Puck Drop Preview: 2014-15 Columbus Blue Jackets

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Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2014-15, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season andPuck Drop Preview offers our insight and analysis. Makes sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our collective LWOS 2014-15 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page.  Today is the Columbus Blue Jackets.

2013-2014 Season Recap

The Columbus Blue Jackets entered the season last fall in midst of a rebuilding phase that began after trading away franchise player Rick Nash in the summer of 2012 to the New York Rangers. This trade was initiated only a few months after the team had their third-worst season in franchise history, the worst since the introduction of the consolation point for overtime and shootout losers in 2005-2006.

Fans and hockey people alike knew last year was going to be a breakout one for the organization as they started the season off with a young and talented roster including stars of the future Ryan Murray, Ryan Johansen, Cam Atkinson and Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky.

The team started off with a mediocre 10-14-3 record through the first two months of the season. Things seemed to be going downhill for the new Eastern Conference club, something fans are fairly used to. Their turning point of the season was during the last month of the calendar year. Opening the month on December 3 hosting the Tampa Bay Lightning, they narrowly pulled out a 1-0 win before netting four in a shutout win that Friday at home against fellow 2000 NHL expansion team, the Minnesota Wild. Falling off the sled a bit with a 5-5-1 record to round off the year, it seemed as if the club was conveniently delivered goals and wins for Christmas.

Going 10-4-0 in the month of January, the team’s New Years resolution was fulfilled (assuming that it was to win). The Columbus Blue Jackets were represented by four players in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, all four were Russian: Sergei Bobrovsky, Nikita Nikitin, Fedor Tyutin, and Artem Anisimov. Russia was eliminated in the quarterfinals to GM Jarmo Kekalainen’s Finland, sending the four players home early, ready for a long run to the playoffs.

The Blue Jackets couldn’t have asked for a much better record to finish out the season, going 14-7-2 in March (9-5-1) and April (5-2-1). In the final 23 games, they collected 30 points, 25 points less than a 48-game season a year ago.

In a game at Dallas on March 10, Stars forward Rich Peverly collapsed on the bench when Columbus was up 1-0 from a Nathan Horton goal. The game would be postponed to April 9, when Nathan Horton didn’t play, making him only the second player in NHL history to be credited with a goal in a game he didn’t play.

Their winning can easily be attributed to their all-around goal scoring efforts and solid golatending. In his first full-length NHL season, 21-year-old Ryan Johansen scored 33 goals and added 30 assists, for a team leading 63 points. Defenceman James Wisniewski was right behind him with a 7-44-51 points record, 29 of which came on the power play.

Brandon Dubinsky (16-34-50), Cam Atkinson (21-19-40), and Artem Anisimov (22-17-39) rounded out the top five. Goalie Sergei Bobrosvky went 32-20-5 in 58 games with a .923 save percentage and 2.38 goals-against-average along with five shutouts. He finished an average 11th place in goaltending stats (SV%, GAA, W & SO), far off from his Vezina-winning season the year before.

In the playoffs, the Jackets put the league on notice of their talent after taking the Pittsburgh Penguins to six games, only to ultimately lose in one of the more exciting first-round playoff series. They managed to win Game 2 in overtime thanks to Matt Calvert’s second of that game, giving the Jackets their first ever playoff win. Overtime magic continued in Game 4 at the Nationwide Arena in front of a surprisingly raucous crowd, when they surmounted a 3-0 Pittsburgh lead to tie the score 24 seconds left in the third off the stick of Brandon Dubinsky (assisted by Marc-Andre Fleury). Nick Foligno scored in OT to tie the series, only to lose the next two games. The series showed the hockey community that this team could be a legitimate competitor in the years to come.

2014-15 Columbus Blue Jackets

Offseason

Prior to the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, the Blue Jackets stole the news headline spotlight by acquiring Scott Hartnell from Philadelphia for former Flyer RJ Umberger and a fourth-round draft pick in 2015. This would be the third blockbuster trade between the two clubs in four offseasons, after Jeff Carter was dealt in 2011 and Sergei Bobrovsky in 2012. Hartnell will bring extra leadership and size to an energetic young squad in Ohio this year.

The Jackets drafted 5’11” left winger Sonny Milano with the 16th pick from the USA U-18 development squad. Additionally, D Ryan Collins (47, USA-18, USHL), G Elvis Merzlikins (76, HC Lugano, NLA), D Blake Siebenaler (77, Niagra, OHL), LW Julien Pelletier (107, Cape-Breton, QMJHL), RW Tyler Bird (137, Kimball Union, New Hampshire High Schools) and D Olivier Leblanc (197, St. Johns, QMJHL) made up the rest of their remaining draft picks.

