Brandon Saad has won the Stanley Cup twice and he deserves recognition for his role in that, but when he was in Chicago, he wasn’t the player people expected to step up when it mattered most. He was a valuable forward for the Blackhawks, but not one of the team’s biggest stars.
Columbus is a decidedly different situation for him. The Blue Jackets provided Chicago with a significant package to get Saad and made a serious commitment by inking him to a six-year, $36 million contract. His $6 million annual cap hit will place him second on the team next season, behind goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
Even factoring in the two titles he’s been involved in, it seems fair to say that he’s getting paid based on potential rather than past accomplishments. His 23 goals and 52 points in 82 contests last season, taken by itself, wouldn’t typically warrant that kind of payday. That’s especially true when you remember that his most common five-on-five linemates by a wide margin last season were Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews, per Hockey Analysis, so while playing alongside Ryan Johansen will be a luxury, it’s not as if he wasn’t sharing the ice with highly skilled forwards already.
Of course, it’s not unreasonable to assume that a 22-year-old forward (23 in October) still has some untapped upside and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t continue to improve and become a player that looks more than worthy of that contract. But for the first time in his life, someone has bet tens of millions of dollars on the idea that will happen and a city is putting their faith in him being a player that can lead the charge.
It’s a big opportunity for him and if he lives up to expectations, then there could be quite a few more serious playoff runs in his future.
Since the Columbus Blue Jackets’ debut in 2000, they have made the playoffs twice and won just two postseason games. So it would be fair to label their 2015-16 campaign as successful if they make the playoffs, but is it unreasonable to put expectations higher than that?
Columbus had a 42-35-5 record last season and while that might not be great, it is actually impressive when you consider all the injuries that team had to endure. The Blue Jackets suffered 508 man games lost last season, which surpassed the old franchise record by over 100 games, per the Columbus Dispatch. At the other end of the spectrum, Man Games Lost put the Canadiens’ figure at just 88. The Stanley Cup finalists — Tampa Bay and Chicago — had 168 and 158 respectively.
In fact, Columbus was so unlucky that if you added up all the man games lost from the Canadiens, Rangers, Kings, and Blues, you would still arrive at a number lower than the Blue Jackets alone.
Which begs the question: How much better could Columbus have done if the team stayed healthy? We’ll never get the answer to that because the Blue Jackets made a big splash this summer by acquiring Brandon Saad. He’ll bring with a wealth of experience despite the fact that he’s just 22 years old and provide the team with another significant offensive weapon along with Ryan Johansen, Nick Foligno, and Scott Hartnell.
Then there’s also the question of if Sergei Bobrovsky will bounce back after struggled at times during the 2014-15 season. As already touched on, the Blue Jackets need him to play like an elite goaltender. If he does manage to return to his Vezina Trophy-winning form though, then that combined with their improved offense could make Columbus a headache for a lot of teams.
Of course, this is all painting the Blue Jackets in a preferable light. Team president of hockey operations John Davidson described the Blue Jackets’ injury problems last season as “just flat-out bad luck,” but perhaps enough of it was more than that to cause history to repeat itself. Maybe Bobrovsky won’t bounce back. Maybe Foligno, who shattered his career-highs last season at the age of 27, will fall back to Earth.
Carey Price dominated the NHL last season, winning the Hart and Ted Lindsay Trophies in addition to the Vezina, so it seems only fitting that his virtual counterpart would be exactly effective.
Price will be the top goaltender in the upcoming video game NHL 16 with a 94 overall rating, per EA Sports’ release. That’s allowed him to leapfrog Henrik Lundqvist and Jonathan Quick, who led all netminders in last year’s ratings. Price’s rise didn’t push either of them down though as he went from a 92 to 94 while Lundqvist and Quick have once again been listed as a 93 going into the season.
Rounding out this year’s top five is Boston’s Tuukka Rask (92) and Nashville’s Pekka Rinne (92). Rask received the same rating last summer, but Rinne is up from his previous mark of 91.
