This 2014-15 NHL season preview features the Columbus Blue Jackets.
What was Stanley Cup worthy in 2013-14?
2013-14 may go down in Blue Jackets history as the season the franchise finally found its footing in the NHL. They made the playoffs for only the second time in team history while setting new franchise marks for wins (43) and points (93).
Columbus didn’t do much at an elite level, but they did everything reasonably well finishing in the top half of the NHL in nearly every category including goals for (12th), goals against (13th), powerplay (11th), penalty killing (14th) and faceoffs (9th).
They also developed an identity as a very hard team to play against, finishing second to only the Kings in hits.
A big reason for their success was the emergence of 21 year-old Ryan Johansen. The young power forward led the team in goals (33) and points (63) by wide margins. He also contributed two goals and four assists in six games against the Penguins in the playoffs.
After surprising many by winning the Vezina trophy with a dominant season, many wondered if goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky could deliver a repeat performance. While he didn’t finish with quite the gaudy stats he did the year before, “Bob” was again very good after a somewhat slow start. He posted a save percentage of no lower than .926 in any month from December on.
Perhaps the heart and soul of this Columbus team is Brandon Dubinsky. He had a pretty good season with 50 points and a +5, but really made a name for himself come playoff time as he outplayed Sidney Crosby in a head-to-head match-up, holding the Pens’ superstar goal-less and with a -2 rating over 6 games.
After missing 52 games in the previous two seasons, defenseman James Wisniewski was healthy enough to provide the kind of offense the Blue Jackets expected when they signed him to a lucrative 6-year deal in 2011. He led the team in assists with 44 and finished 9th in the NHL with 28 points with the man advantage.
What was draft lottery worthy in 2013-14?
One thing that does need to improve for the Jackets is their ability to get and hold leads. They finished in the bottom half of the league in scoring the game’s first goal, and in winning percentage when leading both after 1 and after 2 periods. This was no more evident than in their first round series against Pittsburgh where they had leads in 3 of the 4 games they lost.
After being a playoff force for the Bruins for two seasons, including one Stanley Cup win, Nathan Horton decided to sign in Columbus as an unrestricted free agent, wanting to play for a smaller market team. Unfortunately for him, his injury history followed him there, causing him to miss 47 games. In the 35 games he did manage to play, he was largely ineffective scoring just 4 goals and 18 points.
Defenseman Jack Johnson is a bit of an enigma in the NHL. He certainly has the talent to be a top 2 defenseman, but he inexplicably has yet to post a positive +/- ratio in his 8 seasons. He’s -90 for his career. For a player who’s counted on for 23-25 minutes a night, that needs to improve.
So what did they do to get better?
The only meaningful move Columbus made this summer was to trade disgruntled forward RJ Umberger back to the Flyers for Scott Hartnell. While Hartnell will bring a certain nastiness and a good net front presence to the Jackets, as well as good leadership skills, his offensive production has been in decline since his 37 goal season in 2011-12.
Player to watch
20 year-old defenseman Ryan Murray quietly had a very good season in Columbus last season. Many forget that he was arguably the top prospect before going into the 2013 draft. His 21 points and +4 rating to go with 19:52 of ice-time in 66 games were all among the league’s best for rookie defensemen. He has the potential and skill-set to develop into a top defenseman in the NHL, similar to Chicago’s Duncan Keith.
His best asset is his poise. He simply finds a different level as the stakes get higher, as evidenced by his 22+ minutes in the playoffs and his performance for Canada at the World Championship in 2012.
This year, every other team in the East knows that points are no longer guaranteed when a game against Columbus is on the calendar…
They will make the playoffs if…
The two Ryans (Murray and Johansen) continue their upward trend towards becoming the franchise cornerstones Columbus (and many others) believes they will be.
They will miss the playoffs if…
Bobrovsky goes down with an injury for an extended period. During the time he missed last season, The Jackets won just 7 of 14 games.
What should we expect this season?
The Blue Jackets took a huge step forward last season. This year, every other team in the East knows that points are no longer guaranteed when a game against Columbus is on the calendar, and they also know they’re in for a hard night’s work.
Having said that, the core of this team is still very young and have yet to hit their stride. They’ll still have to rely on good goaltending, hard work and timely goals to win games.
Johansen, Murray and the other young stars coming up through the system will make this a formidable team for years to come, but it will be a few more seasons before they’re able to truly supplant one of the East’s elite.
43-31-8 94 points, 4th in the Metropolitan Division, 8th in the Eastern Conference