So close, and yet...actually, not too far away.
But even after nearly breaking 100 points two seasons in a row, the Columbus Blue Jackets still have never won a division title in their 18-year existence, nor have they ever come in second place.
To be fair, is it the Blue Jackets' fault they play in the most difficult division in the league? Besides, division titles look nice, but it's not on the same level as the Stanley Cup. Those banners look a little different.
However, here's some hard truth: the current Metro Division has produced a team to play in the Stanley Cup Final in nine of the last 13 years – and every team in the division, except the Blue Jackets and New York Islanders, was a finalist in at least one of those nine years. Yes, even Carolina.
So in at least some regard, being successful in the Metro Division holds some weight. Winning the division title itself clearly does not guarantee a championship run in any sport, but being one of the top two teams in one's group at the end of the season surely helps.
Whether it's for home-ice advantage or even just a morale booster, winning the Metro Division would be a huge step for Columbus to finally get over the hump of never having won a playoff series; coming in as the underdog every single year they've made the postseason just isn't helping.
In order to do so, the Blue Jackets will need some extra help from players who are due for a breakout season. Clearly Panarin, Bobrovsky and Seth Jones are amongst the most valuable to the team, but these few, amongst others, are needed now more than ever to take the next step in their game:
2017-2018: 63 GP, 19 G, 11 A, 30 P
Josh Anderson started off the year with 11 points in his first 20 games, but quieted down a bit as the Blue Jackets went through their mid-season slump. After suffering a sprained knee from a brutal hip check in a regular season game against Washington, Anderson only played in two more games before the playoffs, missing almost 20 games.
Anderson, along with Boone Jenner, is the closest the Blue Jackets have to an enforcer, and is a skilled one at that. The bruising 6-foot-3, 220-pounder can score for the club, as well as lay the body.
What needs to happen: Anderson showed flashes of potential of being a solid second-liner for the Jackets this upcoming season, but to help push the team to the next level, he will need to have a complete year from game No. 1 to game No. 82. More specifically, a year of big hits, greasy garbage goals and plenty of scuffles with Tom Wilson.
2017-2018: 66 GP, 8 G, 27 A, 35 P
On a line with Anderson is the usually-reserved Alexander Wennberg, who is ready for an on-ice personality change. Wennberg is clearly one of the most skilled players on the Blue Jackets, and fans have been longing for him to, well, "SHOOOOOOOOOOT!"
Wennberg is a pass-first player, having a 3-to-1 assist-to-goals ratio for every year he's been in the league. This is his game, and that's okay, but his point total dropped significantly from two seasons ago to last, from 59 to 35.
If anyone can light a fire under a mild-mannered hockey player, it's John Tortorella.
What needs to happen: Wennberg will need to be the first or second leading assist-maker on the team this upcoming season. If the duo of Wennberg and Anderson can ignite some second-line scoring, this would surely take some pressure off Panarin and Cam Atkinson having to significantly carry that load - which would mean more need cannon firing.
2017-2018: 61 GP, 7 G, 16 A, 23 P
It's a tall task to play behind Seth Jones and Zach Werenski and make it look like there's not too much of a talent drop-off, but Markus Nutivaara is doing a fine job, and making the case of being a solid second-pairing defenseman.
The 24-year-old Finn had a steady season in terms of point-flow. He had a few turnover moments where we remembered that he was still only a second-year player, but the improvement in tripling his point total from his rookie season and nearly doubling his positive plus/minus rating gives great hope for Nutivaara.
What needs to happen: Nutivaara has shown potential to be the third-best defensemen on the team, maybe even by next season, which would be valuable with the Blue Jackets losing Jack Johnson and Ian Cole this summer. If he can deepen the top-four Jackets' defensive core, Bob may get the regular season rest he needs to be the same Bob in the playoffs.
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