The playoff race for the Columbus Blue Jackets was going to be a grind anyway. But I’m not sure they planned on something like this.
Seth Jones, their all-world defenseman and best player, will be gone for 8-10 weeks. The Blue Jackets have played most of the season injured anyway so that’s not new. But they haven’t had to deal with an injury quite like this one.
Jones leads the Blue Jackets in ice time. He does everything and plays in all situations. In other words, there is no one in the Blue Jackets organization, and very few around the league for that matter, that could replace a talent such as Jones.
Yet the Blue Jackets have to find a way to do just that. After all, there’s just 25 games remaining in the 2019-20 season. These 25 games will dictate if the Blue Jackets will make a fourth consecutive trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Given the 8-10 week timeframe, there’s a good chance the Blue Jackets won’t have Jones for any of these games. Eight weeks puts him to the start of the first round. If it’s 10 weeks or more, the Blue Jackets would have to both make the playoffs and win a round in order for him to play again this season.
To say that this is a tremendous loss is a major understatement. Jones is the kind of talent that can take over games by himself when he wants to. He just does so many things well that his absence will be an obvious one when seeing the team playing these games.
But life goes on. The games go on. The Blue Jackets have to be ready for these last 25 games with their season on the line. The standings won’t allow them any time to crucial mistakes.
Coming into Thursday’s action, the Blue Jackets hold the first wildcard spot in the East. They are one point up on the Flyers with the Hurricanes trailing by just three. Carolina also has played one less game than the Blue Jackets. With six Metro teams at 30 wins or more, someone will be left on the outside even though they’d deserve a spot in the playoffs.
Losing Jones makes many wonder if the Blue Jackets will finally come back to Earth and fall back behind the pack. If the Blue Jackets have any say in the matter, they will continue to find ways to win games no matter who is in the lineup.
That’s the question being asked by many given the Jones injury. What can we expect to see from the Blue Jackets? What things should we be watching for? I’m glad you asked. Here’s what I’ll be watching for in these last 25 games knowing the team might not have Jones back during the regular season.
The New-Look Top Pair
You are not replacing what all Jones can do but it is an opportunity for the new-look top pair to see what they can bring. In Monday’s overtime loss to Tampa, Zach Werenski was joined by Markus Nutivaara. They did well for themselves in that game. Both played over 17 minutes at 5-on-5. Both were over 57% CF% according to Natural Stat Trick. They did that against one of the best offensive teams in hockey.
Each player has something to prove. For Werenski, it’s his chance to show he can be just as effective and dominant without Jones. For Nutivaara, it’s his chance to show he’s over his injury and can play top minutes. Nutivaara has had a nice early career to this point. But now he gets to show how he can do against the opposition’s best. He and Werenski could get a heavy dose of Jack Eichel on Thursday. How this duo holds up will go a long way in determining how these games will go.
Jones played on both special teams units. How will his absence impact both the power play and penalty kill?
Coming into Thursday, the Blue Jackets own the 26th best power play and the 6th best penalty kill. The power play has struggled mightily since Dec 1. They have one of the league’s worst power plays in that time. They have just 10 power-play goals in their last 80 chances, a conversion rate of just 12.5%.
Jones and Werenski split time on each unit on the point. Now, we’ll likely see Werenski play even more while Nutivaara plays some if Werenski needs a breather. Once Ryan Murray gets back from his injury, I wonder if the Blue Jackets would give him a look here.
Werenski will have to be the engine making this unit work. Can he find a way to make the right plays and get this power play going? Can Nutivaara when called upon fill in and hold the position down? He certainly can move the puck but can he be a quarterback in the meantime?
As for the penalty kill, I foresee this being one area where Jones will desperately be missed. His skating, long reach and defensive prowess makes him hard to play against in any situation. The onus here will fall on the other penalty killers to step up and play at an even higher level. Can they do that here? They’ll get a stiff test Thursday in the Sabres with Victor Olofsson returning to the lineup.
The Other Defensemen
We’ve discussed Nutivaara and Werenski but let’s look at the other pairings. You’d expect David Savard and Vladislav Gavrikov to stay together. This pair has showed good chemistry and has been a go-to pairing for John Tortorella. How the third pairing does with the potential of more minutes could loom large.
In Monday’s game against the Lightning, it was Scott Harrington and Andrew Peeke that drew the assignment. Both played just under 13 minutes and did the job they were asked to do. They helped limit the Lightning to one goal in regulation. These aren’t glamorous minutes but they’re just as important.
Whoever plays on this pair just needs to play a simple game with few mistakes. Clear the puck when given the chance. Make the smart pass. The Blue Jackets just need steadiness down here. Harrington has played well in his limited role and Peeke is showing he’s ready for a more full-time role.
We’ll see when Murray returns. Once this happens, that could put Murray-Werenski together or Murray could play a third-pairing role to ease his way back in. Regardless, there are options available to the team. Murray’s return will ease some of the burden on the Jones injury.
Even with Jones in the lineup, goals were hard to come by. Now it’s more important than ever to find ways to score goals with him out of the lineup. Scoring one goal per game won’t do the job in the NHL. Although there are other injuries here (Josh Anderson, Cam Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg among others), there are others who need to step up and contribute more consistently. Who can get over that hump?
Nick Foligno has been good of late but can be better. Pierre-Luc Dubois needs to play like a number-one center and have more of an impact offensively. Boone Jenner needs to find a way to chip in more offense. Gus Nyquist can up his game. Youngsters Sonny Milano and Emil Bemstrom can add more offense. This has to be a total team effort for them to find their way out of their goal-scoring slump.
Even the great goaltending and defense are going to have off nights. Can the offense finally do their share of the heavy lifting when called upon? They need to find way to score three a night. The talent is there. They have to make it happen now. Their performance can lessen the blow of not having Jones. It’s more important than ever for them to create goals.
You are not replacing the talent of Jones. But as a team, they can each do their part to soften the blow. They’re going to have to if they want to return to the playoffs. One bad week and you’re on the outside of the playoffs looking in.
Every shift matters. Every minute matters. With no Jones, the Blue Jackets need to each take it upon themselves and be better than they have been. They got to this point as a team. They need to finish it off as a team. The best way to honor Jones is to make it to the playoffs while he’s out. He gave everything until he was injured. Now the team can do the same in return.
It all starts in Buffalo Thursday night. 25 games. That’s what separates these Blue Jackets from a fourth straight trip to the playoffs. Can they get there without their best player? We’ll see.