The Blue Jackets are nothing if not interesting, aren't they?
Which sets up beautifully for another roundtable with the 1st Ohio Battery editorial staff. This time, we're talking about where the Blue Jackets stand at the NHL All-Star break, the heated race they're in for a playoff spot, and how their roster might change over the next few weeks.
Let's get right to it.
Let’s take stock of the situation. The Blue Jackets are 28-17-3 and second place in the Metropolitan Division...with a brief explanation, assign them a letter grade through 48 games.
SB: B-. They have been a good team this year. They have enough talent on this roster to be an A+ team. That is the issue. Expectations are high and they aren’t meeting them. It is odd to say that about the Blue Jackets. It is like when you’re promised an Oscar winning movie is out of this world but when you finally take it in, you’re just underwhelmed. The Blue Jackets are “Inside Llewyn Davis,” in that I am sure people enjoy it, but I expect so much more.
KM: The Blue Jackets are that kid who skates by with B’s on talent who would be valedictorian if they put in the effort. They have the talent to be contenders, but too many of their players just look lost out there on a night-to-night basis. Zach Werenski and Sergei Bobrovsky should be franchise cornerstone type players. Alexander Wennberg and Oliver Bjorkstrand were expected to be legit top six contributors. Any of those four guys playing up to expectations would be a huge boost to this team. If they had league-average goaltending or a league-average power play – and the talent is there for the Jackets to be comfortably above-average in both areas – we’d all feel a lot better about this team’s performance. But hey, they’re still in a good spot.
DD: It’s difficult to assign the team an all-encompassing letter grade, but I’d say they’re a B. On the one hand, if you would have told me in September that this team would be second in the Metropolitan and ahead of Washington and Pittsburgh at the All-Star break, I would have been thrilled. On the other hand, it’s a team that fails to scream ‘Stanley Cup contender’, and that’s the next step to take. If Artemi Panarin or Sergei Bobrovsky’s futures were clearer, it would be easier to grade the team, but with them playing potentially their final games in a Blue Jackets jersey, it’s hard to be much more optimistic than a “B."
CP: I like to see the good as much as I can in things, so I’m going to give the Blue Jackets a solid B, and I still sort of feel like that’s being generous. On some nights they look like they can compete with the best, and then just when expectations and hopes start to arise, they fall flat on their face for a couple games, and then the cycle continues. Goaltending has been a roller coaster, their offense has wavered but overall has been solid, and their special teams is atrocious. Let’s see what Jackets’ team decides to come out of the locker room after the All-Star break.
What’s your biggest concern about the Blue Jackets?
SB: They have absolutely no depth. They have offensively focused players but with the top two lines being set, they aren’t getting spread out effectively. The best on best is a competition the Blue Jackets should come out ahead on but I don’t give their bottom six the edge over a lot of lineups.
KM: The forward group is super top-heavy. Boone Jenner has filled in admirably as the team’s second center, but it’s tough to say that he’s a legit 2C on a contender in the modern NHL. Alexander Wennberg has that ability, but hasn’t come close to showing that all season. Funny enough, both guys struggled mightily last year until being placed on a line with trade deadline acquisition Thomas Vanek. The Blue Jackets want to be a fast, skilled team – and their defense drives that – but without a player like Vanek who can slow the game down a bit and go to the dirty areas, they end up missing a lot of opportunities, and finding themselves in a track meet.
DD: The obvious answer here is the power play, but I’ll go off the board. This team lacks a second line center in the worst way. It desperately needs Alexander Wennberg to be 2016-17 Wennberg, but truth be told, he hasn’t even come close to what a second line center needs to be. Riley Nash was signed as an insurance policy to move up the lineup, but he’s been bad (though better in recent games). Brandon Dubinsky is years removed from being a top-six player. It’s hard to imagine where this team would be without Pierre-Luc Dubois. Until this team can at least attempt to match the Capitals (Backstrom/Kuznetsov) and Penguins (Crosby/Malkin) down the middle, we’re just pretending that the Blue Jackets are a real threat to go on a Cup run.
