With less than a month before the start of hockey’s regular season, the Guardian Liberty Voice will be taking an in-depth look at the 30 organizations, one for each day. Today, 30 in 30 will look at the Columbus Blue Jackets. After barely missing the playoffs in the 2012-2013 lockout-shortened season, Columbus found themselves moving to the Eastern Conference with a renewed chance of building a new team identity. In the West, the Blue Jackets were in a division among powerhouses, but in the East, they became one of the many bubble teams looking to take the next step toward legitimacy.
Last Season – The Columbus Blue Jackets stumbled out of the gate in their division and new conference. The team won only seven games out of their first 20, and it appeared that organization was heading toward a big letdown season, rather than one they could build on. Luckily for the Blue Jackets, the rest of the Metropolitan division struggled early in the season as well. Columbus began to find their groove in early December, leading to a January that saw the team fire off eight straight victories.
Much of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ success last year came because of youngster Ryan Johansen. After scoring only 14 goals in the two years prior, he was given a bigger role on the team and he embraced it, exploding for 33 goals and 63 points. Between Johansen, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky’s stellar year, and the scoring by committee from Columbus’s other forwards (including 20-goal seasons from Cam Atkinson and Artem Anisimov), the Blue Jackets were able to snag an Eastern Conference wildcard spot, giving them their second playoff appearance in franchise history.
Unfortunately, like their first playoff appearance, the Columbus Blue Jackets were matched against almost impossible odds in the first round. They faced the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that has not missed the playoffs in almost a decade. Many analysts were expecting a short four-game series in favor of Pittsburgh, but Columbus showed that hard work can often overcome inexperience, dragging the series to six games before eventually being eliminated.
The Offseason – The Columbus offseason has followed one storyline throughout, and it is one that has yet to be resolved. After scoring 33 goals last year, Ryan Johansen is allegedly asking for a large contract to justify his production. Columbus has countered with a smaller deal, wanting the youngster to prove he can produce those numbers consistently before shelling out the big bucks. The distance between the two sides has fluctuated throughout the summer, but recent reports still have them $3 million apart on a two-year deal. That’s not chump change they are haggling over.
The Columbus Blue Jackets also have to be wary about giving out these bridge deals, as they saw this offseason what happens when a bridge deal goes wrong. Montreal Canadiens defenseman PK Subban was given a bridge deal a few years ago, but only continued to improve during the contract length. He was able to earn an eight-year, $9 million AAV deal from the Canadiens this year. Had the Canadiens signed him to a long-term deal initially, it would have come at a much lower cap hit. It may be less of an issue with Columbus, as many of their players are on their first or second contract, and thus, will not have a high cap hit that might push Columbus to the ceiling.
The offseason also saw the Blue Jackets seemingly steal from the Philadelphia Flyers. Forward RJ Umberger made it no secret that he wanted to be traded, which would normally hurt a player’s value. Yet Columbus was able to flip him for Philadelphia forward Scott Hartnell, with a 4th round draft pick being the only additional cost. This was grand larceny by the Blue Jackets, flipping a disgruntled player with worse production for a player who waived his no-movement cause to play for the Columbus organization.
What to Watch for This Season – This year will be all about building on the success Columbus had last year. Their young players, like defenseman David Savard and forwards Cam Atkinson and Matt Calvert, need to continue to develop their games to become legitimate NHL regulars, while players like Sergei Bobrovsky and Ryan Johansen need to remain the rocks that Columbus builds their foundation with.
James Wisniewski is worth the price of a ticket alone. The veteran defenseman had a career year in 2014, putting up 51 points in 75 games. He is a key cog in the Blue Jackets’ dangerous powerplay, and if he can perform even half as well for Columbus in this upcoming season, the Blue Jackets should have some dangerous offensive talent from the backend, as Jack Johnson is no slouch offensively as well.
For the sake of the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Ryan Johansen saga should end before the season begins. If it does, Johansen will be the forward to watch for the team. 30-goal scorers are becoming increasingly rare in today’s defensive-minded NHL, so if Johansen can prove that he can put up those numbers consistently, Columbus will have their first franchise player since Rick Nash. If the saga does not end before the season begins, it could lead to another shaky start to the season for the team. Nothing distracts a lockerroom more than an unresolved contract dispute.
If last year is any indication, Columbus should be right in the thick of things in an evenly-match Metropolitan division. Out of the eight teams in the division, one could seemingly pull four names out of a hat and have a good chance of determining who will make the playoffs this year. However, Columbus needs to make sure they are a playoff team at the end of the year. After making the playoffs last year, the Columbus Blue Jackets need to build on that success this year to legitimize themselves as threats in the Eastern Conference.
Join the Guardian Liberty Voice tomorrow, where 30 in 30 will take a look at the Dallas Stars. Also check out yesterday’s team, the Colorado Avalanche.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner