OK, Columbus Blue Jackets fans: the hockey world will stop laughing at your injury-related misery. It’s easy to feel bad for you guys because the Blue Jackets have a darn good hockey team and deserve a break from the injury ninja.
The Blue Jackets have made the post-season just five times in the past 18 seasons and despite having to replace a few of the franchise’s greatest players this past summer, the team quickly began to close in on appearance No. 6. From Dec. 1 until Jan. 31, the Blue Jackets had the third-best record in the NHL with a 16-5-4 run and just 49 goals against in 25 games (the fewest allowed in that span). Since then? The Blue Jackets have gone 4-4-6 in the past 14 games with a minus-seven goal differential, making them a pure mid-pack team. If it wasn’t for a league-leading 14 overtime losses this season, this conversation would be significantly different.
Why, exactly? Per NHLInjuryViz, a website that tracks player injuries, only the Pittsburgh Penguins have been marred more by injury this season, with 18 players missing time with the Blue Jackets this season. Since Friday, goaltender Elvis Merzlikins and forwards Riley Nash and Oliver Bjorkstrand have sustained injuries, with Bjorkstrand ending his season early with a fractured ankle. Seth Jones, Josh Anderson and Alexandre Texier are out long-term and if they return, it won’t be until just before the playoffs at best. It digs deeper than that, but eight players currently sit on the injured reserve. Cam Atkinson’s original return date is creeping up, so that’s a bonus, at least.
An ideal world wouldn’t have Stefan Matteau and Nathan Gerbe playing top-six minutes, and the top line of Gustav Nyquist, Boone Jenner and Nick Foligno is definitely on the lower side of the hockey spectrum. But the Blue Jackets are a good team: even though the team seems to rarely operate with a full NHL-quality roster, Columbus has figured out how to get points in the title race. With 65 games under their belt, the Blue Jackets sit second in the wild-card race with three games in hand over their three closest competitors. Merzlikins, the man that gave the team new life in January with a 9-2-0 record and three shutouts, is out for an undisclosed time, but Joonas Korpisalo was fantastic prior to an injury of his own. The Blue Jackets have been able to rely on their goaltending in a year where that was the biggest question, and that’s important.
Columbus didn’t make a splash on deadline day, acquiring Devin Shore from Anaheim and a conditional seventh-round pick from Arizona. So GM Jarmo Kekalainen must be content with the group he’s assembled for coach John Tortorella and didn’t go the aggressive route he did a year ago to acquire Ryan Dzingel and Matt Duchene. The Blue Jackets didn’t have a lot of pieces to offer, anyway, especially since they’re missing their second- and third-round picks this season. The Blue Jackets have a whopping $23 million in open cap space with $30 million tied up among players on injured reserve, and thanks to a plethora of AHL call-ups, 12 of the 24 players currently on the roster (including two on emergency loan) make less than a million dollars. To say the roster is just a shell of what it could be is an understatement.
Despite that, the Blue Jackets still have a good statistical chance at the playoffs. Reality may have different plans. The Blue Jackets have struggled to seal the deal in regulation recently and new long-term injuries aren’t going to make the ride any smoother. When most of your original top six and two of your best defensemen aren’t set to return anytime soon, good luck. So while they’ve remained alive now, it’s getting over the hump that’s going to be the issue. The Metropolitan Division’s playoff race is very close with just six points separating Pittsburgh in second and Carolina in sixth, so the Blue Jackets need to find a bit of urgency down the stretch. The Blue Jackets are the most thrashed group of the bunch, and in Columbus’ 17 remaining games, only four are against teams not currently in a playoff spot. Boston, Washington and Tampa Bay (twice) are still on the docket. Nothing about this gets easier.
If it all falls through, Columbus has a legitimate excuse for missing the playoffs in a year that wasn’t expected to be this successful, anyways. If the Jackets do make it and can recover most of the original lineup, we could have another playoff upset on our hands.
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