Losing Sucks, But Is 'This' Worth It?: Blue Jackets Are Loading Up With Essential Playmakers, But Can They Develop Them?

By Will Chase on November 13, 2023 at 1:45 pm
NHL Columbus Blue Jackets center Adam Fantilli
Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

If playoffs are the goal, the Columbus Blue Jackets have their work cut out for themselves.

They're 4-7-4 in the Metropolitan Division and are last in the Eastern Conference.

With one win in their last 10 games, the Blue Jackets are only three points from fourth place in the division.

Head coach Pascal Vincent is installing his systems and trying to instill a new culture, all while teaching his young team how to play a consistent brand of hockey.

Whether the front office believed this was a playoff team or was trying to spin positive public relations, everyone understood the challenge. Results weren't going to be instantaneous overnight.

Ever since John Tortorella left, the Blue Jackets have undergone a reset as they try to get back into playoff contention.

After going 18-26-12 in 2020-21, the Blue Jackets wound up with fifth overall draft pick Kent Johnson in the 2021 NHL draft and came away with another top talent in Cole Sillinger — drafted 12th overall in 2021 — via the Seth Jones trade with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Sillinger has been trying to get back to the level we saw during his strong rookie season in 2021-22 when he played in 79 games and scored 31 points (16 goals, 15 assists). Johnson had a strong first full season last year when he became only the fourth Blue Jacket to record at least 40 points (16 goals, 24 assists) as a rookie.

Since each played their respective first full NHL seasons — Sillinger in 2021-22 and Johnson in 2022-23 — both have had individual demotions to the Cleveland Monsters to overcome struggles and to re-find their game. Sillinger last season and Johnson right now.

Not necessarily a bad thing, and both players outwardly embraced their assignments.

Were Sillinger’s struggles last season a mere sophomore slump?

There was a worry when it was announced earlier this month Johnson changed agents to Pat Brisson, who has represented other former Blue Jackets like Pierre-Luc Dubois and Seth Jones.

Johnson was demoted to the AHL on Nov. 3, a day after he was benched during the third period in a win over the Tampa Bay Lightning following a turnover. Despite the perceived optics regarding Johnson's start to the season, including two healthy scratches, and what the national media or fan base thinks, the team has maintained Johnson is a part of their future.

It's not the worst thing for a 21-year-old to reset, simplify his game, and regain confidence in a league he's never played in before but can dominate.

In four games for the Monsters, Johnson has five points (two goals, three assists).

Across 96 NHL games, Johnson has looked at times like the player he was hyped to be and now he needs to get back to that level.

As long as he’s playing well in Cleveland, it’s a matter of time before he’s back in Columbus.

Following the 2021-22 season, in which the Blue Jackets were 37-38-7 in their first year under then-head coach Brad Larsen, Columbus came away with two top defensemen in the 2022 NHL draft when they took David Jiricek with the sixth overall pick and Denton Mateychuk with the 12th overall pick.

Jiricek has been lauded as the real deal ever since he was drafted and that appears to be the case. He made his NHL debut in 2022-23 and had been a lineup regular for much of this season after Zach Werenski's opening night injury necessitated a call-up.

Curiously enough, Jiricek hasn’t played since Nov. 4 against the Washington Capitals — he had an assist in that game — sitting twice as a healthy scratch as Andrew Peeke came back into the lineup and then was sent down to Cleveland when Patrik Laine came off IR on Saturday.

Jiricek can be a big piece of the defense now, so with him back in Cleveland, what's the plan there?

Mateychuk appears close to his NHL debut in the not-so-distant future as he's continuing to rack up points for the WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors. He has 20 points (four goals, 16 assists) in 13 games.

The Blue Jackets might have thought they were ready to contend for the playoffs after a surprising first year under Larsen in which they came away with 81 points and signed Johnny Gaudreau as a UFA in the summer of 2022, but instead, the bottom fell out of the 2022-23 season, and it was over by November.

That led to a season-long discourse of Connor Bedard and trying to come away with the top odds for the first crack at him. Columbus, of course, ended up with the second-worst record, slipped to third in the lottery, and still came away with Hobey Baker winner Adam Fantilli.

Fantilli was absolutely worth the torture of last season and has looked comfortable so far in his first month of NHL action.

While Bedard is doing Bedard things and might be the consensus to win the Calder for the league's top rookie with 13 points (nine goals, four assists) in his first 13 games to this point, Fantilli is tied for fourth among rookies with nine points (four goals, five assists).

The frustration felt by the fan base is palpable with each passing day as the losses stack up and the team finds new and not-so-unusual ways to lose games.

Problems include an offense that hasn’t clicked, too many turnovers, goaltenders playing well but showing susceptibility to letting in soft goals on too many occasions, blowing too many leads, and an inability to close out games.

Over the last week, the Blue Jackets lost a game they deserved to lose when the Florida Panthers raced out to a 3-0 lead by 6:09 of the first period and were outshooting Columbus 22-1. But then Columbus collected themselves, fought back, and even had a 4-3 lead before surrendering the lead with under a minute to go and lost the game in overtime.

It was a moral victory but nothing more.

Against the Dallas Stars on Nov. 9, they raced out to a 2-0 lead only to allow five straight goals and be completely out-classed in a 5-2 loss.

A turnover here, a poor line change there, a soft goal allowed, and maybe it's 3-2 Stars. Either way, another loss.

The Detroit Red Wings beat them 5-4 on Saturday, another game in which Columbus had a lead.

On Sunday, the Blue Jackets were 11 seconds away from a win before surrendering the tying goal and losing 4-3 to the New York Rangers in a shootout.

Even though the front office expressed their desire for playoffs now, Vincent is trying to implement a new belief, attitude, and consistency in his team, one of the youngest rosters in the NHL.

It's understandable to give Vincent and the players this season to work out the kinks and make progress but Vincent isn’t willing to use youthfulness as an excuse for losses as he mentioned during last week's radio hit with Morning Juice.

"I don't care about age," Vincent said. "I really don't. I think if you can be a player in the NHL, regardless of your age, and be a positive player, what I mean by that is a player that has winning habits, you can play in the NHL and be successful as a team."

I think the primary focal point for Vincent's first season is development. Develop the young players who need to take steps this season, whether in Columbus or Cleveland, eliminate turnovers and mistakes, and learn how to close out games.

On the bright side, the Blue Jackets, notorious through the years for their extensive injury tolls, have been healthy to start this season, minus losing Werenski at the outset for a pair of games and Laine, who returned to the lineup following a concussion and scored his 200th career goal on Saturday in the 5-4 loss to the Red Wings.

One of the problems plaguing the team is a talent deficiency compared to the rest of the league. The Blue Jackets can get prospect richer with another top draft pick next summer if this season continues at the rate it's heading.

No one was expecting a Stanley Cup. Can this team show progression this season? At what point does this team take a collective next step?

"It's a behavior thing," Vincent said. "It's a confidence thing. A culture is a set of behaviors. When you think about culture, it could involve a lot of things. It could be that kind of thing where we're well-known for coming back in games. That becomes a habit, that becomes a belief system.

"It's a set of behaviors. It's a belief system. We will win some games once we've had the lead and then we'll build on those behaviors. It's a mental state and it's just about confidence, knowing the job will get done."

Columbus looks to get back in the win column on Tuesday, Nov. 14 when they host the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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