It could be argued the Blue Jackets have been the most polarizing team in the NHL the past couple of seasons.
They’ve had that something to make them more than a mere pretender, but still one massive leap away from being an elite club.
In 2019-20, that meant their wild upset of the Lightning in the First Round with one of the most stunning sweeps in recent memory. Last season, they overcame a ridiculous amount of injuries to be in contention, but Tampa Bay took the leap where they handled the Jackets after a couple of competitive games.
That leaves the Jackets in an interesting spot heading into 2021. They certainly have some pieces, and they’ll be competing in a Central Division that — sans the Lightning and Stars at the top — has some room for them to do some damage.
That leads to the question, what has to happen next for the Blue Jackets to enter the sphere of the elite they’ve flirted with the past few seasons?
To understand where the Blue Jackets are, one needs to understand how they got here. At the 2019 trade deadline they made a statement of their intention to compete when they didn’t move impending free agent departures Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, and instead bulked up.
Their additions of Ryan Dzingel and Matt Duchene helped them in their infamous Tampa series but they were stopped by the Bruins the next round. Whether that was worth the loss of Panarin and Bobrovsky for nothing in return, that’s subjective.
Their bubble series win over the Maple Leafs was similar in the sense of a surprise series win followed up by not having enough gas in the tank to push any further.
For the Blue Jackets to ascend to that next class of NHL teams, they have to — obviously — win more than just a series, but they have to be equipped for that.
A short 56-game season in a competitive division could be a benefit for the Jackets. One could argue the Jackets would be better off moving some money now since their core is young enough to bridge and compete the next season, but this also feels like a unique opportunity to make a push that would be a waste to ignore.
Tampa, Dallas, and Carolina at the top of the division will push the Jackets in just the right way, with enough wiggle room against lesser teams in the division to gobble up points.
That may be a best-case scenario assumption, but this is a Jackets team that has proven they believe in betting on themselves.
A scoring push
There’s enough there to see a Blue Jackets surge as a possibility. Cam Atkinson and Gustav Nyquist — when he comes back from shoulder surgery — are veterans, but still young enough to argue they’re in their prime. Oliver Bjorkstrand is a solid top right winger and Alexandre Texier showed a lot in the Toronto bubble where it would be fair to expect the 21-year-old to make a leap from 14 points a year ago. Max Domi’s addition has a lot of fanfare, as could be imagined.
Then there’s the 26-year-old Russian forward Mikhail Grigorenko. The 12th overall pick to the Avalanche in 2012 is as much of a low-risk, high-reward guy as anyone in the league after nabbing 102 points in two seasons in the KHL.
He averaged 24 points per season with the Avs, but if his game has taken a leap, he could be a weapon — especially on the power play — to give the Jackets an extra scoring element.
Emil Bemstrom should take enough of a step in his age-21 season to be an impact as well.
The Jackets ranked 28th in the league with just 2.58 goals per game a year ago. Plenty of that can be attributed to injuries preventing any consistency, and with the performances in the bubble — and some additions — it feels fair to say Columbus should expect some more success in that department this season.
Dean Kukan has earned time over the years, and Andrew Peeke seems ready to fight for a regular role. It’s tough to overlook Michael Del Zotto — with all of 657 games under his belt — on a PTO, and both Gavin Bayreuther and Scott Harrington won’t make it easy for roles to be clamped down on, either.
Defense has never been the Jackets issue; their 2.52 goals allowed per game was third best in the league last season, and even any eye test would tell you they were good at smothering their offensive opponents.
Given the sprint-like nature of the shortened season, both should get a lot of time, and teams that have a solid tandem can only have an advantage with the condensed schedule.
What can we expect from the Blue Jackets?
Yes, if things go sour, the Jackets have a ton of pieces to sell and try again. That doesn’t seem in GM Jarmo Kekalainen’s plans, though.
We’ve seen him be bold before, and this feels like a time to do it again. Sure, it will take a lot of best-case scenarios for Columbus to fully leap into that conversation as a top team, but as we’ve seen before, give them an inch and they can at least take a few feet, if not a mile.
There’s a tremendous prospect pipeline of Liam Foudy, Kirill Marchenko, Trey Fix-Wolansky, Tim Berni and Daniil Tarasov to consider as well. Columbus has options, most of them young.
The Jackets early season schedule doesn’t have them traveling all too far, and their games against Nashville, Detroit, Florida and Chicago give them the opportunity to get off to a fast start, while an early series with Tampa keeps the competitive juices flowing.
No one thinks the Jackets are going to suddenly become a Tampa-esque threat, but it might not be far-fetched to think there’s an opportunity in front of Columbus, one that could be worth exploring, and one that is the next step in their push towards the top of the league.