3 Burning Blue Jackets’ Questions That Need Answered Soon

Despite falling behind early 3-1, the Columbus Blue Jackets found a way to escape Saturday night with a point. They could have and should have had two though.

Jimmy Vesey scored the winning shootout goal to lift the New York Rangers to a 5-4 win over the Blue Jackets at a sold-out Nationwide Arena. Backup goalie Alexander Georgiev stopped 34 shots in regulation and made key stops in the shootout before Vesey tallied the winner.

The Blue Jackets held the Rangers to just 19 shots on goal through 65 minutes. Most nights when you score four, that’s plenty good enough to win. However it was not meant to be on this night. Goaltender Joonas Korpisalo stopped just 15 of 19 and allowed three of five Rangers’ shooters to score in the shootout. Vesey’s winner hit the arm of Korpisalo before helplessly crossing the line. In frustration, Korpisalo broke his stick over the crossbar. That perfectly illustrated his night.

So despite the Blue Jackets finishing Saturday night in first place in the Metropolitan division with a 9-6-2 record, this team has issues and questions it must answer.

We are now over 20% of the way through the 2018-19 season for the Blue Jackets. American Thanksgiving will be here before you know it. Many look at that holiday as a benchmark. You start to get a better idea of what team you have at that point.

We will explore three questions that the Blue Jackets must answer at this point as we start to get into the grind of the regular season. How these play out will determine what will become of the team this season and beyond.

Can Joonas Korpisalo Be a True Number One Goalie?

Saturday night was the sixth consecutive game where Korpisalo allowed three goals or more. On the surface this looks less than ideal. But in watching the games and looking at some of the numbers, the picture becomes a little better but it’s still not great.

Korpisalo’s record is 4-0-2. This suggests that the offense has performed well in his starts. In his seven starts this season, the Blue Jackets have scored 29 goals, an average of 4.14 per game.

Korpisalo however has a 3.78 goals against average and .875 save percentage. Of the 38 goalies who have played in at least seven games this season, he is 37th with only Calgary’s Mike Smith being worse. As for goals against average, he is 35th of 38. This is less than ideal for a team trying to determine what exactly he is.

Admittedly, coach John Tortorella wants to get Korpisalo into more games to see what he does in key situations given the uncertain future of Sergei Bobrovsky. Yet it’s Bobrovsky who has started to figure it out while Korpisalo continues to show bouts of inconsistency.

To Korpisalo’s credit, despite the bad numbers, he has made some big saves at key moments in games to help preserve wins. While that’s fine in individual games, it’s not fine on a grander scale.

Joonas Korpisalo Blue Jackets
Joonas Korpisalo still has work to do to show he is a true number one goaltender. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Korpisalo has yet to show he’s a number one goaltender in this league. This is not to say he won’t ever get there. But he hasn’t shown it yet. The pressure is on. He’s in the final year of his current contract. Bobrovsky might be with a different team next season. Korpisalo has the chance to show us he’s ready for the responsibility that comes with being a number one but hasn’t taken full advantage of it.

While it’s easy to pile on Korpisalo, the defense in front of him has done no favors. Saturday night was a perfect example of that. The Blue Jackets dominated in both chances and in expected goals. Yet the Rangers outperformed those metrics. When you make bad turnovers, it leaves everyone out to dry. The Rangers got a bump in high danger chances for as a result and took advantage. They were expected to get 1.7 goals for and actually got four.

Still, true number ones can rise up and make up for defensive shortcomings. Korpisalo career to date has had some good moments but also many not so good moments. That inconsistency has followed him throughout. He hasn’t been able to rise up and show he’s a true number one goalie yet. He will get plenty of chances this season, but time is starting to run out. There’s still a season ahead of them where Bobrovsky could take a majority of the starts.

When Korpisalo is called on, he must take advantage of the opportunity. The question here is will he and is he a true number one? Right now that’s a no but he has some time to flip the script.

Columbus Blue Jackets Anthony Duclair
Can Anthony Duclair heed the words of his head coach? (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

Will the Bottom-Six Find Any Consistency?

