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Wild-Card Roundup: Why Blue Jackets' fate could change future deadline dealings

The Blue Jackets' playoff push hit a rough patch last week, but Columbus remains in the thick of the wild-card race and their pursuit of a playoff berth is a must-watch for more than one reason.

When the Columbus Blue Jackets skated into Rogers Arena Sunday night and thumped the Vancouver Canucks, it served two purposes. First, it allowed the Blue Jackets to maintain some measure of pace in the wild-card race, as they now sit two points back of the final berth in the Eastern Conference. But the second purpose was stopping Columbus’ three-game swing through the Canadian west from becoming an absolute disaster.

Right in the thick of a fight for the final playoff position in the conference, the Blue Jackets headed into last week with two dates in Alberta before making a stop over in British Columbia, and as they headed into the three-game Canadian road trip, Columbus did so three points clear of the Montreal Canadiens for the second wild-card spot. Losses to the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers – the latter of which was the kind of game against non-playoff competition that the Blue Jackets couldn’t afford to lose – saw Columbus fall out of that second spot and land in their current place on the outside looking in.

The performance last week was disappointing in more ways than one. Not only did it represent the continued inability of the Blue Jackets to lock down a playoff spot, but it has resulted in another knock against the all-in plan that GM Jarmo Kekalainen set into action at the deadline. And it’s for that reason every NHL fan should have at least some skin in the game when it comes to Columbus’ playoff fate.

Look, we get it. From a pure chaos perspective, it’s fun to think about the possibilities for the Blue Jackets. It’s fun to think about what happens if Columbus misses the post-season, or what the fallout would be from such a disastrous miss, or what happens if it comes down to a one-game, win-and-you’re-in scenario and the Blue Jackets drop the last game of the season to the Ottawa Senators, thus resulting in Matt Duchene’s former team knocking him out of a trip to the post-season. But there's also the possibility for some unintended consequences.

The NHL is a copycat league. Look at recent history, the way teams have been built in the wake of a new-style Stanley Cup champion being crowned. The big, heavy, possession Los Angeles Kings type teams were in vogue in the wake of their victories. The top-heavy Chicago Blackhawks teams inspired other teams to be built the same. The speed kills mentality is what helped the Pittsburgh Penguins win their recent championships, and others followed suit. And now we’re in a hybrid era in the wake of the Washington Capitals’ Cup parade.

It stands to reason, then, that the Blue Jackets have in their possession the blueprint for the bold deadline team, a possible foundation for which other teams could build upon in the future if Columbus’ project – which included the acquisitions of Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid and Keith Kinkaid – results in a playoff berth and some measure of post-season success. It could result in other organizations showing a willingness to take up a similar tack. And it could turn the deadline into a greater free-for-all than what we’ve seen, with more teams willing to keep their own rentals while adding a few more in pursuit of loading up for one long run.

But if this blows up and goes sideways on Columbus, you can kiss that goodbye.

If the Blue Jackets miss the post-season, which is an ever-increasing possibility, you can rest assured there will be no GMs stroking their chins and thinking about ways they can follow the Kekalainen System. If Columbus ends up losing Duchene and Dzingel and Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky without so much as a single playoff win, let alone the first series victory in franchise history, then no GM is going to look at what the Blue Jackets did with envy and attempt to replicate it in the future. Instead, it will become a cautionary tale about pushing your chips to the middle when playing it safe might very well do.

So, no, you might not cheer for the Blue Jackets, and you could care not what they manage to accomplish in the post-season, but if you have interest in GMs pushing their chips to the middle when playing it safe could very well do, you might want to hope Kekalainen’s entire plan doesn’t blow up in Columbus’ face.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

IN:

Pittsburgh Penguins
41-24-11 — 93 pts.

The past week was a shootout goal or two – or a couple stops – away from perfect. Wins over the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators capped off the week, and the only blemish was the shootout loss to the Carolina Hurricanes last Tuesday. The Penguins, after a brief scare earlier in the campaign, have all but punched their ticket to the post-season. They are a full seven points clear of the Blue Jackets, and with six games remaining, Pittsburgh has moved that much closer to locking down a playoff berth.

Remaining Schedule: Six games
Opponents’ Avg. Point Percentage: .502

Carolina Hurricanes
42-26-7 — 91 pts.

If it wasn’t for running into the juggernaut that is the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Hurricanes might have gone perfect on the week. The loss to Tampa Bay aside, though, what a week in Carolina. The shootout win over Pittsburgh kicked things off, and then the Hurricanes dunked on the Minnesota Wild before reeling in two big points against the Canadiens courtesy of an Andrei Svechnikov overtime winner. The nine-year playoff drought looks as though it’s about to come to an end. What a fun team.