Jarmo Kekalainen decided to keep quiet on July 1. In fact, he kept too quiet in many people’s opinions. After trading Nikita Nikitin’s contract rights to the Edmonton Oilers just a few days before the draft, whom he later signed with, the Jackets let three more underrated players walk to all Eastern Conference teams.

Derek MacKenzie, a seven-season Blue Jacket and 1999 Atlanta Thrashers draft pick, took his “talents to south beach” when he signed a three-year contract with the Florida Panthers. After 280 games in seven seasons, MacKenzie notched 31 goals and 38 assists for 69 points to go along with his 155 penalty minutes spent in the box. His leadership and energy will be missed in the captain-less dressing room.

Blake Comeau, who wasn’t able to fulfill expectations in his only full season with the team, only played in 61 games with 5 goals and 11 assists in addition to finishing pointless in the playoff series against the Penguins. The former 24-goal scorer with the New York Islanders in 2010-11 has lost his touch and the potential he used to posses, but Columbus made a mistake by letting him walk. The team has no left wingers behind their big three on the left side: Scott Hartnell, Matt Calvert, and Nick Foligno. In the event of injuries throughout the season to any of those three players or any other winger for that matter, Comeau could have stepped in on those top lines and collected some points.

Forward Jack Skille and defenceman Nick Schultz, two players that haven’t been productive and are unpredictable on the ice, also left Ohio for the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers respectively.

The departures of some older players leave some space for younger, more talented players to try out for a spot on the roster, but Kekaleinen didn’t seem to want many veterans on the roster in order to avoid any failed experiments. With over $14 million left in cap space for this season, they still have a lot of money left over to sign leaders who are without a contract such as Jeff Halpern, Pierre-Marc Bouchard,  Cody McCormick, or Mike Rupp, to name a few players that are still out there.

Line-Up Projections:

With the departure of RJ Umberger, Scott Hartnell steps right into his place on the top line. Umberger played 74 games for the club last year scoring 18 goals and adding 16 assists for a weak 34 points, but he excelled on the powerplay with eight goals. R.J. played an average of 16:11 per game, fifth most for forwards, fourth out of players still there at the end of the regular season as Marian Gaborik was traded to the L.A. Kings. Brandon Dubinsky (18:47), Ryan Johansen (17:39), and Artem Anisimov (16:36) finished in the top three of most used forwards by head coach Todd Richards.

Scott Hartnell, with a 20-32-52 points breakdown in 78 games last year, plus his 108 PIMs, brings a much needed scoring touch on the top line, not to mention his ability to promote toughness for potential linemates Ryan Johansen and Nathan Horton (providing he’s healthy). Any team in the league would love to have that line combination on their team.

The second and third lines should remain stable with Brandon Dubinsky centering Matt Calvert and Boone Jenner in a line filled with passion. The next line would have Anisimov between Cam Atkinson and Nick Foligno, not much of a drop in talent from their second line. This is what makes the Blue Jackets poised for a good season.

C Mark Letestu, C Michael Chaput, RW Jared Boll, RW Corey Tropp, and newly-signed Brian Gibbons should fill up the rest of the offensive lines, mixing and matching players between games and injuries.

The defence shouldn’t change much from last year as Nikitin and Schultz have left some room for Dalton Prout, David Savard, and Tim Erixon to play some more this year. The top two pairings are inter-changeable as they have James Wisniewski, Fedor Tyutin, Ryan Murray, and Jack Johnson all being able to play 20+ minutes a night.

Forwards

S. Hartnell – R. Johansen – N. Horton

M.Calvert – B. Dubinsky – B. Jenner

N. Foligno – A. Anisimov – C. Atkinson

C. Tropp – M. Letestu – J. Boll

M. Chaput – B. Gibbons

The Fifth Line: The Fans

Defence

J. Johnson – F. Tyutin

R. Murray – J. Wisniewski

D. Prout – D. Savard

T. Erixon

Goalies

S. Bobrovsky

C. McElhinney

 Players to Watch:

