A 13-2-2 end to the regular season. A 2-0 series lead in the playoffs with both wins coming on the road in overtime. Everything was set up for the Columbus Blue Jackets to finally break through the door to playoff success. Game 3 went to double overtime. Lars Eller won it on a lucky bounce.
The Blue Jackets didn’t win another game in the series. As quickly as things went up for them, they came crashing down faster than an implosion of a stadium. Instead of still playing games that matter, the team went through their end of season interviews wondering what just happened to them.
Let’s face reality. The Blue Jackets let a prime opportunity slip away. Before this series, 88% of teams up 2-0 with wins on the road go on to win their series. They are now part of the 12% that didn’t. The 12 also matches the number of days they were in the playoffs.
So although the Blue Jackets made a return trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs, their stay only lasted one game and two days longer than last season. What’s especially disappointing is that the Blue Jackets allowed the Capitals to win three games at Nationwide Arena. All the Blue Jackets had to do was win at home and the second round was their’s. Instead, we are left to wonder what the future holds.
Welcome to our 2017-18 end of season Columbus Blue Jackets column. This is our chance to wrap the season that was up and give you a first glimpse into what we are watching for this offseason and beyond. We are going to go over a lot of things in this space. But if there is one thing I’d like you to take away from it, it’s this. This offseason is the most important offseason in not only the Jarmo Kekalainen era, but in franchise history. I’ll explain why as we go along here.
First we’ll recap the biggest takeaways from the regular season, the good, the bad and the ugly. Then we’ll quickly recap the playoff series against the Capitals. Then finally, we’ll give you our stories to watch in the offseason.
Jarmo: “I told each and every one of them (the players) that we expect to play in May every year from now on, and hopefully in June.” #CBJ
There you have it. This is their standard. They will be judged on their own words.
— Mark Scheig (@markscheig) April 26, 2018
A Promising Start
It feels like forever ago when the Blue Jackets opened the 2017-18 season at Nationwide against the New York Islanders. This was the 5-0 shutout that gave fans optimism for what could happen this season.
Sonny Milano not only made the Blue Jackets out of camp, but also scored the first goal of the season just 1:07 into the game. Could we finally see Milano stick and stay throughout the season? More on him later.
This was also the debut of Artemi Panarin with the Blue Jackets. All he did was tally three assists in the game. Ryan Murray scored in the opener. So did Zach Werenski. So did Pierre-Luc Dubois. Remember all the flack many people gave the Blue Jackets for taking him over Jesse Puljujarvi third overall? Yeah, me neither. Dubois went on to play all 82 games and enjoyed the best rookie season in Blue Jackets history.
The Blue Jackets started the season 5-1 and finished October with an 8-4-0 record. They were looking to carry the momentum from last season into this one and found a nice start. Then things started to get interesting.
After a 7-3 crushing of the Florida Panthers on Nov 2, the Blue Jackets endured a four-game losing streak to take the starch out of the team. How would they respond?
Starting with a 2-1 win in Detroit, you know, the game Sergei Bobrovsky stopped a 2-on-0 in overtime? This went to a nine-round shootout. It propelled the Jackets to a six-game winning streak and wins in eight of nine games.
Then some troubling signs started to creep in. The Blue Jackets found themselves on the wrong end of two different 7-2 finals. First it was Edmonton steamrolling them at Nationwide. Then it was Boston laying a seven spot on the Jackets. By then it was Christmas time and the team was wondering who they were.
Injuries started to pile up. Cam Atkinson, Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Murray all missed time. Alexander Wennberg missed time as well. The Blue Jackets found ways to win some games, but got dominated in others while missing their key players.
At one point in the season, the Blue Jackets only had 15 regulation wins in their first 52 outings. But thanks to their insane success in overtime, they were right in the playoff race. It bought the injured players enough time until they could get back. Still there was something needed for this roster. Management stepped in and injected some life at a much needed time.
The Trade Deadline
Ian Cole. Mark Letestu. Thomas Vanek. At a minimal cost, the Blue Jackets got veterans to not only help the room, but to address glaring needs. They needed defensive depth. They got Cole. They needed a penalty killer who could take faceoffs. They got Letestu. They needed power play help. They got Vanek.
This gave the room the energy and jump needed to go on a major streak. The Blue Jackets finished the regular season with a 13-2-2 ending to make the playoffs by a single point. They even had a chance for home-ice advantage in the first round. They had Pittsburgh in their barn with a third period lead. Then the lasting image of losing home-ice advantage happened. Conor Sheary beat Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and Sergei Bobrovsky on a wonderful individual effort to tie the game at four. This set the table for Phil Kessel to win it in overtime. The Penguins got home-ice advantage on the Flyers and took care of business. The Blue Jackets drew the Capitals without home-ice advantage. Their season is done.
