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Previewing the Metro: Columbus Blue Jackets

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Will this year finally be the year for Bobs and the BJs to advance?

Columbus Blue Jackets v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Columbus Blue Jackets have never been a team that screams of interest and intrigue on a national level, but heading into the 2019-20 season the feeling is a bit different. Last season, the Blue Jackets finished right in the middle of the league in almost every statistical category, while also posting below-average special teams numbers, but a strong finish to the season pushed them into the playoffs for a first round against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals. After beginning the series with a 2-0 lead - both victories coming in overtime - the Blue Jackets found themselves in the second overtime of game three needing only one more goal to put a stranglehold on the series.

Nine minutes into the fifth period of the hockey game, Lars Eller notched his first goal of the series resulting in the first of four straight victories for the Capitals en route to an Eastern Conference quarterfinals victory over the Blue Jackets in six games. Yet another early exit from postseason action for Columbus for the second consecutive year, which raised questions about the future of pending 2019 UFA stars Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky entering the final year of their contracts. Let’s take a look at the 2018-19 Blue Jackets and what the upcoming season may have in store for team hailing from Columbus, OH.

Additions and subtractions

Columbus Blue Jackets 2018 offseason moves

Additions Subtractions
Additions Subtractions
Riley Nash Jack Johnson
Anthony Duclair Thomas Vanek
Mark Letestu Matt Calvert
Jean-Francois Berube Ian Cole
Adam Clendening Taylor Chorney
Dillon Simpson Jordan Schroeder
Tommy Cross Ryan Kujawinski
Trent Vogelhuber Cameron Gounce
Ryan MacInnis Jacob Graves
Michael Prapavessis
Justin Wade

Following yet another early exit from the NHL postseason, the Blue Jackets have made a few minor roster adjustments with the hopes of getting back to playoffs and advancing to the second round for the first time in franchise history. Most of the Blue Jackets’ additions and subtractions this off-season have been quite inconsequential, but there are two key players - one newly added, one off to Pittsburgh to join his good friend Sidney Crosby - who could make quite an impact on the roster.

Columbus signed free agent center Riley Nash to a three-year contract to fill out their depth at the center position. This could prove to be quite a resourceful move, as the Blue Jackets now have Pierre-Luc Dubois, Alex Wennberg, Brandon Dubinsky, and Riley Nash down the middle, forming one of the strong center cores in the league. Nash’s greatest worth though may not be seen at 5-on-5. Columbus finished 27th in the league on the penalty kill, posting an abysmal kill rate of 76.2%. Nash was a key member of the penalty kill in Boston, so he should provide a boost to Columbus’ shorthanded units.

While Nash may prove to be quite a solid addition, the real difference maker for Columbus this off-season may have been to let defenseman Jack Johnson walk in free agency. Johnson has been plagued by terrible possession metrics for virtually his entire career, posting a positive Corsi For % just once and never having a positive Fenwick For %. Even worse, Johnson has consistently been well on the negative side of Goals For % relative to his teammates on top of driving play negatively relative to his teammates. He has been an anchor on the blue line since arriving in Columbus, so his exit from the franchise should improve the play-driving numbers from the back end.

Strengths and weaknesses

As previously discussed, the center depth of the Blue Jackets should prove to be one of their greatest strengths for the 2018-19 season. Depth up the middle ensures that when facing weaker competition, opposing lines will have a tough time matching up at either end of the ice. Coupled with the fact that Columbus has some serious young talent on the wings in Panarin, Sonny Milano, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Boone Jenner, the offensive upside for the Blue Jackets is looking quite potent for the upcoming campaign.

An obvious choice for another area of strength is in net. Sergei Bobrovsky has won multiple Vezina trophies between the pipes for the Blue Jackets and is coming off yet another strong regular season. Given that this is a contract year for the talented net-minder, we should expect to see another year of regular season production from Bobs. Of course, this regular season success has yet to translate into the postseason, but it’s a safe bet that the Blue Jackets will once again be solid between the pipes during the 82-game regular season.