CP: The power play, 110%. Since 2000, only two teams have won the Stanley Cup that haven’t been in the top-20 in the league in man-advantage efficiency. The Blue Jackets are near the absolute bottom of the NHL in this category, and it needs to change, quick, because it seems like they’ve almost been winning in spite of how poor their power play is. Hopefully the addition of Martin St. Louis as a team consultant will pay big dividends.
Name one “dream” acquisition at the trade deadline, one player who is both potentially available and who catapults them into “contender” status.
SB: Being that I am the last person filling this out, I don’t want to take other peoples choices. Let’s go for an outside the box choice. Mark Stone is the player the Blue Jackets should acquire at the deadline. He can immediately boost the offense for the Blue Jackets and he can then be a backup for Panarin if he ends up leaving. You’re able to kill two birds with one...Stone.
DD: Kind of a loaded question, because if they keep Panarin and Bobrovsky through the deadline, I don’t think they should go “big game hunting”. But if they do, give me Matt Duchene. He would potentially solve a lot of the Blue Jackets issues: faceoffs, power play, second line center, and extra scoring punch (he’s scored 20 goals already this season). Duchene had been linked to the Blue Jackets before he was traded to the Senators, and I think there’s a chance Columbus makes a run at him this summer when he becomes an unrestricted free agent (though word is the Senators have the inside track and are negotiating with Duchene). He’s not the perfect player, but he’s a major upgrade at the 2C position.
CP: Jonathan Huberdeau. This is under the assumption that we’d be willing to give up someone like Sergei Bobrovsky, and I personally am okay with that happen. Huberdeau is a near point-per-game guy right now, and any talent that the Florida Panthers have are certainly frustrated with their current standing. Give Bob, Sonny Milano, and a pick maybe? Wennberg might need to take Milano’s place in that for the Panthers to agree, but an offensive boost beyond the first line would be a big-time boost for the Jackets right now.
KM: Huberdeau certainly fits the definition of a ‘dream’ acquistion– he’s an elite player with a super team-friendly deal (four more years at a $5.9M AAV) but that’s precisely why he won’t actually be available. I’m on the record (on the Battery Life podcast) as saying that the Blue Jackets probably won’t make too much noise, but we’re talking about *my* dream scenario here. If I’m dreaming big, give me Ryan O’Reilly, who would give the Blue Jackets a legit 1-2 punch at center and could play big minutes in the postseason. If I’m being a bit more realistic and limiting it to pending UFAs, give me Mats Zuccarello, who could play the Thomas Vanek role this year and help Alexander Wennberg find his game.
Gut feeling on Artemi Panarin: staying or leaving?
SB: Staying. I am an eternal optimist. Why not believe Panarin is going to stay. You can do worse than $80 million dollars in Columbus, Ohio. Why not stay and become a legend?
KM: Who knows? On one hand, Panarin seems to be having fun. On the other hand, the universe is a bleak, apathetic hellscape, assigning meaning to anything is a fool’s errand, everything is a mistake, morality and sentimentality are human constructs, and the Chicago Blackhawks will have about $18 million of cap space this summer. Hope is for suckers. Eat at Arby’s.
DD: My opinion on this changes almost day-to-day. If they can’t agree to a contract, I think you have to trade him, personally. I’m too jaded to convince myself that he’s going to have a change of heart and sign in Columbus, but I hope I’m wrong. Ask me again after Jarmo Kekalainen meets with Panarin’s agent, Dan Milstein. Put me down for ‘leaving’ with a caveat that I’ll probably have changed my mind to ‘staying’ by the time this publishes.
CP: Staying. Haven’t changed on that opinion since the season started. I think Panarin realizes that playing for a ‘big-city’ team during the season doesn’t mean a whole lot when you’re traveling every other day. Go off wherever you want every summer, we don’t care - just stick with a team that looks like they are on the rise to Cup contention.
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