The Hockey News is rolling out its 2017-18 Team Previews daily, in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds, until the start of the season. Today, the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Stanley Cup odds: 21-1
Key additions: Artemi Panarin, LW; Tyler Motte, RW; Jordan Schroeder, C
Key departures: Scott Hartnell, LW; Kyle Quincey, D; Sam Gagner, C; Brandon Saad, LW; Anton Forsberg. G; William Karlsson, C
Will Sergei Bobrovsky deliver Vezina-calibre play again this season?
There’s no two ways about it: the Blue Jackets were the league’s most surprising team last season and that goes well beyond the 16-game win streak. Columbus was far better offensively and much deeper defensively than even the staunchest Blue Jackets supporter would have predicted, but the most incredible performance came between the pipes.
Bobrovsky dazzled for Columbus, taking his game to levels few thought possible. He posted a league-best save percentage (.931), league-best goals-against average (2.06), managed seven shutouts and won 41 of his 63 games. He won the Vezina, finished third in Hart voting and was a first-team all-star. There has to be some concern about his ability to do it all again, though, because after winning the 2012-13 Vezina, some tough years followed. From 2013-14 to 2015-16, Bobrovsky managed a mediocre .917 SP, 2.58 GAA and won little more than half of his starts. His 2015-16 season was a disaster, too. He had a .908 SP and it was tough to watch on some nights.
But maybe Bobrovsky learned from his downturn after his first Vezina and will bring a consistency that we’ve yet to see from him. If he can perform at even close to last season’s level on a game-in and game-out basis, the Blue Jackets won’t have even the slightest cause for concern in goal.
In Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, Columbus has two of the best young blueliners in the game, and they happen to work together fabulously already. Given how good Werenski’s rookie season was, his offensive upside may be the most exciting thing to come out of Columbus since peak-era Rick Nash. And those two aren’t alone. With David Savard, Jack Johnson and the emerging Gabriel Carlsson, Jackets fans are entertaining thoughts of trading Ryan Murray without consternation.
Up front, Alexander Wennberg looks like the real deal at center and now he gets to feed his silky passes to Artemi Panarin. Not only that, but it’s Oliver Bjorkstrand time. The dazzling young winger has finished his apprenticeship and is out to prove he can be a game-breaker in the NHL. Even with all that sizzle, the Jackets still have a lot of steak in physical forwards such as Boone Jenner, Nick Foligno and Josh Anderson. There’s no reason the Blue Jackets can’t compete for a division title with this lineup.
We know Panarin was a demon in Chicago when Patrick Kane was on his line, but what will he do when he’s not paired with one of the top scorers of the past decade? If the ‘Bread Man’ can’t deliver, then Columbus just downgraded from Brandon Saad, for whom Panarin was traded. And if Bjorkstrand can’t find his offensive touch early, what use will he be to a team that already has top-end role players? The Blue Jackets can rightly rely on Jones and Werenski on the back end, but Murray and veteran Johnson are wild cards that may or may not help the cause. And if Bobrovsky gets injured again, hopes in Columbus will be dashed. Joonas Korpisalo may have a bright NHL future, but he’s still young and suited more for a backup role right now.
The Blue Jackets got a huge boost from coach John Tortorella’s famously hard training camp last year, but they were also coming off a humiliating 2015-16, and players were seeking redemption. If that motivation wanes, Columbus will be a good-but-not-great team, and that means another early playoff loss (presumably to Pittsburgh).
THN’s PREDICTION: 3rd in the Metropolitan. Adding Panarin further boosts the offense and Columbus’ top young defenders, Jones and Werenski, are another year older and wiser. The Blue Jackets are better than they get credit for and can hang with the top dogs in the Metro.
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