The Jackets have been a powerhouse early on this NHL season. Are they delivering on the promise they showed two years ago? Or is it smoke and mirrors?
We saw this coming from the Columbus Blue Jackets. Then we didn’t.
Two seasons ago, the Jackets ended their regular season with a sizzling 12-0-1 run. They carried a ton of momentum into 2015-16, especially after trading for Brandon Saad. We at THN picked them to make the playoffs. They fell flat on their faces, embarrassing themselves and everyone who predicted big things from them. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky got hurt multiple times. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen replaced coach Todd Richards with John Tortorella and dealt franchise center Ryan Johansen to the Nashville Predators for defenseman Seth Jones. The Jackets sputtered to a 34-40-8 season, missed the playoffs and wound up picking third overall in the draft.
How, then, has that same team exploded out of the gate in 2016-17, especially when its only off-season transactions of note were signing forward Sam Gagner and trading prospect Kerby Rychel for prospect Scott Harrington?
First, let’s point out the obvious reasons why the Jackets look so darn good in the Metro Division, jumping out to a 10-4-3 start.
1. Sergei Bobrovsky. Thanks, Captain Obvious.
‘Bob’ won a 2012-13 Vezina Trophy and earns more dough than any goalie not named Henrik Lundqvist for a reason. Bob has talent. When he’s hot, he’s as good as anyone, and he’s recaptured that Vezina form early in 2016-17, appearing in 15 of 17 games and posting a .931 save percentage. A streaking goaltender, as we all know, can shield many other weaknesses on a team. Especially poor possession play. More on that later.
2. Zach Werenski, Calder Trophy contender
If you’ve followed Werenski’s rise from the U.S. National Team Development Program to the University of Michigan to the AHL over the past couple years, you’re not remotely surprised to see him becoming an impact NHL D-man right away. The guy is a horse. He can do it all at both ends of the ice. He’s a player to build around for years to come. What’s especially exciting for the Jackets is they essentially have two Werenskis, with phenom Seth Jones also patrolling their blueline. Werenski was a difference maker during AHL Lake Erie’s championship run last spring, and his play has obviously made Columbus a new team. He averages 22:20 of ice time and has an outstanding 15 points in 17 games. That 0.88 points per game would top even Shayne Gostisbehere’s mark of 0.72 last season, which was the NHL’s highest for a rookie rearguard in 23 years.
3. Alexander Wennberg’s breakout
So maybe the Jackets dealt Johansen knowing they still had a No. 1 center in waiting? Wennberg has been a point-per-game player this season, flashing some nice playmaking skills. It’s not like he’s a fluke at all. He has ranked highly on top prospect lists, including THN Future Watch, since Columbus picked him 14th overall in 2013. But we thought he’d be something more like a No. 2 pivot, as my colleague Ryan Kennedy points out during this week’s THN podcast (see the bottom of this article).
Wennberg’s breakout has been a boon for linemate Nick Foligno, who’s recaptured the form that landed him in the All-Star Game two seasons ago. Wennberg eases any pressure on the Jackets to rush Pierre-Luc Dubois, who projects as their long-term franchise pivot and now toils back in major junior another year.
Plenty to be excited about so far, but I’m not buying the start. The foundation has far too many cracks. Let’s explore them.
1. Everybody will stop scoring on every shot.
That’s hyperbole, but the Jackets have serious puck luck so far. Their team shooting percentage of 12.0 ranks second in the NHL behind only the New York Rangers. Gagner has been a nice redemption story, with seven goals and 12 points already, but he’s scored on 18.9 percent of his shots on goal. His career average in a nice, meaty sample size of 631 games is 10.0. Foligno has a solid 12.1 percent career mark, but he’s still almost doubling that at 23.3. Same goes for Scott Hartnell, an 11.7 percent shooter clicking at 22.2 percent this season.
2. It’s only a matter of time before Bobrovsky’s next injury
It’s not always smart to make predictions based on expected injuries, but…come on. Bob’s starts the past three seasons have slipped from 57 to 49 to 37. He lost 14 games in 2013-14 to…a groin injury. A fractured finger and illness stole eight games from him early in 2014-15, followed by a 15-game absence due to…a groin injury. Last season, Bob sat for three extended stretches totalling roughly half Columbus’ games because of…groin injuries. The past does not always predict the future, but what’s that saying about insanity? It’s doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. At this stage, soft-tissue injuries have reached near-certainty status for Bobrovsky. The Jackets are starting him more than ever, too, which hardly decreases his odds of re-injury.
3. The advanced statistics predict a fall
Columbus isn’t close to a good possession team. Its 5-on-5 team Corsi mark for 2016-17 sits at 48.59 percent, which ranks 23rd in the league. Columbus is especially weak on the defensive side, sitting 24th in 5-on-5 Corsi Against per 60 at 58.76. That highlights how much Bobrovsky’s goaltending has masked their problems. One could argue the Montreal Canadiens are no different, but Bobrovsky ain’t Carey Price. Sorry.
4. Improving the team will prove difficult for Kekalainen
The Jackets are locked into their current roster right now. With 16 NHLers signed for next season, they already project to have just $5.24 million in cap space. Much of that must go to restricted free agent Wennberg, who is playing well enough to bypass a bridge deal. Kekalainen has loaded his team with pricey veteran contracts, including David Clarkson’s buyout-proof pact, so it’s tough to imagine the Jackets trading for any high-impact veteran help down the stretch if they remain contenders. It’s not impossible but would require some serious cap juggling, even if Kekalainen were only taking on expiring contracts. I suspect what we see is what we’ll get from Columbus roster-wise all season, for better or worse.
Columbus is a fun story so far in 2016-17, but too many factors point to a sad ending. Don’t bet on this team to own the Metro just yet.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin