Columbus Blue Jackets Off-Season: First-rate Forwards

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As the Stanley Cup Play-offs reach the tail end, and teams start to set their sights on the NHL Entry Draft, the Columbus Blue Jackets have many reasons to be excited, and one is the third overall pick. This is a pivotal off-season for what was an underachieving organization last year, and with a good draft pick and some good development come pre-season, the Blue Jackets could once again find themselves being listed amongst possible play-off bound teams for the 2016-17 season. Last week we looked at the blueliners, which you can find here, and this week we are moving up the ice to take a look at the men who put the biscuit in the basket.

Columbus Blue Jackets Off-Season: First-rate Forwards

One of the things that the Blue Jackets never seemed to do on a consistent basis last season was one of the most important things in hockey, score goals. However, when they finally found their footing under John Tortorella things took off from there. Even though they only ranked 19th in the league in goals for, they have a massive amount of potential at their fingertips with the players currently under contract and look to have a very bright future in regards to their goalscorers. And, when they were on the same page, there is no better adjective to use than first-rate when talking about the plays they made and excitement they could produce for their fan base. There was some fairly blatant negatives to the season, as with everything that Columbus did at the beginning of the year, so let’s take a look at those first.

Negatives

The first, and arguably most disappointing point to the season, was the lack of production to the man with the “C” on his sweater, Nick Foligno. Coming off the back of a season where he scored 31 goals and had 73 points, and a plus-16 to boot, it made this year even worse than what it actually might have been for Foligno. He was only able to produce 12 goals on the season, which was good for only sixth on the Blue Jackets roster. Another point that makes that 12 goal tally even more disappointing is the fact that three of them (that’s right, 25% of his seasons goal) ┬ácame against the New Jersey Devils in a single game, proving he had much more to offer than what he was producing. For a young and relatively inexperienced roster like Columbus, this is just something you can’t have happen with one of your leaders and expect to still make a push for Lord Stanley’s Cup. Don’t expect this to happen again next season, because Foligno is a very obviously self-motivated individual and deserves every ounce of praise the fan base sends his way.

The second, and arguably more disappointing, negative to the season is the obvious lack of production on the powerplay from just about everyone not named Scott Hartnell and Boone Jenner, who each had 10 and 9 PPG respectively. There are plenty of arguments that can be made for the players that the fans seem to favor, but the honest truth is that this team should be producing way more shots on goal and goals on special teams than they did this past year, another reason they’re currently watching the play-offs from home. This is the special teams in a nutshell for the 2015-16 season, bad luck. Cross your fingers and hope that the flashes of life the Blue Jackets produced on the powerplay in the latter part of the season rolls into the 2016-17 season.

The last negative that needs to be talked about, and the less words about this one the better, is that of the contract of David Clarkson. Despite Clarkson being brought in due to a much worse situation, it seemed more like a ┬ámoment of “pick your poison”, and the Blue Jackets aren’t stomaching that decision very well. Clarkson has played a grand total of 26 games for the Blue Jackets, racking up a total of four points in the form of two goals and two assists. The production, or lack thereof, doesn’t even seem to be the issue among the fan base in Columbus, but rather the fact that he never seems to be able to even play. It’s become very apparent that the fans, and the organization itself, have accepted the fact that Clarkson isn’t going anywhere any time soon (he won’t be an unrestricted free agent until after the 2019-20 season, when he’s 35). The only hope that can perhaps soften the blow that is a $5.25 million cap hit every season is the one that Clarkson can stay healthy and at least contribute to the third and fourth lines for the Blue Jackets.

Positives

The positives that could be taken from last season could go on for even longer than the negatives, and this should leave the organization with higher expectations and a general feeling of well-being moving forward. The fact that the top three goalscorers from last season are 26 years old or younger bodes well for the future of the Blue Jackets. The year, as stated in almost every Blue Jackets article out there, started off very poorly for the forwards. As the season progressed, alongside the hiring of John Tortorella, many positives emerged and the forwards should be seen as a point of pride for the organization heading into the off-season.

For the first time in Columbus Blue Jackets franchise history, they had multiple players score 30-plus goals in a single season, with Brandon Saad and Boone Jenner leading the way with 31 and 30 goals respectively. Cam Atkinson, who is the oldest of the three at 26, wasn’t far behind Jenner and Saad with, 27 goals to his name. The historic aspect of it is a cool point to take, but that doesn’t even begin to show how large of an impact these three forwards are going to have on the play-off hopes of the organization for next year and years to come. Each of these three deserve a massive amount of praise, and so they shall.

