Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2016-17, where LastWordOnHockey.com 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 2016-17 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today we continue with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Puck Drop Preview: 2016-17 Columbus Blue Jackets
Optimism was the rule, rather than the exception, heading into the 2015-16 Columbus Blue Jackets season. Following an off-season that saw the acquisition of Brandon Saad from the Chicago Blackhawks, many analysts predicted a deep playoff run. Unfortunately, losing their first eight regular-season games immediately dashed those hopes. This abysmal start lead to the firing of Head Coach Todd Richards and the hiring of what many saw as a contentious pick in John Tortorella. October ended with a 2-10-0 record for the Blue Jackets. The team would not recover.
On January 6 the Blue Jackets traded center Ryan Johansen to the Nashville Predators for defenseman Seth Jones. This trade divided fans, even though defensive depth and talent was a definite weakness for the team. Many fans had contention with the decision to move number one center Johansen, one season after his first All-Star appearance.
One of the few highlights of the season was the emergence of the team’s youth. Most notable were forwards Boone Jenner, Cam Atkinson, William Karlsson, and Saad. Jenner and Saad each finished the season with at least 30 goals, while Atkinson and Saad each had 53 points on the season, with Jenner tallying 49. Goaltender Joonas Korpisalo was called upon to provide extensive coverage for the oft-injured Sergei Bobrovsky and Curtis McElhinney. Korpisalo, in his first professional season in North America, played 31 games with a .920 save percentage. This was the highest of the four goaltenders who played for the team last season.
The biggest positive of the entire season was the success of the Jackets AHL affiliate, the Cleveland Monsters. The Monsters won the Calder Cup in a four-game sweep over the Hershey Bears. In that playoff run, several players cemented their status as potential contenders for a spot in Columbus the following season. This includes forward Oliver Bjorkstrand, who scored the cup-winning goal, and defenseman Zach Werenski.
Even with all of the issues plaguing the club, the off-season was rather quiet. Perhaps the biggest wave the Blue Jackets made all summer was at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. After receiving the third overall pick in the draft lottery, General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen and his staff selected left wing Pierre-Luc Dubois instead of the heavily predicted pick of Finnish-born Jesse Puljujarvi.
With limited moves during the off-season, it became clear that the future direction of this club lay within the youth and not through building from the outside. The Jackets bought out veteran players Jared Boll and Fedor Tyutin in order to free cap space and roster spots. The Jackets also added to their forward depth by signing free agent Sam Gagner to a one-year, $650,000 deal. Jones was also signed to a six-year contract extension.
One of the biggest questions for the 2016-17 Blue Jackets will be if Dubois makes the club and which forwards out of Cleveland will make the jump. The top six of this club is very versatile, so these lines will be fluid and ever changing. While Bjorkstrand has the talent to be on the top line, placing him with a talented and experienced winger in Saad could help jump-start him.
Zach Werenski – David Savard
Murray and Jones will likely anchor the defense. The pairing, currently playing for Team North America in the World Cup of Hockey, have been a consistent pair since Jones arrived in Columbus. Werenski and Savard will prove to be a dynamic duo, backed up by the heavy-hitting, though inconsistent, pair of Johnson and Prout. As the season progresses, Werenski and Savard could push for more ice time.
Health is the biggest unknown when it comes to the goaltenders. Bobrovsky has been dealing with recurring groin injuries over the past three seasons. Are the troubles behind him or will they continue to plague him over the remainder of his career? With deeper depth in the defensive core, Bobrovsky should be facing fewer shots, hopefully lowering his chances for injury.
McElhinney is also no stranger to injury troubles. In the last year of his contract, the Jackets could deal him near the trade deadline, making way for Korpisalo. Until then, Korpisalo will remain in the AHL to further develop his game while also serving as the primary goaltender to fill in for any inevitable injuries.
Players to Watch
The ceiling is high for the defenseman coming off of his first partial season in the AHL, as well as his sophomore season at the University of Michigan. While participating in the 2016 Big Ten Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament, Werenski tied the record for most assists in the tournament championship game with three. He also tied the record for points in a championship game with four. Werenski was a key force in the Calder Cup championship run with five goals and 14 points in 17 games.
The eighth overall pick in the 2015 Entry Draft is a quick learner and is able to quickly adapt to his surroundings. He is a mobile two-way defender with speed and strong puck handling skills. Given his ability to remain composed and calm on the ice, he should prove to be a steadying presence in a team that has consistently lacked defensive depth.
If the Blue Jackets want to see any sustained success, Bobrovsky returning to form is key. The former Vezina-winning goaltender has been plagued by injury the last three seasons, which has given his game inconsistencies. In the 2015-16 season, Bobrovsky finished with a record of 15-19-1-1 in 37 games. This includes a 0-6 record in the team’s first eight games.
His history and skill suggest that he has not yet touched his ceiling, but will injury prevent him from ever reaching it? Seen as a bit of a perfectionist, Bobrovsky will be wanting to move on from the last two seasons and return to his Vezina-winning form. Will this hamper him and up his chances of injury as he tries to reaffirm team and fan belief in him? Only time will tell.
On the Rise
Despite what some saw as an underwhelming start to his professional career, the former first round pick by the Jackets in the 2013 Entry Draft is proving to be a promising player. His size, high hockey IQ, and ability to create plays are impressive and are turning him into a pivotal player for the team.
In 2015-16 he appeared in 69 games, tallying eight goals and 32 assists. This is double the production from his 2014-15 rookie season in only one more game played. If he continues to progress, including developing a shoot-first mentality as opposed to defaulting to passing, expect him to push for the number one center position.
On the Decline
Simply put, Johnson is an enigma. He is just as likely to be one of the best players on the ice as one of the worst, all in the same game. In the 2015-16 season, he was one of the many disappointments. Despite being second in terms of ice time on defense with 24:10, behind Jones, his production was lackluster at best. His six goals and 14 points in 60 games was behind both Jones, Savard, and Murray. In the 2013-14 season, he led all Blue Jackets players in playoff scoring, with three goals and seven points in the six games against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The 29-year-old will see less ice time to start this season and should prove to be more of a mentor to players such as Werenski and former partner Savard. If Johnson is able to recapture his former production, he will provide healthy competition and further depth.
The first month of the season will define the entire year for the Jackets. Will this be the team that the fans have come to know over the first 16 years of the franchise? Will a slow start end all playoff hopes before Thanksgiving even rolls around? Tortorella is emphasizing increased discipline and focusing on off-season training and fitness. This will result in a tenacious and spirited start to the season.
Now that the club has made room for some younger talent, the veterans on this team will have to earn every minute of ice time. This will particularly hold true for Bobrovsky, especially if Korpisalo or fellow Monsters goaltender Anton Forsberg continue to develop and see time between the pipes in Columbus.
Fans have long hoped and cheered for a team with the expectation of one day becoming playoff contenders. This season should prove to be the start of consistent forward progression. Assuming the Jackets are able to string together a strong start of at least an even record after the end of the first month, it would not be unrealistic for them to make the playoffs in a wildcard position. The lack of strong veteran leadership and the reliance on developing youth will hinder the team in the playoffs. However, this will serve as a giant leap in the team’s pursuit of sustained success.