Toronto Maple Leafs Eastern Conference Preview: A Look at the Columbus Blue Jackets


Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Blue Jackets rebuild is effectively over. After taking the Penguins to six games in their first round matchup last year, the Blue Jackets will be looking to take the next step and win their first playoff series in franchise history. Getting there will depend on their young players continuing to trend upwards and the continued solid goaltending provided by Sergei Bobrovsky.

The Blue Jackets have seen some major and minor changes this offseason. The biggest move was trading R.J. Umberger and a 4th round pick to the Philadelphia Flyers for winger Scott Hartnell. Over the past seven years with the Flyers, Hartnell has averaged 47 points a season while Umberger averaged 43 points over the same span. That may not seem like a huge difference, but Hartnell has the higher upside, twice topping 60 points in a season which Umberger never has.

The Blue Jackets also traded Matt Frattin back to the Maple Leafs for Jerry D’Amigo. While D’Amigo is unlikely to crack the Blue Jackets lineup, he’s likely to get a shot as an injury fill in as the season progresses.

Other changes for the Blue Jackets were the signing of Simon Hjalmarsson, a 25-year-old left winger who has played the last two years with Linkoping in the Swedish Hockey League where he was a point a game player. He’ll likely start off as the third or fourth line left winger.

The only other major moves were the re-signing of Brandon Dubinsky to an extension, as this coming season was the last year on his deal. Ryan Johansen and the Blue Jackets still remain a way apart on contract talks but the Jackets will likely work something out with the RFA before the season starts.

Other than that it’s business as usual for the Blue Jackets. Todd Richards returns as Head Coach after leading the Blue Jackets to their best record in history and first playoffs wins. He’s been with the team since 2011 and been Head Coach since 2012. General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen has been the GM since February 13, 2013.

While the Blue Jackets tend to be an after thought here in Toronto, it’s worth noting that had the Maple Leafs finished better, their head to head record with Columbus would have still hurt their playoff chances. What’s more if the Leafs hope to return to the playoffs this year, beating teams looking for a similar lower end playoff spot like Columbus is necessary.

Blue Jackets Team Stats (2013-14):

2013-14 Record: 43-32-7 (93 points, 4th in Metropolitan Division, 7th in Eastern Conference)

Record against divisional opponents: 16-13-1

Tied for 11th in ROW (Regulation + OT wins) with Los Angeles and Tampa Bay

9th in Faceoff win %

Blue Jackets outscored opposition 231-216 (+15 differential, 5th best in East)

Shootout record: 5-2

Power Play Rank (NHL): 11th

Penalty Kill Rank (NHL): 14th

Blue Jackets Player Stats (2013-14):

Johansen: 82GP, 33G, 30A, +3, 17:39 ATOI

Wisniewski: 75GP, 7G, 44A, +0, 22:37 ATOI

Dubinsky: 76GP, 16G, 34A, +5, 18:47 ATOI

Atkinson: 79G, 21G, 19A, -4, 15:47 ATOI

Foligno: 70G, 18G, 24A, +5, 16:04 ATOI

Bobrovsky: 58GP, 32-20-5, 2.38 GAA, .923 SV% 5 SO

Blue Jackets Player Stats vs. Leafs (last year):

Foligno: 1 G, 4 A

Johansen: 3 G, 1 A

Murray: 2 G, 1 A

Anisimov: 1 G, 2 A

Wisniewski: 3 A

Letestu: 3 A

Dubisnky: 1 G, 1 A

Calvert: 2 A

Tyutin: 2 A

Bobrovsky 3 – 0 69 svs / 72 shts .958 sv% 1 SO

Last Season against the Leafs: 

Maple Leafs – 2 at Blue Jackets – 5

Blue Jackets – 6 at Maple Leafs – 0

Blue Jackets – 2 at Maple Leafs – 1

Schedule against the Leafs: 

Friday October 31 @ Blue Jackets,  7:00PM

Friday January 9 @ Maple Leafs, 7:30PM

Wednesday April 8 @ Blue Jackets, 7:30PM

The potential good: The Blue Jackets have built their team the right way, with an influx of developing youth with more high end talent in the minors. Only Scott Hartnell (32), Fedor Tyutin (31), James Wisniewski (30) and backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney (31) are on the wrong side of 30. The young stars for the Blue Jackets like Sergei Bobrovsky (25), Ryan Johansen (22), Boone Jenner (21) and Ryan Murray (20) help form the core of this team with Nathan Horton, Jack Johnson, Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, Artem Anisimov and Mark Letestu rounding out the team.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Sergei Bobrovsky is the anchor of this team. He’s 53 – 31 – 11 with 9 SO, a .926 sv% and a 2.23 GAA since coming to Columbus. He also won his first Vezina in 2012-13. For comparisons sake, over the past two years Jonathan Bernier is 35 – 22 – 8 with 2 SO, a  .922 sv% and a 2.53 GAA. Bobrovsky is on the last year of his deal that pays him $5.625-million but is still a RFA. For the Blue Jackets to compete both this year and in the future, Bobrovsky will need to continue with his stellar play. His career averages are a .919 sv% and a 2.46 GAA, which while still good numbers are brought down by his poor sophomore season in Philadelphia.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Blue Jackets will lean on developing young stars like Johansen, Murray and Jenner to continue to take steps forward. Key to that will be Johansen, who was the 34th highest scoring NHLer last year and tied for 11th in goals. He’ll need to become better defensively as well, as out of the goal scorers above him on that list, only Patrick Marleau, Phil Kessel and Alex Ovechkin had a worse +/-.