  • Scott Hartnell: New team, new colours, same old hair-do for Scott Hartnell heading into the 2014-15 season with the Jackets. After seven seasons in hockey-crazed Philadelphia, including a trip to the Stanley Cup final in 2010, the 14-year veteran shifts over to a state currently possessed with basketball in the Cleveland Cavaliers. Hartnell brought a certain energy level to the Wells Fargo Center in Philly for the boisterous fans there. Often times Scotty was able to feed off the energy of the fans in orange in order to score big-time goals and land big-time hits. The Bleacher Report released two lists with the arenas that have the best atmospheres and are the most gruelling for opponents. Nowhere on those lists is there any mention of the Nationwide Arena, while the old home of Hartnell is mentioned twice. Can Scott Hartnell adjust to a fairly quiet arena and still maintain high amounts of energy? It should be interesting to see.
  • Sergei Bobrovsky: After winning the Vezina Trophy in the lockout-shortened season in 2013, his first in Ohio, the Russian slipped off the wagon a bit last year. Due to an injury in December, Sergei ended up playing only 58 games, which was 20 more than the 38 he played in 2013. He went 32-20-5 last year with a 9.23 SV%, 2.38 GAA, and 5 shutouts. That’s compared to a 21-11-6 record, SV% .932, GAA 2.00, and 4 SO in 2013. His numbers are better than the ones he had in Philadelphia but in order for the Jackets to keep winning season after season, Bobrovsky mustn’t keep declining in stats year to year. Although he was still one of the best goalies in the league last year, he knows he can vastly improve for 2014-15
  • Nathan Horton: After signing a big, 7-year, $37.1 million contract in the 2013 season, the 2011 Stanley Cup winner failed to live up to all his hype in Columbus. After starting the season recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, Horton began playing for the Jackets on January 2, where he would play 35 straight games before suffering a lower-body injury in late March that sidelined the Welland, Ontario native for the rest of his team’s campaign. He had abdominal surgery in early April and has reportedly fully recovered. It should be interesting to see what Horton can do if he is indeed at 100 percent come October. He has size and skill, two assets only Scott Hartnell, Brandon Dubinsky, and Nick Foligno have for the forward group. Playing with former foe Hartnell will be fun to watch, and if they connect well, the two can produce a ton of offence.

Players on the Rise:

  • Ryan Johansen
  • Ryan Murray
  • Matt Calvert
  • Cam Atkinson
  • Boone Jenner

I wanted to limit myself to three players on the upswing, but with a young team like Columbus, it is hard to go with only three. Their top five best growing players are the ones on the list above. The Jackets’ 2010 fourth overall pick Ryan Johansen led the team with 63 points while Cam Atkinson (who simply makes me think of Rowan Atkinson) finished fourth on the team with 40 points. Ryan Murray was, and still is, part of the big four defencemen in Columbus, and last year, the rookie finished fourth among defencemen on the team in scoring with a modest four goals and 21 assists. Matt Calvert is the oldest among the group at 24 years old, but he still has a lot of room to grow as he only notched nine goals and 15 assists but was a driving force in the playoffs with two goals and four points. Finally, Boone Jenner, the rookie and former captain of the Oshawa Generals, put 16 pucks in the back of the net while setting up an additional 13 last season.

These five players are who the Jackets will rely on in the future. Five or so years from now, they will be in their primes, all in their mid to late 20’s and a few will be amongst the league’s top players. Just look at the promise Johansen already has. The 22-year-old played every single game this season, after only playing 40 of the 48 games last year. During his rookie year in 2011-12, he missed only 15 games. Do the math and out of a possible 212 games, the young stud has played in 189 of them. He’s not Doug Jarvis or even Cal Ripken, but if this kid can put up an ironman career, he will be a consistent 30 to 40-goal scorer year in and year out, as he confidently showed this year.

Ryan Murray, the highest draft pick in team history since Rick Nash, should be grateful he suffered a shoulder injury while playing for the Everett Silvertips in November of 2012, as he didn’t play in the NHL as a 19 year old but rather a year later at the age of 20. His year of patience paid off as he got top minutes in Columbus, averaging 19:52 a game last season.

All five players have the potential to one day be stars. Expect Murray and Jenner to play in the All-Star weekend at Nationwide arena as sophomores and maybe Johansen as an all-star. Regardless, all of them will be stars for the team in the future.

Player on the Decline:

  • Jared Boll

For a team with an average age of 26 and a half years, second youngest only to Winnipeg in the NHL, it’s hard to call out players who are declining in their careers. Even the older players like Foligno, Dubinsky, Horton, and Hartnell still have a lot of hockey left in them and show no signs on declining skill-wise. That’s why I’m only going with one player who is clearly on the decline – Jared Boll.

After suffering an ankle injury that required surgery in November, Boll didn’t play a regular-season game from November to April, limiting him to appear in only 28 games. He scored one goal and one assist, a career-low, and finished the season with a minus-six rating. The 6-foot-2, 219-pound winger only recorded 52 hits last year, not even an average of two hits per game. That is simply not good enough for a “tough guy” on the fourth line. Age and injuries may be the result for his physical intimidation on the ice being neglected.

Season Expectations

The 2014 All-Star Game hosts will have plenty of players looking for starting jobs. In a division with inconsistent and unpredictable teams, the Blue Jackets could finish near the top. The New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers are the teams that have the best chance to grab the top two spots in the Metropolitan, while Columbus will potentially battle it out with a struggling Pittsburgh squad for possibly the third and final position ensuring a playoff spot. Jackets fans who deem themselves ‘The Fifth Line” will undoubtedly have a fun year supporting their team in what should be a promising season for the team.

Up next in Puck Drop Preview, the New Jersey Devils.

 

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