2022-23 Blue Jackets Haven't Been Able To Display Same Never-Say-Die Vigor As In '21-22

By Will Chase on December 27, 2022 at 1:45 pm
Columbus Blue Jackets' Elvis Merzlikins stops a shot in the third period against the Los Angeles Kings at Nationwide Arena.
Gaelen Morse-USA TODAY Sports

10 wins in 33 games.

The Columbus Blue Jackets are limping into their post-Christmas schedule. With a 10-21-2 mark, they’re 30th of 32 teams in the standings with 22 points, and only two points ahead of the league basement.

Originally slated to host Tage Thompson and the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday at Nationwide Arena, the game was postponed on Monday due to weather and will be made up at a later time. They'll also have to make up their game from Nov. 26 against the Nashville Predators which was canceled due to a water main break at Bridgestone Arena.

Losers of a season-high six straight games, you'd have to go back to the 2015-16 season for the last time the Blue Jackets were under .500 at the Christmas break. They were most recently on the wrong end of a 5-2 loss to the league-worst Chicago Blackhawks on Friday at the United Center. 

Last season, the Blue Jackets teetered right around the .500 mark all season long, perhaps providing false hope of how far away this team really is. 

Throughout last year, they were boosted by depth players like Justin Danforth (14 points in 45 games — 10 goals, four assists), who will miss the rest of this season with a torn labrum. They lost fan favorite Nick Blankenburg and though he’s only played in 14 career games, he has seemingly played with an edge or found a way to impact any game he’s played in since debuting last April, only adding to his cult-like following.

Last season, they had 12 different players score at least 10 goals and they had 43 goals from their defensemen, which placed them sixth in that latter category. 

The long laundry list of players on injured reserve this season is just that. That, of course, makes it tough to win. Head coach Brad Larsen has had to rely on just about anyone and everybody this season. From Marcus Bjork making his NHL debut and quarterbacking the power play, to Daniil Tarasov resembling more of a No. 1 goaltender for the Blue Jackets at times, in place of the struggling Elvis Merzlikins, when Tarasov was expected to be developing in Cleveland. Merzlikins appeared in 59 games last season and only 14 so far. Joonas Korpisalo also played well at times.

The No. 1 defenseman in Zach Werenski is out, as is Jake Bean, while Adam Boqvist, returning from a broken foot, just played in his fifth game of the season on Friday. Jake Voracek nearly set the franchise assist mark last season, and now his career is in doubt, though he's surely going to attempt to come back when health allows. Yegor Chinakhov recently went down with an ankle injury.

Kirill Marchenko and David Jirieck have already made their NHL debuts and it doesn't appear Marchenko is going back to Cleveland anytime soon. Which is among the few happy storylines.

Kent Johnson has begun his emergence in his first full season. Johnny Gaudreau has been everything you'd expect and Patrik Laine, twice dealing with an injury, has also shown his offensive prowess.

Jack Roslovic has been largely invisible throughout large stretches. Cole Sillinger was in the middle of a sophomore slump before an injury sidelined him.

If this team is close to full strength, they're likely better than their record shows. But reaching code red status also points out the various flaws the team has and holes needing to be addressed like defense and goaltending.

If you're going to be bad, this is the season to do it with Connor Bedard and lots of other talented young players ahead in the draft.

While you can tolerate losses in a down season, and regardless of which side you fall on the 'to tank or not strategy,' one thing everyone can agree on is you want to see a competitive effort by this team. Which is what you could point to last season.

A different group in a new year with lots of injuries aside, the season quickly got away from the club after a 3-7-0 October. By the time they managed to rip off three wins in four games by mid-November, they were tied with the Ottawa Senators in the conference basement.

This season, the Jackets are 3-16-1 when the opposition scores first. Last season, they were 16-27-4 in that category and they set a franchise mark with 23 comeback wins.

Hockey Reference Overall Home Away
Scoring First 7-5-1 5-3-0 2-2-1
Opponent Scores First 3-16-1 3-8-1 0-8-0
When Outshooting Opponent 1-5-0 1-3-0 0-2-0
When Outshot by Opponent 9-15-2 7-8-1 2-7-1
1-Goal Games 0-2 0-2 0-0
when After 1 ...      
Lead 7-2-0 5-1-0 2-1-0
Trail 2-15-1 2-7-1 0-8-0
Tie 1-4-1 1-3-0 0-1-1
when After 2 ...      
Lead 5-0-0 3-0-0 2-0-0
Trail 2-16-1 2-8-1 0-8-0
Tie 3-5-1 3-3-0 0-2-1

Just as it seemed like they were never out of games last season, they haven't been able to muster the same kind of resiliency this year. Then again, 23 comeback wins out of 37 is not a sustainable metric one can rely on. Not with a defense as bad as it is and then further depleted by injury.

They're not putting the puck in the net to the degree that they did last season. This year they're 26th in goals per game (2.70). They're giving up 4.06 goals a game (31st). They already gave up too many goals last season, and this year, the depleted blue line plays a significant role in that.

Since every team deals with injury, are Larsen and the coaching staff getting the most out of their roster, which we know isn't an ideal, fully healthy roster?

Can you imagine the Jackets lucking into one of either Connor Bedard or Adam Fantilli and playing either star prospect on the third line for 10 minutes a night?

For those in the fire Larsen crowd, it's pretty likely the Jackets will be onto their next coach for when they're ready to contend. But you hope for now that Larsen and Co. can develop the current roster, including Johnson, Marchenko, Sillinger, and the rest of the budding core, massaging the fine line between developing but also trying to win each night.

Yes, though management and the coaching staff are aware of the elephant in the room, they're never going to imply anything other than try to win each game.

The tank crowd might take solace in the fact that even if the team is trying to win each night, they're simply not good enough, or healthy enough to be able to rack up many wins. If Larsen is trying to win by making the lineup decisions he is, then they're probably not really racking up many wins anyway.

Would you rather see a player like Marchenko playing deep into a game down a goal or the Eric Robinson - Sean Kuraly - Mathieu Olivier line?

John Tortorella used to preach safe is death. At this juncture, if Larsen was safe after the Sabres' 9-4 win on Dec. 7, he's not going anywhere this season. Neither is the team. The time is now to take the training wheels off, stop coaching safe or scared, and let the kids play and make mistakes.

Even though coaches coach to win, we need to see the core make strides as they’ll have a lasting impact on this club into the future.

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