Regardless, one of the highlights of the season was the trade deadline. Kekalainen and crew did exactly what they had to do. They addressed needs. They gave a boost to the locker room. If you ever want to see what an effective trade deadline is supposed to look like, look at the job the Blue Jackets did here.
Back to Sheary’s goal for a moment. The Blue Jackets seemed content to play defense in the hopes of holding off the Penguins. It didn’t work. Now they had to hold on for dear life just to get a point. All they needed was overtime to clinch a playoff spot. Although there were many nervous moments, the Blue Jackets held the Penguins off the board and got to overtime. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how so long as you make it. For the first time in franchise history, the Blue Jackets made consecutive trips to the playoffs.
Don’t underestimate how big a moment this is. For a team who only knew losing and lack of sustained success, making these playoffs was a sign that the plan in place was working and had some tangible results. It wasn’t as easy as last season, but maybe that’s good for a young team learning on the go. They were playing well down the stretch and were primed to continue that into the playoffs.
Regular Season Good, Bad & Ugly
The Good – They Learned How to Handle Adversity
Whether it was injuries all at once or recovering from slow starts to games, the Blue Jackets learned lessons throughout the season on how to handle adversity and momentum swings. The end result was a team who was never out of a game, no matter the score. We’ll touch on this more when we recap the playoffs, but look at how their two wins happened. Look at other games too. Remember the game in Vancouver when it was 4-1 late? The Blue Jackets got a point out of it. This will come in handy in future seasons when they have to reverse momentum. They know what to do better than ever before.
The Bad – Depth Scoring
Although there was a boost post trade deadline, the lack of depth scoring killed this team. Take a look at a few examples of what I mean.
- Artemi Panarin finished the season with 82 points. The next best forward on the team was 48 points by Dubois, not counting trade deadline acquisitions. Yikes!
- Nick Foligno had just 33 points in 72 games. Boone Jenner had 32 points in 75 games. Josh Anderson had 30 points in 63 games. Brandon Dubinsky had 16 points in 62 games. This is not good enough. Yes injuries are partially to blame. But when you needed a big goal in the playoffs, depth scoring was not there for the most part, sans Matt Calvert.
If the Blue Jackets hope to make it three straight postseasons, the named players above must be better. They know it. We all know it. But it’s paramount how important they are to the success of the team. This summer is big for everyone.
The Ugly – Special Teams
Oh boy. For a team to have the talent the Blue Jackets have and struggle this bad on both units is really saying something. To their credit, the power play got better later in the season. But when they needed a big goal against the Capitals, the power play was powerless to help. And we all know about the struggles of the penalty kill.
This was brutal to watch at times. The power play was predictable and teams frustrated the Blue Jackets. The penalty kill allowed too much time and space which led to multiple goals against. At one point in time, both special teams’ units were among the worst at the same time, especially on the road.
You have to ask yourself, will there be changes to the coaching staff for the Blue Jackets? Brad Larsen’s contract is up and is currently without a new one. He was responsible for the power play. If there are any changes to the coaches, it’s here. Tortorella is safe for now. Management is safe for now. Much more on each of them later on.
The Blue Jackets endured a lot and made the dance. Now they had a chance to do something special. Despite falling behind in games 1 and 2, the Blue Jackets found a ways to win in overtime.
First, Panarin showed the world why he BY HIMSELF is a special talent. The goal he scored to end Game 1 on the rush was just a thing of beauty. He showed speed. Then he showed the world-class shot he has. His 82 points in the regular season was a career high. He did that despite the lack of depth scoring. This is a unique and special talent.
Then Matt Calvert, folklore hero of playoffs past, put another stamp on his career resume and ended Game 2 with a workmanlike effort using just one hand. His goal put the Blue Jackets up 2-0 in the series. Game 3 at Nationwide Arena was going to be loud. What a moment for Columbus.
The crowd didn’t disappoint. Neither did Game 3. The score was 2-2 and heading for double overtime. Bobrovsky and Holtby were sharp. It was going to take the perfect shot or a fortunate bounce to win this game. It’s either 3-0 or 2-1. The Capitals got their much needed win thanks to a fortunate bounce off of Eller’s skate.
The Blue Jackets could still go up 3-1 with a good Game 4. That didn’t happen either. They looked tired mostly because the fourth line didn’t play very much. Now it was a series. It was a best of three. Game 5 also went to overtime thanks to a dominate third period by the Blue Jackets. But they scored just once. That came back to bite them.
