With the exhibition games starting to wrap up, the NHL is now just days away from putting its 24-team playoff format into its next stage with the play-in qualifiers giving each of the 16 teams a chance in a five-game series to grab a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In a perfect world, there would be more exhibition games and tune-ups, but there is no such thing in 2020. Instead, we will have to see which teams can get up to speed the quickest and get to the top of their game.
When anyone thinks of playoffs, they think of players either rising or failing to meet the occasion. A few days ago, we covered which “NHL Rookies” could step up and deliver magic for the Blue Jackets this playoff season. Now, we will dive into which core or veteran players the Blue Jackets need to be at the top of their game to not only get past the Leafs but to go further into the postseason.
First and foremost, when discussing the veteran core players amongst the forwards, you can’t go any further without saying what a massive loss Artemi Panarin was for the team offensively. He was the driver of possession, creativity, and allowed other players to get lost in coverage with his dynamic, play-making ability.
Having said that, it was tough for just about every forward this season as far as building offense was concerned. The Blue Jackets were 28th in the league in goals scored and goals per game with 2.57. Pierre-Luc Dubois was the leading scorer on the team with just 49 points in 70 games, which obviously felt the loss of Panarin on his left side.
No player felt the loss of Panarin more than Cam Atkinson. Panarin’s playmaking and puck-carrying ability gave Atkinson the time to get lost in coverage with Panarin finding him in scoring positions, which was evident by the 41 goals Atkinson scored last season.
This is by no means a slight to Atkinson, who has scored plenty of goals without Panarin (see 35 goals in the 2016-17 season) and there are plenty of other reasons as to why Atkinson struggled this year. Now, he seems rejuvenated coming into camp after the pause and ready to make a difference where it counts the most.
Another veteran player that the Blue Jackets desperately need to rediscover his game is Alexander Wennberg. Although he has always been an excellent defensive player and penalty killer, his offensive game has left much to be desired ever since the 2016-17 campaign where he tallied 13 goals, 46 assists, and 59 points.
Even after a tough first year and now into the third year of his newly signed six-year, $29.4 million deal making $4.9 million per season after that breakout season, Wennberg just couldn’t be what the Blue Jackets thought he would become — a solid 1A/1B center.
Wennberg still has time to turn it around at 25 years old and has a big challenge ahead of him going up against either Auston Matthews or John Tavares in the play-in series against the Leafs. The Blue Jackets won’t just need Wennberg’s defensive game to shine, but they need him to be more assertive in the offensive zone if they want to take down the Leafs.
Another forward the Blue Jackets need to elevate his play is Boone Jenner. Jenner has been a huge part of the Blue Jackets’ leadership for what seems like forever and they will need him to do what he does best — relentlessly forecheck.
Although it is unlikely that will see the 30-goal scoring touch return from the 2015-16 season, the Blue Jackets signed Jenner to a four-year contract after the 2017-18 season, because his play personifies what being a Blue Jacket means. Great two-way play, hard-working attitude, and a guy that will drag you into the fight with how he plays. The Blue Jackets will need every bit of that attitude over the course of a series and a playoff season.
The final player that the Blue Jackets need to elevate his game is none other than captain Nick Foligno. He isn’t the most dynamic player, but he does provide a surprisingly smooth blend of skill and grit that can leave defending players looking for their footing.
Like Jenner, even though his career-high 30-goal, 70-point campaign from the 2013-14 season is long behind him, he is still a valuable player. At 32 years old with one more year left on his six-year contract that was signed in late 2014, Foligno has a lot to play for and the Blue Jackets need his best as he plays on a projected top line with Wennberg and Atkinson.
When looking at players that had solid seasons, look no further than Gustav Nyquist. The Swedish winger had 15 goals and 42 points while displaying incredible creativity with the puck on a number of different plays throughout the year. Blue Jackets general manager (GM) Jarmo Kekalainen did a great job signing a player that can have an immediate impact as a top-six winger not just offensively, but defensively as well.
Nyquist, in a projected third-line role now with Jenner and former 2018 first-round pick Liam Foudy, will have every opportunity as a versatile player to impact the game not just at even strength, but on the power play and penalty kill.
When looking at a player like Riley Nash, who will be on a projected fourth line with players like Eric Robinson and Emil Bemstrom, you get a solid and experienced two-way player between two young, offensive sparkplugs. That type of defensive prowess and experience that Nash brings can allow players like Robinson and Bemstrom to play more freely and with speed against the fourth-line competition.
