#4 reason the Blue Jackets contend: they stay mostly healthy.
While I don’t think last year’s version of the Blue Jackets would have been playoff worthy – even with better health – I will argue that if they hadn’t suffered through so many injuries to key pieces, they would not have been a lottery team. The reality of the situation is: last year may have been one of the most important seasons in franchise history. By collapsing the way they did, the Jackets were able to secure their future #1 center. Silver linings.
Had they gotten 70+ games from Zach Werenski, Patrik Laine, Gustav Nyquist, Jakub Voracek, Justin Danforth, Adam Boqvist (you get the idea), it’s hard to see that team as a bottom-5 group in the NHL, even with their shortcomings. This year, though they did lose a couple of veteran wingers; I think they return a more talented lineup from top to bottom.
If they can stay mostly healthy, this is a team that should be able to compete for a playoff spot, at least on paper. They have skill and are going to score plenty of goals. They have a serviceable defense corps. They have size, toughness, and guys capable of playing in all three zones. But there’s one thing that could make or break the season for the Blue Jackets this year. And it’s a big elephant in the room…
#5 reason the Blue Jackets contend: the goaltending rebounds.
All of the above things could go absolutely right for the Blue Jackets, but they could still be in big trouble this season if their goaltending does not improve. Last year, the team surrendered an average of more than 4 goals per game. A big part of that was due to their wildly inexperienced defense corps. Another part of that is due to their lack of quality centers. But the concerning part of that is that their goalies didn’t help them out. At all.
Can you honestly remember one single night where a CBJ goaltender (not named Joonas Korpisalo, he’s gone) stood on his head and stole a game last season? I’ve been racking my brain, and I cannot. I think this team is good enough this year, that they really don’t need a guy to come in and make 50 saves. They just need someone to be a middle of the pack starter, giving them a chance to win each and every night.
And before you think I’m bashing Elvis Merzlikins, that is definitely not the case. He only played in 30 games last season, while suffering through injuries himself. But he wasn’t consistent even when he was playing, and he’s paid like a starting goalie. That’s the role he was given when he signed his contract extension, and that’s the burden he enters this season with. He has to be better, and he knows that. Now it’s up to the team to rally in front of him and do their part to help get him back on track.
If Elvis can bring his save percentage back up to roughly .910% and give this team 50+ starts, they will be in great shape. Really, with that kind of goaltending, they’ll be right in the playoff hunt when March and April roll around. If he cannot? Well, let’s just say we may be in for a long season, because plans B and C come with plenty of question marks of their own.
Ultimately, all of the reasons we listed here probably have to go right for the Blue Jackets to sniff out a playoff spot. They finished with 59 points last season, a year when the playoff line was at 92 points. A 33+ point improvement would be incredible, but I’m not betting on that just yet. Let’s see where they are in a few weeks.