It can be really easy to sometimes forget about, or even completely overlook, the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Historically, they are still a franchise that has yet to get out of the first-round of the playoffs. They have been constantly stuck in the shadows behind perpetual Stanley Cup contenders (and Stanley Cup winners) like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals in the standings, and unable to knock them off their thrones when it comes to the postseason.
This season they not only have to deal with those two teams that have won each of the past three Stanley Cups, but the New York Islanders have also emerged as the story in the Eastern Conference.
So again, it is easy for them to kind of get … lost.
But the Blue Jackets are good. They are really good, and they are a team that you should be paying attention to as we head into the second half of the 2018-19 season.
How good are they? For starters, they are a top-10 team in the league standings as of Monday. They have an exciting game-breaker at forward in Artemi Panarin, and they have one of the best all-around defenders in the league in Seth Jones who continues to get better every single season. Along with them, second-year player Pierre-Luc Dubois is developing into a legit top-line center, while Cam Atkinson is the best goal-scorer in the league that nobody ever talks about (14th in the league since the start of the 2015-16 season). Their underlying numbers are strong. They are a good possession team, they typically win the scoring chance battle, and they are really good on the penalty kill.
What makes them such an intriguing team is that they have maintained such a high spot in the standings and are still right in the thick of the Metropolitan Division race despite getting some of the worst goaltending in the league this season.
At least as far as potential playoff teams go.
Sergei Bobrovsky‘s play has dropped significantly from where it has been in previous seasons, and while Joonas Korpisalo is a decent backup he’s probably not going to be backstopping a team to a title.
Overall, the Bobrovsky-Korpisalo duo has managed only a .900 save percentage for the season. That is 20th in the NHL. The only teams currently occupying a playoff position that are worse than them are the Colorado Avalanche and San Jose Sharks. When it comes to even-strength play, they drop down to 24th where Sharks are the only team in a playoff spot with a worse mark. Typically teams that get this level of goaltending don’t end up winning many games. The fact the Blue Jackets are, and winning as regularly as they are, is a testament to how strong the team in front of their goaltenders can be.
Long-term this team has some question marks, specifically as it relates to Bobrovsky and Panarin who are both eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season. Losing one or both could be pretty damaging, especially with Panarin because it is going to be extremely difficult to replace his production. But in the short-term, this is a really good hockey team that is decent goaltending away from being a true contender in the Eastern Conference. Especially as the two teams that have stood in their way the longest have seemingly taken a step back this season.
The only question is whether or not they can actually get that goaltending this season, and if it is going to come from Bobrovsky or from somebody that is currently outside of the organization.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Still in a class all to themselves. The pressure to win it all is going to be immense this season.
2. Calgary Flames — An absolutely incredible one-year turnaround. In any other year Bill Peters would probably be a lock for the Jack Adams Award, but he is probably already stuck in second place behind Barry Trotz.
3. San Jose Sharks — It’s not usually a good sign when two of your top-three scorers are defenders. But when those two defenders have combined to win three Norris Trophies (and be finalists three other times) and are both point-per-game players, you can win with it. Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns are giving the Sharks just what they expected this season. Unfortunately for the Sharks Karlsson is going to be shut down for a couple of games.
The second tier
4. New York Islanders — They have won 15 of their past 18 games and enter the week with a three-point cushion over every other team in the Metropolitan Division. If they win it Barry Trotz will probably be a unanimous coach of the year winner.
5. Winnipeg Jets — They haven’t always looked great in recent weeks, but they keep scoring a lot of goals and piling up a lot wins.
6. Vegas Golden Knights — Alex Tuch has been the big breakout player for the Golden Knights this season, and now that they have a healthy Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny there is an argument to be made they are even deeper than last year’s team.
7. Columbus Blue Jackets — Imagine how good they would be this season with decent goaltending.
The Other Contenders
8. Nashville Predators — They’ve slumped a bit recently, but I am still not worried. The types of peaks and valleys that every team faces over an 82-game season.
9. Toronto Maple Leafs — They have lost seven out of 10 and some of their big-money players, specifically William Nylander, are not scoring like they are expected to. Surely this will all result in a calm, rational response in Toronto
10. Washington Capitals — A five-game losing streak is almost unheard of for the Capitals. They gave up at least seven goals in two of those games during the current losing streak.
