After the franchise’s best season a year ago, it wasn’t too far-fetched to predict that the Columbus Blue Jackets would be crowned Metropolitan Division champs this season, or be seen as the leaders in December. The Blue Jackets avenged an embarrassing 4-1 loss to New Jersey at home on Tuesday with a come-from-behind 5-3 victory over the Devils Friday night on the road.
With an 18-10-1 record, the Blue Jackets currently lead a tight Metro race early on this season. But I’ve seen this team play almost two full months of hockey so far, and I can’t say I’m completely impressed. It’s actually baffling the Blue Jackets have a shiny record considering their play has been far from clean.
Blue Jackets On the Power(less) Play
A 0-for-6 night on the man advantage against New Jersey on Tuesday was abysmal, but, unfortunately, was not surprising at all. Even after going 1-for-2 on the man advantage last night, the power play is producing at a horrific 9.6%, which is obviously the worst percentage in the league.
This is the exact opposite of what was happening a year ago at this time – the Blue Jackets had the league’s best power play into the month of December before falling off drastically the last half of the season. Hopefully, the reverse pattern continues and the Jackets figure out their power play mid-season before firing on all cylinders by season’s end.
There’s no way it can continue to be this bad, can it? The consistently unclean entries, the struggle to win faceoffs, and the obvious lack of goals has made this power play pitiful to watch. Some Jackets fans may be just fine with declining penalties at this point. Friday night’s effort on the PP flashed some hope, though. Perhaps the team can rally around that performance on the man advantage.
Only One Line Is Clicking
The top forward line of the Blue Jackets features Artemi Panarin. Wow, shocker. His linemates are center Pierre-Luc Dubois and right winger Josh Anderson. Wait, what? No one could’ve possibly seen this line cooking up this much chemistry.
Panarin started the season with Alexander Wennberg and Cam Atkinson, a combo filled with a lot of offensive talent. That line didn’t really click for some reason, and part of it was Wennberg being injured for a few weeks. But Panarin has found surprising chemistry with Dubois and Anderson that doesn’t seem like it’s ever going to wear off – last night, “the Breadman” found chemistry with everyone, racking up a whopping FIVE primary assists, becoming the first player to do so since 1995.
Artemi Panarin of the @BlueJacketsNHL became the 25th player to record 5+ primary assists in a game since 1936-37 and first since Brian Leetch on April 18, 1995.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) December 9, 2017
Not only has the top line been great, but it has been carrying the team for the last couple weeks. Since November 11, Panarin (5-8-13), Dubois (3-5-8) and Anderson (4-4-8) are the top three point-getters on the team. Simply put, they’re on fire while the rest of the forward lines struggle to create consistent offense. This can’t continue if the Jackets want to compete in the aforementioned tough and tight Metropolitan Division. Head coach John Tortorella has been tweaking the lines for a while now, but the one line he’s not touching is that red-hot first line.
Bandaging a Wounded Lineup
One of the biggest concerns coming into the season for the Blue Jackets was the potential lack of forward depth. So when two of their key bottom six forwards in Matt Calvert and Lukas Sedlak were removed from the lineup early in the season due to injuries, the Jackets were forced to rely on young replacements for a few weeks. Add on the Wennberg injury and the team was without their top playmaking center.
Remarkably, the reinforcements paid off. As stated before, the Jackets have received excellent contributions from rookie Pierre-Luc Dubois down the middle. At the same time, Tyler Motte, who came to Columbus in a package from Chicago with Panarin, has given the team a Calvert-Atkinson hybrid that can be leaned on in both ends of the ice. On the defensive side, Ryan Murray – who is all too familiar with injuries – is currently dealing with another one. His usual partner, Markus Nutivaara, was out a few games before returning to the lineup at New Jersey on Friday night.
So the Jackets have dealt with some injuries early on, but nothing too serious so far but enough to test the team, certainly. The fact that they didn’t slide right down the standings through November is pretty incredible if you ask me.
So How Have the Blue Jackets Pulled This Off?
The biggest factor in how the Jackets managed to stay afloat thus far is what led them to an incredible season a year ago: that man between the pipes. Sergei Bobrovsky has been phenomenal again this year to the point where he is already garnering discussion of a repeat Vezina-winning season. He is the number one reason why the Jackets have been so good.
The other reason would be their loaded defensive unit, specifically the talented, young top pairing of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Recently, the defense has been “fighting the puck” – a term Tortorella often uses to describe when a player is struggling. But Jones and Werenski are very reliable when it comes to creating offense. After scoring again last night, Werenski leads all NHL defensemen in goals this season with nine. He’s tacked on seven assists to give him a total of 16 points this year. Jones has three goals and 12 assists for 15 points.
This team was built for success last year before being ousted early last postseason. In the offseason, they added Panarin, a dynamic forward who has given this team a much-needed offensive threat on a regular basis. The defensive core is very strong in front of one of the best goalies in the world. I think those three things are the key ingredients to this successful recipe the Jackets have been able to cook up so far this season.