Here we go.
The last month of the NHL regular season is nearly upon us, and for the Columbus Blue Jackets, every game is worth watching.
The prize is an obvious one: Connor Bedard is not your typical top prospect and has good potential to become synonymous with a name like Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, or another Connor — the Oilers' McDavid. The second-place prize, Adam Fantilli, is the number one pick in most other drafts, and even the third pick, widely expected to be Leo Carlsson, would go number one in some years.
And because of that, the mission is a simple one: embrace the losses, and become huge fans of teams including the Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, and Arizona Coyotes.
Make no mistake about it: there's absolutely no way that general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and other Columbus brass want to see the Blue Jackets play themselves out of the best odds for a top spot. It's happened before: in the 2014-15 season, the Blue Jackets were among the worst teams in the league but finished 15-1-1. They still missed the playoffs, finished with the 8th pick in the draft and got Zach Werenski. A good get, sure, but the top prize went to Edmonton and the 26-year-old McDavid has 819 points in 552 games.
So give Kekalainen (and anyone else in the organization) these two options, and promise that the answer stays anonymous:
A) Finish 10-5-4, add 24 points and finish with the sixth-worst record.
B) Finish 5-10-4, add 14 points and finish with the worst record.
Spoiler: they're all picking B — and for the sake of the next two decades, so too should butts that fill Nationwide Arena.
This doesn't require that a Blue Jackets faithful actively root against their favorite team (though one could, and many are). A few wins to keep some morale are fine, especially in front of the home crowd, but truly: what good is a win in San Jose next week against another bad team? That has serious potential to flip the proverbial ping pong balls, and is a Tuesday night win in southern California (that most Columbus fans aren't awake to see) really worth it? Really?
Here's where things stand as of today:
In the meantime, an updated look at the bottom five:
A deep dive this afternoon at @1stOhioBattery into what the last five weeks of the season can mean for the #CBJ in what, at this point, is a mission to give yourself the best odds at Connor Bedard.— CBJ Stats (@BlueJacketStats) March 6, 2023
In the meantime, an updated look at the bottom five. pic.twitter.com/Ec0ebIBEK8
Let's recap this, one point at a time:
Despite playing a little better lately, the Blue Jackets still own the worst record in the league. (See above about morale wins.)
They are on pace for the fewest points in the league, projected to finish about one game worse than the Blackhawks and Sharks.
It would take a monumental run (a la the above-mentioned 15-1-1 finish) to finish outside of the bottom five, meaning that Columbus should — at worst — have an 8.5% chance to draft Bedard.
The Blue Jackets cannot pick up more than two points between now and this weekend, and even that would require a win in Pittsburgh — something the Blue Jackets have not done in more than seven years. In other words, unless Columbus pulls off a massive upset Tuesday night against Crosby and company, the Blue Jackets are guaranteed to still have the best odds to draft Bedard at the end of this workweek.
Every other bottom-five team has at least three games this week (Chicago and Anaheim have Friday night games).
While not fun to endure, this is a quintessential "make the most of what you have" scenario. Reality must trump fandom here.
But Columbus' play the final five weeks is only a part of the story. While absolute tanks by the Vancouver Canucks or Montreal Canadiens could thrust them into watch territory, both are on pace to finish with more than 70 points and at least for now, we'll dismiss them as a serious threat to finish bottom three. (Still, their remaining schedule will be included below.)
That leaves four teams in play to directly compete with the Blue Jackets for the top spot: the Blackhawks, the Ducks, the Sharks, and the Coyotes.
First up, let's see who those teams have left on the schedule:
Good catch! Fixed. https://t.co/zr6r9oDjxC pic.twitter.com/efLijkFzhd— CBJ Stats (@BlueJacketStats) March 6, 2023
And from there, a breakdown of what it means:
After facing Ottawa on Monday night in Chicago, the Blackhawks have eight of their next nine on the road. With one exception, all of those eight opponents are either in a playoff spot or within six points of one. The exception is Arizona, a game that would behoove the Blue Jackets by going into overtime and becoming a three-point game. It doesn't get much easier after that stretch, either, with only three of Chicago's final ten opponents (Vancouver, St. Louis, and Philadelphia) completely out of playoff position. With the Blackhawks sellers at the deadline and moving their top two leaders in points (Patrick Kane and, uh, Max Domi), Chicago may be the team most worth watching down the stretch.
An eight-game homestand awaits the Ducks beginning Sunday, with three games (Columbus, Vancouver, St. Louis) in which Anaheim may be the favorite. Three games against the floundering Calgary Flames (one as a part of the lengthy homestand) could be beneficial to the Blue Jackets. The game against the Blue Jackets on St. Patrick's Day is Anaheim's final game against an Eastern Conference opponent; the final 13 are against the west, with nine at home at The Pond. The Ducks are 4-0-1 in their last five and started that stretch with back-to-back regulation wins on the road against Washington and Carolina.
Winnipeg and Colorado, pretty much. Of the Sharks final 19 games, six of them (three each) are against the Jets and Avalanche. That's not good news for the Blue Jackets as both jockey for a top two-or-three spot in the Central Division. Three road games in Canada (Winnipeg, Calgary, and Edmonton) to end the season are no breeze. Their matchup against the Blue Jackets next Tuesday, as mentioned above, is one where it may be okay to just root for a good game where both teams have fun — and where the Sharks win in regulation.
They've played .500 hockey in their last ten games, and that's good news for central Ohio. Here's more good news: Of the Coyotes final 19 games, all but six are from their home base at Arizona State University — a place where they have a winning record of 14-11-3. There's a tough stretch late in March where they play Edmonton or Colorado in four consecutive games, but aside from that, the schedule is manageable. Three of the Coyotes last five games are against the Kraken, but the other two (Anaheim and Vancouver) are winnable, and hopefully in overtime.
Add up all the schedules, dissect all the numbers, and you get this: According to tankathon.com, the worldwide leader in tanking, the Blue Jackets have the toughest remaining schedule of the five. It's not terribly daunting, ranking 12th toughest in the league. But it's tougher than Chicago (barely, at 13th), San Jose (17th), Arizona (23rd), and Anaheim (26th).
Root how you wish from here on out, but if Bedard is wearing a Blackhawks sweater this time next year and running roughshod around the league, don't forget to ask yourself this: was a couple of wins in southern California at 1:00am last March worth it?