Dropping four straight games after opening up a 2-0 series lead hurt badly, but the ascending Blue Jackets could end up ruling the Metro Division as early as next season.
Columbus Blue Jackets fans’ collective wound hasn’t scabbed over yet. It’s difficult to turn a frown upside down after winning two straight road games to open a series before dropping the next four. But there’s reason for optimism in this hockey city going forward despite the Blue Jackets failing to escape Round 1 in their first four post-seasons. The franchise’s best times might arrive as soon as next year.
Yes, the Blue Jackets’ power play was a disaster all season, 25th in the NHL at 17.2 percent and somehow even worse in the playoffs at 16.7 percent. Yes, Sergei Bobrovsky must be better in the post-season. He posted a .900 save percentage in the six-game defeat to the Washington Capitals. Among the 56 goalies to appear in 10 or more playoff games in the salary-cap era, from 2005-06 to present, his .891 save percentage ranks second last. And yes, the Blue Jackets didn’t get enough from their forwards in Round 1, with only Artemi Panarin, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Matt Calvert really standing out.
But there’s legitimate cause to believe this team’s arrow points upward next season in the Metropolitan Division.
For one, we saw unbelievable strides from blueliner Seth Jones in 2017-18. At 23, he emerged as the do-it-all workhorse he was always projected to be, and he’ll appear on plenty of 2017-18 Norris Trophy ballots once they’re revealed. Left winger Artemi Panarin, acquired in the Brandon Saad blockbuster with the Chicago Blackhawks last off-season, showed he was much, much more than Patrick Kane’s sidekick, emerging as the team’s best scoring threat and establishing himself as one of the game’s most underrated two-way players, a master of the takeaway. Dubois enjoyed a 20-goal, 48-point rookie season and averaged more than 23 minutes of ice time in Round 1. He’s slowly but surely ascending to the No. 1 center role Columbus envisioned when it picked him, to the surprise of many, ahead of Jesse Puljujarvi at No. 3 overall in 2016. Dubois may have surpassed Alexander Wennberg permanently on the depth chart now.
Bobrovsky remained one of the league’s best goaltenders in the regular season, too, leading the NHL in goals saved above average. Small playoff sample sizes aside, he’s still elite. He’ll be 30 when next season starts, which is like 27 in goalie years. ‘Bob’ is in the best shape of his life, with a commitment to weight loss and flexibility helping him to the top two workloads of his career over the past two seasons, in which he’s started 63 and 65 games. We know Zach Werenski is a present and future pillar on defense. Young right winger Oliver Bjorkstrand progressed this season, as did blueliner Markus Nutivaara.
For the first time in several summers, GM Jarmo Kekalainen also projects to have some disposable income to toss around – maybe to target a second- or third-line “swing man” center in the mold of, say, Paul Stastny. With Calvert, Jack Johnson, Thomas Vanek, Mark Letestu and Ian Cole hitting unrestricted free agency and possibly all departing for good, that frees up almost $13 million in cap space – and maybe more considering the cap projects to rise from $75 million to as high as $80 million for 2018-19. Bjorkstrand, Ryan Murray and Boone Jenner are the RFAs of note, but Bjorkstrand likely hasn’t played his way out of bridge-contract territory yet, while Murray and Jenner will have to accept bridges again or take long-term deals at relative bargains considering they had disappointing seasons. Kekalainen must be careful considering Werenski is an RFA in 2019 while Bobrovsky and Panarin are UFAs, but the Jackets at least have a short-term window to take a look at some UFAs in 2018. Kekalainen can sign Bobrovsky and Panarin to extensions as early as July 1, one year out, and doing so would provide a better sense of how wildly or conservatively the Jackets should spend this summer.
It would do wonders if Columbus could find a way to rid themselves of Brandon Dubinsky’s remaining three years at a $5.85-million cap hit. A six-year buyout would save $3.9 million annually in the first three seasons. If the Jackets decide they’re in a contention window, might the buyout be worth it?
And the thing about that contention window: it’s as much about Columbus’ Metro Division rivals as it is about Columbus. The Capitals just ousted the Blue Jackets, yes, but UFA blueliner John Carlson should command at least a $7-million AAV on the open market this summer, so he’s no lock to return in D.C. with Washington not swimming in cap space. If he does depart, it’ll cripple the Caps blueline, which already lost Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner last summer. Yes, both of them weren’t playing well enough to be retained at their desired prices, but you know what I mean – the Caps had to play rookie after rookie in their absence this season. With no Carlson, how could anyone pick Washington to outperform Columbus next season?
The Philadelphia Flyers progressed nicely this year thanks to career-best work from Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier and have a future Norris threat in Ivan Provorov, but their goaltending remains a disaster until mega-prospect Carter Hart arrives, which should take another year or two. The New York Rangers are openly rebuilding or at least retooling. The New York Islanders are a mess and might lose captain John Tavares as a UFA. The Carolina Hurricanes were disappointing enough to miss the playoffs again and have woeful goaltending as well. No sane person would favor any of these three teams over Columbus in 2018-19, at least based on each roster’s current 2018-19 projections.
The top threats in the Metro to Columbus next season: arguably the Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils. The Pens seem destined to contend as long as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin breathe this planet’s air but, hey, we said that about the Chicago Blackhawks for years, and the top-heavy roster model finally collapsed on itself once Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith slipped from elite to merely great. Eventually, Crosby and Malkin will show signs of aging, and the Pens join the Hawks as the two teams that have gutted their farm systems the most in recent seasons for the sake of building win-now contenders. It feels impossible right now, but the Penguins will start declining one of these years. Meanwhile, much of Columbus’ best talent – Jones, Werenski, Dubois, Wennberg, Sonny Milano, Bjorkstrand, Panarin – is still ascending or, in Panarin’s place, commencing prime years. The Blue Jackets’ roster core should theoretically get better, not worse, in years to come. Can we say the same about Washington or Pittsburgh?
The Devils are a team to watch for sure. They blew past expectations thanks to an MVP-caliber year from Taylor Hall and have a much better youth crop than they often get credit for, having sent more players to the 2018 world juniors than any other team. General manager Ray Shero also has a ton of cap space at his disposal should he choose to use it this off-season. Is there a better fit for Tavares in team outlook, money, market and location than New Jersey? I don’t think so. The Devils arguably have the most to gain of any Metro team this off-season if they decide they’re ready to spend aggressively.
Right now, though, the Blue Jackets are as strong a bet as any team to win the Metro in 2018-19. They offer the right combination of (a) already fielding quite a good squad; (b) relying on plenty of young, improving talent for their success and (c) salary-cap wiggle room, depending on how they handle Dubinsky and their RFAs.
So shake it off, Jackets fans. Prepare the cannon. It should boom much deeper into next year’s spring.