THN’s 2015-16 NHL season preview: Columbus Blue Jackets

The Hockey News
Nick Foligno and Ryan Johansen (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Ryan Johansen (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

2014-15 Record: 42-35-5 (89 Pts.)

THN’s Prediction: 4th, Metropolitan Division

What To Expect: The Jackets were struck by quantifiably bad luck in 2014-15: their 508 man-games lost were tops in the NHL. Core players who stayed healthy were productive, notably the tandem of Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno, who each eclipsed 70 points. David Savard and Jack Johnson also enjoyed full seasons and posted healthy totals. But the top dogs couldn’t pull the sled alone, as Brandon Dubinsky, Boone Jenner and Ryan Murray missed significant time.

Columbus, who ended the season 12-0-1, is due for better health and a playoff berth, especially with the acquisition of Brandon Saad. He showed glimpses of brilliance in the Hawks’ Cup run and looks to start on the top line. Saad bumps Scott Hartnell or Jenner down the lineup, creating a third threatening trio.

Columbus’ offense was 12th-best on the strength of the top line. A top-10 offensive showing is expected, especially if Alexander Wennberg excels as the No. 3 center.

The ‘D’ is the team’s greatest concern. Last season’s group allowed the fifth-most goals, and the penalty kill was subpar. The health of Murray, the No. 2 overall pick in 2012, is crucial to boosting team defense. Savard quietly emerged as a top-four minute muncher.

Sergei Bobrovsky was good, but he didn’t meet the expectations that come with winning the Vezina in 2013. A healthier roster in front of him will help. His $7.4-million cap hit demands excellence.

The power play was the best in franchise history but needs a gunner on the point. On the penalty kill, help arrives in Gregory Campbell, formerly a man-down specialist in Boston. Foligno assumes the captaincy and is the first Jacket with a ‘C’ since Rick Nash left in 2012. Talented youngsters Kerby Rychel, Josh Anderson and William Karlsson got a taste of NHL action and will need to seize a spot from a veteran to make the club.

With a slight upturn of luck, the young talent of the Blue Jackets will wear out the cannon and carry the franchise to its third playoff berth.

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Best-Case Scenario: The additions of Saad can hopefully fill the Blue Jackets’ need for a top-line winger to play alongside Johansen and Foligno and could give Columbus their best first-line since Nash’s days in Ohio. The Blue Jackets won 16 of their final 20 games in 2014-15. If they can carry that play over to the new campaign, the post-season will be calling for Columbus.

Worst-Case Scenario: The injury bug which bit the Blue Jackets in 2014-15 was severe enough that it derailed Columbus’ entire campaign and also showed a lack of organizational depth. The Blue Jackets are hoping they won’t have to rely on injury replacements in 2015-16, especially on the blueline. This roster is ready for the post-season, but injuries on the back end could put an end to that.

Who To Watch: Saad, with his mix of size and speed, was set to become a star in Chicago, but the Blackhawks cut ties with him and shipped him off to Columbus where he’ll have a shot at continuing to breakout as a Blue Jacket.

The 22-year-old had the best offensive season of his career in 2014-15 with a 23-goal, 52-point performance and followed that up with a phenomenal eight-goal, 11-point post-season en route to his second Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks. Just two seasons ago, Saad finished in third for the Calder Trophy, and he has his eyes on becoming a star this season.

Alongside Johansen and Foligno, Saad could be a 60-point player, especially considering he’ll likely be getting consistent top power play minutes for the first time in his career.

What The Numbers Say (by Dom Luszczyszyn):

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Click here for more detail on these predictions.

There’s a lot of hype surrounding Columbus this season, but perhaps we should pump the breaks a little bit. A lot will need to go right this season for the Blue Jackets to make it to the playoffs as the numbers suggest they have a just over 35 percent chance of making it in a very tough Metro.

As mentioned above, the big concern is on defense. Johnson is the number one d-man on the team, but there’s years of evidence that suggests his team plays better while he’s on the bench. Savard and Murray are decent players that pick up the slack, but the rest of the group drags them down to an almost bottom five showing.

Fortunately they have Bobrovsky in net who should be able to hold down the team’s goals against even if he does end up facing a barrage of shots. He projects to be a borderline top-five goalie and some hot streaks by him might be enough to bring the team into the playoffs.

To help his case is a relatively solid forward group that has one major flaw: the fourth line. Columbus’ top nine forwards are the ninth best group in the league thanks to contributions from newly acquired Saad and team captain Foligno. Ahead of Columbus are only legitimate Cup contenders. What separates them from Columbus, though, is that atrocious fourth line, one that ranks worse than every team other than Colorado.

It’s just the fourth line, it doesn’t matter you might say, but take a look at the average fourth lines for teams projected at different tiers below and you may see that every line is a factor. The best teams have depth, it’s what separates contenders from pretenders. On paper, Columbus is looking like the latter.

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THN is rolling out its 2015-16 Team Previews daily, in reverse alphabetical order, until the start of the season. Check out our ‘Previews’ section to see other team breakdowns.