The perception of this year’s Columbus Blue Jackets might be just a bit off. They aren’t going to be among the best teams in the NHL this season — not by a long shot — but folks seem to be more down on the Blue Jackets than they really should be.
This has more to do with the team’s boisterous and spotlight-stealing head coach John Tortorella than it does with anything that has happened out on the ice so far. The veteran bench boss (inevitably) made headlines while coaching Team USA during the recent World Cup of Hockey.
It was a disaster for USA hockey, in which Tortorella tried to grind down more talented teams like Canada with decidedly less skillful players. To the surprise of no one, that strategy didn’t work against the best skaters in the world, and instead, Team USA went their separate ways after an embarrassing showing in the World Cup.
While other coaches aren’t carrying the stink of that tournament around with them, it seems like Tortorella just can’t seem to shake the cloud that is hanging around him. This, coupled with the already lousy perception hockey fans outside of Ohio have of the Blue Jackets, seems to have caused people to write this team off entirely just a few weeks into the regular season.
Despite what you may think about the divisive man behind the bench, Columbus isn’t in as bad of shape as pundits seem to think. Strip away the stigma of Tortorella and the sour grapes that the Blue Jackets call the Midwest home instead of Quebec (or wherever), and this is finally a hockey team that appears to be ready to rise.
If you’ve been rooting for this organization since they were brought into the league in 2000, this is a song and dance you’ve heard before. Youth movement this and high draft picks that. Names like Nikita Filatov, Gilbert Brule and Nikolai Zherdev still haunt the Blue Jackets — memories of high draft pick saviors going bust with nary a whimper — and it’s tough to see youngsters like Zach Werenski in a new light.
But the new era of hockey in Columbus is slowly becoming apparent. In fact, if you’re looking for a light at the end of the tunnel, look no further than Werenski.
The team’s eighth overall selection in the 2015 draft appears to be a home run; a home run that the Blue Jackets have been trying to hit for more than a decade. No. 1 defensemen are the toughest assets to come by in the NHL, especially when they are capable of taking on responsibility in all three zones.
Werenski is averaging nearly 22 minutes a night for a head coach who has never been shy about stapling players to the bench. He’s taking on the most difficult defensive assignments and also is running Columbus’ top power play. All this as a 19-year-0ld rookie.
Don’t forget about his linemate Seth Jones, either.
The former fourth-overall draft pick has been coupled with Werenski this season, and they haven’t disappointed in the slightest. The 22-year-old is coming along slowly but surely, and his development is reminiscent of how Victor Hedman evolved for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Jones and Werenski will form the foundation of the organization for years to come, more so than players like Rick Nash or Fedor Tyutin ever could.
Within the next few seasons — and this may sound hyperbolic, but it isn’t — Columbus might be home to one of the strongest defensive pairings in the NHL. Think of what Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin have done for the L.A. Kings. How solid Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have been for the Chicago Blackhawks.
Having outstanding defenders isn’t an option for consistent playoff teams in this league. It’s a must, and as Luke Lapinski pointed out earlier this month, the Blue Jackets are all-in on building from the blue line out.
It’s not like the group of forwards they are rostering are too shabby either. Brandon Saad is an outstanding goal scorer, and Boone Jenner is the sort of talented heart-and-soul forward worth building around as well. Add in other young assets like Alexander Wennberg, Pierre-Luc Dubois and even Cam Atkinson, and this is a squad that is coming together nicely.
Going from the bigger picture to the here-and-now, Columbus is coming off of a Western road swing that saw them pick up five of a possible eight points. They downed a depleted Dallas Stars team, pushed the Kings to overtime, played a bad third period against the San Jose Sharks and took care of business in Anaheim.
They are now at 3-3-1, and are getting some pretty stellar goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky. It’s too early to dub the Blue Jackets as a playoff team, but the foundation is there for them to make it back to the dance sooner rather than later. They don’t have to be the best in the Atlantic Division. They simply need to contend with squads like the New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators and Philadelphia Flyers for a Wild Card spot.
Columbus won’t be able to hang with the Pittsburgh Penguins or even the Washington Capitals as the season wears on. But this is a bubble team at worse, whether people realize it or not.