Can Blue Jackets Follow in Predators’ Footsteps?

The Nashville Predators have turned into the hockey world’s darlings after an incredible run to the Stanley Cup Final. They were the last team to get into the playoffs but the underdogs have been almost flawless this postseason.

Their run has been remarkable but when you think about it, it’s nowhere near insane why they’re here. They are built to succeed. Look at their roster. This is an extremely good club from top to bottom, from the front office down to the bench, from the first line down to the fourth line, from their back end to their goaltender. This team is no joke.

Some thought the Columbus Blue Jackets could make a Nashville-type run after a tremendous regular season. My question is how far off are the Jackets from mirroring what the Predators have done this postseason? I will compare and contrast the two teams and explain why I believe the Jackets are not that much different from the team competing for the Stanley Cup.

Blue Jackets Need Top Center

From the top forward line to the bottom, both teams have a well-rounded group. Obviously, the Jackets lack a top-line center after trading that man-to-be in Ryan Johansen to the Predators in exchange for defenseman Seth Jones. The lack of a top centerman is the Jackets’ largest void but outside of that, there’s really not that much to improve.

Former Blue Jackets centerman Ryan Johansen has fit well in Nashville, taking his game to a new level in the postseason before his injury. (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

The Jackets’ forward group is very strong but without a player like Johansen, it cannot be elite. They also do not own a Filip Forsberg, a superstar sniper who can score from anywhere. I’d say the closest player to that is Cam Atkinson, who broke through with 35 goals and 62 points this season, both career highs.

Atkinson is a great scorer but he hasn’t been overly impressive in the playoffs. In Columbus’ five playoff games this season, he only tallied two goals, and both came in Game 3. It’s not just him that needs to improve during the postseason, though. The Jackets noticeably lacked a scoring threat – a go-to guy – in the playoffs, and I don’t think the Jackets expect Atkinson to be that guy.

Without a superstar forward, they were severely outmatched by Pittsburgh, who ousted them in the first round. Until they find a dynamic scoring threat who can be counted on in the second season, such as a Filip Forsberg, they don’t increase their chances of succeeding past April.

Jackets Defense Needs Some Seasoning

The Predators and Jackets are both very deep on defense. Nashville has a history of finding defensive talent via entry drafts (Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Seth Jones and Roman Josi, for example). For the Jackets, four of their top six defensemen are former first rounders. They’ve been able to build the strongest defensive group the franchise has ever seen. What makes it even better is that the oldest player in their top six (Jack Johnson) is 30, and the other five are all 26 or younger.

Seth Jones, acquired from Nashville in a swap for Ryan Johansen, has taken the reigns as the Jackets’ top right-handed defenseman. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

When comparing the Preds’ and Jackets’ defensive units, they’re very similar but not equal. As far as defensive personnel goes, the two teams are almost mirror images of one another. But the difference is the Predators’ experience.

Before this season, Nashville had never made it to the Western Conference Final but they had a couple of playoff series wins to their name. Last year, they were a Game 7 win away from the Conference Final and their defensive unit was mostly the same as it is now. They traded captain Shea Weber to Montreal last offseason for P.K. Subban in a major shakeup but even then, Subban had solid playoff experience with the Canadiens.

It was a tough task for the young defensive corps of the Jackets to contain a highly-potent Penguins offense in the first round. They struggled to do so and that was one reason why they only won one game in the series. But the experience they gained will help moving forward. I would expect for their defensemen to learn from their mistakes in future postseasons.

Bobrovsky Needs Playoff Proof

Sergei Bobrovsky and Pekka Rinne are two of the best goaltenders in the league. Both teams are thrilled to have their respective netminder tend the crease. I’d like to say Bobrovsky is the better of the two but Rinne has been the one to backstop his team all the way to a Stanley Cup Final. Bobrovksy, however, has struggled mightily between the pipes in his playoff career.

After earning at least a nomination for the Vezina Trophy in the regular season, Bobrovsky disappointed again in the playoffs, clearly not playing at the level he did from October through March. Because of his continued playoff woes, he has recently shown interest in consulting with a sports psychologist to cope with the issue. I don’t blame him. Anything to repair his career playoff numbers of a 3.63 goals-against average and .887 save percentage is worthwhile.

The difference between regular season Sergei Bobrovsky and playoff Sergei Bobrovsky is appalling. (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

If Bob can compete at the same level during playoffs as he does during the regular season, the Jackets could make a deep run. He has the ability to steal games and he put that on display many times throughout the season. But once the playoffs start, he’s not the same goalie. The usual easy save for him equates to a goal in the playoffs. The Jackets could play better in front of him but they need Bobrovsky at or near his best in order to win playoff games.

If anybody could attest to that, it would be the Predators. Pekka Rinne will likely win the Conn Smythe if Nashville wins the Cup. That’s how good he has been.

Final Thoughts

The Jackets were one of the top scoring teams this season but in the playoffs, they weren’t able to capitalize on their best chances. The Predators and their Stanley Cup opponent have been the most opportunistic teams and that’s why they’re both in the Final. When they get a bounce or a call to go their way, they make the most of it while also burying the majority of their best chances. The Jackets were unable to do either of those things and that’s ultimately why they struggled in their series.

There’s still room to improve and time for their young roster to grow into better players. Maybe the youth also had an impact on their early playoff exit this year. Regardless, the future looks highly optimistic for them. It’s not just the roster that looks promising either. The Jackets have excellent ownership, management and coaching, much like the Predators do. Perhaps soon, the Blue Jackets can blossom into a legitimate Stanley Cup contender like the Predators have done for themselves this year.