Emptying the Blue Jackets’ First Half Notebook

We are almost to decision February.

The Columbus Blue Jackets finished off game 48 Saturday night in Minnesota hoping to ride the momentum of a win going into their long 10-day break. Instead, their offense went colder than a Minnesota winter and they left important points on the table. Instead of possibly leading the Metro, they trail the New York Islanders by 3 points. And there’s nothing they can do about it for over a week.

The Blue Jackets managed to score just two goals in their last two games. When you’re a team that was in first place and you’re trying to stay on top, scoring two goals in 120 minutes won’t cut it. This team has plenty of work left to do once they hit the ice again Jan 29 against the Buffalo Sabres.

I figured this would be a good time to empty out my running notebook on the season. These are my personal thoughts on the team, what I’ve seen, what I’ve been watching and what I’ll be watching moving forward. I think the overarching question we need to ask ourselves here is, “what do we truly make of the Columbus Blue Jackets?” They’re as hard a team to figure out as I can remember in recent memory.

I think most of us can agree that the Blue Jackets are a good team. But yet they have some very disturbing trends that can’t be ignored. We have a lot to get to so let’s get started.

Brad Shaw assistant coach, Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets have been both great and horrible at different points this season. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

A Missed Opportunity

The Blue Jackets have given up quite a few points in the standings because they lost to teams they should normally beat. Remember all those times they lost to the team in 31st place? How important would those points be in the standings now?

Well, they loom even larger after earning zero points against Montreal and Minnesota. The race for the division is shaping up to be razor thin. You need every point you can get especially against teams you should beat. The Blue Jackets failed to do the job before the break and are now out of first place. They’re three points out of first as of this writing but also just one point away from being in a wildcard spot.

The thing I have been watching in this stretch is how they’d respond to retaking first place. In previous occurrences of this, the Blue Jackets haven’t been able to keep first place. Could they find a way to stay at the top? At least this time, nope, they’re back on the hunt. They missed an opportunity to maintain the division lead.

They’ll have plenty of chances to rectify this. But these young Blue Jackets still have lessons to learn on how to maintain themselves once they get to the top. A sign of a great team is one that can not only get to the top but stay on top. They can’t get to the top and take their foot off the gas.

Nick Foligno #71, Columbus Blue Jackets
Nick Foligno and the Blue Jackets must learn to stay on top once they get there. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Trade Deadline

I think we all know the potential exists that these Blue Jackets could look drastically different depending on how management handles the trade deadline. What do they do? What happens if anything with Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky?

There’s one quote from GM Jarmo Kekalainen that I just can’t shake. In a recent interview on Blue Jackets radio, Kekalainen said that “he really likes this group.” It seems like a simple quote but it speaks volumes. This tells me a couple of things.

First, it tells me that they think highly of how far they could go this season. With recent wins against Washington and Nashville under their belt, they at least showed they have the capability of winning the big game. Now they have to do it with all the chips in the middle.

Second, it tells me that unless someone overwhelms them with an offer they can’t refuse, I’m of the belief both Panarin and Bobrovsky stay past the trade deadline. Kekalainen said he really likes THIS group. Even if they meet with Panarin and he’s not willing to sign an extension, I don’t know how you can trade him.

Yeah, yeah, I understand you want to get something. Forget that for a minute. You don’t often have chances like this in the NHL with two superstars on your team to make a deep run. What kind of a message are you sending your team if trade your two best players in the middle of a season where something special could happen?

Also, if you make this trade, you are trading the best player and will likely lose in this exchange. Think of this as what moves do they need to make in order to position themselves to chase a Cup? Trading Panarin makes them worse this season. So if I had a penny to bet on what they do, I believe the Blue Jackets keep both past the deadline.

Panarin Bobrovsky Blue Jackets
I personally think both Panarin and Bobrovsky stay past the trade deadline. (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

So Then What?

You can’t ride the fence as they say. If you don’t trade them, you have to go for everything. That means making your first rounder as well as prospects available for trade.

When you have a major deficiency like the Blue Jackets do, you have to do what it takes to address it. What is that deficiency you might ask? Great question. It reared its ugly head this past Friday and Saturday.

The Blue Jackets need a legitimate, second scoring line that is as big a threat as their potent top line. If Panarin, Cam Atkinson and Pierre-Luc Dubois are shut down, chances are so are the rest of the Blue Jackets. That won’t cut it in the playoffs.

Want to energize your players? Want to energize your fan base? Forget patience this season. It’s go time. Want to show Panarin how serious you are about chasing a championship? This is the trade deadline you make something happen.

Is it risky? Absolutely it is. But you can’t win if you don’t take some chances in life. Never have the Blue Jackets been in this position in their franchise history. They’re young, talented and hungry. It’s time for management to put a stamp on this and declare this is their time. We’ll see if they see it the same way. Again, I can’t shake Kekalainen saying they really like this group.

Jarmo Kekäläinen
Jarmo Kekalainen really likes his team. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Emptying My Notebook

The rest of this piece will be random nuggets and observations of the team. These will be quick one or two liners covering a wide range of Blue Jackets’ topics.

  • The Blue Jackets must find the real Alexander Wennberg because somewhere in there is a good hockey player. What NHL teams will take on that contract given the season he’s had?
  • Zach Werenski is a special player who has shown a nice improvement in his defensive play of late. He’s a big part of the Blue Jackets’ future so I’m not expecting him to be included in any trade for forward help.
  • If Josh Anderson can find consistency in his game, look out NHL.
  • Where would the Columbus Blue Jackets be without Pierre-Luc Dubois? He’s struggled of late but his overall body of work at this age is nothing short of extraordinary.
  • There are a lot of sellers. That’s great news for the Blue Jackets when deciding how to handle the trade deadline.
  • I still think Elvis Merzlikins is your game one starter in 2019-20.
  • The Blue Jackets still haven’t allowed a power play goal in 2019.
  • Anthony Duclair has a lot to learn, but goodness the upside that he has. He could be the player that enjoys big moments in the playoffs if he figures the rest of his game out.
  • I wish John Tortorella would show a little more trust in certain players. Oliver Bjorkstrand is the name that comes to mind along with Duclair.
  • Full marks to Boone Jenner for holding down the second center spot, but long-term success sees him back on the wing where he belongs.
  • The Blue Jackets need to stop trying to look pretty all the time and do the simple things well. Watch their power play take off if this message is taken to heart.
  • A hypothetical: With Cal Petersen the future of the Kings net and Bobrovsky’s future uncertain, I’ve wondered if the Blue Jackets would call the Kings about Jonathan Quick? Not likely, but I’ve thought about it.
  • What about Matt Duchene? Shall we start that train up again?
  • What about the Oilers? Thought this was an interesting read.
  • February could be the most fascinating month in Blue Jackets’ history.

No matter what happens, the Blue Jackets are a team of interest. What will they do? And will they answer the bell? In my mind, they’re a threat but they need to make the most of the deadline. We’ll see if they agree.