Analysis: Just As They Did a Year Ago, the Blue Jackets Must (Slightly) Reinvent Themselves Once Again

By Rob Mixer on September 26, 2017 at 7:05 am
Zach Werenski
Russell LaBounty - USA TODAY Sports

We live in a society that thrives on comparison.

This person is a lot like that person who was popular 60 years ago. This draft pick reminds us of another player who is really good, so it's probably unfair to the draft pick to make the comparison, but what the hell? Let's do it anyway. Many things we say and do are juxtaposed with something else, and we're often left to wonder what we need to do to be more like what we're comparing or being compared to.

Unfortunately, sports is one of the arenas in which comparison is near impossible to avoid. The Columbus Blue Jackets are no exception.

Probably more than anyone, this group of players is anxious to get the season underway if only for one reason: they need to forget about last season. What was the most successful season in Blue Jackets history brought the team and organization more headlines, attention and criticism than any other time in the franchise's 17-year history. It has followed them into the offseason, primarily not for their 108-point regular season but for their five-game stay in the postseason. What they accomplished last season was noteworthy in the scope of club history, but it can't have any bearing on what's to come.

Will they hit 108 points again? Probably not. Will they win 50 games? Unlikely.

But that's not to say anything in the neighborhood would be a disappointment; making the playoffs in this edition of the NHL is harder than it's ever been. The Blue Jackets are in the league's most unforgiving division, surrounded by some of the NHL's elite franchises that are chasing their own ghosts (Washington) and motivated by a string of close calls (New York Rangers). They have up-and-comers like Carolina and dark horses like New Jersey breathing down their necks.

Columbus followed a plan last season that worked for its roster, worked for its personalities and fit what was fueling the team -- and it paid off in a big way. But with a new season comes new faces, new blood and another opportunity to get ahead and stay ahead. If they're going to do it, it's going to require a different approach.

John Tortorella brought "safe is death" back to life (pardon the pun) last season and turned the Blue Jackets loose. Their defensemen were running wild up in the rush, creating second-layer attacks and catching the opposition in odd-man situations all over the ice. They relied on incredible depth to support an infallible power play and their goaltender stopped 93 percent of the shots he faced. They have that goaltender, they have augmented personnel up front but their depth is undergoing a serious face lift, and it's the No. 1 reason why things might be a little different off the jump here in 2017-18.

They're going to have to play faster and take more chances. That's why they acquired Artemi Panarin. He's not a safe player and he's not going to be shy about shooting the puck, and though he's viewed as the solution to the Blue Jackets' volume problem, they still need to generate more shots and attempts than they did a year ago. At even strength, the Blue Jackets were a 51 percent CF% team, which is pretty good but not good enough to crack the top layer of NHL teams.

There will be bumps and curveballs (to borrow from John Davidson) with their bottom six. It's in flux. They have yet to get Josh Anderson signed. Brandon Dubinsky is on the mend and Boone Jenner is still recovering from a "middle-body" injury, meaning some players are shuffling around while others are getting an extended audition. The bottom of the lineup is going to look different if Sonny Milano makes the cut over, say, Markus Hannikainen. Same applies to Tyler Motte over Vitaly Abramov, or some other combination therein. Tortorella was great at adapting the Blue Jackets' style to play to his roster's strengths a year ago, and it's going to be even more important at least to start 2017-18.

Finally, they need to ask less of Sergei Bobrovsky.

You could see the agony on Tortorella's face when Curtis McElhinney imploded in the third period last January against the New York Rangers. In a game where he needed his backup - resting Bobrovsky after the Blue Jackets' 16-game winning streak came to an end - McElhinney was given a 4-1 lead and lost in regulation. It was hard to watch.

He was left with only one choice, and that was to play Bobrovsky as often as reason allowed.

They lucked out with Bobrovsky's health, which has not been kind to him over the years. But they'd be wise to not test their luck once again, meaning Joonas Korpisalo needs to be the goaltender we saw Saturday in Chicago (good!) and not the one we saw Tuesday in Columbus (bad!). He is an important player not just this season but also in the years ahead, and being able to ably spell Bobrovsky and deliver points is something Tortorella should expect from his No. 2 goaltender. It's crucial.

So, let's rewind to the beginning.

Like it or not, we're going to struggle with comparison here. If the Blue Jackets finish the season with 93, 94, or 95 points, that's still pretty darn good and likely gets them back into the playoffs. They may not always look like the team you watched last year, and that's fine, because they're not that team. They started 27-5-4.

Twenty-seven. Five. And Four.

They have to go about their business differently this year, and you can bet their opponents will be approaching games against them with a different vibe. This season is a huge test for the Blue Jackets, but first, let's give them a chance to figure out who they are.

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