Veteran players on the outside looking in are Nathan Gerbe, who has been scratching and clawing to continue his NHL career, and Devin Shore will be ready if anybody falls behind or finds themselves on the injury report. While young players will bring youthful exuberance, veteran and core players must elevate and set the tone for a team and how they will play through the course of a series.
When talking about the Blue Jackets’ deep defense, it has to start and end with Seth Jones and Zach Werenski on the top pair. Both young, talented, and yet very experienced players will be the driving force of not just the Blue Jackets’ defense, but their entire team.
Jones and Werenski no doubt have incredible chemistry and that should suit them well against a Maple Leafs’ top-six that is one of the best in the NHL. Whether it is Tavares, Matthews, or Mitch Marner coming through the defensive zone, you can believe that Jones and Werenski will be ready to defend and quickly transition the other way and make the dynamic forwards of the Maple Leafs defend on their heels.
Another important player in a very deep blue line that has been a staple for the Blue Jackets for over 10 years and that is David Savard. He has been a part of an excellent shutdown pair alongside rookie Vladislav Gavrikov and now has the chance to shine once again as he did in last years’ playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Savard’s play is invaluable not just because of his great defensive positioning, but his uncanny ability to block shots. He is second in the entire NHL this season in blocked shots with 163, just behind Oscar Klefbom’s 180. With Jones and Werenski’s flashy play, Savard’s value does tend to get lost, but his play will be perhaps most important against the Maple Leafs and beyond.
The question with Ryan Murray was never if he was going to play good or bad on any given night, it was if he was going to play on any given night. It is no secret that Murray has had trouble staying healthy from the moment he was drafted second overall in the 2012 NHL draft. Just when it seems that Murray is turning the corner, an injury sets him back once again.
In fairness to Murray, whenever he is in the lineup, he is an exceptionally smart player and has the makings of a top-four or even top-pair defenseman if he can just stay healthy and put together a full 82-game season of solid play. However, the Blue Jackets will need that smart play on the bottom pairing with Kukan, if they want to take advantage of a Maple Leafs’ bottom-six that is susceptible to speed and tempo.
The veteran defensemen that are on the outside looking in, but can still absolutely contribute to the Blue Jackets are Markus Nutivaara, Scott Harrington and Adam Clendening. Although Nutivaara has a road less traveled ahead of him in a battle with Kukan for a spot on the third pair, any of these defensemen can chip in if called upon through the course of a postseason.
After two-time Vezina-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky left the Blue Jackets in free agency to go the Florida Panthers, it was supposed to be Joonas Korpisalo’s year to step out of Bobrovsky’s shadow and prove that he should be an NHL starting goaltender.
Everything was going well for Korpisalo, as he was named an All-Star goaltender by the NHL and was invited to the NHL All-Star Game. However, before the calendar could turn to January, he suffered a knee injury late in a game against the Chicago Blackhawks on Dec. 29, 2019, and was out for the next 4-6 weeks.
Then came Elvis Merzlikins, who took the net with authority and became a dynamic sensation around the NHL, highlighted with a stretch of five shutouts in eight starts in February, vaulting the Blue Jackets back into playoff contention.
Fast forward four-and-a-half months through the NHL pause caused by the coronavirus global pandemic, the Blue Jackets now have two talented starting goaltenders, both with no NHL playoff experience.
Even though Korpisalo has 94 more games of experience under his belt, that doesn’t mean that Blue Jackets’ coach John Tortorella will give him the starting net based on that fact. It will be how they play in practice and in tonight’s exhibition game against the Bruins. All Korpisalo and Merzlikins can do, is be ready when called upon.
Play-in Hockey Days Away
The Blue Jackets have waited so long and so patiently for what is about to unfold — playoff hockey. Although it might not be technically playoff hockey until you get past the play-in round, it will definitely have the same intensity and feel, even without fans in the stands.
If the Blue Jackets were to fall to the Maple Leafs in the play-in round, they would fall into an eight-team lottery to see who would be awarded the first pick in the 2020 NHL Draft and a chance to draft Alexis Lafreniere. Wouldn’t that be something?
But for now, the Blue Jackets will set off on an unprecedented journey of playoff-type hockey in early August and hope that their bubble hockey stay is one that is experienced well into October.