Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2015-16, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and 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 2015-16 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today we continue the series with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Puck Drop Preview: 2015-16 Columbus Blue Jackets
The Columbus Blue Jackets found themselves in the first wildcard spot at the end of 2013-14 and nearly defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. Last year, instead of taking another step forward, Columbus imploded, finding themselves in 11th place in the Eastern Conference despite impressive seasons from forwards Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno, who were the team’s top two producers.
Health was a big problem for the Blue Jackets; only seven players were able to contribute 70 or more games. Some of the biggest names on the IR included Brandon Dubinsky (47 GP), James Wisniewski (56 GP), Artem Anisimov (52 GP) and Ryan Murray (12 GP). The Blue Jackets finished 25th in goals against (3.02 GAA) and 23rd on the penalty kill (80.2%). Somehow, they managed one of the league’s hottest power plays (21.7%).
As the trade deadline neared, the Blue Jackets swapped Nathan Horton, who will likely never play another NHL game, for roster player David Clarkson. Clarkson played three games with Columbus.
So far, this summer has not been too busy for the Blue Jackets but it has been productive. The club began the offseason by hiring assistant coach Kenney McCudden on June 18th. At the draft, the Blue Jackets selected University of Michigan defenseman Zach Werenski at 8th overall. The Jackets also took another blue-liner, Gabriel Carlsson, at 29th overall. These two picks should soon fill a major void in Columbus and somewhere down the road could make for a smooth, shutdown defensive pairing with offensive upside.
A few days later, the Blue Jackets made a big-time move, trading forwards Marko Dano, Anisimov, Jeremy Morin and Corey Tropp to the Chicago Blackhawks. In return, the Blue Jackets acquired Brandon Saad, Michael Paliotta and Alex Broadhurst. Saad will fit nicely into the Jackets top-six. Paliotta also has a chance at making the roster. Days later, Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen signed Saad to contract extension worth $36 million over six years. The Jackets also signed bottom-six center Gregory Campbell.
On July 1st, rookie defenseman Mike Reilly, who was drafted by the Blue Jackets in 2011, chose to sign with the Minnesota Wild.
2015-16 Opening Day Line-up
Brandon Saad – Ryan Johansen – Nick Foligno
Scott Hartnell – Brandon Dubinsky – Cam Atkinson
Boone Jenner – Alexander Wennberg – David Clarkson
Matt Calvert – Gregory Campbell – Jared Boll
Kerby Rychel, Michael Chaput
Ryan Murray – Jack Johnson
Fedor Tyutin – David Savard
Justin Falk – Dalton Prout
Players to Watch
Brandon Saad – Ryan Johansen – Nick Foligno
This trio will definitely be a fun line to watch in 2015-16. Last year, Johansen (71) and Foligno (73) led the Blue Jackets in scoring. The two forwards found a nice rhythm together and even took part at the All-Star weekend. Saad, acquired by Chicago, is also a nice addition to that first line. Last year, the 22-year-old played all 82 games and scored 23 goals and 52 points. Offensively, Saad boasts consistent numbers and has improved each season.
Many critics already have written off the 31-year-old Clarkson. Since signing a seven-year, $36.75 million deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Clarkson has managed to only score 15 goals and 26 points in two seasons. However, there is still potential for this guy. If Clarkson can get back to his old self and get back to how he played in New Jersey, he should be an interesting player to watch in 2015-16. Sometimes all a player needs is a new team and a fresh start and perhaps playing in a smaller market like Columbus will help him out, rather than dealing with the high-pressure media in Toronto.
Players on the Rise
If he can remain healthy, the 22-year-old should be poised for a breakout season in 2015-16. Jenner only appeared in 31 games last year after playing 72 in 2013-14. The forward can play at both the center and wing positions with aplomb. Jenner has a nice offensive touch and should be able to play up and down the Blue Jackets line-up and will most likely earn a spot on the second line sometime this season.
Players on the Decline
Last season, Hartnell was one of seven players to appear in 70-plus games. He also registered 28 goals and 60 points. However, if the Blue Jackets can maintain a healthier line-up in 2015-16, then Hartnell will have to compete for ice time against some of the younger guys on the roster. This means that Hartnell will probably see fewer minutes on the ice, ultimately forcing a negative impact on his production. The addition of Saad will also push Hartnell down the depth chart. Hartnell’s age (33) and physical style of play are also factors.
The Blue Jackets did a good job of solidifying their top-six group, so they should have no problems in the offensive department and the roster has only improved since last season. Fans can count on the top lines to produce. Johansen, Foligno and Saad are all within reach of 70 points. The team should not have any problems on the power play either, as last year they finished within the top five.
With Sergei Bobrovsky in net, goaltending won’t be a problem either. Their defense however, is questionable. Top-four defenseman David Savard had a breakout season offensively last year, but his skating is average at best and has flaws in his game defensively. Dalton Prout and Kevin Connauton will likely make the roster but cannot be relied on. Veterans Tyutin and Johnson are suitable to play big minutes but have had problems staying healthy in the past.
Speaking of health, a big part of the Blue Jackets success this season will count on Ryan Murray. His development has been setback by injuries, but the potential is still there for him to grow into a no. 1 blue-liner. This is also a contract year for him, so you know he’s motivated.
All in all, the Blue Jackets need to stay healthy if they want compete for the playoffs this year. The Metro Division has improved this offseason, so Columbus will most likely have to battle for a wildcard spot.