The Columbus Blue Jackets and Toronto Maple Leafs played the rubber match of their three-game season series Friday night at Nationwide Arena. It was the first game this season involving Auston Matthews. Could the Blue Jackets slow down the high-powered attack of the Maple Leafs with both Matthews and John Tavares in the lineup?
At least on Friday night, the answer was no.
Tavares connected twice helping the Maple Leafs to a convincing 4-2 win over the Blue Jackets. Although the game was mostly even throughout, the Leafs did a better job of converting Blue Jackets’ mistakes into goals. That proved to be the difference.
This game also gave us a glimpse of what each team looked like as both have hopes of making deep playoff runs. If this game showed me something, it’s the Leafs have a clear leg up on the Blue Jackets. The Leafs are a true Stanley Cup contender. The Blue Jackets are in the second tier, good but not great.
If the Blue Jackets have struggled against a particular kind of team in recent memory, it’s against teams that have two great scoring lines with dominant centers. That’s why the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have enjoyed success against the Blue Jackets.
The Blue Jackets simply cannot match the talent. We must throw the Maple Leafs into that group now too. One cannot underestimate the importance of Tavares’ decision to join Toronto. He and Matthews give the Leafs a potent 1/2 punch that can go up against Crosby/Malkin, Backstrom/Kuznetsov and other top center duos.
Why do the Blue Jackets fall short of this group? It’s because they have a great top line but that’s about it at this time. The line of Artemi Panarin, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson is among the best top lines in the NHL. But Pittsburgh can throw Malkin/Kessel at you. Washington can throw a strong second line at you.
The Maple Leafs can now do the same thing. Imagine stopping Matthews and having Tavares/Marner burn you. That’s how you win in today’s game. Friday night at Nationwide, Tavares had his way with the Blue Jackets.
So What Do the Jackets Need To Do?
This is the million dollar question. The Blue Jackets as is have a team that has a better than average chance of making the playoffs. The key words here are as is. This includes Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Will they each be here past the trade deadline? We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
In the meantime, let’s explore how the Blue Jackets do stack up against the Maple Leafs. It’s more even than you think, except for one major thing.
In goal, both Bobrovsky and Freddie Andersen are in the upper class of goalies in the league. Both have yet to prove they can win in the playoffs. For the purposes of this discussion, they wash each other out.
On defense, the Blue Jackets do hold a very slight edge. The best defenseman in that group is Seth Jones. The Blue Jackets top-four of Jones, Zach Werenski, Markus Mutivaara and Ryan Murray is a formidable group. If the Maple Leafs could stand to do something at the deadline, they could use an upgrade to their top-four. If they hope to beat Tampa Bay and other top contenders, they must address their top-four.
But as we discussed above, the Maple Leafs have a scary offense. This is while William Nylander is still trying to find his game. Wait until he finds his groove.
Friday night, the Leafs did a good job most of the night slowing down the Blue Jackets’ top line. Panarin scored late but after it was 4-1. The Blue Jackets couldn’t get a second line going to help generate offense.
If the Blue Jackets hope to make a run at a Cup this season, it is of utmost importance that they land a top-six forward to give them a different look come playoff time. The Blue Jackets have to be able to have two dangerous scoring lines going.
Who Could Be Available?
With all due respect to Boone Jenner, his game is more suited on the wing. He’s done a fair job playing center but is at a severe disadvantage when playing the top contenders. While the preference would be to land a center, any impact top-six forward would fit the Blue Jackets’ needs.
Deals like this aren’t easy to come up with at the deadline. You are likely not landing a franchise player. But there are options out there if you’re serious about going all-in and are willing to pay up.
Would they explore a player like Matt Duchene in Ottawa? His name was rumored most of last season to come to Columbus. What about a player like Derek Stepan in Arizona? How about Tyler Toffoli in Los Angeles? Would you inquire about a Vladimir Tarasenko given the rocky season the Blues have had? Maybe do you check if UFA to be Eric Staal is interested in joining a playoff run?
No matter what, an upgrade is needed. Imagine the kind of lineup the Blue Jackets could run out against someone if they do an upgrade.
- Foligno-(acquired player)-Anderson
Imagine Duchene or Staal as a top-six center. Imagine Toffoli as a top-six winger where you could move Wennberg up if necessary. Landing an impact forward will give opponents something else to think about in a potential series in the playoffs.
The Maple Leafs gave us a glimpse of what the Blue Jackets need to do between now and the trade deadline if they hope to improve their chances at a deep playoff run. Ideally they need to make a move. But let’s say they can’t for some reason. Maybe the prices are too high.
In that case, the Blue Jackets must learn to limit their mistakes against top teams. Whether it’s an ill-timed penalty or turnover, their mistakes have cost them. It did Friday night. It will in the playoffs too.
The Blue Jackets have plenty of work ahead of them and hard decisions to make as we approach trade deadline season. Can they find a way to level the playing field? If they hope to make it past round one, they better find a way.
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 2021-22 season will mark eight seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager.