The Columbus Blue Jackets entered this offseason with the news of the realignment plan being approved in the NHL which sent their franchise and the Detroit Red Wings from the Western Conference to the Eastern Conference.
This change in conferences was being sought by the Red Wings and the Blue Jackets for years, it never made sense to me, and many other fans I know, to have these two teams in the Western Conference, so it was a long overdue change by the NHL.
However, some fans believe and I include myself here, that Columbus got the worst end of the realignment changes. The Red Wings are an Original Six team with a big spending owner in a well-established hockey market and they seem to field a competitive team every season.
Conversely, the Blue Jackets have only been in the league for 12 years and they struggle to gain visibility in their own market against the immense popularity of the Ohio State football and basketball teams. They are a small market, budget conscious franchise, which has struggled in recent years on the ice.
I have had conversations with casual sports fans to find out that they did not even know that Columbus had an NHL team. That is proof positive of the type of obscurity this team has been playing within.
The Blue Jackets will now have to compete with large market teams in the Northeast such as the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Philadelphia Flyers for a playoff spot. This article will also compare their roster to their other new divisional foe, the New Jersey Devils.
The Columbus Blue Jackets are coming off a 2013 season where they started off playing listless hockey, and then they hit the stretch run and went 19-5-5 to close out the season. The team just narrowly missed capturing the 8th and final playoff spot in their last season in the Western Conference.
The Blue Jackets had a busy offseason especially compared to other teams as the front office is attempting to build from the momentum of the strong finish to the 2013 lockout condensed season. Columbus had a busy summer:
- Signed free agent forward Nathan Horton – 7 years / $37 million
- Signed an extension with Cam Atkinson - 2 years
- Signed Curtis McElhinney – 1 year contract
- Signed Anton Forsberg – 3 year entry-level deal
- Re-signed Artem Anisimov – 3 year contract
- Signed Sergei Bobrovsky – 2 year extension
- Traded Drew Olson to Tampa Bay Lightning for future considerations
- Signed Blake Comeau – 1 year extension
- Made a number of smaller moves – signing draft picks etc
The team also allowed Vinny Prospal to leave at the end of his contract, he was the team leader with 30 points in 2013, but is now in his late 30s so his age became too great a risk for the front office to offer a new contract to him.
The roster comparison to the New Jersey Devils is very interesting because I feel that both teams have depth and talented players.
The Blue Jackets have some very good depth at the right wing position:
Marian Gaborik, Nathan Horton, Cam Atkinson, and Jared Boll.
Gaborik is a top flight offensive player and an excellent skater. Horton, when healthy, can be a dangerous scoring threat and also has leadership skills that will be sorely needed on team featuring many young players. Atkinson chipped in with 9 goals the abbreviated 2013 hockey season (www.si.com).
The New Jersey Devils counter with: Michael Ryder, Jaromir Jagr, Steve Bernier, and Rotislav Olesz. This is a solid group of talented players as well. The recent addition of Damien Brunner helps the depth at this position for New Jersey.
I know Horton is going to miss time in the beginning of the season due to offseason surgery, but with a fully healthy Nathan Horton, I think both teams are evenly matched at this position.
Columbus stocks the left wing position with the following players:
R.J. Umberger, Nick Foligno, Matt Calvert, and Blake Comeau.
This group had similar numbers in 2013: Umberger had 8 goals and 10 assists, Foligno had 6 goals and 13 assists, and Calvert had 9 goals and 7 assists (www.si.com).
The Devils left wing group is led by Patrik Elias and Ryan Clowe. They will also use Andrei Loktionov and Reid Boucher at this position throughout the year. This position is probably the weakest position in terms of depth for the Devils.
Elias is a proven commodity, but Clowe is coming off an injury from last season and was hurt in the preseason already, so whether he can stay in the lineup is an unknown factor at this point. Loktionov has to prove he can play consistently through the course of a full season, and Boucher is a completely unproven commodity at this point.
I give the Blue Jackets the advantage at this position.
The middle of the ice for Columbus is patrolled by:
Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Johnson, and Mark Letestu.
These names are familiar to Devils fans because Anisimov and Dubinsky are former Rangers players. Letestu very quietly had a nice offensive season in 2013: 27 points and 13 goals (www.si.com).
New Jersey mans the pivot with:
Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, Jacob Josefson, and Stephen Gionta.
Zajac and Anisimov are comparable players on the first line. Henrique, when healthy, is comparable or better than Dubinsky in some aspects. Letestu is probably a better player at this stage than either Josefson or Gionta from a purely offensive standpoint. I give the Devils a slight advantage here.
The Blue Jackets protect their third of the ice with:
James Wisniewski, Jack Johnson, Fedor Tyutin, Nikita Nikitin, Dalton Prout, and Ryan Murray.
The defensive unit was pretty stellar last season, the Blue Jackets were 9th in goals against in the NHL in 2013 (www.nhl.com). Wisniewski is one of the highest paid players on the team at $7 million per season, Johnson is a stellar offensive defenseman with 19 points in 2013, and Tyutin had 22 points which was the third highest total on the team (www.si.com).
The Devils defensive unit is as follows:
Andy Greene, Adam Larsson, Peter Harrold, Eric Gelinas, Mark Fayne, Bryce Salvador, Anton Volchenkov, and Marek Zidlicky.
This group of players provide a good balance between experience and youth. The Devils do not get nearly as much offensive output from their defensive players as the Blue Jackets receive from their unit. Most of the Devils defensive players are coming off of poor performances in 2013.
Columbus plays very disciplined defense and for that reason I give them the advantage here over New Jersey.
Columbus protects the goal with Sergei Bobrovsky, who won the Vezina Trophy for his outstanding goaltending in 2013. The challenge for “Bob”, as his teammates refer to him, is to replicate that type of performance again this season. The front office brought in Curtis McElhinney to be the backup goalie.
The Devils have one of the best goaltending tandems in the league with future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur who is still playing at a very high level, and Cory Schneider who is going to get a fair amount of playing time in order to keep Brodeur fresh for his starts.
I give the slight edge to the Devils at this position as I think Bordeur has had a better overall career than Bobrovsky and Schneider is a better goaltender than McElhinney at this point.
The Columbus Blue Jackets are heading into the new season returning a team which almost made the playoffs, and they upgraded their roster over the summer. However, they have a steep learning curve as they enter a new conference and a new division which is filled with top tier playoff caliber teams.
Gaborik is healthy after offseason surgery on an abdomen tear. I also like the depth at many positions that the Blue Jackets have on their current roster. They are a scrappy team, with a solid defense, and strong goaltending. If they can improve their scoring, Columbus was 25th in the NHL in goals scored per game, then they could be a very solid hockey team.
The Devils had a difficult 2013 season where they lost several key players to injuries. This offseason has seen the departure of more key players from the roster, and the scramble to find replacement players who could fill the scoring void. I think the Devils are going to perform better than other analysts expect them to in this 2013-14 season.
I look forward to the games with the Blue Jackets, a new divisional opponent, because both teams are evenly matched; and so that my friends who are not hockey fans can see that Columbus does have an NHL team. In fact, that team is pretty good and that will provide for some exciting hockey games when they face off against the Devils.