We are now less than six weeks, 41 days away from the beginning of the 2015-2016 NHL season! We continue our series of season expectations around the NHL, and this week we look at the team in the Eastern Conference who is bound to have a bounce-back season after missing the playoffs in the 2014-2015 season.
If there was one team last year who was playoff worthy, but was riddled with injury after injury, that would be the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Going into last season, many had picked Columbus to return to the playoffs after losing in the first round to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2014 playoffs.
The 2014-15 season for Columbus started with the Blue Jackets winning four of its first six games. However, the Blue Jackets would tie its franchise record for the worst losing streak with nine consecutive games. The Blue Jackets would get two wins in a row to break the streak, but would then lose the next six games after to end the month of November.
December would be a turn-around month for Columbus, as the Jackets broke its six game losing streak, and went on to win its next seven games. Columbus would end up winning 10 of 12 games in the month. The Blue Jackets would go into the 2015 calendar year with a 16-16-3 record, 35 points, and eight points out of the final wild card spot in the East.
At this point in the season, the Blue Jackets had already lost a good portion of its roster to injury.
Boone Jenner was on injured reserve in the preseason for a broken finger, and would go back on injured reserve with a stress fracture in his back in December. Center Artem Anisimov was another player who missed time on injured reserve with a concussion and also a torn tricep. Other players who were hurt in the first two months and missed some significant time were defenseman Ryan Murray (knee), winger Nathan Horton (back), goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and winger Scott Hartnell (broken finger), and centers Brandon Dubinsky and Mark Letetstu (abdomen).
January would spell more injury issues for the Jackets as Bobrovsky would once again hit the injured reserve list with a groin injury. Without Bobrovsky earlier in the year, Columbus went 1-6-1 with Curtis McElhinney starting most of the games. Bobrovsky left January 21st’s game against the Winnipeg Jets after tracking a puck wide of the Blue Jackets net and injuring his groin. Without Bobrovsky, the second time, Columbus would go 6-10-1 without its former Vezina Trophy winner as Goaltender of the Year.
The the NHL Trade Deadline, the Blue Jackets made an interesting trade by shipping out injured forward, Nathan Horton to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for forward, David Clarkson. Clarkson had a rough go of it with the Leafs, after signing a big deal with Toronto in free agency a year before.
Clarkson would only play in three games for the Jackets before missing the rest of the season with a torn oblique muscle.
Bobrovsky would return in early March, but the Jackets were far out from a playoff spot with just 20 games left in the season. At the time of Bobrovsky’s return, the Jackets were 26-32-4 with only 56 points, and 15 points out of a wild card spot in the East.
Columbus would go 4-3-0 in the first seven games of Bobrovsky’s return, and then the Jackets would catch fire down the strectch. Columbus would go on to win nine straight games, and climb up the ladder in the standings.
After an overtime loss to the New York Rangers to snap the win streak, the Blue Jackets would go on to win its final three games on the season. The Blue Jackets would finish the final 13 games of the season going 12-0-1, and finished the year just nine points out of the playoffs.
In the end, Columbus finished the 2014-15 campaign with a 42-35-5 record, 89 points, and ended up picking eight in the 2015 NHL Draft.
What is more astounding is how many man-games the Blue Jackets lost this season due to injuries throughout the roster. In all, the Blue Jackets lost a total of 508 man-games due to injuries, especially to its top players. The next closest team was Colorado with 495 man-games lost, and then Buffalo with 368 man-games lost. To put it simple, injuries kill teams. Columbus was the main victim this year to the injury-bug.
The Blue Jackets went into the offseason looking to possibly re-sign some players, and also improve its depth around the ice.
Columbus first re-signed defensemen Justin Falk (one-year) and Cody Goloubef (two-years) to new contracts, then re-signed backup goaltender McElhinney to a new two-year deal to remain as the backup for Bobrovsky.
At the NHL Draft, the Blue Jackets drafted defenseman Zach Werekski with the eighth overall selection. Werenski spent last season in the NCAA with the University of Michigan Wolverines. Werenski finished the year with nine goals and 16 assists in 35 games played with Michigan. Werenski was the youngest player in the NCAA last season at the age of 17. Werenski is expected to return to Michigan for his sophomore year of college.
Just a few days later, a day before NHL free agency opened for business, the Blue Jackets made one of the biggest trades of the NHL offseason. The Blue Jackets made a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks to acquire the rights to restricted free agent, Brandon Saad. Columbus also acquired defensemen Michael Paliotta and Alexander Broadhusrt in the deal with Chicago. The return would not be so cheap, however, as the Jackets would send Anisimov, winger Jeremy Morin, center Marko Dano, winger Corey Tropp, and a 4th-rounnd pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.
Saad, 22, was hoping to re-sign in Chicago where he had just won his second Stanley Cup in three seasons with the Blackhawks. After negotiations fell through, Columbus acquired his rights and, a few days later, signed him to a new six-year, $36 million contract to be a top player on an already young Blue Jackets roster.
The 6′ 1″, 202-pound left winger had just come off of a career-year with the Blackhawks scoring 23 goals and adding 29 assists in a full 82-game schedule. Saad also had eight goals and three assists in all 23 games played with Chicago in the playoffs.
Saad is a stellar two-way forward, who can be utilized in any situation on the ice. Saad can play on the powerplay, can be very efficient on the penalty kill, and also can be a player you utilize in a late-game situation when you need a goal or need to preserve a lead. Saad has underrated speed which he can use to catch defenders off guard and break away for a chance in on net. Saad’s hockey sense allows him to find open space in the offensive zone to get off a clean shot on goal. Saad also has a very good shot, which was seen quite often in the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs.
