Let’s just cut right to the chase. I am worried about the Columbus Blue Jackets’ chances in 2019-20.
If you have followed me for any length of time, you know that I am one of the most optimistic people when it comes to the Blue Jackets. I’ve long been a believer in what plan the team has executed. I’ve always said it was a matter of time before they started enjoying postseason success. Ever since GM Jarmo Kekalainen took the job in 2012, there was a sense that better days were coming.
And while it’s still true that the best days of the franchise are coming at some point, I don’ think that’s this season.
While some believe that the Blue Jackets will make noise this season, I am not one of those folks. Now, this is not to say they can’t do it. They have talent. They have motivation. If they stay healthy and get great performances from key players, they absolutely can make the playoffs this season. It is not out of the question.
But here’s what I am saying. There are enough worry signs for this season that I cannot ignore.
I recently went on the Vegas Hockey Podcast and was asked flat out how I thought the Blue Jackets would do this season. After explaining my stance, I ultimately said the Blue Jackets would finish with 87 points. That falls short of the playoffs. I have them finishing sixth in the Metropolitan Division.
I have the Rangers last at 81 points. If this comes anything close to true, that’s not far from the basement of the division. When it comes to reasons to worry about the Blue Jackets’ chances in 2019-20, that’s where the conversation starts, with the division they’re in.
The Metropolitan Division
Take one look at the Metro and you’ll see the challenges the Blue Jackets will face this season.
- Washington Capitals: Class of division for several years. Core remains in tact and are ready for another run.
- Carolina Hurricanes: Made the Eastern Conference Final last season and are on the verge of becoming a perennial power.
- Pittsburgh Penguins: Although window is starting to close, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin still reside there. The Blue Jackets haven’t been able to consistently beat this team in the regular season.
- New York Rangers: Landed both John Davidson and Artemi Panarin from the Blue Jackets. Landed Kaapo Kakko also. How much do they want to beat the Blue Jackets you think?
- New York Islanders: Still have Barry Trotz running the bench and that’s never an easy things to score goals against them.
- Philadelphia Flyers: Hired Alain Vigneault to coach them. Made some changes to their roster especially on defense with Justin Braun and Matt Niskanen on board. Carter Hart is about to take off. Bottom line they got better.
- New Jersey Devils: PK Subban. Jack Hughes. Taylor Hall. Nico Hischier. They are vastly improved.
No team in hockey took more of an offseason hit than the Columbus Blue Jackets. Now couple those losses with this division and the way most teams got better and you have the recipe for a major drop off.
And, keep in mind that the Blue Jackets finished fifth in the Metro even with Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin and crew on board. What argument could anyone present that would see them jump into the top-three? Again it’s not impossible. But it’s a daunting task.
There is an argument that can be made that sees the Blue Jackets finishing in the Metro basement. While I don’t think that happens given the talent they have, it’s not out of the question either. This leads directly to reason two for worry.
Now, Joonas Korpisalo has been good this preseason no question. Despite a hard luck 2-0 loss to New Jersey Friday night, he played well. It’s clear that he will be the starter come next Friday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs. He’s earned it and is ready to prove himself.
But there in lies the issue. This is still brand new territory for Korpisalo. Although he’s played some extended stretches in his career, he’s never been a full-time starter until now. His backup Elvis Merzlikins comes with some hype. But he’s still getting used to the game and learning on the fly.
This duo will start the season as one of the most inexperienced groups in the entire NHL. If things don’t start the way they want to, how will they handle things?
Korpisalo and Merzlikins potentially hold the keys to how the season will go. If Korpisalo plays the regular season like he’s played the preseason, things start to look brighter. And when Merzlikins gets the call, can he play effective enough to allow his team to stay in games? So many questions and what ifs here.
The Blue Jackets have already said they’re going to change their style to adapt to the goalies they have. From the looks of things, there will be more of a dependence on defense. They have the talent to make it work. But if you put more eggs in the defensive basket, you leave yourself short on the other thing, which is reason number three for worry.
