Folks, the calendar tells me that it is late August, which means we are just a few short weeks away from the opening of NHL training camps and the beginning of the preseason slate.
With that in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to do a series running down each of the Hurricanes’ rivals in the Metropolitan division, what they did last season, what they did this off-season, and why they’ll be good (or in some cases, not good) this coming season. Familiarity breeds contempt, after all, and for a team like the Hurricanes that doesn’t really have any true rivals, familiarizing the fan base with the teams that we’re not supposed to like is something that I think may do some good to change that.
The most fair way to do this is to run through them in alphabetical order, so first off will be the Columbus Blue Jackets.
What They Did Last Season
Losing. The Blue Jackets did a lot of losing last season. The funniest thing about that to me, is that they weren’t supposed to do a lot of losing. After acquiring Brandon Saad over the summer of 2015, Columbus suddenly became every hockey analyst and their mother’s favorite pick to be the big surprise team that year. This sentiment was compounded by the fact that the Jackets went on a huge run and won a ton of meaningless games at the end of the 2014-2015 season (hey, I know a team that’s done that before) to ruin their draft slot in the mythic 2015 NHL draft and artificially inflate their stock heading into last season.
The Blue Jackets answered the bell in a big way in October by starting off on a 0-8-0 run. You see, while they added Saad to a forward group that looked pretty solid at the time, everyone forgot and/or failed to notice that their defense was what could only be described as Edmontonian. Couple that with Sergei Bobrovsky performing at an ECHL level in October, and that record makes a lot of sense.
Of course, Bobrovsky is a very good goalie, and anybody could see that he would bounce back and start to win them some games given the time to do so. Combine THAT with the strong forward group, and there was no real reason to panic or make any rash decisions about the future of the franchise.
Just kidding! The Blue Jackets fired head coach Todd Richards after the abysmal start to the season. They then scoured the coaching market and brought in a fresh mind with new ideas and a steadying demeanor to come in and right the ship. Wait, they didn’t do that either? And you’re telling me that they actually hired... John Tortorella? After his disastrous one season tenure with the Canucks?
Torts was presumably brought in for his supposed defensive acumen, but Corsica hockey tells us that only five teams finished the season with worse corsi against per 60 minutes rates at even strength than the Jackets. Tortorella also proceeded to run the team’s franchise center, Ryan Johansen, out of town by benching him, scratching him, accusing him of being out of shape, and probably (I’m guessing) dulling down his skate blades before every game.
General manager Jarmo Kekalainen ended up trading Johansen to Nashville for defenseman Seth Jones, and he deserves credit for salvaging some pretty good value out of the depleted value that Johansen carried at the time. Johansen went on to put up 34 points in 42 games with the Predators while shooting at a percentage considerably below his career average, which is actually pretty good for a guy carrying top-line center duties in the Western conference while being out of shape.
Anyway, I’ll spare you the details, but Tortorella was somehow not enough to save Columbus’s season, as the team finished 34-40-8 which was only better than the openly-tanking Toronto Maple Leafs in the Eastern conference.
For the sake of balance, there are some bright spots on Columbus’s roster. Alex Wennberg is a very nice piece up front, as is the versatile and productive Boone Jenner. Cam Atkinson remains one of the most quietly productive and underrated players in the entire league. Seth Jones is very good as well. Oliver Bjorkstrand and Zach Werenski are nice prospects that would seem to have good futures as well.
What They Did in the Off-Season
All that being bad at hockey that the Blue Jackets did throughout the season won them the third overall pick in the 2016 NHL entry draft. They then went on to screw that up by passing on Jesse Puljujarvi to take Pierre-Luc Dubois in what was most likely a misguided attempt to draft Johansen’s replacement as the team’s franchise center.
In free agency, the team added center Sam Gagner, whom the Flyers chose not to retain. He has an interesting skill set, but it’s hardly one that one could imagine would mesh well with Tortorella’s ideologies.
So overall, it was a pretty quiet off-season for the Blue Jackets. That’s somewhat of a change of pace, as past summers have seen them bring in guys like the aforementioned Saad and Jeff Carter (that one did NOT work out). Maybe that winds up being a good thing, but to not have big overhaul from a roster that was the second worst in the Eastern conference seems a touch off track.
How They’ll Do Next Season
Basic logic says that things shouldn’t be looking particularly good for Columbus next season. It’s a largely similar roster to the one that fared very poorly just a season ago, and while there is some young talent that should improve on the roster, it won’t be enough to keep pace with the roster upgrades that teams like New Jersey and Carolina made over the summer.
With Ryan Murray and Seth Jones anchoring the defense unit, there’s some promise, but I don’t feel as though they make a very adequate top pairing at this point in their respective careers.
With the absence of Johansen up front, there’s a gaping hole at number one center that neither Brandon Dubinsky nor Boone Jenner are capable of filling. The wing should be a point of strength for this team with Atkinson, Saad, Scott Hartnell, captain Nick Foligno, and Matt Calvert holding down roster spots.
Overall, there are nice pieces here, but their weaknesses down the middle and on the blue line are a death sentence in this NHL. Further, there probably isn’t a team in the NHL that has done a worse job of maneuvering the salary cap than the Blue Jackets have. According to General Fanager, the team has $38,882,142 in salary cap space tied up in Dubinsky, Foligno, Hartnell, David Clarkson, Greg Campbell, David Savard, another defenseman (I’ll get to him later), and Sergei Bobrovsky.
Now, some of those players are good at their jobs, but none of them are worth their respective salaries, and that’s an awful lot of money to pay for a group that does not have a first line forward, a top pairing defender, and a good-not-great starting goaltender. It’s not really a recipe for efficient spending or competitiveness in this league whatsoever.
With all of this in mind, I’ll predict another last place finish in the division for the 2016-2017 iteration of the Blue Jackets with a slight point increase to the 77-80 region.
Why You Should Hate Them
Remember that unnamed defenseman from the list of their salaries? Yeah, that’s our forever favorite hockey player, the one, the only, Jack Johnson. Johnson is about as effective on the ice these days as the singer and the boxer who share his plain-as-can-be name, and to make matters worse, he’s somehow wormed his way onto USA Hockey’s irredeemably embarrassing roster that they are going to send to the inaugural World Cup of Hockey next month. Over Justin Faulk? Yeah, okay, Dean Lombardi.
But it doesn’t stop there, Dubinsky and Hartnell are particularly easy to dislike as well. Nobody really wants Tortorella to succeed here in 2016, either (he’s the one coaching Team USA, which I forgot, and makes matters worse).
The Blue Jackets are also the team that makes the most sense for the Hurricanes to adopt as their main divisional rival. All the other teams ranging from Pittsburgh, to the New York metropolitan area, to Philadelphia, and down to Washington are preoccupied with each other, leaving the Jackets and ‘Canes as the black sheep of the Metro.
For all of these reasons and more, you should dislike the Columbus Blue Jackets. Stay tuned for the next edition of Better Know a Rival, which will feature the New Jersey Devils.