Who would have ever thought we’d question the playoff chances of the Columbus Blue Jackets in January? Well here we are. Losing games to the 29th and 30th place teams should stop and make you think.
After losing 3-1 in Buffalo and 5-2 against Vancouver, the Blue Jackets enter their bye week still in second place in the Metropolitan Division as of this writing. Their position however is anything but safe.
Washington has played well and built a six point lead in the division. Columbus has 53 points and is technically in second place. But when their games resume, they likely won’t stay in second place.
New Jersey is in third place with 52 points, but have an incredible five games in hand on the Blue Jackets. If the Devils win their games in hand, they’d overtake the Capitals for first in the Metro.
Here is where things get scary if you are a Blue Jackets fan. The New York Rangers are in fourth with 49 points, but have four games in hand. If they take five of those eight points, they pass the Blue Jackets in the standings. Hello wildcard.
As bad as the Carolina Hurricanes have played at times, they have the Blue Jackets in sight. The Hurricanes have 48 points with two games in hand. They win those games and it’s a one point lead for the Blue Jackets.
As we’ve learned over time, it’s never wise to count out a team in the Pittsburgh Penguins who have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Matt Murray among others. They have 47 points with two games in hand. If any team could go on a winning streak, it’s the Penguins.
The Philadelphia Flyers are at 46 points but have four games in hand. If they win those games, they overtake the Blue Jackets. You see where I’m going with this yet? This division is tightly packed in the worst-possible way.
I haven’t even mentioned the New York Islanders yet. They have 46 points and three games in hand. They win those games and they’re down just a point.
Columbus Needed Those Games
Had the Blue Jackets took care of business Thursday and Friday, the narrative is much different. They’d have 57 points and trail the Capitals by two points for first. Instead, the Blue Jackets get outscored 8-3 by the 29th and 30th place teams in the overall standings. They have left a door open for teams to pass them.
Thursday in Buffalo, the Blue Jackets lost thanks to two large mistakes. A Scott Harrington turnover on a clearing attempt led to a Benoit Pouliot rebound goal. Then Seth Jones overskated a puck off the wall that led to Kyle Okposo’s goal. Despite the best efforts of Artemi Panarin, the Blue Jackets couldn’t solve an AHL goaltender. They lost 3-1.
The next night in Columbus, the Blue Jackets enjoyed a good first period. Then out of nowhere, they gave up four answered goals to the Canucks in the second. You could hear a pin drop at Nationwide Arena except for the smattering of boos. The Canucks won 5-2.
You can try to make all the excuses in the world. The Blue Jackets played four games in six nights. But for something like this that involve two teams you should beat, there are no excuses. These are two bad losses that “could” haunt them later.
Is Columbus Even a Playoff Team?
We now have to ask the all-important question. Are the Blue Jackets even a playoff team? It’s crazy to think that this is a question we have to ask now. But given the circumstances, we can’t ignore it.
We know a large part of last season’s success was the 16-game winning streak. I went back and looked at their regular season record since the streak ended. The Blue Jackets are 48-37-7 in their 92 games after the streak.
That comes out to a points percentage of .560. Now scale that out on an 82-game season and you have a team playing at a 92-point pace. That is the very definition of a fringe playoff team.
What makes or breaks fringe playoff teams? If things go right, they’re in. If things go horribly wrong, they’re out.
Sergei Bobrovsky won his second Vezina last season. But when he faltered in the playoffs, so did the Blue Jackets. They bowed out in five games.
A lot of the success of the Blue Jackets depends on Bobrovsky’s play. He was fantastic in October and November. He couldn’t keep that up in December. The team followed his lead.
Injuries always play a role in how your season will go. The Blue Jackets have dealt with more than their fair share of injuries. Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Murray and Cam Atkinson have each missed significant time. Although each weren’t playing to their standards, not having them at all is a worse result.
They will come back eventually. Will the team start winning when they return? That’s the million-dollar question. For the Blue Jackets to maximize their chances, they must come back and play at the level they are capable of. Anything short of that endangers their playoff chances.
Canucks beat #CBJ 5-2 after throwing in an empty-netter with 8.3 seconds remaining. Lotta torqued off fans filing out. Smattering of boos. Back-to-back losses to Buffalo and Vancouver, now a 5-day break. Yikes.
— Michael Arace (@MichaelArace1) January 13, 2018
At the End of the Day
So is this a playoff team? Well yes and no. They’re on the fringe. It could go either way. Let me list some possible outcomes for you to consider.
- In a best-case scenario, Columbus gets their injured players back on time. Bobrovsky plays like his usual self. Management makes a trade to get help up front. They comfortably make the playoffs in the Metro top-three.
- In the middle, Columbus gets some combination of good and bad. Either Vezina goaltending and little offense or vice versa. In that case, the Blue Jackets will fight until the last game to know if they make the playoffs.
- In a worst-case scenario, core guys continue to underperform while Bobrovsky is just average. The Blue Jackets miss the playoffs and are subject to extra scrutiny thanks to higher expectations.
If the Blue Jackets want to make the playoffs, their core players must step up. Dubinsky, Atkinson, Wennberg, Foligno, Jenner must elevate their games in the second half. If this group of five misses the mark, say goodbye to the playoffs.
The Blue Jackets are a good team with great pieces in place (Bobrovsky, Jones, Werenski, Panarin etc.) But they are NOT good enough to overcome the rest of their core playing the way they have. As long as these conditions persist, there will be ups and downs. If the core figures it out, things look up. Otherwise, hope you made plans for April when the Blue Jackets miss the playoffs.
No matter the outcome, an amazing stretch of games remains. Which version of the Blue Jackets will we see? We wont know until after the bye week.
I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2021-22 season will mark eight seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager.