Chins up, Columbus Blue Jackets. No one likes an excuse maker, but, honestly, you deserve an exception. You were simply cursed in 2014-15. We loved your chances to contend this season – I had you going all the way to the Eastern Conference final – but some witch in some basement impaled an entire collection of team bobblehead dolls with pins. Nothing you can do.
According to mangameslost.com’s Jan. 20 update, the Blue Jackets lead the NHL with 283 man games lost this season. For context, the 10th-ranked team, the Dallas Stars, have lost less than half that many. The horseshoe-infused Montreal Canadiens sit last at 37.
And it’s not like the Jackets have lost one or two role players to season-long injuries that jack up the number. Virtually every important cog has missed time. Nathan Horton’s back threatens his career altogether. There was Boone Jenner’s broken thumb and back, Scott Hartnell’s broken finger, Artem Anisimov’s torn triceps, Ryan Murray’s knee injury…I’ll stop there lest I explode my word count. Let’s just say any Jacket who hasn’t endured an injury this season may feel like a dressing room outcast.
Sergei Bobrovsky’s misfortune looks like the last straw for Columbus in 2014-15. He’d already missed time with a fractured finger and brief illness, and his lower-body injury Wednesday night against the Winnipeg Jets looked grim. The extent won’t be clear until his MRI results come in, but Bobrovsky had to be helped off the ice.
Now it’s time for GM Jarmo Kekalainen to swallow his pride and realize this season wasn’t meant to be. If Bobrovsky is seriously hurt, it’s obviously a knockout blow for a team 14 points out of a playoff spot. And if the injury is, say, a minor sprain, there’s no reason to rush back a precious commodity freshly signed to a four-year, $29.7-million contract extension. The Jackets are finished.
The important thing to realize: that’s totally OK. The future remains extremely bright. Columbus was simply dealt a bad hand this season. Kekalainen and John Davidson have built a well-rounded, gritty, improving team. Ryan Johansen continues to look like a star, and Nick Foligno has taken his game to a new stratosphere. Murray has shown flashes of a Ryan Suter-like upside at just 21 and has plenty of time to improve if he can stay healthy. This team has a lot of young help on the way, too. Alexander Wennberg, 20, hasn’t made waves as a rookie but is a dynamic young prospect, likened to Henrik Zetterberg. Guys like Kerby Rychel, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Marko Dano look good, too. There’s no denying flashy Sonny Milano has a sky-high ceiling, even if he was a risky first-round pick last June.
Kekalainen’s next move should be to assess what pieces of his roster are expendable and can be used to secure more long-term assets before the trade deadline.
Anisimov comes to mind, as he’s close to returning. He has one year remaining on his contract at a $3.28-million cap hit and can slot in on a contender’s second and third line with his good size and two-way ability. Columbus has improved at the center position in recent years and can afford to spare him. He was already linked to the Edmonton Oilers in a potential David Perron swap before the injury. Another pivot who could net a low- to mid-round pick is Mark Letestu, a pending unrestricted free agent. A playoff hopeful in need of faceoff proficiency could snag him on the cheap. Pending UFA blueliner Jordan Leopold? Probably wishful thinking, as he’s spent most of his short Columbus tenure in the press box, but maybe a desperate team loses a D-man to injury and needs a veteran stopgap at the deadline. Cam Atkinson is set to be a restricted free agent this off-season, and Kekalainen could at least listen if someone comes tire-kicking.
Another longshot to consider dealing? Scott Hartnell. It’s highly unlikely, as he was happy to land in Columbus after the Philadelphia Flyers decided he didn’t belong in their long-term plans. He also has a no-trade clause. But he’s just the type of piece that would put a playoff contender over the top, big, strong, physical and able to wreak havoc on the power play. Doesn’t that mean the Jackets could get a really nice return for a guy who, as likable of a player as he may be, is exiting his prime at 32? He’s not grossly overpaid at a $4.75-million cap hit for four more seasons, which makes him keepable for Columbus, but also attractive to other teams. Again, massive longshot, but if a Stanley Cup favorite comes knocking, can Hartnell pass up a real chance at a championship as he enters the back nine of his career?
Whatever happens, it’s something for Columbus and its fans to relish. The hexed 2014-15 season is nothing to worry about. This team’s future remains bright. Now it’s up to Kekalainen to go brighten it further.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin