The goaltending has to be better for this team this year. The revamped defense should help…
Elvis Merzlikins 58GP (55 starts), .908 sv%, 2.90GAA, 29 wins … We have to project numbers for Elvis because he hasn’t played enough NHL hockey to give us a good baseline. He’s had one standout season at the really good end, and one standout season at the really bad end. Sandwiched between is one average NHL season. I still think Elvis can be a good (key: not great or elite) starting goaltender, and the added help on the blue line should make his season easier. If he can play confident hockey, I don’t think it’s without question that he can be a middle of the pack starting goalie in the NHL. Which coincidentally, is how he’s paid. We were spoiled by years of elite goaltending by Sergei Bobrovsky – don’t let that cloud your judgment of Elvis.
Daniil Tarasov 30GP (27 starts), .905 sv%, 2.90GAA, 13 wins … Daniil Tarasov enters his third NHL season as the team’s de facto backup goaltender. Injuries have delayed his full-time arrival, but in limited viewings he’s been a solid NHL goalie. He’ll see the tougher assignments most likely; second halves of back-to-backs, or games after long travel. But, he’s a talented guy who could steal the starting job for stretches, at least in theory. Staying healthy is key, and he has to prove he belongs this year.
*PTO invitee Aaron Dell 10GP (5 starts), .900 sv%, 2.90GAA, 2 wins … Should Merzlikins or Tarasov falter, training camp invitee Aaron Dell could be next in line for starts, assuming he earns a contract out of camp. The 34 year old veteran is smaller in stature, but he’s been a scrappy competitor at every stop along the way. Don’t expect him to get a ton of starts for this team, but this could be a great guy to have around if needed. Key point here: I don’t expect him to get 10 games played and 2 wins on top of Merzlikins and Tarasov; rather in lieu of.
So, what about the team’s overall record?
If you’re a statistical guru and did the math, you’ve probably put it all together by now and realized that my projections here put this team at roughly 319 goals for, but only 238 or so against. If that holds true, we’re playoff bound for sure. Unfortunately, it won’t hold true.
A couple of things to keep in mind defensively: the Jackets gave up 330 goals against last season, far and away a franchise record. The defense will be better this year. I think that will help the goaltending improve. We all hope they’ll be healthier. Will it be enough to drop 90+ goals against off of their record? Probably not, but the talent is there, and they have a new head coach whose systems should help. The other thing to take into account with goals against are shootouts. They’ll lose some games in those situations as well; which don’t show up on their goals against average.
Offensively, we’re gauging high on some guys, but it’s with reason. A healthy Patrik Laine, for example, should be a premier goal scorer in this league…he’s just struggled to stay healthy over the last few seasons. I also see some of the fill-in players chipping in goals and points, which we don’t account for here. With that said, I still don’t see this team combining for over 300 goals this year – there are just too many “ifs” and “maybes” on the roster. Everyone won’t stay healthy, and these are all really best case scenarios. More likely, if we’re looking at productivity from a guy like Dmitry Voronkov for example, his 14 goal projection is probably mostly in lieu of Eric Robinson’s 8 goals, or Sean Kuraly’s 10 goals, or some combination of the two.
Overall, I think they’re more capable of around 270 goals for – roughly, middle of the pack if you compare it to last season. If they can score at that pace, and vastly improve upon their team defense, I think they can be a better than .500 team, though not quite in the playoff picture yet.
Team prediction: 39-36-7 (85pts), 270GF, 250GA … I think this would be more than an acceptable season. That’s a 26-point improvement over last year, which may seem dramatic and unachievable. But, if they can stay mostly healthy and everyone buys into Mike Babcock’s system, it’s very attainable. How much differently would last year have been with 70+ games of Zach Werenski, Patrik Laine, and Adam Boqvist? Let alone losing guys like Gustav Nyquist, Jakub Voracek, not to mention key depth players like Justin Danforth and Yegor Chinakhov. It was just too much to overcome.
With better luck injury-wise, I think they can at least compete with teams like Washington, Pittsburgh, and the NY Islanders within their own division this season. We couldn’t say that for much of last year.