Lighting the Lamp - with Rick Ackerman
If there could be one other NHL team that Blues Nation would like to see flourish on the ice and have their building packed with avid, boisterous fans, it would have to be the Columbus Blue Jackets. Well, that's at least fair to claim now because the Jackets are no longer in the same division as the Blues since the Columbus franchise was moved from the Western Conference to the Eastern for the current season. It is also easy for Blues' fans to feel that way since John Davidson is currently the President of Hockey Operations and Jarmo Kekaleinen is the General Manager of the club situated in Ohio's capital and largest city. As they did in St. Louis, both hope to transform Columbus from an average, middle-of-the-road team into a playoff-bound juggernaut with both the will and ability to win the great majority of games played.
The Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild were the last two expansion teams to enter the NHL, granted franchises in June, 1997. Both began play in October, 2000, and are now 13 years old. The Wild have been the more successful of the teenage franchises, qualifying for the playoffs four times, winning two series and losing four and winning one divisional title in 2008. That rather dubious record nevertheless outweighs the Blue Jackets' accomplishments, which basically consists of only making the playoffs once in 13 seasons and getting swept in the opening round by Detroit in that series in 2009. Columbus has never finished higher in divisional ranking than third, and only did that once in 2006. In only two season did the Jackets finish with a winning record, in 2009 and the lockout-shortened season of 2013.
So, it was with great excitement and anticipation that the Blue Jackets gladly accepted a transfer to the Eastern Conference for this season, fully aware that a lighter travel schedule and more play against weaker conference rivals would result in a legitimate challenge for a slot in the playoffs. Columbus may not have been realistically suited to challenge Pittsburgh for the division lead, yet could easily compete with the other teams in the Metropolitan Division to finish at least third. The addition of free agent Nathan Horton from Boston (7 years, $37.1M) bolstered an already-strong offense that featured potential 20-goal scorers Marian Gaborik, Brandon Dubinsky, R.J. Umberger, Artem Anisimov, Mark Letestu, Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno and rookie sensation Ryan Johansen, drafted fourth overall in 2010. One rather curious decision was the Jackets' decision not to resign free agent Vinny Prospal, their leading scorer last season.
Columbus also looked quite stocked on defense with several veterans steadily improving under coach Todd Richard's defensive system. Fedor "I'm rootin' for" Tyutin pairs up with Jack Johnson, drafted third overall by Carolina in 2005, giving the Jackets a top pairing capable of eating-up huge minutes of playing time, providing both skill and physical shutdown power. Former Blue Nikita Nikitin and former Hawk Jim Wisniewski can pile up the points, while sophomore Dalton Prout and rookie Ryan Murray provide both youth and exuberance to a steadily improving defense. However, the Jackets' ace-in-the-hole on defense is goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, winner of the Vezina Trophy last season for his unbelievable performances in goal, earning 21 of Columbus' 24 victories with a goals against average of 2.00 and a save percentage of 93.2 %.
The Blue Jackets did not get off to a great start, losing the home opener to Calgary. They bounced back with two wins on the road against the Islanders and Sabres, yet returned home to fall to the Bruins, doing very little to attract fans in a city in which Ohio State football and basketball dominates the sports scene. A disastrous road trip resulted in losses in Detroit, Montreal and Washington. That was followed by three victories in a row at home against the Canucks, Devils and Maple Leafs. But then the next three games were losses to the Ducks and Penguins (twice). And it has been like that, up and down, coming into tonight's game against the Blues.
How can this be? Well, in one word, the Blue Jackets' single biggest problem is injuries. As of December 24, Columbus had lost 156 man-games to injury, ranking fifth league-wide behind Pittsburgh (210), Anaheim (193), Carolina (174) and Edmonton (168). In comparison, the Blues are ranked 26th with 66 man-games lost as of December 24. Even before the season started, newcomer Horton was lost to shoulder surgery and is not expected to play until the end of January. Scoring star Gaborik sprained his knee on November 15 and returned on December 21 only to break his collarbone in his first game back. He is out indefinitely. Other players that have been placed on injured reserve at one time or another include Matt Calvert, Prout, Dubinsky, Jared Boll, Derek MacKenzie, Bobrovsky (out since December 4) and Wisniewski. And this list does not include those with day-to-day injuries such as Tyutin, Nikitin, Boone Jenner, Anisimov and back-up goaltender Curtis McElhinney. Ouch!
Last season the Blues took three of four games from the Jackets, out-scoring them 10 to 7. There is no reason to think this season's edition of the Note cannot continue to dominate the team from Ohio with an average offense (ranked 14th) and mediocre defense (ranked 17th). Both Jackets' special teams are below-average, the power play ranked 17th and the penalty kill 16th. Nevertheless, a good first period and a will to win will be required if the Blues are to defeat the injury-ravaged Blue Jackets.