Christmas Break is over. For the Columbus Blue Jackets, it’s time to get back to business.
They open their post-Christmas schedule and finish calendar-year 2017 with three tough games. They play in Pittsburgh and Ottawa then come home to face the NHL-leading Lightning.
What are we watching for from now until the end of January? Here are the five stories we have our eyes on as we approach the 2018 part of the schedule.
Injuries & the Next Man Up
Injuries happen to all teams at different times in varying degrees. Unfortunately for the Columbus Blue Jackets, their injuries hit at once to many of their best players.
Let’s take a moment to reset the injury situation for you. Here is a list of current injuries and when we expect these players to return.
- Ryan Murray: Was placed on IR Dec 2 and hasn’t played a game since Nov 27. He’s now listed as day-to-day.
- Brandon Dubinsky: Was placed on IR Dec 13 and is expected to miss another 4-6 weeks with a broken orbital bone.
- Zach Werenski: Is listed as day-to-day and will miss his fourth straight game in Pittsburgh Wednesday. He did skate in practice though.
- Alexander Wennberg: Was placed on IR Dec 26 and will miss 4-6 weeks due to a back injury.
- Cam Atkinson: Was placed on IR Dec 26 and will miss 4-6 weeks due to a fractured foot.
There’s no dancing around this situation. These are huge losses for a team trying to stay in the playoff race in the toughest division in hockey. The next man must step up in the wake of these injuries.
Jordan Schroeder, Sonny Milano and Tyler Motte each got called up to the Blue Jackets in order for them to have 12 forwards available for Wednesday’s game in Pittsburgh. They’re each expected to play.
It’s incredibly difficult if not impossible to replace the things that Wennberg, Atkinson, Werenski, Dubinsky and Murray bring to your lineup. The Blue Jackets must find a way to limit the damage while this is going on. It’s the next man up. Will somehow take advantage of this opportunity and impress? We’ll see.
Calling All Veterans
If the Blue Jackets hope to navigate these troubling waters, their veterans must step up and lead the way. I’m specifically looking at captain Nick Foligno. I’m also looking at guys like David Savard, Jack Johnson and Boone Jenner to up their games.
This season hasn’t been the best of any of those players by their standards. Now that they’ve had a few days off and time to refresh, it’s time they buckle down and lead the way until everyone comes back.
Foligno is back at center between Jenner and Oliver Bjorkstrand. Opponents will focus on shutting the PBJ line down. As such, Foligno’s line must step up and give the Blue Jackets another scoring line. Can they put something together?
Johnson and Savard need to find last season’s magic on the blue line. With goals potentially coming in at a premium, the Blue Jackets must stay fundamentally sound and limit their opponent’s chances. Seth Jones can’t play all 60 minutes. Can Johnson and Savard balance out the defense?
Now It’s Panarin’s Time to Shine
Artemi Panarin came to Columbus to act as a difference maker. We’ve seen glimpses of his greatness throughout the season. Most recently, he tied the game in Pittsburgh before Christmas which helped send the game to overtime. It was a perfect shot.
If the Blue Jackets hope to get through the next month, Panarin must consistently be the best player on the ice. As great as he’s been, he has higher levels in him. He must take control of games and bring his teammates along with him.
The thing I will watch closely is the power play’s progression. We know the overall struggles that unit has had. They have scored power-play goals in four straight games. Can Panarin help ignite this unit and bring them back to life? As the games get tighter, having a functional power play is of the utmost importance. You must look to your best player to make this happen. The time for Panarin is now.
Can Milano Make an Impression?
We all know the Milano situation. After starting the season on the top-six of the Blue Jackets, he fell in the lineup. He then ended up in Cleveland to play top minutes. He’s back now thanks to the rash of injuries.
If Milano wants to impress, now is a perfect time to do so. His coach John Tortorella recently told radio voice Bob McElligott that some of this is on him. He hasn’t been able to get over the hump of just playing him.
As we speculate who might be called up from @monstershockey to replace @CamAtkinson13 on the #CBJ roster, here’s what John Tortorella told me about @27SMiLano and why he was being sent down. This conversation took place prior to the Philly game. https://t.co/zP2o10cqsH
— Bob McElligott (@BobbyMacSports) December 26, 2017
Although most of this is on Milano and his play away from the puck, it’s not all on him. We’ll watch Tortorella as well to see how he handles this situation. Can he muster up enough confidence to send Milano out nightly?
Tortorella may not have a choice. As of this writing, the Blue Jackets have 22 on their roster with just 12 forwards. This includes Milano. Unless the team elects to dress seven defensemen, Milano is likely playing.
We’ll watch this dynamic closely. Milano skated on the third line during the morning skate Wednesday. Will he get 10-12 minutes or will he get less? Giving him less could strain the top line because they’ll have to play more.
Bottom line is this. Milano needs to give Tortorella a reason to keep him out there. Will it happen? We’ll find out soon enough.
The Need For a Stable Bottom-6
Matt Calvert. Lukas Sedlak. Markus Hannikainen. Although Calvert has had good moments this season especially on the penalty kill, the Blue Jackets have yet to find a stable third and fourth line. Now is their chance to solidify this area of their game. If they want to manage January, they have to find a way to earn some more ice time.
Ideally, the Blue Jackets want to roll four lines. Unless the score was out of hand in the Blue Jackets favor, this hasn’t happened all season. Except for the top line, Tortorella has used a blender for his lines in the hopes of finding something that works.
Can the Blue Jackets find a combination that can get them 10-12 solid minutes a night? Will Tortorella find the right combination? Will the players step up? There are lots of questions with few answers at this time. We’ll get the time on ice stats every night to see how it all shakes out.
The Blue Jackets start play just a single point out of first place in the Metro. That’s the good news. But with the injuries they have, can they avoid a long losing streak? Their opponent tonight sits three points out of the playoffs and will look to make an early statement.
January will test these young Blue Jackets. Their response will dictate how February and beyond will go. Enjoy what’s about to unfold.