Here’s a question that never seems to go away with the Blue Jackets. Newcomer Riley Nash has two points in 17 games. Lukas Sedlak has one point. Sonny Milano is in Cleveland. Markus Hannikainen has two points just at least has shown a willingness to check. Oliver Bjorkstrand has just four points when big things were expected. Anthony Duclair has seven goals but was benched for most of the third period. Alexander Wennberg won’t check.

Tortorella told the media postgame Saturday that he can’t put Bjorkstrand, Wennberg and Duclair out together because they won’t check. So here we are again. Will they find a bottom-six combination that can find some consistency?

If it doesn’t get any better, will they look to Cleveland for help? The issue is this. Although they have 12 forwards dressed, the Blue Jackets lean on who’s playing well. While that’s great to reward those doing the job, you essentially play long stretches of the game with eight or nine forwards. Look at this ice times from Saturday.

  • Riley Nash: 9:21.
  • Oliver Bjorkstrand: 7:06.
  • Markus Hannikainen: 8:23.
  • Anthony Duclair: 5:40.

So where does that ice time go? Look at these times.

  • Artemi Panarin: 21:01.
  • Cam Atkinson: 22:07.
  • Pierre-Luc Dubois: 21:47.
  • Boone Jenner: 22:22.
  • Nick Foligno: 22:48.
  • Josh Anderson: 21:19.

Believe it or not, according to hockey reference, Saturday was the first time in Blue Jackets history that six forwards logged over 20 minutes of ice time in a single regular season game. There have been many occurrences of five skaters but never six.

Tortorella is leaning hard on the top-six given the inconsistency of the bottom-six. This must change. Players have to start performing the way they can. While some of this is on the players, it is fair to question the coaching staff too. Let’s go to question three and see why.

John Tortorella Columbus Blue Jackets
John Tortorella had six forwards play more than 20 minutes Saturday. That has never happened in Blue Jackets’ regular season history. (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

What Do We Make of the Performance of the Coaching Staff?

Recall the Blue Jackets made a curious switch at the beginning of the season. Assistant coaches Brad Larsen and Brad Shaw switched roles. Larsen is now coaching the defense and Shaw the offense. As we move forward, we’ll start to get feedback from the players as to how that’s gone, how different it’s been etc.

Regardless of the player’s thoughts, it was still Tortorella who decided to do this. He has made some very interesting moves this season in an effort to get everyone going. The issue here is that not everyone is going.

Duclair is tied for the team lead in scoring but Tortorella can’t play him in the third period Saturday sans one shift. Oliver Bjorkstrand was on the verge of being a healthy scratch. Milano could never get over the hump and is now in the AHL. Alex Wennberg’s minutes are also reduced despite being one of the better centers.

What do you notice is in common with those names? They all have offensive skill but all need to improve away from the puck. I have questions though.

Tortorella has basically said look, if you can’t check and can’t improve away from the puck, you won’t play. Ok that’s absolutely fair. But has this gone a little too far especially given the players involved?

Oliver Bjorkstrand Blue Jackets
Is John Tortorella doing enough to get the most out of Oliver Bjorkstrand? (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It’s on the coaching staff to put these players in positions to succeed. Clearly this has not happened yet. Otherwise you aren’t seeing reduced ice times. In the case of Milano, he’s not in the AHL. Is Tortorella doing enough for these players to help them get over the hump? Clearly the confidence of some of these players, Bjorkstrand especially, has been shaken. What is this coaching staff doing to help these players along? You can’t improve at your game if you don’t get ample ice time in real game situations.

With Tortorella, it’s a matter of trust. Those that get the ice time have it. Others don’t. This is a question that Tortorella and the coaching staff must face moving forward. Are they doing enough as coaches and is the message being received? And does Tortorella eventually have to go outside himself on the trust issue and put players out there in order to give them a chance to work through it?

Watch these players especially in the near-term. It will eventually come into clearer focus if the issue is the player not heeding the direction or the coaching staff not doing enough.

The answers to these three questions will determine the course of the Blue Jackets moving forward this season. We’ll see who answers the call in no time.