Remember when this was the season that the wheels would come off the Columbus Blue Jackets, with the free agency losses of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky?
After eliminating everyone’s favorite to take the Stanley Cup last spring, the Tampa Bay Lightning, in a punishing four-game sweep, then giving eventual conference champions Boston a bit of a scuffle, the Blue Jackets were supposed to regress, and regress mightily without the two Russian superstars.
But, then a funny thing happened.
In spite of those losses—and a spate of injuries to remaining key players—the Blue Jackets sit today at 81 points with 70 games played and in the second wild card spot, and on their current pace over a full 82 games would finish with about 94 points. Now, there are three teams vying for that second wild card spot (including Columbus), but for the sake of argument, let’s say they stay in that spot.
By comparison, last season, Columbus also finished in the second wild card spot, but with 98 points. Hmmm. So, theoretically at least, the subtraction of $21 million per year worth of Russian talent has cost the Blue Jackets four points. Additionally, that is with fairly lengthy injuries to Seth Jones (who has played 56 out of 70 games), Josh Anderson (26 out of 70), Ryan Murray (27 out of 70) and Cam Atkinson (44 out of 70).
Wait a minute, how does this happen?
Well, there are likely a number of factors, including the possibility that the Eastern Conference is just not as good this year, or that other Blue Jackets players over performed relative to their average seasonal output. Or, they have just been crazy lucky this year. The first is plausible, the second is unlikely. The third may be because you make your own luck.
By specific and meaningful metrics, even without Panarin and Bobrovsky, the Blue Jackets have done some things well this season. For one, shots versus shots against, where Columbus is sixth in the league at +2.6 per game. Second is the team’s 1,060 blocked shots, good for fifth in the league. Their penalty kill stands at 81.7%, placing 12th in the league. And, perhaps even more important, the squad has totaled just 458 penalty minutes, the second fewest in the league.
Those are all things that help keep the puck out of your net, which is important when you have gone from the likes of Bobrovsky in net to Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.
At this point, you might think we are going to drop some sneaky good offensive numbers for Columbus, but not really. In fact, the Blue Jackets were not an overly productive offensive team this year.
But then let’s go back to the goalies.
Korpisalo started out the season as the heir apparent, and was somewhat up and down, but good enough you keep the Blue Jackets in the postseason picture or close. Then, Korpisalo got hurt in a late-December game against Chicago, thrusting Latvian rookie Merzlikins into the starting role. And that was at that point that even diehard Blue Jackets fans thought the team had finally hit its high-water mark for the season.
But, again, that is not how it worked out.
It remains to be seen how good Merzlikins is and will be over his NHL career, but his numbers for the year (in a relatively limited sample size) are compelling: 13–9–8, .923 save percentage, 2.35 goals against average and five shutouts in 31 games started. For that matter, Korpisalo’s overall numbers are not terrible, either, at 19–12–5, a .911 save percentage and a 2.60 goals against average.
And one thing is certain: when Korpisalo went down, the Blue Jackets circled the wagons around Merzlikins, in whose first start after the Korpisalo injury, the team blocked 24 shots to the opponent’s 10 (a 4–1 Columbus victory over Florida). Two nights later, on the road in Boston no less, the Blue Jackets blocked 15 shots to the Bruins’ two for another win.
That’s the how, but the real story is the why—which it can be argued is due to the leadership of the team: Jones, David Savard, Boone Jenner, Nick Foligno, Pierre Luc Dubois, Anderson and Zach Werenski—all big, physical players who are tough to play against and seemingly will do anything to win, and who are in tight lockstep with head coach John Tortorella.
And credit also has to go to General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen, who has either gone out and acquired or retained those players.
The same physical willingness that has helped carry the Blue Jackets this year, in spite of significant challenges, is the one that helped them dominate Tampa Bay last April. That is a quality that did not decrease with the losses of Panarin and Bobrovsky, and it suggests that the Blue Jackets’ system of player acquisition and on-ice play is one that can overcome temporary adversity—serving the organization well, if not this year, then in seasons to come.
We will be back with more on the Columbus Blue Jackets—with or without actual hockey. Thanks for reading; sign in, comment below and please follow @TheRinkColumbus. Stay healthy, everybody!