In addition to acquiring and signing Saad to a new deal, Columbus would also add veteran center, Gregory Campbell from the Boston Bruins via free agency. Campbell, 31, is a rugged bottom line forward who can be an effective penalty kill asset. Campbell’s 2014-15 campaign was a rough one with the Bruins as he only finished with 12 points in just 70 games.
The Blue Jackets also got restricted free agent Matt Calvert to a three-year contract worth an annual average of $2.2 million. Calvert, 25, was another forward who had been struck with the injury bug last season as he missed 26 games as a result of an upper-body injury earlier in the year, then a concussion in February. Calvert finished the 2014-15 season with 13 goals and 10 assists, and was one point away from tying his career high in points from the 2013-14 season.
While the Jackets added Saad and Campbell, Columbus would lose only one player who spent the entire season in Columbus in Mark Letestu. Letestu signed a three-year deal with the Edmonton Oilers during free agency.
So with the Blue Jackets making some major moves this offseason, the complexion of their lineup has changed going into a new season. Here is what Columbus’ lineup could look like come October 9th when the Blue Jackets open its season at home against the New York Rangers:
Nick Foligno – Ryan Johansen – Brandon Saad
Scott Hartnell – Brandon Dubinsky -Boone Jenner
Matt Calvert – Alexander Wennberg – Cam Atkinson
Rene Bourque – Gregory Campbell – David Clarkson
Jack Johnson – David Savard
Ryan Murray – Cody Goloubef
Fedor Tyutin – Dalton Prout
Kevin Connauton – Justin Falk
Sergei Bobrovsky – Curtis McElhinney
Newly appointed captain, Nick Foligno had a career year last season by scoring 31 goals and adding 42 assists in 79 games played. More importantly, Foligno established himself as a franchise-favorite, and also a leader on this young Blue Jackets roster. Plus, Foligno was one of the few players to remain healthy for most of the 2014-15 season in Columbus. Foligno is looking to be a force on the ice once again, and continue to improve his numbers as the team’s top line left winger.
Foligno’s linemate, 23-year old Ryan Johansen, also had a career year in Columbus with 71 points (26 goals, 45 assists) in all 82 games played last year. Johansen was one of only two players, the other being David Savard, to play in all 82 games for the Jackets. Johansen also played in all 82 games last season in Columbus.The former 4th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft is due to have a break-out season this year, and continue to build on what is, already, a stellar young career.
One player who was had high anticipation to break-out last season was forward Boone Jenner. Jenner, 22, was one of the injury riddled players who could not escape injured reserve throughout the year. Jenner only appeared in 31 games in 2014-15, and scored nine goals and added eight assists. The 6′ 2″ and 208-pound forward has great size, but has a nice scoring touch to his game. If Jenner can stay healthy in this campaign, he may be able to live up to the expectations he had last season.
Another player bitten by the injury bug was 2012 2nd overall pick, defenseman Ryan Murray. Murray was out a majority of the year with a knee injury, that sidelined him for nearly two months. Murray only appeared in 12 games with Columbus and only had a goal and two assists. The 6′ 1″, 208-defender has been compared to the likes of Scott Niedermayer, for his puck handling ability and smooth skating skills. If Murray can remain healthy, the 2015-16 season could be a break-out year for the 21-year old Canadian.
The picture remains the same from last year going into the season: Columbus is a team with a young crop of talent that is bound to have a break-out year.
The 2015-16 season could be the year Columbus makes a deep run in the playoffs, and there is no doubt the Jackets have the talent to make that run.
Where do the Jackets end up come the end of the regular season?
Columbus has its first four of seven games at home, including the opening two games being a home-and-home series with the Rangers. Then the Jackets go on the road for seven of the next eight games with two separate Western Conference trips. The Blue Jackets come back home to play the next six of nine games from the Nationwide Arena.
As for the longest road-trips, the Blue Jackets have three separate four-game road trips, which includes one in the final eight games of the season.
The toughest stretch of games may be the final eight games with the late road-trip, and with five of those eight games against playoff teams from 2014-15, and one with the much improved Buffalo Sabres.
Besides the final stretch of games, it seems like the Blue Jackets have a favorable schedule with some good home stretches and not much time spent away from home.
It would be fair to say that, barring any injuries, Columbus could finish the regular season with more than 100 points. After projecting out the season, the Jackets will finish with a 44-25-13 record, 36 regulation / overtime victories, and 101 points.
Last year, 101 points would have been good for second place in a tough Metropolitan Division with the Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders. The Rangers won the division with 113 points, and also won the President’s Trophy for the most points in the NHL.
Expect the distribution to be distributed amongst the talented young players on offense like Johansen, Saad, Jenner, Wennberg, etc., Veterans like Hartnell, Foligno, and Campbell will chip in as well and help the youngsters become flourished professional hockey players.
If Bobrovsky can keep himself of the shelf, he may be able to return to his Vezina form that he displayed in the lockout-shortened 2013 NHL season.
The only concern for Columbus will be on the unproven defense. Injuries have really hurt the development of Columbus’ young defense, but that could change this year. Player like Murray and Savard will look to establish themselves as top defenders on the Jackets’ roster, while players like Connauton, Falk, Prout and Goloubef will look to establish themselves as full-time NHL talents.
The most important thing the Blue Jackets can do this season is remain healthy. If the team can keep its injuries to a minimum, which is unpredictable at this point, Columbus could be one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference this season.
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