The top pair of the d-corps is quite strong as well. Seth Jones and Zach Weresnki were quite the dynamic duo during the 2017-18 season and should continue to grow into even better players with Jones and Werenski being just 24 and 21 years old, respectively. The caveat here is that Jones will be out for the next four to six weeks following an MCL sprain suffered during a preseason game against the Buffalo Sabres. This means Jones could miss up to 15 games of the regular season while recovering from his injury, leaving quite a massive hole to fill on the defensive end, which brings me to their first area of weakness.

The depth on defense is lacking. Outside of Jones and Weresnki the situation becomes quite underwhelming for the Blue Jackets. This d-corps will be tested immediately with the absence of Jones to start the season, so young defensemen such as a Markus Nutivaara will be forced into larger roles to help carry the load while Jones recovers. Scott Harrington is likely going to become a full-time player for at least the first few weeks of the season, which does not bode well for bottom four.

Special teams will certainly be an area of concern heading into the season as well. The addition of Nash should help solidify the penalty kill to a degree, but more work will need to be done to fix the broken system. The exit of perennial trade deadline chip Thomas Vanek will also hurt the 25th ranked powerplay from 2018, which posted a pedestrian 17.2% with the man-advantage. Special teams were certainly an area of weakness during last season, and while on paper may have marginally improved, it remains to be seen if the Blue Jackets can turn the corner with their special teams’ performance.

One big question

So, this is an easy one, right? The obvious choice here is to ask, “will Columbus FINALLY get it done and win a round in the playoffs?” Sure, they have quite literally never won a round in the playoffs. In fact, since entering the league 18 years ago in the year 2000, the Columbus Blue Jackets have made it to the postseason just four times. On paper this team marginally improved, so they probably should make the playoffs for the third consecutive year. However, I pose to you a different question big question that may have greater ramifications on both their regular season and postseason performance. You ready for it? Here it is:

What on earth are the Columbus Blue Jackets going to do about Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky? Both Panarin and Bobrovsky are elite at their respective positions, but both are set to become free agents on July 1, 2019. Panarin has already expressed his desire to play in a major city and will not entertain extension talks during the season. It is all but set in stone that Panarin will not be returning to Columbus after this year. The same can be said about Sergei Bobrovsky, who is looking to cash in on his stellar regular season performances over the last six seasons. However, Columbus seems unwilling to ante up until Bobs can prove he can do it in the playoffs.

How both of these situations play out will be absolutely fascinating. If Columbus is completely out of the playoff picture it would be a no-brainer for general manager Jarmo Kekaleinen to move both of the superstars for a haul of assets. However, if the Blue Jackets once again find themselves on the playoff bubble, the situation becomes quite precarious. Even if the Blue Jackets were to make the playoffs, are they built to take a deep run that would make it worth the risk of losing both Panarin and Bobrovsky to free agency next summer? This remains to be seen, but Jarmo has been quite adamant about not trading Panarin during the season. Only time will tell, but if I had to put my own hard earned money on it, I would bet we see the “Bread Man” wearing another team’s colors post-trade deadline.

2018-19 outlook

Well folks, this is a tough one. The Blue Jackets got off to a pretty bad start last year, finished very strong, but ultimately bowed out in the first round. They upgraded their depth up front both externally and internally, but their depth on the back-end is severely lacking and 2018 Norris Trophy nominee Seth Jones will be missing at least the first eight games of the season. Their penalty kill is marginally improved by personnel, but the power play still needs work. All in all, the Blue Jackets are a marginally improved team, but will once again rely on a Vezina-like performance from Sergei Bobrovsky to have a shot at making the postseason.

The real issue here is that teams surrounding the Blue Jackets on the playoff bubble have gotten markedly better. The Florida Panthers improved their top-6 with the addition of Mike Hoffman and are poised to pounce on one of the wildcard spots, having finished just one point out last season. Carolina is up in the air simply because of their goaltending, but the addition of Dougie Hamilton to the back-end and recent second overall pick Andrei Svechnikov on the wing, the Hurricanes could make a push for the playoffs as well should they receive even league average goaltending.

Expect the Blue Jackets to at least be in the mix come the trade deadline, but I would not be surprised if they were looking out from further than most anticipate. The injury to Jones cannot be understated, plus the fact that both Panarin and Bobrovsky could be dealt by late February. If that’s the case, kiss their playoff hopes goodbye and say hello to an early start to the golf season.