NHL in goals per game, averaging 2.25 when playing even strength according to Hockey Analytics.com.
In the end of year press conference, Kekalainen admitted “we need to get better at the centre ice position,” after trading Johansen but added “I don’t think offence is our team’s problem.”
Where the team does need to improve is defence, where it was ranked 27th in goals against per game with 2.44 at five on five. Part of that was Bobrovsky only able to make 37 starts in net due to various groin problems, but the team still needs to be better in front of him.
“We have to keep the puck out of the net and we have to defend better,” Kekalainen said. “We have to be better as a group… there are a lot of areas for us to improve.”
Kekalainen mentioned that he will be going out on the road to scout within the week. But every other team wants to improve on defence, forcing Columbus to possible lose another forward for a defenceman.
Outlook For The Future
The Blue Jackets do have some young players coming down the pipe that both Davidson and Kekalainen are excited about. Davidson specifically mentioned Jones and Zach Werenski as two defencemen that make Davidson “feel stronger about our backend.”
But going into this June’s draft, Columbus only has five draft picks, with the team not picking in the fourth and fifth round.
“We are a draft and development organization,” Davidson said Monday. “Drafting is the life blood of our franchise. This is huge for us.”
But until the team bites the bullet and trades the veteran players for more draft picks, it will be hard for them to go through with that plan. When asked what specifically needs to be done, Davidson refused to name names.
“It’s hard for me to sit here right now and say this guy has to go or this guy has to stay,” Davidson said. “We’re still going to evolve as a franchise… but we’re going to have the same game plan we’ve always had and… hopefully get better as a team.”
The only thing Columbus fans can really count on is the team will have a high draft pick in June. Other than that, management wasn’t clear about the future of the roster and if they really are capable of the restructure required to turn the Blue Jackets around.
While a big offseason is still on the way, there is not a lot of hope in Columbus right now. Management tried its best to say all the right things Monday, but they have a lot to do in order to backup their words.
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