This time, it's not a marathon–it's a sprint.
The Blue Jackets, starting Thursday night, will play 56 games in 110-or-so-odd days if everything stays on schedule. If we know anything about sports and the pandemic, it's that hope only gets you so far.
We gathered the 1st Ohio Battery staff to talk about the 2020-21 NHL season, the Blue Jackets' new division setup, expectations, and a lot more. Let's dive in.
Guys, let's start with the elephant in the room. Major distraction, or somewhat manageable: Pierre-Luc Dubois?
Sam Blazer: I’ll say that it’s somewhat manageable. Anymore unless you are James Harden, you aren’t really a distraction. Especially in hockey, any recent distractions have been business as usual. Not since Sean Avery in Dallas have we seen someone really detract from his team. Dubois may be a distraction for his teammates, but I would say he still performs.
Dan Dukart: It’s easy to say that it’s somewhat manageable in the sense that this front office/coaching staff/core has dealt with a similar distraction in the past. But it’s a major distraction. It’s a different situation than Panarin, a pending UFA who was traded to the team. Dubois is four years away from UFA and was drafted and developed by this organization. Dubois has every right to request a trade, but John Tortorella is rightly frustrated by a 22-year-old RFA big-timing the organization. If (when) the trade request is inevitably granted, the Blue Jackets as an organization need to assess this issue head on...before it happens again.
Jacob Nitzberg: It certainly is the elephant in the room. I don't have any doubts that Dubois will perform at a high level, but it's certainly something that will be on everyone's mind. His teammates and his coaches know he doesn't want to be there, and that's not an easy pill to swallow. With that in mind, I think it will be a major distraction. If anything goes wrong in a game, someone can point to the fact that he wants out of Columbus and then people start throwing around phrases like "disinterested," "checked out," and so forth. Hopefully the Blue Jackets are able to find a good trade partner, and the sooner, the better.
Ed Francis: Major. Distraction. Let’s say that PLD stumbles out of the gates this season and picks up two points in his first ten games. Would it be a major distraction? Yup. Because no matter what the reason for the slow start may be, it will be blamed on this mess. On the flip side, let’s say he scores a half dozen goals in his first six games and looks like a monster? That’ll make the distraction almost bigger because we’ll have confirmation of a superstar in the making…who wants to be traded as soon as possible. Would that be a major distraction? Yup.
Rob Mixer: Can I cop out and land in the middle? It’s probably the biggest distraction they’ve faced in the last few years, and that includes the Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky situation. And probably the Bobrovsky suspension, which was pretty heated for everyone. While I think they can play the season through with Dubois here (though it’s unlikely), the best move is to find the right deal and get this thing over with. This kind of thing unfortunately seems to follow the Blue Jackets around, and they need a room full of guys who want to be here.
What’s more likely: the Blue Jackets find their true No. 1, or Oliver Bjorkstrand leads the team in total scoring?
SAM: Bjorkstrand really truly breaking out makes a lot of sense to me. As long as he stays healthy, he should be seeing 18 minutes a night. He’s fantastic offensively and is sneaky good defensively. He should be at worst a top-two scorer on the team this season.
DAN: I think it’s more likely that Bjorkstrand leads the team in scoring. Both goalies have shown that, with consistent starts, they can absolutely be dominant NHL netminders. But in a 56-game sprint with a ton of back-to-backs, the coaching staff will be reluctant to lean on one over the other (barring injury/sickness). Bjorkstrand is poised to have a breakout season. He’s been on an upward trajectory over the past 24 months, and with an increased role (and thus increased playing time), he should once again lead the team in goals, and in this season, points (stay tuned for my bad surprise to see why he’ll beat out Dubois).
JACOB: The Blue Jackets' two-headed monster of a goaltending tandem will live on. Last year, Joonas Korpisalo (37 starts) and Elvis Merzlikins (33 starts) split time almost equally, and I anticipate things going that way this year as well. Both goaltenders can put a good run of games together, and Tortorella will ride the hot hand, but I don't think that a definite #1 goaltender will emerge. With that in mind, Bjorkstrand will lead the team in scoring. He carried the team for spells last year, and he's got Dubois on his line again.
ED: This is tricky, but I think the Blue Jackets want to know who their long-term solution is between the pipes, so they’ll create a No. 1 if a No. 1 doesn’t create himself. It’s easy to forgot that Korpisalo and Merzlikins are only 15 days apart in age. Even though it seems like Korpisalo has been here forever, he’s still only 25, and is actually the younger (again, by two weeks) of the two netminders. So if another team wants the younger of the two goalies – they technically want Korpisalo, and I think that gets lost in the shuffle a lot.
ROB: Give me the goalie, if for no other reason than I think they’ll be forced into a decision one way or the other. From a management perspective, they put more eggs into Elvis Merzlikins’ basket when they signed both he and Joonas Korpisalo to new contracts last year. I have no idea where this lands – my money’s on Elvis, though – but I also think we’re heading for a big season out of Bjorkstrand.
Is this John Tortorella’s last season behind the bench in Columbus?
SAM: It kind of feels like it. He hasn’t really wanted to talk about it and I would say, given the consistency of the team, there is no reason why management would not want him back. This isn’t his best team to date, so I do wonder if getting another swipe at the Cup would be more important than anything else.
