SvoNotes: With Much Offseason Work Done, Are the Columbus Blue Jackets a Better Team?

By Jeff Svoboda on July 12, 2017 at 7:13 am
The Columbus Blue Jackets

I wrote a whole nice intro for this, and then the technology monster ate it. So here's the crib notes version: Last week, I wrote a SvoNotes column. People seemed to like it, so I'll probably be doing it more often whenever Blue Jackets topics of interest pop into my head. I hope you enjoy them. 

It was a bit more flowery, but that was the gist. And with that, on to the show.

Better Blue Jackets? 

If you've been on Twitter the past few days, you've probably seen this chart floating around.

If you click on the tweet, there's a whole thread looking at a few different measurements on offseason additions and subtractions, but they all come back to about the same results. It's an interesting way to look at offseason player movement graphically, and it shows a few things that jump out immediately.

First, the obvious offseason losers were Chicago and Washington, each of which ran up against the salary cap and each of which has an impact on Columbus. The Blackhawks had to sell some and also lost Marian Hossa to injury/allergy, with the team jettisoning nearly its entire blue line save Duncan Keith and then also dealing Artemi Panarin to Columbus for Brandon Saad and cap certainty. 

Washington, meanwhile, pushed its chips to the center of the table last year only to see its typical second-round loss to Pittsburgh end its campaign. The Caps won the Presidents' Cup for the second straight season last year and had the league's best roster on paper but fell short, then had to say goodbye to Kevin Shattenkirk and Justin Wiliams among others while trading Marcus Johanssen.

The biggest winner was apparently Carolina, which was surprisingly frisky at the end of last year in the tough Metro before falling short of a playoff spot. The Hurricanes and GM Ron Francis (my all-time favorite player, which is neither here nor there) took advantage of each seller, picking up Marcus Kruger from the Hawks and Williams from the Caps, and appear to have pushed themselves further into playoff discussion.

Then there's what we're here for: The Blue Jackets, which saw more go out the door this offseason than come in (so far). The Jackets added Panarin, a true goal scorer with 71 over his two NHL seasons, but lost one of the best offensive players in the league in 5-on-5 in Saad. The buyout of Scott Hartnell and loss of William Karlsson in the expansion draft also means two useful bottom-six players who combined for nearly 20 goals and 60 points are out of the mix.

So does that mean Columbus will be a worse team in the upcoming season than it was a year ago? Not necessarily, if we're just looking at the graph and not worrying about the glass ceiling principle of sports (in which a team that has a big jump forward often has at least a small fallback the next season).

Losing Hartnell and Karlsson is real, but neither is irreplaceable. Hartnell, at 35, was going to have a harder and harder time keeping up in the younger and faster NHL, even if his 5-on-5 numbers last year mirrored what he did the year previous. And Karlsson was what he was, a third- or fourth-line center who could chip in offensively and matched well with whoever he happened to be playing with.

I'm not here to minimize the contributions of the third and fourth line, either. One of the reasons Columbus was a much better team in 2016-17 than the year prior was the fact it could roll four lines at teams, all of whom could score enough to be dangerous. That kind of depth can overwhelm teams, especially in the first 60 games of a season, and the Jackets frankly didn't have that when the Greg Campbells and Jared Bolls of the world were paired together.

So where do the Jackets replace the production Hartnell and Karlsson? There's a few options. A full year out of Oliver Bjorkstrand will help, as the midseason call-up showed he could score anywhere from 20 to 30 goals in a full NHL season right now if given the chance. The team will need a center, but there's options. Boone Jenner and Nick Foligno have played there, in-house options include Pierre-Luc Dubois, Jordan Schroeder and Tyler Motte, and there's still the possibility of a trade on the horizon. 

And since I mentioned Dubois, the answer to the big question here could be from the team's youth. If Dubois is ready, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2016 draft will be someone to watch; what role does he take on and how does he produce out of it? It's an intriguing piece that could be boom or bust. And if not Dubois or Bjorkstrand, is someone like Sonny Milano ready to be a full-time NHL player who can turn his skills into production? Or does Columbus see someone even deeper on the depth chart make the jump? After all, no one expected much out of Lukas Sedlak or Markus Nutivaara last year and each was a key piece of last year's squad.

So is Columbus better or worse right now? Time, of course, will tell. A lot of variables will be at play, not the least of which is the continued good health of Sergei Bobrovsky. But while the numbers on paper show production going out the door, it's also quite possible to see how the team would replace it.

Hit the Road, Jack

There's nothing like a road trip. This is true when it's summer and you can roll down the windows with some good tunes blaring, but it's probably more true when it's winter and you can rumble through the snow to check out a new barn. And if you're lucky enough to fly somewhere where the sun is shining, it's even better.

And the great thing about the NHL is that its teams are in many great cities across the United States and Canada, giving you plenty of chances to see the Blue Jackets in a new place (or to visit an old favorite).

Everyone's ideal road trip is different, but with the schedule announced a few weeks ago, I've circled a few games on the calendar I really want to see away from home. You can give me yours in the comments section, but here's just one man's list of five road trips I wouldn't mind taking this year.