11. Boston Bruins — You have to think there is going to be a trade for some more forward help. Their top three forwards are incredible. They do not have much help.
12. Pittsburgh Penguins — They were on a roll and looking like a Stanley Cup contender until they went on this most recent Western Conference road trip where they reverted back to their early season ways. The bye week and All-Star break is coming at the absolute perfect time for them.
13. Montreal Canadiens –– Carey Price is the X-factor for this team. He has a .951 save percentage so far in January and a .930 mark since the start of December.
The Bubble Teams
14. Carolina Hurricanes — They are not going away quietly and really trying to make a run at a playoff spot. Nino Niederreiter was an outstanding pickup that will help not only this season, but in the future as well.
15. Minnesota Wild — They still have the inside track for a playoff spot at the moment, but the status of defenseman Matt Dumba and swapping Niederreiter for Victor Rask is not a promising development for their roster.
[Related: Dumba’s anger led to indefinite stint on sidelines]
16. Vancouver Canucks — They are definitely benefitting from the bottom half of the Western Conference being completely mediocre, but they are still exceeding expectations in a big way. Will Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser be enough to drag them to the playoffs? That is a big ask, but they are at least an interesting team because of them.
17. Buffalo Sabres — With Jack Eichel continuing to develop into a star, Jeff Skinner erupting offensively, and the team winning 17 of its first 25 games it seemed like the playoffs were a given. Not so much now.
18. Colorado Avalanche — The more this season goes on the more it seems that this is a completely ordinary team that just so happens to have one truly dominant line up front. They are just 5-11-3 in their past 19 games.
19. St. Louis Blues — Somehow they are still very much in the Western Conference wild card race, and at the moment are probably playing better than any of the teams around them. Unfortunately that terrible start to the season may make this a case of too little, too late.
20. Arizona Coyotes — Not only are they are 8-4-2 in their past 14 games, but they are doing it with a roster that has been held together with duct tape and playing really well against some of the league’s best teams.
21. Dallas Stars — Just when they started to show some signs of getting it together, they dropped four in a row this past week. Hopefully the bye week is an opportunity for them to recharge and put the first half drama behind them.
The Lottery Teams
22. New York Rangers — After David Quinn ripped his team’s effort in a loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets they responded by winning three in a row. Not enough to make a dent in the deficit they are facing in the Wild Card race, but a nice response either way.
23. Anaheim Ducks — It is downright stunning that a team that lost 12 games in a row, 13 out of 15, and has a minus-29 goal differential on the season is still anywhere near a playoff spot. Have to imagine that is the season goes on they settle more into the lottery pack than the playoff pack.
24. Philadelphia Flyers — Positive signs for the Flyers include Carter Hart looking good in net and Nolan Patrick starting to heat up offensively. They could be difference-makers in the very near future.
25. Edmonton Oilers — Placing Ryan Spooner on waivers is just another reminder as to how bad the roster management of this team has been. What a waste.
[Related: Oilers shuffle more deck chairs, waive Spooner and Rattie]
26. Chicago Blackhawks — Patrick Kane is still scoring at an elite level, Jonathan Toews is having one of the best seasons of his career, and Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome are two young players that look to be emerging on cheap contracts. There are some positives here. The negatives are pretty much everything else.
27. Florida Panthers — With every loss coach Bob Boughner seems to call out his big-money players more and more. Can’t imagine that will be very impactful for very long.
28. Ottawa Senators — The Senators seem determined to get Matt Duchene re-signed, and that leads to a very big question: Why? As in, why would he want to re-sign there, and why are the Senators going to probably overpay a 29-year-old forward to be a part of a rebuilding team that is probably years away from being relevant again? The only logical answer here is that with the salary floor they have to pay someone.
29. New Jersey Devils — Without Taylor Hall in the lineup there just is not much here.
30. Los Angeles Kings — Their 7-1 loss to the Avalanche over the weekend was as ugly as it gets.
31. Detroit Red Wings — This will be the first time since the early 1980s that the Red Wings will have missed the playoffs three years in a row. Given the state of the roster and the current rebuild it’s worth wondering how many years this particular streak will continue.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.