Everyone who cares about hockey seems to have a different opinion of where these Columbus Blue Jackers are headed.
"They lost everything, they should be tanking."
"They'll be the sleeper team in the East."
"They'll finish last in the Metro."
"They'll win the Stanley Cup."
OK, no one has said the last claim, but bottom line - a wide variety of theories and expectations of the Blue Jackets have been flying around for months, and it'll likely continue until their playoff hopes are sealed, one way or another.
What is fair to expect of the team, though? On one hand, they lost their two best forwards and franchise goaltender in free agency. On the other hand, their young forward core has looked incredibly encouraging this summer, and the defense as a whole is one of the tops in the NHL.
Does it really make sense to punt on a team that has been one of the top three clubs in the NHL in total point over the past few years? Well, for a question like that, context is everything, so let's dive in.
Let's start between the pipes. Not only are the Blue Jackets going to have a new starting goaltender this year, but the game splits between the starter and backup will be a lot more evenly divided. Elvis Merzlikins was touted as the "best goaltender outside of the NHL," by Jarmo Kekalainen in March. However, Joonas Korpisalo is getting the nod on Friday night after a strong preseason. The two should be in healthy contention for the No. 1 spot throughout the regular season.
As for the forwards, the Blue Jackets made an underrated splash in free agency by adding veteran winger Gustav Nyquist. At least two new faces on top of Nyquist will then breach the top-12, between Sonny Milano, Jakob Lilja and Emil Bemstrom. Whichever two of these three wingers makes the cut will be flanking Riley Nash on the fourth line.
Nothing is new for the defense, for right now. The biggest debate at the moment is which of the abundance of third pair defensemen that Columbus has will make the sixth spot on the blue line? Dean Kukan, Vladislav Gavrikov and Scott Harrington are the final three fighting for the spot, but rush lines at practice today indicated that Harrington may have a leg up at the moment to jump in with Markus Nutivaara on Friday night.
What's great is something that has been (annoyingly at times) true about the Blue Jackets for the last six seasons: they're one of the youngest teams in the NHL! This may have never been a more important statistic to be stuck with Columbus, as they look to take on a new-er era with the free agency losses that hit them.
There is no need to necessarily rebuild as other teams would be doing in their situation because the team is young enough to not even have seen the full potential of a lot of its guys.
This may end up not being a concern at all, but there will certainly need to be a "scoring by committee" mentality by the club this year. The team adopted this mindset in the 2016-2017 campaign, the best regular season in franchise history to date, but replicating this is not guaranteed.
"'Bread' is a very good player. He's a game-breaker," Tortorella said. "I'm not going to sit here and say that that's (not) a hole. But it just gives other people the opportunity to fill that."– John Tortorella on Artemi Panarin
Losing Matt Duchene and Artemi Panarin is not a good thing. Don't try and convince yourself that getting them out of the locker room was good. It may give an opportunity for other players to grow, but they contributed a lot of points that will need to be made up for, 99 of them combined in the regular season, to be exact, and 21 total in ten postseason games, which contributed to more than 25% of the team's goals.
What To Watch:
Alexandre Texier on the first line, and if not the first, just in general. This is a player that was called up to be a vital part of the Blue Jackets' first-round series sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning for a reason, and he had an excellent summer with the club. He's dynamic, bolsters a high hockey IQ, and has a wicked shot. Look for him to become a dangerous power play weapon (even if it's on the second unit) and a key contributor to the success of the offense as a whole.
Seth Jones might just go grab that Norris Trophy this year and not look back. He put his name in the conversation with a breakout campaign in 2017-2018, and after a (bit) of a step backward last regular season, his playoff run of 3-6-9 in ten games (only behind Duchene and Panarin) proves he's ready to stake his claim as the best defenseman in the NHL. He also gets to quarterback one of the deepest blue lines in the entire league, so, that'll be fun to see other defensemen grow under Jone's leadership.
Elvis Merzlikins, when signed to the club in the spring, was expected to be the heir to the throne as Sergei Bobrovsky departed, but Korpisalo has more than made this a race for the starting job, and for now, it's his to lose as the incumbent. Merzlikins had admittedly had trouble with dealing with the smaller North American ice size, but once he gets himself set, this kid could be the real deal. Look for him to try and take the job from Korpislo full-time in the spring ahead of a potential playoff run.
“We feel very confident how they have gone through camp. I think we have a comfort level (with Joonas Korpisalo)...(Elvis Merzlikins) has really improved as camp has gone on."– Tortorella on his goaltender situation
How They Stack Up:
The Blue Jackets do not have the best betting odds right now if you're into that sort of thing. Few are expecting them to make the playoffs, and fewer are expecting them to make any sort of noise in a Metropolitan Division, even though it's in it's the weakest form it's been in for some time. Washington is on the back nine of the peak of their powers, Pittsburgh has about 45 minutes left and their flight, and aside from Carolina, everyone else is at least a whole nother season from doing any real damage.
Through an eye test, the Blue Jackets always seem to find their best success when expectations on them are little-to-none. Tell them they'll get swept by the Lightning? They'll sweep them. Tell them they have a chance to knock off the Boston Bruins? They'll lose three straight to end the series. It's a mystery, folks.
This is a great time to be a Blue Jacket fan and not have your heart played with. If they end up being awful, you could say you knew it was going to happen. If they blow expectations away, it'll be a thrilling surprise.
Don't hop off the train just yet. This team has the makings of a New York Islanders or Carolina Hurricanes from just one season ago. They're deep, they're motivated and pissed off, and they have unfinished business in the postseason. I think they make the playoffs and finish in the third spot in the Metro (partiallly because of how the division has regressed).
What happens from there - who knows, because superstars are, you know, helpful, in the postseason (which the Blue Jackets lack). I think at the very least, their play from October to early April will catch many in the hockey world off-guard.
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