DAN: If the answer is yes, it’s by his own volition and not because of a firing. When the Blue Jackets hired Tortorella, they were a franchise that, in 15 years, had little by way of sustained success, respect around the league, and a genuine identity. Tortorella has emphatically checked all three of those boxes. To me, it comes down to Tortorella’s desire to coach this team. As well as any coach in the NHL, Tortorella understands the notion that every coach is hired to eventually be replaced. Has the time come for him to hand over the reins to an assistant coach, like Brad Shaw? Perhaps.
JACOB: I certainly hope not. He's turned the franchise into a perennial playoff team with aspirations to do more. Like Dan noted, it won't be because the Blue Jackets ask him to leave. He has developed a roster that plays with his style day in and day out, and it has produced results unlike what the franchise has seen before. If the Blue Jackets finish out of a playoff spot this season, then I think you can start to bring the conversation up. But I don't think it's his last season.
ROB: Woof, this is tough. Does he want to be here? No question. Does he love coaching this team? Absolutely. But I think at some point, the whole situation wears too much on Torts. He’s got off-ice drama every other year, the contract negotiations he’s gone through never seem to be easy, and he’s paid in the lower end of coaches across the NHL. Short of winning a Stanley Cup, hasn’t the guy done just about everything you could have asked for? Sure, COVID has put a financial crunch on every team, but the Blue Jackets found $10 million for Max Domi, $10 million for a guy who wants out, and surely they can pay their coach if they want to keep him. Long story short, I’m leaning toward this season being the swan song for Tortorella in Columbus.
Give us one good surprise, and one bad surprise for the 2020-21 Blue Jackets.
SAM: My good surprise is that one of the young guns offensively breaks out. Whether that be Liam Foudy or Emil Bemstrom, it remains to be seen. They’re going to get opportunities though. As for the bad surprise, the Blue Jackets are going to get pennies on the dollar for Dubois. It isn’t immediately obvious who the partners are and if they can’t find a suitor, they may just fold early and trade him.
DAN: Like Rob suggests below, my bad surprise is that the Dubois narrative carries more weight than expected and becomes untenable. This puts pressure on GM Jarmo Kekalainen to make a move, and, with other teams handing out anvils and not life rafts, the Blue Jackets get a less than ideal return for a less than ideal situation. My good surprise is that “the kids”, led by Alexandre Texier, Emil Bemstrom, and Liam Foudy, exceed expectations and help bolster a lineup that needs an infusion of offense.
JACOB: My good surprise is that the Blue Jackets will be a much better offensive team this season. Mikhail Grigorenko will help, and moving Boone Jenner to the wing, where he's much more productive, will produce goals. Emil Bemstrom is just off of a fantastic stretch in Liiga, and Alexandre Texier gets to play at his natural position: center. Now, the bad surprise: the goaltending takes a step back. A big reason that Merzlikins and Korpisalo were so successful last year was because of the blue-liners in front of them. They didn't face many dangerous shots. But with Ryan Murray and Markus Nutivaara gone, there won't be as much depth as last year. Michael Del Zotto and Dean Kukan as a third pairing will be electric to watch, but won't provide much in the form of defensive defensemen.
ED: The good surprise is that Columbus gets consistent, productive play from Mikhail Grigorenko. He’s looked sharp in camp and the expectations are fairly low, so if he can put together a 25-point season (in an 82-game season, that would equate to 37 points) – which I think he will – that’s going to be one more offensive weapon than we’re expecting this season. For a team that has strengths between the pipes and on the blue line, that’s huge. The bad surprise, is that Grigorenko needs to be that productive because the injury bug comes back. The sprint that is the 2020-21 schedule is one that makes me nervous, and I think we see a few guys go down because of it.
ROB: My good surprise will be where they finish – I think they can get as high as third in the Central Division. My bad surprise? The Dubois situation is going to be a stinker, more than it already is. Tortorella acknowledged this week that his relationship with Dubois has featured its share of conflict (which he believes is good, though the player may disagree) and the situation just seems way too combustible to work.
Finally, is this a top-four team (playoff team) in the Central Division?
SAM: Yes. Something would really have to go wrong for them to not make it. They have clear advantages over the other teams they would be competing against in the fourth spot.
DAN: Yes, but only because they were (luckily? arbitrarily?) placed into the Central Division and not the East. The Central is top heavy with the defending Stanley Cup Champion-Tampa Bay Lightning, but after that it’s really up for grabs. At the bottom of the division, the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings don’t pose much of a threat in 2021. That leaves three spots for Dallas, Columbus, Carolina, Nashville, and Florida. I think this team is discernibly better than Florida and marginally better than Nashville (and frankly, right there with Dallas and Carolina). Plus, in a 56-game sprint where effort and discipline are key, teams that can keep the puck out of the net (Read: Columbus) have an advantage. This is a playoff team.
JACOB: Hell yeah. I could see them finishing as high as third, and if Korpisalo or Merzlikins get hot, they could go higher than that.
ED: I gave my predictions for the central division this week, and it comes down to Columbus, Nashville, and Carolina battling for two postseason spots (behind Tampa Bay and Dallas). In the end, the former Metro Division teams make it, and Nashville sits at home. Columbus the 3rd spot, Carolina the 4th – by a single point.
ROB: See above. I’m bullish on this year’s Blue Jackets, baby.