At the start of the 2016-17 season expectations for the Columbus Blue Jackets were, to say the least, low.
They were coming off of a disastrous season the year before, had a roster that was full of what looked to be questionable to perhaps even bad contracts and a coach that nobody really believed in (or wanted to believe in). After losing four of their first six games it seemed as if they were on a path to fulfilling the only expectation anyone had for them — to be a very bad hockey team.
Then a funny thing started to happen. They started to win. A lot. After that initial six-game stretch to start the year they went on an 8-2-2 run over the following 12 games, then ripped off an 18-game point streak that included a 16-game winning streak. They ran into a terrible goal-scoring slump at the end of the regular season, and were then shut down by Marc-Andre Fleury in a first-round playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins that was much closer than the five-game result would seem to indicate.
Usually when a team like Columbus comes flying out of nowhere and is driven by some of the same high shooting percentage and save percentage numbers that the Blue Jackets were there is an expectation that they might come back down to earth. So far this season that has not quite happened, even if you include their recent three-game skid.
As of Wednesday the Blue Jackets are still right in the thick of a heated and incredibly tight Metropolitan Division race, and they have probably played even better than their 9-6-1 record would indicate.
They are one of the top teams in the league when it comes to shot attempt percentage, indicating they are pushing the pace of play and dictating where it is played, while three of their seven losses have come with backup goalie Joonas Korpisalo in net (he has a .896 save percentage in those starts).
Do not expect them to regress too far from that spot over the next few months.
Or in the foreseeable future.
While the Blue Jackets might still have a contract or two that could end up looking ugly on their salary cap (Brandon Dubinsky and maybe Nick Foligno in a couple of years) they have assembled a rock solid roster that really does not have many weaknesses. Their forward lines go four lines deep and over the summer they added a true front-line player in Artemi Panarin from the Chicago Blackhawks in the Brandon Saad trade. His goal-scoring has not quite been there yet, but his playmaking is still superb and he is driving play at an elite level, currently owning a near 60 percent Corsi mark.
Given his shot generation (a career 3.06 per game) it is only a matter of time until he breaks out from a goal scoring perspective.
The same is true for quite a few players on the roster.
Panarin, Foligno, Dubinsky and Cam Atkinson (a 35-goal scorer a year ago) have combined for just 10 goals this season (on a combined shooting percentage of just 6.7 percent) and the team is still a top-five team in the league in goals and just one point out of first-place in the Metropolitan Division. Add Alexander Wennberg to that list and that quintet has combined for only 11 goals (on just 6.3 percent shooting).
There is a lot of bad shooting luck there that is destined to change at some point. That group of players is too good to be kept off the board for that long.
The fact the team is still winning is a testament to how deep the roster is.
But what is perhaps most encouraging for the Blue Jackets is how young a significant part of it is.
If you look at the Blue Jackets’ top-eight scorers right now only one of them of is older than 23. That player is the 26-year-old Panarin.
Included among that group are two of the biggest core pieces of the roster, defensemen Seth Jones (currently the team’s leading scorer) and Zach Werenski. They are going to be the foundation of the Blue Jackets’ defense for the next decade and are already impact players. They are the type of modern day NHL defensemen that can skate, move the puck and help drive the offense all over the ice.
They not only have a strong roster, but a significant portion of it — especially the core — is still at a point where it is either in the prime of its career (Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky) or has yet to reach it (Wennberg, Werenski, Jones, etc.).
Meaning there is still room for them to grow and get better.
The wild card in all of this is probably the player that is the best one on the team — goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
Since arriving in Columbus Bobrovsky has been one of the best goalies in the league, having already won two Vezina Trophies. He was a significant part of the Blue Jackets’ success a year ago.
He was also a significant part of their early exit in the playoffs thanks to a miserable performance (especially when in comparison to the goalie at the other end of the ice) against the Penguins.
For as great as Bobrovsky has been in the regular season during his time in Columbus he has been equally bad in his two postseason appearances.
If the Blue Jackets are going to take the next step in their development as a team and go on a deep playoff run that is going to have to change. There is still reason to believe that if it can. If it does happen there is no limit for what this team is capable of given the way the rest of the roster is constructed and the way they have played this season. They are for real. They are not going away.