In what may be the best and most balanced playoff picture the Eastern Conference has seen in years, suddenly a new team has garnered attention. The Columbus Blue Jackets were a good bubble team for most of the season, but their recent surge has made them a team worth looking at more closely.
Winners of twelve of their last thirteen (that included ten in a row), the Jackets have all but sewn up a postseason spot with a legitimate shot at second place in the Metropolitan Division. Cup hopefuls in the east have taken their turn as the flavor of the week: the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins all had runs that put them in the forefront. Perennial powers such as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals are always at the center of this conversation. So who exactly are these Blue Jackets?
Their President of Hockey Operations is John “JD” Davidson. In five seasons in the same capacity with the St. Louis Blues he had modest success. He joined Columbus on October 24, 2012. Prior to his arrival, the Jackets had only one winning season and one playoff berth in their first eleven years of existence. They’re currently wrapping up their fifth in six seasons since JD’s arrival and are poised to make their third playoff berth in five seasons, including back-to-backers.
Head Coach John Tortorella is a fiery, hard-nosed coach who expects a toughness from his players that creates a make-or-break balancing act. Tortorella’s the first American-born head coach to reach the 500-win mark, and in 2004 he guided the Tampa Bay Lightning to a Stanley Cup championship. His abrasive approach doesn’t always win style points, but the man can coach.
Tortorella teams, by design, are defense first. This means the net, and what skates in front of it, is sacred ground. Fortunately, for Columbus, their net minder is Sergei Bobrovsky. In six seasons with the club, he has a solid 174-106-25 record. Combined with his first two seasons in Philadelphia, he has a 2.44 career goals against average (27th best all time) and a sensational .920 save percentage (4th best all-time). Throw in his two Vezina Trophies as the league’s top goalie and his resume looks complete enough to say the Jackets indeed have the goaltending that could carry them all the way to the top.
Having the ability to do it and actually doing it can be worlds apart in the grinding heartache of the NHL playoffs. If Columbus is to win their first ever playoff series and beyond, for better or worse, the pressure is squarely on Bobrovsky. All teams need good, hot goaltending, but for the Jackets it’s even more critical that he be the best player on the ice for them to have any chance.
In front of the net, the Blue Jackets feature a franchise defenseman in Seth Jones who they acquired via trade from Nashville (for Ryan Johansen) during the 2015-16 season. The 6’4, 210 pounder is already the complete package at 23 years of age. He’s won at every level and it’ll be interesting to see if he elevates his game in the spotlight of the postseason.
The Jackets are second to the Boston Bruins for fewest goals allowed in the Eastern Conference this season. However, they will enter the payoffs with the fewest goals scored in the conference as well. That’s the Tortorella way, and when everything tightens up come playoff time, this team will be comfortable. The question is, will they find enough scoring?
They added former Chicago Blackhawk Artemi Panarin (via trade) prior to the season and he’s responded. The third-year pro is a model of consistency and his 26 goals and 47 assists lead the team. Longtime Jacket forwards Nick Foligno, Boone Jenner and Cam Atkinson have had stretches of brilliance in their careers and are capable of being dangerous if they can all come together at those levels. Veteran Brandon Dubinsky returning from injury and newly acquired Thomas Vanek both give the Jackets added experience and toughness.
Man for man, Columbus does not appear to stack up to their elite eastern foes, but it’ll be interesting to see how the sum of their parts add up. Winning ugly is really only ugly to the team that loses and the Jackets will likely need to win that way to advance. The fact that they are even in the conversation is a testimony to how far they’ve already come. Stay tuned.