The Hockey News’ 2018-19 Season Preview series dives into off-season transactions, best- and worst-case scenarios and one burning question for each team in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds.
Stanley Cup odds: 25-1
Key Additions: Riley Nash, C; Anthony Duclair, RW; Adam Clendening, D; Jean-Francois Berube, G
Key Departures: Thomas Vanek, LW; Jack Johnson, D; Matt Calvert, LW; Ian Cole, D; Jordan Schroeder, RW; Jeff Zatkoff, G
With the Capitals nursing a Stanley Cup hangover and the Penguins looking a little vulnerable, the Blue Jackets have a legitimate shot at winning the division. Columbus has a top-flight defense corps led by Seth Jones (who will miss at least a month due to injury) and Zach Werenski, and the only subtraction was Jack Johnson, who was a healthy scratch in the playoffs. Sergei Bobrovsky has been excellent the past two years and is as close to a sure thing in net as any goalie in the NHL right now.
Up front, the Blue Jackets come at you in waves, led by left winger Artemi Panarin. There has been a lot of talk about Panarin’s unwillingness to sign an extension in Columbus, but he swears it’s not personal, and the Jackets could ride him to a strong season and long playoff run. Pierre-Luc Dubois came on strong in his rookie year and looks to be a true No. 1 center, something the Blue Jackets have struggled to find in their history. Rebound seasons by Boone Jenner and Alexander Wennberg make Columbus even tougher to handle, as does the addition of Riley Nash.
Coach John Tortorella’s style isn’t for everyone, but it has resonated with this lunch-bucket team. This is the year Columbus finally wins a playoff round.
Forced into the reality that Panarin could be lost for nothing as a UFA next summer, the Blue Jackets trade him for dimes on the dollar. It’s a gut-shot for an organization unaccustomed to coming out on top, and the lack of a suitable replacement badly hurts the offense. Without Panarin, Dubois suffers a sophomore slump season and Wennberg confirms his ceiling is as a No. 2 center and no greater.
Werenski had shoulder surgery in May and the prognosis was a recovery period of up to six months. If it’s the latter, he doesn’t return until November and the team’s defense corps takes a hit. Ryan Murray could pick up the slack, but his own injury history, including a pre-season knock, makes him a question mark at any point in the season. Either way, the Blue Jackets will need unproven defenders to step up.
Bobrovsky, also a UFA to be, is elite, but the Blue Jackets count on him a lot, and any backsliding would really hurt. Plus, he’s been worked over in the playoffs and has just five post-season wins in his NHL career. The Jackets still make the dance, but fall to a more confident opponent in the first round yet again. That scenario destabilizes confidence in coach Tortorella and GM Jarmo Kekalainen.
How will injuries to Jones, Murray impact the Blue Jackets’ start?
There’s no worse break the Blue Jackets could have suffered ahead of the campaign than the loss of Jones, who underwent an MRI after a pre-season contest that revealed a second-degree MCL sprain. The recovery time is anywhere from four-to-six weeks, which puts Jones’ return at early- to mid-November. A month-plus without Jones, a legitimate Norris Trophy calibre defender, is a bad way to start the campaign, and his loss means the blueline is going to need to be shuffled.
Chances are David Savard moves up to the top pairing, with Markus Nutivaara and Adam Clendening taking second- and third-pairing roles. Making matters worse, though, is that Ryan Murray is also out of action, which means Gabriel Carlsson and Dean Kukan are likewise going to need to slide up the depth chart. One month or more with a jumbled up blueline is bad news for the Blue Jackets. That’s going to put a ton of pressure on Zach Werenski, who might not leave the ice until Jones returns.
If Columbus can’t stop the defensive bleeding caused by the injuries, it’s hard to fathom they’ll be able to start quickly. And if the Blue Jackets are behind the eight ball early, they’ll have some serious catching up to if they want anything better than a wild-card spot in the Metro.
THE HOCKEY NEWS’ PREDICTION: 1st in the Metropolitan Division. The two injuries on the blueline make for a bad start to the season for the Blue Jackets, but the offense should be able to keep Columbus afloat. Bobrovsky is a difference-maker, too, and if any netminder can bail out a wounded defense corps, it’s him.
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