The Columbus Blue Jackets currently sit in third place in the very tight, very competitive Metropolitan Division of the National Hockey League (NHL). And although they haven’t taken themselves out of the Stanley Cup playoff race as the season isn’t even halfway over, there appear to be concerns and potential warning signs for the NHL’s youngest team.
Prior to the league’s mandated five-day break, the Blue Jackets were easily beaten by the Buffalo Sabres and the Vancouver Canucks, two teams near the bottom of the NHL’s and their respective conference and division standings. A few weeks, earlier, the Blue Jackets were soundly beaten by the Edmonton Oilers and the Boston Bruins, both by a score of 7-2. Losing by such a large margin to the Oilers, a team who has struggled to regain the traction that they displayed, last season, pummeled the Blue Jackets with their up-tempo, frenetic pace, something that can easily happen, particularly if you engage such a style often referred to by the phrase, “avoid the track meet”; however, the Bruins do not employ such a style of play, making that loss even more disturbing.
Looking further at their losses near the halfway point of the season, the numbers are quite unsettling: nine of their 18 losses have come against teams near the top of the NHL standings and in their respective divisions, by a combined total of 44-15, an average margin of 5-1. Many of their wins thus far this season have been against teams who occupy the lower portion of the standings or against teams that they are expected to win against. In short, they have yet to register a signature win against the NHL’s elite teams.
Add to that, several of the Blue Jackets’ usual stalwarts have been greatly underperforming: Alexander Wennberg is on a pace to score 34 points, this after increasing his point totals by an average of 20 points per season but at the current pace, he will drop down nearly 20 points less than his 59-point output during the 2016-17 regular season. Likewise, Boone Jenner, who tallied 30 goals during the 2015-16 regular season, dropped from 49 points to 34, last season and is on pace for a 23-point output, this season. Cam Atkinson, prior to his injury, was on pace for a 29-point season after posting career highs in points (62) and goals (35) last season. Nick Foligno is on pace for a 32-point season after registering 51 points, last season. David Savard, while not far off from his usual career point total output, is projected to go from a +33 =/- rating, last season to a -6 +/- rating, this season. The same nearly applies for defenseman and pairing partner Jack Johnson, as Johnson is on a pace to drop to a -5 +/- rating from last season’s +23. Additionally, it has been reported that Johnson has requested to be traded.
So, there is a pattern which is emerging which is of great concern leading into the heart of the regular season schedule when teams try to position themselves for a Stanley Cup berth and not an ideal one, at that.
The inability to beat the NHL’s elite teams, combined with the underperformance of so many key veteran players, would seem to indicate that while these veteran players might not be shutting out the message that head coach John Tortorella so successfully accomplished, during the team’s record-setting 2016-17 regular season, it is possible that Tortorella’s demanding style may be already wearing on some of these vital, veteran cogs. This differs from what occurred the season after the Blue Jackets’ first Stanley Cup playoff appearance in 2008-09, when then head coach Ken Hitchcock ‘lost the room’, but that was due to a lack of cohesion between Hitchcock and upper management on how to address the issues and trends that were occurring. Fortunately, in the current situation, Tortorella and his coaching staff are in lockstep with the Blue Jackets’ management brass. However, you can only blame the underperformance on ‘puck luck’ so much before deeper issues are to blame.
It’s fortunate that the Blue Jackets’ younger players, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Pierre Luc-Dubois, Josh Anderson, the scoring proclivity of off-season acquisition Artemi Panarin and their elite, top-pairing defensive duo of Zack Werenski and Seth Jones, have performed so well, otherwise, an even deeper slide could have or be occurring. Also, defending Vezina trophy-winning goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky, while not at last season’s elite level, is still within the range of his overall career statistics.
But in a division as tight as the Metropolitan division is, with the difference between the second place New Jersey Devils with 54 points and the eighth place Carolina Hurricanes with 48 points a mere six points, they will need their veteran players to kick it (performance) into gear or they risk possibly not returning to the Stanley Cup playoffs for a second consecutive season, something that the organization has yet to accomplish in their 17-year history.