The Blue Jackets no longer have that difference maker in Panarin. Matt Duchene took his talents elsewhere. While talent remains, there’s still a huge hole that needs filled. Can someone or a group internally fill it?
So a top-20 overall player is gone. A 30-goal number one center is gone. Each had the ability to attract so much defensive attention that it left teammates with more room to operate. No one, I mean no one, had a better individual season points wise in Blue Jackets’ history than Panarin.
The team will be depending on some rookies to try to bridge this gap. Alex Texier is a fine player. Emil Bemstrom is interesting. And while players like Josh Anderson and Oliver Bjorkstrand have their best days ahead of them, the team is in a position where they have to depend on so many things going right to try to make up for the big losses.
That is a lot to ask for this group. Again it’s not impossible, but it’s very difficult.
Teams will now focus on Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson from a game-plan standpoint. Texier is slated to start with them but we’ll see if that sticks. Even John Tortorella doesn’t know how the lines will start out.
I am worried about this offense, especially when you consider a change in style of play. You have to get the best of both worlds to be successful. While the defense and goaltending could work out fine, will it cost the Blue Jackets more goals? I think it does.
They can’t play run and gun. Their success is going to come down to defense and keeping the puck out of their net. I foresee a lot of 3-2, 2-1 type of games. If the Blue Jackets hope to enjoy success this season, they must get contributions from everyone.
The worry here is that on the nights Atkinson and Dubois get shut down, there won’t be other contributions. This is why Anderson, Bjorkstrand, Gus Nyqvist, Alexander Wennberg have to make an impact. If they don’t or there’s no consistency, this could make for a very long season wondering where the goals will come from. So speaking of goals, I have one more major worry. This is something many fans will cringe at the very mentioning of the topic.
The Power Play
Here we go again, right? It wouldn’t be a Blue Jackets’ season if we didn’t bring this painful topic up. But this season, it’s more important than ever.
If the Blue Jackets want to make noise this season, the power play must be a reason. They cannot have nights like Friday where they chalked up an 0-for-4 and wasted multiple 5-on-3 attempts.
The team elected to keep the coaching staff in tact. Given that they defeated Tampa Bay in the playoffs, they deserve the shot, that’s not the issue. The issue is that the same regime is running this power play that has run it the last couple of seasons where it has been a painful topic.
This is the season that the team must figure it out. No excuses. With goals already hard enough to come by, the way you make up for that is your power play. If the Blue Jackets want postseason again, they have to find a way to make this unit dangerous.
For years now, no one has feared them. They’re too predictable. And it’s amazing to see how consistently bad it’s been given the talent they’ve had. They have players who can score on the man advantage.
I know they’re trying new things and putting players in different positions looking for the spark. Maybe they will find the trick this season. But they haven’t put it together consistently yet. If it continues, the team from top to bottom must be held accountable.
Players have to find a way to enjoy success. Coaches have to put players in a position to succeed. Management has to put the right people in these spots. It’s been a source of pain and frustration for way too long. I haven’t seen any evidence yet that a dramatic improvement is coming. Yes, I am very worried about the power play. You keep giving the opposition momentum when it fails, and it has failed a lot more than it’s been successful. If it doesn’t work this season, changes better be coming.
The Blue Jackets do have one more game in the preseason against St. Louis on Sunday. Then the real games begin Friday vs. Toronto. Which version of the Blue Jackets are we going to see? Will we see the us against the world version that could make noise? Or will we get a team that just doesn’t stack up the way it used to?
I’m afraid they just don’t stack up like they used to. An 87-point season is still fighting for a playoff spot for most of the season. There will be good moments and it will be exciting to see the team grow together. But these are legitimate concerns the team must answer for. If they do make the playoffs this season, it’ll be considered perhaps their greatest accomplishment yet given where the expectations are to start.
But for the four reasons mentioned above, I’m afraid this season won’t be their season. The team says they’re confident. But I’ll believe that when I see results on the ice.