Five keys to a winning Blue Jackets season
The Columbus Blue Jackets' inaugural season got off to a great start with a goal by Bruce Gardiner against the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 7, 2000, but the team's been mired in disappointment pretty much ever since.
Obvious hyperbole aside, something has to go right for this franchise, doesn't it? With that in mind, here are five things straight from the hope springs eternal department. If the 2016-17 season is going to end well for the CBJ, these things are going to have something to do with it.
With only a couple exceptions, the Blue Jackets have come out of the starting gate and been pretty underwhelming. Last season, this tendency reached a new low, as the team lost its first eight games, an NHL record. The first seven were enough to get former Head Coach Todd Richards fired.
By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, the Jackets will have played 18 games, including 11 at home and seven away, including a West Coast swing. On paper, it looks brutal. If the team hasn't played itself out of contention (again) take that as a good sign.
The "start strong" thing will be directly impacted by…
Not coincidentally, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has traditionally been a notorious slow starter. He has also battled injuries, even after spending last offseason working to get stronger.
The good news heading into this season is that Bob looked great playing for Team Russia at the recent World Cup of Hockey. Will that momentum carry over? If the international play gives him a rolling start to the NHL season, we could be looking at the really good Bob we saw during the 2013-14 playoff season, as well as the year before. If it only means he's that much closer to breaking down … well, let's not think about that.
Head Coach John Tortorella joined the team early last season, his reputation for defensive hockey and the unfortunate sound bite preceding him. While we saw some of that own-zone structure and little of the viral press conference commentary, the thinking was that the team would benefit from starting a season fresh with him behind the bench, having fully installed and instilled his plan thanks to a full training camp.
His duties with Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey infringed a bit on camp, but word is Torts has been working the players hard, in the interest of improving their overall fitness level. Will the strain of a tough camp pay off when the games start to count?
Blue Jackets TV analyst Bill Davidge expects that three or four of the young players in camp who were a part of last season's American Hockey League champion Lake Erie Monsters (now the Cleveland Monsters) will make this year's CBJ roster. He didn't offer names, but it's a safe bet that defenseman Zach Werenski, who joined the Monsters late last season after he finished play for the University of Michigan, will be one of them. Forwards Oliver Bjorkstrand, Josh Anderson and Daniel Zaar, part of the organization's well-regarded prospect pool, will also push for spots. Could one of the young goalies, Anton Forsberg or Joonas Korpisalo, make the roster and take some starts from Bobrovsky? An infusion of skill and some of that championship moxie (albeit minor-league) could make a big difference.
Any new arrivals will join an already-young squad. Forwards Brandon Saad, Alexander Wennberg and Boone Jenner, along with defensemen Seth Jones and Ryan Murray, highlight a strong under-25 group. But the question now is whether any will take the next step (or two) to become truly elite players in the league? Or, in the case of Jones and Murray, if paired, do they become a top-flight defensive pairing?
Veterans like Brandon Dubinsky, Jack Johnson, Nick Foligno and Cam Atkinson aside, this is a team of kids, and highly regarded ones at that. Expect growing pains for sure, but how good this team is will depend, in large part, on how fast and how well these young players develop.