In their 15-year history, the Columbus Blue Jackets have made the playoffs twice, during the 2008-09 season where they exorcised the demons of sub-mediocrity and qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs under the tutelage of future Hall of Fame coach Ken Hitchcock. Then came a quick and maddening descent which led to the ultimate firing of Hitchcock less than a year later, followed then by reaching the nadir of having the National Hockey League’s (NHL’s) worst record during the 2011-12 season.
After this cataclysmic disaster, John Davidson was hired as the President of Hockey Operations during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and, in February, replaced then General Manager Scott Howson with Davidson’s long-time draft and player development guru, Jarmo Kekalainen. The turnaround was immediate, although the Blue Jackets suffered the heartbreak of being on the short end of the last tiebreaker. However, the Blue Jackets returned to the playoffs during the 2013-14 season, losing a heart-stopping, highly-contested 6-game series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Last season, however, the Blue Jackets, after being besieged my injuries and an initial distraction due to a contract holdout by Ryan Johansen, struggled out of the gate and it appeared the Blue Jackets were a shoo-in for a lottery pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. However, although the Blue Jackets eventually missed out on the playoffs again, they made a furious push for a long-shot last playoff slot, finishing the season with a 15-1-1 record and offering hope for the following season, once the squad recovered from the injury bug that plagued them through the first three-quarters of the season.
Fast forward to this season: the Blue Jackets made a signature trade in the off-season, acquiring the rights to, then signing, former Chicago Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad. Saad, along with Johansen and newly-named team captain Nick Foligno, form a first forward line that could rival the NHL’s better top lines as to grit, defensive responsibility, and timely scoring. The acquisition of Saad also bolstered the Blue Jackets Salary Cap totals to over $69 million, just $2 million under the NHL’s new Salary Cap ceiling of $71.4 million/team.
Another development which should boost the Blue Jackets fortunes, particularly on their blueline (defensive unit) was the clean bill of health for Ryan Murray, the Blue Jackets first pick (2nd overall) in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Murray has been saddled with injuries, missing two of his first three seasons due to knee, ankle and shoulder injuries. As Kekalainen stated during the off-season, a clean bill of health for Murray equates to a signature Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) signing.
To summarize the Blue Jackets’ fortunes for this upcoming season, it can be broken down into two aspects:
-‘IF’ the Blue Jackets can avoid the injury bug that riddled them, last season, particularly to Murray and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who also has struggled with injuries, having never played more than 58 regular season games in his career. Last season, Bobrovsky played 51 games but suffered two long-term injuries – groin and finger – which severely impacted the Blue Jackets fortunes and any momentum that they could have mustered. In fact, both injuries suffered, last season – groin and finger – have been the same type of injuries that Bobrovsky has suffered during the prior two seasons before the 2014-15 campaign. Of particular concern are the groin/lower-body injuries which, for a goaltender, are disconcerting as butterfly goalies, like Bobrovsky is, rely heavily on the lower body and groin area. Bobrovsky did attempt to address the injury issue by returning to his own personal off-season training regimen which he hopes will mitigate this issue, this season.
The other aspect that will affect the fortunes of the Blue Jackets and it’s already done so, this season, is their ability to avoid another putrid start to their season. The Blue Jackets have lost their first four games to open this season, most of which were by decidedly large margins. And it’s these sluggish starts that have cost them in at least two of head coach Todd Richards’ regime behind the Blue Jackets bench. In fact, if you include the 0-4-0 start to this season, Richards’ record for the first 20 regular as head coach of the Blue Jackets is 18-38-8. If you contrast that with his last 20 games of each of his three seasons at the helm, his record is 41-15-4. So, this factor can’t be overlooked, particularly with both the increased payroll and the expectations that go with it.
Aside from these two major aspects, if they can be overcome, one being good fortune and the other being a paradigm shift/mindset change, the table is set for a team that can ascend to the upper echelon of the Metropolitan Division, the Eastern Conference and the NHL as they are one of the NHL’s youngest teams, a team that is stacked with a formidable first forward line in Ryan Johansen, Nick Foligno and Saad, balanced and secondary scoring from the other forward lines, a solid defensive unit and a former Vezina Trophy-winning goalie in Bobrovsky, the sky is the limit for the Columbus Blue Jackets, this season.