Braden Holtby (91), Sergei Bobrovsky (90), and Cory Schneider (90) are the remaining goaltenders with a rating above 90. That’s a new position for both Holtby and Schneider, although Bobrovsky simply maintained his rating from the year prior.
Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov remained level too with an 89 rating that was good enough for ninth place this season. After a strong showing in his first full campaign as the Anaheim Ducks’ starting goaltender, Frederik Andersen (89) was selected to round out the top 10.
NHL 16 will be out on Sept. 15 in North America and Sept. 17 in Europe.
If everything works out, the Columbus Blue Jackets won’t be relying on any rookies in 2015-16, but they should know better than most that a hockey season rarely goes according to plan. They might not be nearly as unlucky as they were in 2014-15 when it comes to injuries, but the unfortunate reality is that some players will likely get hurt along the way and when that happens, the Blue Jackets will need someone that can fill the void.
Sonny Milano might be that man.
Taken with the 16th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, Milano had 22 goals and 68 points in 50 contests with the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers before he began his pro career with five assists in 10 AHL games. Although he’ll certainly get a shot to make the Blue Jackets out of training camp, he’s more likely to begin the season in the minors.
He could be one of the first players the Blue Jackets call upon though when they need reinforcements and he has the offensive skills to take advantage of such an opportunity. He’s a fast and elusive skater that is effective with the puck. You can see some of that firsthand below courtesy of this goal he scored against Finland during Team USA’s recent World Juniors camp:
To make matters better, he’s filled out his frame as the 5-foot-11 forward weighed in at 200 pounds during the Blue Jackets’ 2015 development camp, which was an increase of roughly 15. He also stay in Columbus this summer so that he could work more closely with the team.
“I’m not going to turn down a chance like that to be working out with the pros, being in Columbus and getting to know the area,” he told NHL.com.
“I really needed to focus on gaining muscle and gaining weight. I worked hard on heavy weights. I’m maturing too, getting older. I need to keep gaining strength. I need to make harder plays on the ice. That’s something they really stress; harder plays and harder passes and get better defensively like I’ve been doing.”
While the Columbus Blue Jackets have become a stronger team offensively thanks to the rise of Nick Foligno and Ryan Johansen as well as the recent acquisition of Brandon Saad, there’s no question that they still need a dominant season out of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. The problem is that might not happen.
Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy in 2013 by posting a 2.00 GAA and .932 save percentage in the lockout shortened campaign. In the process, he nearly propelled Columbus into the playoffs. He wasn’t quite as strong in his follow up campaign, but his 2.38 GAA and .923 save percentage were nevertheless impressive as well as good enough to push the improved Blue Jackets into the postseason for just the second time in franchise history.
It seemed like Columbus had found a goaltender that it could rely upon not just to be solid, but play at an elite level. The Blue Jackets’ belief in that was highlighted in January when they signed him to a four-year, $29.7 million deal that will begin this season.
Bobrovsky didn’t play at that level last season though. He suffered a groin injury that cost him part of the season, but even when he was healthy he was inconsistent. Although a late surge partially salvaged his numbers, he did still finish with a 2.69 GAA and .918 to make it the second straight season he declined from a statistical perspective.
There were certainly still positives to be found, but Columbus needs Bobrovsky to be more than a mixed bag. After all, he’ll enter this season with the second highest cap hit in the league among goaltenders, behind only Henrik Lundqvist, so it seems reasonable to describe anything other than a top-tier season as a disappointment. More to the point, anything short of that might not be enough to get Columbus back into the playoffs.
To that end though, the Blue Jackets believe they’ve dealt with the issue by modifying his summer conditioning program and have a strategy in place for how they will continue to handle his conditioning during the season.
“We all know how hard a worker he is,” Blue Jackets goaltending coach Ian Clark told NHL.com. “Some of that was he was working so hard he was exhausted.”
So we’ll see if that’s the magic bullet needed for a comeback performance.