When Seth Jones returned from an apparent injury at the start of the second period almost two Saturday's ago, a collective sigh of relief blended with a rousing round of applause.
When it was announced thereafter that Jones would miss 8-10 weeks to heal a fractured ankle, that optimism turned into despair. The Blue Jackets, who are reaching historic levels of man-games-lost to injury, have inspired a fan-base by overcoming injury after injury. From Cam Atkinson to Josh Anderson, Joonas Korpisalo to Ryan Murray (again), the team has responded with a ridiculous point streak that put the club squarely into the playoff race. As it stands today, the club has more money on injury reserve ($30M) than they spend on their current forward corps ($26M), according to CapFriendly.
But Jones' injury just feels... different. The margin for error was already thin; now it's thin. It was one thing to lose Alexander Wennberg, a quality penalty killer that gives John Tortorella reliable minutes, or Anderson, who struggled to find his game offensively even when he was in the lineup. It's even fair to say that the Blue Jackets could exist without Atkinson - because they did! It's entirely different when we're talking about a Norris Trophy-caliber defensemen that plays the 6th most minutes per night in the NHL (25:17) and is presumably lost for the remainder of the regular season.
Simply put, there is no 'defense by committee' approach that works the way 'scoring by committee' seems to. Sure, the Blue Jackets boast a ton of defensive depth, but even if they were healthy (and they're not - aside from Murray, Dean Kukan is also on IR), it's a significant ask for Markus Nutivaara to slide into top-pairing minutes and assignments. Similarly, Zach Werenski's play is sure to suffer, as he's been accustomed to the security blanket that is Jones' steady play basically since he entered the league.
This isn't me being pessimistic simply to be pessimistic. In the six games since (and including) Jones went down with his injury, the Blue Jackets are 0-3-3. Three of those games were against high-quality teams - the Avalanche, Lightning, and Flyers. Three of those games were against teams that are well removed from the playoff picture - the Sabres, Rangers, and Devils.
The Blue Jackets, who rank 4th in the NHL this season in 5v5 save percentage (93.17%, per NaturalStatTrick), rank 28th in the league (89.52%) over the past six games. Some of that surely falls on the night-of-bad-bounces suffered by Elvis Merzlikins and co. against the Flyers. But over a six-game study, that indicates more than just regressing to the mean.
Before the injury to Jones, the club already had one of the worst 5v5 shooting percentages (6.71%, 29th in the NHL behind the Kings and Red Wings) in the league. In the past six games, it's fallen to 3.89%, last in the NHL.
Is Jones' absence singularly the cause for this pronounced decrease in both shooting and save percentage? Probably not. But for a Blue Jackets' team that has puffed out its chest and proclaimed 'next man up' with astonishing success time and time again, it's fair to at least wonder if this may be a bridge too far for this team to overcome.