Welcome to our first edition of the 1st Ohio Battery roundtable. Jason Priestas, Jeff Svoboda and Rob Mixer will discuss some hot-button topics involving the Columbus Blue Jackets, their prospects, and other stuff from around the National Hockey League.
Here, our focus is the surprise season for the Blue Jackets, which has them in a top-three position in the brutal Metropolitan Division. Want to see us banter about something in particular for a future roundtable? Leave a comment below or find us on social media @1stOhioBattery.
Let’s dive right in.
What has surprised you most about the Blue Jackets this season?
Jason: I think it’s just the turnaround. From near-last to near-first is always impressive, regardless of the sport, but it seems larger in a town that has experienced 16 seasons of mostly suck when it comes to pro ice hockey. To a lesser degree, the development of some of the youngsters – Werenski, Jones, Bjorkstrand – has been a pleasant surprise, as well, particularly given the franchise’s shortcomings in this area through the years.
Jeff: The more I think about this one, the more I have to go with the emergence of Zach Werenski. I had seen him play a number of times the past few seasons at the University of Michigan, so I knew he was good. But let's call a spade a spade – a 19-year-old defenseman has helped remake the playing style of an NHL team competing for the Presidents' Trophy. That's not normal. A year ago, the Blue Jackets were undone largely by their defensive corps, and it can't be overstated what Werenski and Seth Jones (and to a lesser extent Markus Nutivaara) have done to remake the blue line into a unit that is elite going forward and also better in its own zone. Of that group, Werenski is the true marvel. He's already making history when it comes to his offensive output for a teenage defenseman, and the sky is really the limit for him.
Rob: I’ll echo Jason on this and say the turnaround. At the end of last season, there were a lot of questions about this team. Sure, their minor-league affiliate went on a tear in the Calder Cup playoffs, but you never really know how that’s going to translate (especially six months later). I think most surprising for me, within the turnaround, is that they’ve done this without a lot of roster tinkering. Werenski is here, Gagner signed, Anderson and Sedlak have emerged, but the bulk of the roster was unchanged. John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen wanted to give this core group another chance and they believed in them, and now they’re getting paid back for it.
Does John Tortorella win the Jack Adams? If so, why?
Jeff: I think he does. All across sports, this is the trophy that goes to the coach that most outpaces preseason expectations, and if that holds true in this year's voting, it has to go to Tortorella. Is he a better coach than Joel Quenneville, Mike Sullivan or Barry Trotz? That's debatable, and all have done great things with their teams. But Tortorella is the only one this year to totally remake a franchise. He brought a much-needed air of legitimacy to the Jackets' locker room, and his challenge to players this past offseason to arrive ready for camp was the first catalyst for this remarkable campaign. On top of that, he's pushed a lot of the right buttons through both winning streaks and rough patches. The only other big overachiever in the league is Minnesota's Bruce Boudreau, but he did take over a team coming off four straight playoff appearances. All things considered, it should be Torts.
Rob: I think Minnesota’s late-season swoon might lock this up for Tortorella. Barry Trotz will definitely get some consideration for elevating Washington to powerhouse status (again), but the job Tortorella has done with what was a forgotten and disrespected team has been incredible. They’ve responded to his approach – no morning skates, short and efficient practices, etc. – and are bought in to what he wants them to do. The fact that he took a lottery team and, with a shortened season and one training camp under his belt, has turned the Blue Jackets into one of the top teams in the NHL will get him the Jack Adams.
Jason: He should. 15th in the Eastern Conference to vying for the Presidents’ Trophy in one season is nothing short of remarkable.
What is/was your favorite wrong take or prediction about the team?
Rob: I like that, throughout the season, there was this media-driven quest to find the latest reason why the Blue Jackets can’t be that good. Their early-season possession numbers weren’t great, but we’re talking like three weeks of hockey, and they’ve been solid ever since. First, it was that Tortorella is an idiot. Then, they couldn’t score enough goals to compete with Washington, Pittsburgh and the Rangers. Oh, wait, they’ll fall apart after the 16-game winning streak. All they’ve done is rack up 100 points in mid-March, score the fifth-most goals in the league and own the league’s second-best goal differential. It’s time for a new narrative.
Jason: That this team didn’t have what it took to sustain its winning ways after the 16-game winning-streak was snapped. This is a good team, folks, and I think a lot of the hockey punditry wrote them off as either riding an ungodly power play that took other teams time to figure out or catching a streak against bad to middling opponents to build that string. Here we are in late March, and guess what, they’re still winning.
Jeff: That Tortorella would be the first coach fired this season. First of all, he had been on the job less than a full campaign coming into the year, so he was gonna get time to work through anything up to an 0-10 start. Second, a lot of the momentum for that prediction was based on his coaching job with Team USA in the World Cup of Hockey, which didn't exactly have much – or any – relevance to his abilities to coach the Blue Jackets. On top of that, it's like one bad year in Vancouver made people forget he had twice coached in the Stanley Cup Final and, oh yeah, could throw a ring on the table. Simply put, he had been painted as a caricature by those who were too lazy to look any further. It was not a smart prediction.
You get one vote for this year's Blue Jackets MVP. Who is it?
Jeff: There have been so many guys that have stepped up and played close to their potential, but I don't see how you can go with anyone other than Sergei Bobrovsky. The million-dollar question – actually the $8.5 million question, Bobrovsky's yearly salary – going into this season was whether the 2013 Vezina winner would be the player the Jackets were paying for. Another season like 2015-16 – just 37 games and numbers down across the board – simply wasn't going to cut it. Instead, of course, he's been magnificent and consistent, and Bobrovsky should again be in the Vezina conversation. Cam Atkinson has been great, Alexander Wennberg filled a big hole, and Zach Werenski helped transformed the defense, but without Bob, it would all be for naught.
Jason: So many guys have stepped up – Cam, Zach, Nick’s leadership – but it has to be Bob, right? Leading the NHL in wins, GAA and save percentage, he’s been the engine for this team’s success. The math is simple, really. If a guy on your team is a favorite for the Vezina, then he’s your team MVP.
Rob: It’s Bob, no question. Remember when it was time to trade him and hand the net to Joonas Korpisalo? Those were good times.