Atkinson wasn’t only the third highest goalscorer for the Blue Jackets this season, but a point of excitement night in and night out, as you never knew when he was going to get his next short-handed goal. He lead the team in SHG with two this season, but for anyone who paid attention this year, everyone knows that he kept any and every opposing goalie on their toes when the Blue Jackets were down a man. His fast skating, silky mitts, and fantastic work ethic have shown him to be a perfect fit for the system Tortorella has put in place, and Tortorella has rewarded him with a great deal of ice time, with his 17:47 TOI/GP being second among forwards to only assistant captain, Brandon Dubinsky.

Brandon Saad has turned out to prove that all the hype he has received in his few years with Chicago as totally true, and no one can ever thank Chicago enough for sending him to Columbus. Not only did Saad lead the team in goals with 31 on the season, but he also was tied for tops in total points with Atkinson at 53, which is his career-best. At 23 years old, the sky is the limit for the man the fans affectionately refer to as “The Saadfather”, and expect him to be a 60-point per season player for many years to come, and an invaluable piece to the growth of the organization.

Thirdly, but most certainly not least, is the youngest player of the terrific trio, Boone Jenner. Jenner had a fantastic year this season, scoring 30 goals in the process. His 30 goals this season was good for second on the team, as well as being more than his career total of 25 coming into 2015-16. Not only did Jenner prove himself to be a very capable goalscorer, but a pivotal piece to the special teams as well, as he had 9 PPG and 14 PPP on the season. However, the one thing that can be said as a negative to the young man is the 77 PIM he had this season, pointing to an apparent lack of discipline at times. Jenner is a very physical forward, which Tortorella loves to see, and is a two-way forward that goes end-to-end as much as possible. But his physical play and aggressiveness can sometimes lead to lazy penalties, which is why he was fourth on the team in this category. There is no doubt that the coaching staff has made this a point of emphasis for him to work on and it would be of no surprise to anyone involved with the organization to see that number dwindle very quickly.

Another name that absolutely needs to be mentioned as part of the positives of the season is that of Alexander Wennberg. Wennberg is quickly becoming one of the most promising players in not only the Blue Jackets organization, but the NHL as well. Wennberg has solid size, is a very silky skater, has a fantastic hockey IQ, and creates plays so beautiful it would make your grandma cry. In 2014-15 he played in 68 games for the Blue Jackets, getting four goals and 20 points in the process, which are very respectable numbers. But the even more impressive thing is this, he played in only one more game this season, at 69 games, than he did in 2014-15, and managed to double his production to eight goals and 32 assists. Wennberg is quickly turning into a mainstay in the Columbus first and second line, and rightly so. Look for the Swede to play a pivotal role in the upcoming season, and don’t be surprised if he pumps those numbers up even more with some more ice time.

The Implications

The main points to take from the positives and negatives are simple: don’t underestimate the forwards in Columbus and don’t expect the forward lines to look drastically different any time soon. The depth chart at this point is going to be relatively similar to what it will look like come the beginning of the 2016-17 season, with the exception of possibly some bottom-six guys moving around and an addition to be named at a later date via the NHL Entry Draft. The future is bright for the forwards of this organization and, without a start like last year, they could easily be the catalyst needed to propel this organization into a play-off appearance.

Names To Watch

Oliver Bjorkstrand

Oliver Bjorkstrand was the third round draft pick, 89th overall, by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Bjorkstrand was an absolute delight to watch on his few games up in Columbus last season for anyone lucky enough to catch those games. In his 12 games for the Blue Jackets last season he was a breath of fresh air and racked up four goals and eight total points in the process, with a plus-six to go along with that. When he wasn’t in Columbus, he was up in Cleveland dazzling all the Lake Erie fans with a phenomenal season. During his time with Lake Erie this past season he had 17 goals and 29 points in 51 games, as well as three goals and six total points in their six play-off games so far (as of May 10th). There are surely 29 other NHL teams currently kicking themselves for letting the dynamic Dane slip through their fingers. Look for Bjorkstrand to be one of the new names on the forward lines come the beginning of 2016-17.

Sonny Milano

Sonny Milano was the first round draft pick, 16th overall, of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. Milano, despite only appearing in three games for the Blue Jackets this past season, has managed to turn heads and raise expectations even higher than they already were. The one point he was able to get was a beauty of a play and shows just a small taste of what he’s truly capable of. Milano played a big role in the successful season that Lake Erie had, racking up 14 goals and 31 points in 54 games for the Monster this season. Alongside Bjorkstrand, he has been a big part of the play-off success they are currently having and has two goals and four points in their six play-off games. Look for Milano to get more than three games with the Blue Jackets next season, but expect to see him play in Cleveland more often to aid in his development. Things could always change from now until the first puck drop though, and don’t be surprised if the young gun gets a shot at the top.

Stay tuned to www.lastwordonsports.com and @LWOS_CBJ on Twitter as we are going to be spending the next few weeks previewing the NHL Entry Draft, free agency, and many other topics!

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