The Columbus Blue Jackets are almost back to full strength.
When they opened camp last Monday, they did so with a roster far healthier than the one they had when the regular season abruptly ended on March 12. Seth Jones and Oliver Bjokstrand are back after suffering fractured ankles. Cam Atkinson has recovered from an ankle injury of his own. Alexandre Texier is healthy after suffering a lumbar stress fracture in his back around the turn of the calendar year, while Dean Kukan is ready to go after suffering a meniscus tear in his knee in early January. Nathan Gerbe is healthy after missing time with a groin injury.
Perhaps more than any other team in the NHL’s 24-team playoff bracket, Columbus has benefitted from having four months to get healthy, allowing for the return of key players like Jones and Bjorkstrand who might not have been able to return at all if the season had stayed on schedule. And that’s reason enough to believe the Blue Jackets – who lost 12 of their final 15 games of the regular season – are capable of outperforming their No. 9 seed in the postseason, which they’ll begin by playing the Toronto Maple Leafs in the qualifying round.
“I’m excited about how although the break, no one really wanted this to happen, it certainly helped this team to get some guys healthy,” Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella said Sunday. “We’re really excited about that opportunity to play with a full team.”
The Jackets could even get one more player back from injury as Josh Anderson, who underwent shoulder surgery in March, rejoined the team in Columbus and was added to their 34-man roster on Sunday. Anderson isn’t yet fit to play, and Tortorella said Sunday that he had “no idea” when Anderson will be ready to return, so it’s far from certain he’ll be able to play against Toronto. But he was at least able to get on the ice for some work with coaches on Sunday, suggesting he could be closer to returning than the previously reported September timeline.
Other than Anderson, the only other Blue Jacket currently sidelined is Brandon Dubinsky, who missed the entire regular season with a chronic wrist injury.
Jones’ return is crucial for the success of the Blue Jackets’ defense, which will need to be at its best against an explosive Maple Leafs offense that ranked third in regular-season goals per game, with Kukan providing additional depth on the back end. Offensively, having Bjorkstrand, Texier and Atkinson back on the top two lines could be the medicine the Jackets need after finishing in the bottom five in regular-season goals per game.
“For us to just play like a team and play the style we like to play that we’ve done throughout the season’s gonna be good. But no question too, to get guys like Bjorkstrand and Cam and Jonesy and those guys back to full health, that’s gonna be big for us in putting up some goals too, for sure,” forward Gustav Nyquist said Sunday.
The extended pause in the season has allowed the Blue Jackets’ injured players (except Anderson) enough time to not only get healthy enough to play, but to get back to 100 percent. Jones, who says it took him 15 weeks to fully recover from his ankle injury that he suffered in February, said he’s feeling “better than ever” now. Atkinson was set to return to the ice for his first game in over a month on the day the season was suspended, but in hindsight, he’s glad he had so much extra time to allow his ankle to get better.
“I’m excited about how although the break, no one really wanted this to happen, it certainly helped this team to get some guys healthy.”– John Tortorella
“Looking back, I don’t know if I was actually ready (to play in March),” Atkinson said last week. “Obviously my adrenaline was going at the time, but I’m happy that I’ve gotten this time to really heal properly, ‘cause I sometimes still feel it from time to time. Nothing like what it was, but these injuries are no joke, so who knows what would have happened if the season continued and whatnot, but I’m ready to rock and roll now.”
Bjorkstrand missed the final eight games of the Blue Jackets’ shortened regular season, Jones and Atkinson both missed the final 14 games, Kukan missed the final 29 and Texier missed the final 30. Barring any setbacks in the next two weeks, though, all of them are set to be on the ice when the Blue Jackets open postseason play against the Maple Leafs on Aug. 2. (Gerbe, who missed the final four games of the regular season, currently looks like he could be on the outside looking in for postseason playing time.)
That gives the Blue Jackets a much healthier and deeper roster than they had during their struggles in February and early March, and a chance to potentially return to the form they had from the middle of December to the beginning of February, when they went 18-2-3 in their final 23 games before Jones and Atkinson were injured.