Nicklas Backstrom ended Game 5 and gave the Capitals the momentum needed to finish it in six games. They did just that. Braden Holtby won his four starts after starting on the bench. Bobrovsky was better this postseason but still not good enough to win a series. Want to talk about polar opposites in emotions? Compare Game 2 after Calvert scored to the final buzzer in Game 6. What an incredible turnaround thanks in large part to special teams and lack of discipline by the Blue Jackets.
The Blue Jackets allowed a power play goal in every game while being held off the sheet late in the series. That’s your series in a nutshell when coupled with the goaltending.
Playoffs – Good, Bad & Ugly
The Good – Best Series They’ve Played to Date
As disappointing as the series ended up, the Blue Jackets played their best series to date. They enjoyed a 1-0 and 2-0 lead for the first time ever. They have the talent. They just have to find a way to put everything together. They could have won this series. If they win Game 3, who knows what happens then. At no point did it feel like they were completely outclassed. They showed they belonged but just didn’t get the result they wanted.
The Bad – Falling Behind Early
The only game they scored first was in Game 5 and that didn’t even last long. The Blue Jackets only led a little more than 20 minutes in the entire series. They had to play even or catch up most of the time. They must find ways to get off to better starts. This plagued them a lot in the regular season and continued in the playoffs. To their credit they came back a bunch, but you can only play like that for so long before it bites you.
The Ugly – Core Players Missing in Action
This goes to the lack of depth scoring, but players you need to deliver for you weren’t able to. Imagine if Dubinsky was himself and helping to energize the team. Imagine if Foligno, Anderson and Vanek chipped in a goal or two at different points. Want a snapshot of the series. Take a look at Game 6. Devante Smith-Pelley and Chandler Stephenson scored back breaking goals against the Blue Jackets. The Capitals delivered. The Blue Jackets didn’t. Depth scoring must be a point of emphasis for this team.
Was This Season a Success?
Now we have to tackle the most important question. Was the 2017-18 season a success for the Columbus Blue Jackets? In order to properly answer this question, you have to set a baseline.
Are we measuring by winning the Cup? If that’s the measurement, then no, this season was a failure. But it was also be a failure for 29 other teams besides the Blue Jackets.
Next we must consider if there was improvement and tangible progress. In both of those categories, the answer is yes. The team did improve, not by point totals but in the grand scheme. Bobrovsky had a better series, albeit still disappointing. Werenski and Jones will be back, with Werenski hoping to be healthy after playing most of the season hurt. Panarin, Dubois and Atkinson will be back as well as other core players. They are more experienced now.
Now consider the emergence of Panarin on his own, Dubois as the top center and you see tangible progress. There is momentum if the players use the summer the right way and come back hungry. They should be hungry. 10 days and 12 days in consecutive postseasons is not good enough. They have to train and get better. But the opportunity is there.
So while they failed to win the Cup, they did show improvement. That to me is a successful season as it’s not a setback. But the onus now falls on management to make the right decisions on potential trades, free agents and other decisions that impact the franchise. They must keep the momentum going in the right direction.
So now, why is this the most important offseason in franchise history? Jarmo himself told the players that we expect to play in May and hopefully June every season moving forward. He set the standard with this quote. In order for the Blue Jackets to achieve this, management must make key decisions this offseason knowing what’s coming next offseason.
Take a look at these lists. This first list shows us who is a free agent this offseason.
- Boone Jenner (RFA)
- Oliver Bjorkstrand (RFA)
- Matt Calvert (UFA)
- Thomas Vanek (UFA)
- Mark Letestu (UFA)
- Alex Broadhurst (UFA)
- Ryan Murray (RFA)
- Jack Johnson (UFA)
- Ian Cole (UFA)
- Taylor Chorney (UFA)
- Jeff Zatkoff (UFA)
Now look at the potential list for next offseason.
- Sonny Milano (RFA)
- Markus Hannikainen (RFA)
- Lukas Sedlak (RFA)
- Eric Robinson (RFA)
- Artemi Panarin (UFA)
- Zach Werenski (RFA)
- Scott Harrington (RFA)
- Sergei Bobrovsky (UFA)
- Joonas Korpisalo (RFA)
It’s crazy to think how different this team could look in two seasons. With pending UFA’s Panarin and Bobrovsky up after next season, each decision takes on more significance.
So what do they do? You’d expect the Blue Jackets to keep Jenner, Bjorkstrand and Murray as they are RFA’s. I’ll be curious to see how each of these negotiations go, especially Jenner’s. How does having a 30-goal season on file affect his upcoming number? And given the up and down career of Murray, what number can they settle on that’s fair?
