We are making the playoffs this year. There, I said it. As a longtime fan of the team am I biased? You’re damn right I am. But, I think that a closer look at the (almost) complete roster and you might see why I am seeing sunshine in our schedule rather than the biblical level of downpour we endured last year. I will do my best not to rehash what I have already written in the player profiles that have been posted already (read them!), but some redundancy is unfortunately inevitable.
Before jumping into the season outlook, a note about the national coverage of the CBJ. There isn’t any. What limited coverage we receive typically is regarding a “your season’s over, time to start selling off players to playoff contenders” . I don’t fault any of them for it. Before last season we started to get a little taste of coverage from the likes of Pierre LeBrun and Greg Wyshynski, but that was quickly dashed when we fell down without ever getting out of our starting gate. I bring this up for one reason: because we get little to no coverage many of the pundits are predicting for us to finish in the bottom two of the metropolitan division based on what appears to be last season and no new significant player pieces. I don’t think they are correct. We finish third in the metro or take a wildcard spot this year. Bank on it.
Three things that catapult us to the playoffs:
- Jenny Craig. I don’t actually believe any of the squad has run out and joined weight watchers, but all of Torts talks about the team being out of shape clearly resonated with the players. Dalton Prout is reported to have lost 11 lbs. Bobrovsky apparently went on a voluntary hunger strike and shed 17 lbs(!) as he believed it would increase his flexibility and help keep those groin issues at bay. Based on reports coming from the Dispatch team, it appears many came into camp this year a lot more play ready than in years past. Was it simply the threat of Torts grueling camp schedule or was their some locker room leadership regarding off-season activities? Who cares, this is a significant improvement based on reports from the last three years.
- That blue line. Youth springs eternal on our blue line, but of greater import is the fact that we now possess a defensive core that has the ability to competently move the puck. Yes, they all need to further develop, but I think this lineup puts us ahead of the curve when it comes to adjusting to the new speed and possession style that appears to be overtaking the NHL. Werenski has the potential to really shine on the power play and I am truly excited to see what influence Brad Shaw has on our penalty kill after building the Blues into a PK machine the last two years. Outside of Gagner, Brad Shaw may be the biggest addition of the off-season.
- The Hartnell decision to stay. I may be over-emphasizing this, but I don’t take it as a small thing that Hartnell decided to pull his approved team list and stay in Columbus. This guy has been around the NHL for a longtime and I cannot believe he would want to spend his last few seasons as an NHLer with a team that he didn’t believe has a real shot at winning.
Three things that lead to me buying makers mark by the case:
- Bobrovsky’s health. It’s hard not to be excited about the showing Bob had at the world cup of hockey. There is not a doubt that our season most likely goes along with Bob’s save percentage. The top of the metropolitan division contains two teams (Pens, Caps) that are going to pepper the net early and often. While we have some quality youth coming up between the pipes, if Bob goes down again – or starts in the same manner that he did last season, give me a makers single ice cube and a labatt chaser. Hell, just put them in the same glass, I will make it work.
- Offensive hesitancy. In order to score, you must shoot the puck. While Wennberg’s tendency to pass rather than shoot has been well documented, the truth is looking for the perfect play has gotten in the way of making really good plays for years on the Jackets offensive end. We finished 21 in the NHL in average shots on goal per game (29.1). Again, Brad Shaw is a big coaching addition that helps us to limit the shots against per game (we had the 4th highest average), but to win you have to put shots on frame and capitalize on some of those rebounds.
- Lack of line chemistry. With last season in the bag, it seemed the lines were changing not by the game, but by the minute. Maybe Torts garnered some information about player skill sets that help us going into 16-17, but if we immediately go back into the cycle of having to change lines on the fly to try to generate offense it will be a red flag in my book. By no means am I saying set the lines and live with them until the end of the season, but chemistry is developed over time and there has to be some patience in letting our leaders in the locker room lead on the ice.
Here we go, this Thursday is the first game of the regular season. Bring on the Bruins, bring on the cannon, and bring on a season that proves many national pundits wrong.