The other good sign for the Blue Jackets is their cap situation. While Johansen isn’t signed yet, the team has over $14-million in cap space with only one truly bad contract, Jared Boll with three years left at $1.7-million per year. Hartnell, Horton and Dubinsky are locked up long term up front, with Tyutin, Johnson and Wisniewski all locked up long term on the back end.

Other positives for the Blue Jackets are the wealth of defensive prospects at the AHL level. They also have strong centres who will be able to fill in when injuries occur.

In the minors the Blue Jackets have several high end players like Oliver Bjorkstrand (RW, 109 pts in 69 games for Portland, WHL), Kerby Rychel (LW, 90 pts in 58 games for Windsor/Guelph, OHL), Oscar Dansk (G, 29 – 9 – 1,  2.39 GAA, .909 sv% for Erie, OHL), Alexander Wennberg (C, 21 pts in 50 games for Frolunda HC, Swedish Elite League) and Sonny Milano (C/LW, 135 pts in 90 games for the United States development program and world juniors)

Milano was the first pick for the Blue Jackets at the draft earlier this year, going 16th overall. He’s an interesting case as he recently backed out of attending Boston College for the upcoming season, instead signing a professional contract with the Blue Jackets. He’ll play for the Plymouth Whalers in the OHL next season.

He also gave us this video at the NHL Combine.

While all of those players aren’t ready for NHL action just yet, they’ll be able to lend a hand to an improving Columbus team a few years down the line.

The potential bad: First and foremost, the Jackets need to work out a deal and sign RFA Ryan Johansen. In recent days things have started to get really ugly on the signing front. How ugly? How about the team, which prides itself on keeping contract negotiations behind closed doors, announcing the EXACT offers they’ve given Johansen.

Needless to say when the team starts playing the media game, getting people to label Johansen as ‘greedy’, they’re not close to a deal.

While also unlikely, Johansen has options elsewhere.

Right now the Blue Jackets are preparing to start the season without either Johansen or Nathan Horton, who injured his back recently. Imagine the Maple Leafs starting without JVR and Kessel on their first line. That’s not good.

Outside of Brian Gibbons, Corey Tropp and Jerry D’Amigo the Blue Jackets don’t have a lot of NHL ready talent to fill in on the wing with Gibbons likely the only winger who would be able to fill a top nine role. The Jackets may need to make a move to sign another winger before the season starts, be prepared to make a trade or move a centre to the wing.

The Blue Jackets winger depth isn’t nearly the biggest red flag though, as if Sergei Bobrovsky goes down with any long term injury this team is in trouble. Backing up Bobrovsky is journeyman Curtis McElhinney who has 97 NHL games in a seven year career for an average of 14 per year. In seven years he’s played for the Calgary Flames, Anaheim Ducks, Ottawa Senators, Phoenix Coyotes and Columbus Blue Jackets.

At the AHL level Mike McKenna and Jeremy Smith split the load for the Springfield Falcons last year. McKenna signed with Arizona in the offseason and Smith signed with the Bruins. That leaves the tandem of Joonas Korpisalo (20-years-old, 2012 3rd round pick) and Anton Forsberg (21-years-old, 2011 7th round pick) to mind the pipes. While both are considered solid prospects, neither is anywhere near NHL ready.

Also a concern is the numbers for the Blue Jackets off the ice. They had the fourth worst attendance last year ahead of only Arizona, Florida and Dallas. That’s especially concerning considering it was the best year in franchise history and they made the playoffs. They had seven sellouts in 41 games, dipped below 80 per cent full 23 times and were below 65 per cent full six times. While the attendance figures improved as the season went on, with five sellouts in their final ten home games, those are still very concerning numbers. TV viewership was also amongst the worst in the league.

Last year’s Eastern Conference regular season rank: 7th place

Prediction: The Blue Jackets returning to the playoffs is likely. While they’re still a step or two behind Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers, their on the same level as the Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals and New Jersey Devils and likely far better than the New York Islanders or Carolina Hurricanes. The Blue Jackets aren’t in a position to surprise anyone with a top four seed, but improving on last years 7th overall finish is a real possibility. The roster for this season looks better than last years while other teams at a similar place have either improved little or even gotten worse. While the Blue Jackets are likely to improve next season, a real chance for success may not come until Bjorkstrand, Rychel, Milano and the other young high quality prospects are ready, likely two to four years from now.

So what do you think of the Blue Jackets this year? Will they sweep the Toronto Maple Leafs yet again? Let us know in the comments below.

Click here to return to the series introduction, complete with links to other Eastern Conference previews.