1. At Vegas, Jan. 23: I've never been to Las Vegas. It's true, and yes, this is sort of embarrassing. Even my mom has been to Vegas, and she's left my home county about five times in the past 15 years. So with that in mind, it would be pretty damn fun to fly out to Sin City to see the Blue Jackets. Think of it as killing two birds with one stone. Plus I'm curious how the Golden Knights will be received in the desert, and hey, maybe you can run into William Karlsson. What's not to like?

2. At Nashville, April 7: Anyone watching the Stanley Cup Finals had to look at the scene in Music City and think, much like Liz Lemon, "I want to go to there." Nashville is another reputedly fun city I've never been to, and this one isn't that far a drive from the Buckeye State. The timing of the game at the end of the season means it's a little far off, but who wouldn't want to spend a beautiful April weekend in Nashville enjoying good weather, good tunes and good hockey?

3. At Detroit, Nov. 11: This is an easy one: Rt. 23 north out of Columbus to Interstate 75 to downtown Detroit, all in about three hours. Plus you'll get to check out the new Little Caesars Arena, which is supposed to be pretty amazing. It won't have the old-school charms of the Joe, which I truly loved despite/perhaps because of its flaws, as there wasn't a bad seat in the house and it was all about the hockey there. I think the amenities of the new place will change the atmosphere a bit, but Hockeytown is still Hockeytown. And frankly, as much as people make fun of Detroit, the downtown area has made great strides in the past few years. It's worth a visit.

4/5. At New York Islanders, Feb. 3; At Washington, Feb. 9: I figured I'd group these two since they're trips the same week to East Coast hubs of Americana. As for the New York trip, OK, I don't so much want to see the Barclays Center, though it would be interesting to check out what has to be one of the worst hockey buildings ever conceived. This one is all about the city, as I visited New York City last winter for Ohio State's hockey game vs. Wisconsin in Madison Square Garden and had a blast. I'd love to return to the World's Most Famous Arena, but the Jackets don't have a weekend trip to the venue this year. This one against the Isles is on a Saturday, so why not take the subway to Brooklyn, check out a game, and still have the rest of the weekend to enjoy the city that never sleeps?

If that trip doesn't work (or if you want to take a week off to crawl down I-95), let's head to the nation's capital less than a week later to see another Metro rival in the Capitals. Anyone who knows me knows my love of the D.C. area, largely because a bunch of my friends from Ohio for some reason ended up settling out that way. As a result, I've made a few visits out that way over the past few years, and it's always a fun trip. As much as I love Ohio, you can't really replicate the feeling of a fun East Coast city with public transportation and plenty of walkable, local food and drink options. Around the Verizon Center, you can visit the National Portrait Gallery, eat at any number of local favorites, peruse the Chinatown sights – and that's before even considering all the national landmarks in the area. 

5. At Tampa, Nov. 4: I went to Amalie Arena a year ago to see the Jackets win in January against the Lightning and would go back in a heartbeat. I wish this trip was in the year's first month again because there's nothing like leaving snowy Ohio and landing in sunny Florida during the cold winter months, but November's not a bad time to make the trip either. The downtown Tampa arena is gorgeous and filled with knowledgeable fans, and you're just a few blocks from the water, so there's plenty of great pregame spots. And if you're going to visit one area in Florida, make it the Tampa/St. Pete metroplex, which has some great oceanside neighborhoods and doesn't feel as tacky as some (all?) other Sunshine State venues.

Straight Cash

Recently, Connor McDavid signed an eight-year, $100 million contract to stay with the Edmonton Oilers, where he will likely be the face of a historic franchise until at least 2025 and not have to worry about paying the bills. That's $12.5 million per year, for those of you who are math averse.

Meanwhile, Otto Porter Jr. just signed a four-year, $107 million contract to return to Washington to play with the NBA's Wizards. For those of you who are math average, that's $26.75 million per year (although I'lll admit I used to calculator on that one just to be sure about the numbers).

McDavid, of course, is the reigning NHL MVP and could win it three or four more times in the span of his contract. Porter, of course, is not the NBA MVP. You might not have even heard of him if you're a casual basketball fan and didn't watch Porter during his time at Georgetown in college.

It begs the question of whether this is bad for the sport of hockey. It's probably not, though.

The reality is the NBA has two major advantages when it comes to paying its players more. There are only 12 players on an NBA roster, so there's fewer players to pay. And the NBA makes a lot more money from its TV contract (a contract some have credited with starting the downfall of ESPN, but that's really neither here nor there).

So you'll have that. I don't expect a bunch of kids from Alberta or Ontario or even Minnesota or Michigan to suddenly shun the NHL for NBA riches, and those who fall in love with the sport of hockey will be fine taking their own millions to play the game. 

MLB players at the top of the food chain make much, much more as well, though it is also fair to point out entry-level deals at the NHL level are worth more than in baseball as well. And the NFL, the most popular league in the nation, also has a salary cap and thus is paying many, many players less than a million without guaranteed contracts, though the league's top players are higher up on the salary scale than the NHL's. It's all relative.

In the end, I don't see this really hurting the NHL. It's an interesting thing to talk about, but really not much more than that.


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