Expansion and shifting divisions in the NHL can produce a wide variety of challenges. While the most pressing on this particular day is that the league has excluded Vegas merchandise from its Cyber Monday sale, it can also be difficult to maintain a rivalry with a team you used to see a great deal more of.
Both tonight’s opponent, the Dallas Stars, and tonight’s profile subject, the Columbus Blue Jackets, fall into this category. The expansion Nashville Predators pushed the Stars from the Central Division, removing a divisional rivalry that stretched back to 1981 and the entrance of the Minnesota North Stars to the Norris division.
When Columbus joined the league for the 2000-01 season, they were placed in the Central Division and lasted there until the 2013 -14 season, when realignment was completed to accommodate the move of Atlanta to Winnipeg. If you’ve ever questioned whether the NHL places much value on continuity, consider the sheer number of seasons and locales in the two previous paragraphs and you’ll quickly arrive at your answer.
My observation of the Blue Jackets took place on a fairly quiet Sunday afternoon in the midst of a stretch of three games in four days. The Capitals crowd was somewhat lackluster and the Washington press box was nearly empty, save for six scouts from the Vegas Golden Knights. Included in that group was David Conte, the architect of the mid-90s New Jersey Devils and beneficiary of many Blues draft picks, and Blake Armstrong, the son of Blues GM Doug Armstrong.
The management connections, of course, run fairly deep in Columbus. Both John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen are still in senior positions for the Blue Jackets. Brad Shaw, after mystifyingly surviving 10 years and four head coaches as an assistant, is also now on the Blue Jackets bench.
It was clear early that Columbus would be attempting to shorten its bench and lean heavily on the team’s most trusted players. The third defensive pairing was Scott Harrington and Markus Nutivaara, who at the time had combined for 42 NHL games and only three points. They were forced into a difficult situation at least in part thanks to the elegance and grace of Patrik Berglund, who had managed to stomp on defenseman Seth Jones’s foot a week prior, breaking bones and putting him out of the lineup for an extended period.
One player the Jackets were comfortable relying on, however, was defenseman Zach Werenski. While a great deal of the focus around the league has been on Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine, the top two picks in this summer’s draft, Werenski has put up nearly a point per game on defense while simultaneously being incredibly difficult to play against. Watching him in this game was a familiar experience to watching Kevin Shattenkirk at his best.
Since his play for the Blues this season seems to suggest that those days are long gone, it was a bittersweet jog down a fairly long memory lane.
The Blues also have some familiarity with Columbus in terms of their reliance on their fourth line. This may not come as much of a surprise given their coaching staff. John Tortorella was roundly criticized for his roster construction for the United States in this summer’s World Cup, and his grinder romance has been well documented.
Matt Calvert, William Karlsson and Josh Anderson do have more skill than your average collection of grinders. Calvert was playing in this game fresh off an impressive night against the Rangers where he rebounded from 30-plus stitches to the forehead to score the game winning goal.
One second period shift from that fourth line was perhaps a textbook example of grinding road play. The Blue Jackets were able to sustain a cycle deep in the Washington end before crashing the net to attempt to clean up a point shot from Jack Johnson, perhaps the only player in the NHL who might need to sell Game Time on the weekends. While the Capitals were able to prevent a goal, they did have to ice the puck and provide Columbus with a golden opportunity for an offensive zone faceoff against tired opponents.
Sergei Bobrovsky is ultimately the backbone of the Blue Jackets, as so many goaltenders are. After winning the 2013 Vezina Trophy, the goalie that many call “Bob” has struggled to maintain consistency, and the Blue Jackets have similarly struggled to assemble consistent results.
The 92.9 save percentage that Bobrovsky has assembled so far this season is his best since his Vezina season. In this game, however, it was clear that he was affected by some combination of the early start and the rough schedule. Bob’s legs were noticeably slow early, and that delayed reaction led to an early goal off a weak screen by Marcus Johansson and another near miss after a high tip from Tom Wilson.
Aside from the Alex Ovechkin one-timer from the blocker side dot (yes, there was one in this game), hockey is difficult to predict. Alex Wennberg played a mostly anonymous and quiet game until a late and controversial penalty against Nicklas Backstrom put the Blue Jackets on a last minute powerplay. Wennberg took advantage of outstanding exterior passing from Sam Gagner and Nick Foligno to capitalize, and the Blue Jackets were able to squeeze out a difficult road win.
Fifteen minutes later, Wennberg found himself surrounded at his locker stall by media types from at least five publications. That’s an outcome that no one could have seen coming, thus proving that the micro shifts in the game and the macro shifts in the league have a parallel structure that produces the excitement that so many hockey fans rely on.