In terms of the UFA’s, honestly I’d be surprised if any of them come back. This includes Cole, who many hope return to the Blue Jackets. Tortorella had an interesting quote on Thursday about next season. He said he expects young players to come in and make this team. That doesn’t leave much room for UFA’s. Back to Cole, here are the defensemen under contract for next season.
- Seth Jones
- Zach Werenski
- David Savard
- Markus Nutivaara
- Dean Kukan
- Scott Harrington
If we assume Ryan Murray returns, that’s seven defensemen. Are you willing to pay Cole over $3 million per season? He’s a UFA and some teams could be willing to pay up for his services. The Blue Jackets want him back, but only if they can get him at an affordable number. Remember what Tortorella said. There’s young players who could get their shot. Gabriel Carlsson is someone who could make the leap next season if Cole doesn’t return.
As for Johnson, Calvert and the others, I just don’t see room on the roster given how much it could take to keep them. Maybe you keep Letestu this time, but he did struggle down the stretch. If you can get him at a cheap number, that’s a possibility. But cap space must be reserved for the big guns.
As it stands now per Cap Friendly, the Blue Jackets have about $13.4 million in space for next season. The cap is expected to rise which will make the number higher, somewhere between $16-19 million in space. That’s good to get their RFA’s signed. But will there be enough room to sign Werenski, Bobrosvky and Panarin to deals?
In my opinion, to keep all three beyond next season would take around $26 million, $10 million each for the Russians and $6 per season for Werenski on longer term deal. That is really hard. The Blue Jackets have about $34 million in space for the 19-20 season, not counting the cap going up. So say you have $40 million available. That leaves $14 million to fill your roster and you have around 10 contracts needed for that season. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s an uphill climb. You’d have to expect other moves be made in order to make room. That’s if they want to stay in Columbus.
Werenski is a no-brainer. I also think you pay $10 million for Panarin. He’s that good. The question here is Bobrovsky. Are you willing to pay that number to him if he can’t win a playoff series? That will be fascinating to watch unfold. Maybe he takes a discount. But with two Vezinas in the case, he can get a Carey Price like haul. The question will be this. $10 million for Bobrovsky or significantly less for say Elvis Merzlikins and Korpisalo? You can do a lot with $10 million if invested correctly.
A First Look at the Draft
We know the Blue Jackets will pick 18th at the NHL Draft this June in Dallas. Who could they be looking at? They’ll get their best available player. The organization as a whole has needs everywhere, most notably at center and on defense, especially the right side.
I’ll give you a couple names that would look good for the Blue Jackets. Centers Akil Thomas and Ty Dellandrea should each be available and each have top-six potential at the next level. Thomas is a dynamic playmaker a la Wennberg but isn’t afraid to shoot the puck. Dellandrea is a finisher who is a two-way center. On a poor Flint team, he carried the offense and put very respectable numbers up.
On defense, names like Jared McIssac (teammate of Max Fortier), Bode Wilde and Alexander Alexeyev are names in that range I could see the Blue Jackets have some interest in.
So although the Blue Jackets pick 18th, there are good players available. Don’t discount a major trade there as well. Kekalainen is never afraid to deal if it makes sense. We will have much more on the draft in the coming weeks starting with the Combine in Buffalo and then leading up to Dallas.
So to summarize the season, it was full of good moments and frustrating ones. Their playoffs ended in a flash, but it doesn’t discount where this team came from. In January, they were dead in the water. They made the playoffs. They showed us they can overcome adversity.
That said, this team has a lot of work to do. They have a lot of tough decisions to make. There is momentum overall but management has to maintain that momentum with their moves this summer. Foligno said they’re on the verge of something special. The Blue Jackets believe they’re about to make major noise. Will they though? They have the opportunity. But they must address things in order to get there, specifically their special teams.
Moving forward, the Blue Jackets will be judged on their playoff performance. Getting there is nice, but it is not the standard. Kekalainen said it himself. We expect to play in May moving forward. If they fall short of that, it’s a failed season.
What management has done for the Blue Jackets since Kekalainen took over is great, lifting a franchise out of the basement and putting them on the map. But the honeymoon is long over. It’s time to start winning in the playoffs. Kekalainen, Tortorella and John Davidson’s contracts expire after next season. While they deserve praise for what they’ve done, if they fall short of the playoffs or get bounced in the first round again, it is fair to question their future in Columbus.
It is for this reason that this offseason is the biggest one in franchise history. It’s time to put their money where their mouth is. The time for excuses is running out. It doesn’t matter if you are management, one of the coaches or one of the players, your time is now. Anything short of playoff success in 2018-19 and who knows what the Columbus Blue Jackets will look like moving forward.
That’s what makes the upcoming season fascinating. We’ll be with you every step of the way.