Written by: Matthew Ruskan (@MRuskun)
Edited by: Curt Ashcraft (@cashcraft740)
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Sixty-three points…thirty-three of which were goals. Right now that is what the Columbus Blue Jackets will be missing if they are unable to come to terms with restricted free agent (RFA) Ryan Johansen.
Let’s be clear. Johansen is asking for a lot of money. He just recently dropped his price by almost $2 million a year to $9.4 million over two years (check out the latest on the negotiations here).
The Blue Jackets NEED to get Johansen re-signed. The next highest goal producer from last season was Artem Anisimov with twenty-two red lights. In terms of total points, James Wisniewski was second with fifty-one, and forty-four of those were helpers. In other words, the key to the Columbus offense last year was Johansen and he will be the same this year. $4.7 million a year is a lot of money, but it is an investment the Blue Jackets need to make if they want to build on last year’s success.
Even if Johansen can come to terms with the CBJ, can the Blue Jackets build on last season’s exploits?
After signing big number 19, the Blue Jackets need to get big number 8 healthy if they want to succeed. Nathan Horton only saw the ice thirty-six times last season, but still contributed nineteen points. Now dealing with a back injury, he will certainly not be available for the season opener on October 9 in Buffalo (making it imperative that Johansen be signed). Horton is, without a doubt, a top-six forward when healthy. For the Blue Jackets to take the next step, they need Horton on the ice.
Moving on from the doom and gloom, however, there are plenty of reasons to believe the Blue Jackets can improve on the result of last season.
The first of those is Sergei Bobrovsky. Goalie Bob is debatably one of the top three goalies in the NHL and the Blue Jackets will need those thirty-two wins he contributed last season, if not more, to advance to the playoffs in a very competitive Metropolitan Division. He is fantastic at stopping the puck, and just as importantly, at moving the puck, an often over-looked skill in a net minder. (Columbus fans may recall Marc-Andrè Fluery answering their prayers in the first round of the 2014 playoffs by coughing up the puck behind his cage when he should have stayed in the net). Having such a force in net alone makes the Blue Jackets competitive in every game.
Just as important are the men in front of Goalie Bob.
Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski led all blue liners in minutes last season, followed closely by Fedor Tyutin. With only one defenseman not returning this season, the back line looks to continue building chemistry. Communication is one of the most important aspects of defense, as spacing and coverage areas are critical.
Having played a large amount together already, this gives the Columbus backline a distinct advantage. There is one hole to fill, as Nikita Nikitin departed for a fifth round draft pick to Edmonton. Nikitin finished second on the team in plus-minus at +19. Tabbed to potentially replace him is Tim Erixon, who hit the ice twice for the Blue Jackets last season while spending the rest of the season in the AHL at Springfield. He has also represented Sweden in the World Juniors and this year at the World Championships. At first glance, it may seem that Dalton Prout is the ideal replacement, but I think that Erixon has the ability to be a top line defenseman and will be seeing a significant amount of time on the back end for the Blue Jackets.
Offensively, there is some good news for the group attempting to give Goalie Bob a lead to protect.
Of the top 10 goal scorers last year for the Blue Jackets, only 2 played all 82 games. If Nick Foligno and Brandon Dubinsky (one of the most underrated centers in the NHL in my opinion) can stay healthy, they should be able to breach the twenty goal barrier and give Columbus a few more cannon blasts this year, which is exactly what the Blue Jackets need. One guy (as the Cavaliers found out in their first trip around the block with King James) cannot win a championship. This is even truer in hockey than basketball.
Johansen needs support. The biggest departure up front is R.J. Umberger, traded to Philadelphia for Scott Hartnell. I am a huge fan of this move (and am a bit perplexed as to why the Flyers went for it). Hartnell’s fifty-two points last season (assuming he stays consistent) are a vast upgrade to Umberger’s thiry-four. Hartnell also brings a bit more of an edge to his game (okay, we will call it what it is: a bit of a nasty side).
In every full NHL season (we are excluding both the lockout and two seasons shortened by injury), he has recorded over one hundred penalty minutes (PIMs). The closest Umberger has come to one hundred PIMs is fifty-three, and that was a particularly rambunctious season at that. Why do you want a guy that puts you on the penalty kill more? Because he brings physicality to the game that the Blue Jackets were otherwise missing up front. Not a single forward had over 100 PIMs last year.
The NHL is a rough league. You need players who are willing to go to the dirty areas in the corner or in front of the net and mix it up, letting the other teams know you won’t be intimidated by physical play. Hartnell brings that grittiness to the Blue Jackets.
The other aspect of the Hartnell trade I love is his experience. The man has been to the playoffs nine times as either a member of the Nashville Predators or the Philadelphia Flyers. For a Columbus team making only its second playoff appearance ever last season (the first came in the 2008-2009 season), that experience is invaluable.
The Blue Jackets learned last year that making it to the playoffs is one thing, but advancing through that grind is an entirely different matter. Just having that playoff experience is invaluable to such a young team, and with it, I believe the Blue Jackets are set up for success this coming season.