Remaining Schedule: Seven games
Opponents’ Avg. Point Percentage: .569

Montreal Canadiens
40-28-8 — 88 pts.

You have to control your own fate sometimes, and the Canadiens did just that by rattling off three consecutive wins, beginning with a 3-1 defeat of the Flyers, which was followed by a 4-0 blanking of the New York Islanders before a 7-4 defeat of the Buffalo Sabres. A late goal and overtime winner by the Hurricanes is all that stood between Montreal and a perfect week. That’s huge, too, because no team has a tougher run into the post-season than the Canadiens. Montreal is going to need to eke out all the points they can against some of the league’s toughest competition. Thursday’s game against the Blue Jackets is especially key.

Remaining Schedule: Six games
Opponents’ Avg. Point Percentage: .628

OUT:

Columbus Blue Jackets
40-28-4 — 84 pts.

What was once mild concern has turned into wild panic. Time is running out in Columbus, with only seven games left on the slate. The Blue Jackets face a must-win Thursday against the Canadiens, but Columbus can’t take its foot off the gas regardless of the result in that game. The race for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference looks as though it could be a photo finish, and the Blue Jackets need every point possible to ensure they cross the line ahead of the Canadiens.

Remaining Schedule: Seven games
Opponents’ Avg. Point Percentage: .545

GONE:
Philadelphia Flyers: It was an uphill climb, and the Flyers were in tough to make up the ground they needed in the Eastern Conference wild-card race. Dropping three of four this past week, including crucial games against the Canadiens, New York Islanders and Washington Capitals, sealed the deal. On the bright side, Carter Hart has gotten his feet wet and should be ready for a full campaign in the Philadelphia crease next season.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

IN:

St. Louis Blues
40-27-8 — 88 pts.

Maybe there’s no need to include the Blues in this conversation any longer, particularly as St. Louis eyes up potential home-ice advantage in the first round of the post-season. Sitting two points back of the Predators with a game in hand, the Blues possess potential to eclipse Nashville before the regular season draws to a close, and that would mean the series between the two projected playoff combatants would open up in St. Louis. What a turnaround.

Remaining Schedule: Seven games
Opponents’ Avg. Point Percentage: .509

Dallas Stars
38-31-6 — 82 pts.

Consistency hasn’t been the Stars’ strong suit. Luckily, the same could be said for every single team fighting for the final playoff spots in the Western Conferences. Dallas could rue the loss to the Avalanche this week, though, particularly if it makes a difference between the Stars starting the post-season against the Winnipeg Jets or one of the Calgary Flames or San Jose Sharks. The former is probably the friendlier draw. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. With seven games remaining, the Stars still risk falling out of the wild card.

Remaining Schedule: Seven games
Opponents’ Avg. Point Percentage: .548

Colorado Avalanche
34-29-13 — 81 pts.

The Avalanche are red hot at the right time. Last week closed with a win over the New Jersey Devils and Colorado followed it up by rattling off three consecutive wins to begin the week. First, the Avalanche downed the Widl. Then came a win over the Stars. That was followed by downing the Chicago Blackhawks. And Colorado was one shot short of a perfect week, but fell in the second half of the home-and-home against Chicago. Great week, and now the Avalanche, who own the best goal differential of any wild-card contending team, are inching closer to a return trip to the playoffs.

Remaining Schedule: Six games
Opponents’ Avg. Point Percentage: .577

OUT:

Minnesota Wild
35-32-9 — 79 pts.

In no full season behind the bench has Bruce Boudreau failed to make the post-season. That streak might come to an end this season, however. The Wild had a tough week, dropping two of three, including a big game against the Avalanche. The concern, though, is that nothing about Minnesota’s remaining schedule screams a surge into the playoffs. The only remaining game against a non-playoff team is Sunday’s meeting with the Arizona Coyotes…who are the Wild’c closest competition for the final berth in the conference. It’s not going to be easy for the Wild.

Remaining Schedule: Six games
Opponents’ Avg. Point Percentage: .593

Arizona Coyotes
36-33-7 — 79 pts.

From hope to nope. The Coyotes had plenty of post-season promise despite a pair of losses to close out the week prior, but last week wasn’t at all what Arizona had expected. First came a loss to the non-playoff Florida Panthers. Then a shootout loss at the hands of the non-playoff New Jersey Devils. And then shutout by the New York Islanders on Sunday. That’s five consecutive losses by the Coyotes, and suddenly one of the greatest stories of the season is at risk of coming apart at the seams. What should give Arizona some hope is that four of their six remaining games are against wild-card or non-playoff teams, but the Coyotes can’t afford to drop many points on the way in.

Remaining Schedule: Six games
Opponents’ Avg. Point Percentage: .534

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