Expectations are funny.
One would think that after a season in which the Blue Jackets finished third in the conference (they’d never finished higher than seventh before that), tallied 108 points (they’d never recorded more than 93), and had one of the best goals for/against differentials in hockey (you get the idea) that people would be excited about the team’s projection.
On the other hand, one season doesn’t erase sixteen years of history. This is a perennially terrible club when you take the numbers on average. Perhaps the worst in hockey over that stretch. Expansion team or not, three trips to the playoffs in sixteen seasons is, well—it’s not good.
Speaking of the playoffs: losing the way they did to the #@$!ing Penguins (again) after the year they had, was, well—it wasn’t good.
As many people as there are who are desperately hopeful that this franchise is finally and legitimately on the upswing, there are plenty of others who are convinced that that same old shoe will inevitably drop once again, this time smellier than ever.
Case in point, here’s the 2017-18 Columbus Blue Jackets season prospectus per my anonymous hockey insider: “They are bad and will continue to be bad.”
Okay, let’s back up for a minute. This is not a moribund roster—its principal parts are, for the most part, on the younger side of prime, and its core of young talent, particularly on defense, is impressive.
Anyone more bullish on the CBJ would have to point to their top two defenders as reasons to be excited. Zach Werenski and Seth Jones are two of the best defensemen in hockey and are just 20 and 23 years old, respectively.
Jones in particular is being tagged as Columbus’s next superstar. (As much as a hockey player can be one in this town, anyway.) He’s very talented and even more marketable, and he and Werenski are already All-Star caliber players.
Behind them is a mix of solid veterans (Jack Johnson, David Savard) and capable up-and-comers (Ryan Murray, Markus Nutivaara) that help form what most experts consider a top-five defense.
On offense, the top line will likely feature young Swedish center and master distributor Alexander Wennberg at center, with returning lead goal scorer Cam Atkinson on one wing and offseason acquisition Artemi Panarin on the other.
Panarin, the 2016 Calder Trophy winner for top rookie, notched 151 points in his last two seasons in Chicago playing alongside the inimitable Patrick Kane. There is a popular notion going around that Panarin won’t be able to match his past production without Kane as a linemate.
Atkinson is not Patrick Kane—everyone knows this. But Atkinson is no slouch. Certainly not a tremendous one. And early word from camp is that he and Panarin have struck up quite a partnership. There’s gold in them thar hills. If they find it, watch out.
Old standbys Nick Foligno and Brandon Dubinksy will line up with Oliver Bjorkstrand to form a respectable second unit. Boone Jenner, Lukas Sedlak, Matt Calvert, Sonny Milano, Vitaly Abramov, and Jordan Schroeder fill out the sheets.
And then there’s Bob. Ah, Bob. Good ol’ Bob. Best goalie in the NHL, that Bob. We love Bob. Just don’t bring up the playoffs around Bob.
Sergei Bobrovsky, still just 29 years young, is an all-timer for the CBJ already. There’s no disputing that. And there were times last season when he looked downright impenetrable. The hope now, of course, is that this budding defense can take the necessary strides such that Bob doesn’t have to, as the kids say, stand on his head for this team to win.
So what does Vegas think?
Well, in terms of point over/under (10th in the NHL at 96.5) and odds to win the Stanley Cup (15th, 25-1), at the writing of this article, the Jackets apparently only project as a middle-of-the-road team. Why so glum?
One could point to offseason moves, the most impactful being the trade of Brandon Saad for the aforementioned Panarin. But that seems mostly a wash. Both are young, goal-scoring wingers, and if statistics are worth anything, the edge goes to Panarin.
Perhaps it’s simply the other teams in the conference. Pittsburgh and Washington haven’t gone anywhere, of course. But what’s to stop the CBJ from bullying the other kids on the playground and finishing solidly in the top three again?
The more likely reality is that most of the hockey community outside Columbus (and much of it within) simply doesn’t believe that last season was anything more an anomaly. A happy accident. And one that ended the way that such accidents have and presumably always will: at the hands of the #@$!ing Penguins.
Back in 2014, following the team’s previous postseason appearance, there were some positive rumblings. They had looked okay, the Jackets, in the labor-dispute-shortened 2012-13 season. Then they went and made the playoffs, those rapscallions, even taking two of the first four from the #@$!ing Penguins—both overtime wins—before dropping the final two games an bowing out. But even in game seven they scored three unanswered goals in five minutes to give the #@$!ing Penguins a good scare.
Two years later, they were back to dead last, posting 40 losses for the seventh time in the club’s short history. So, there’s that.
The apprehension is understandable. But there’s reason to hope. And hope is a fine thing (in moderation). A healthy Bobrovsky, a dangerous top line, and an elite defense spell another playoff run, and (hot take time) the team’s first ever playoff series victory.
Don’t let us down, boys. ■
The Blue Jackets’ 17th season opens October 6 at home versus the New York Islanders. For more, visit nhl.com/bluejackets.