When the 2019-20 season kicked off in October, many across the NHL landscape didn’t think much of the Columbus Blue Jackets. In fact, some experts wrote them off as a potential playoff team. After shocking the hockey world last spring with their four-game sweep of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning, Tampa Bay Lightning, the Jackets were the victims of key departures in the offseason. Talented forwards such as Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel left via free agency while star goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky signed a lucrative deal to ply his trade in Sunrise with the Florida Panthers.
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These subtractions left several gaping holes in the Blue Jackets’ lineup. To add salt to the wound, as a small-market franchise, Columbus is anything but the ideal destination for free agents looking for a new home, a fresh start, or a major payday. As painful as may be to admit, free agents often opt for more “popular” destinations like in New York, or with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs, or even one of the teams out west as opposed to Columbus, Ohio.
A Whirlwind Season
As the puck dropped to kickstart this season, the Blue Jackets had every reason to take a step back. Missing the playoffs would have been understandable given the circumstances. That said, few could predict the chain of events over the next 5-6 months, and how the team responded is admirable. Injuries were the focal point surrounding the Jackets all season. At one point, the team had up to ten players out of the lineup, or a total of 420 man-games lost. This list includes Seth Jones, Cam Atkinson, Alexandre Texier, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Josh Anderson, Alexander Wennberg, Elvis Merzlikins, Brandon Dubinsky, and Dean Kukan.
As wild as their season has been, the Blue Jackets’ play on the ice was tremendous, and head coach John Tortorella has perhaps done some of the best coaching of his illustrious career. A Jack Adams Award candidate, Tortorella has refused to let injuries affect his team’s performance with the ‘next man up’ mantra ahead of each and every game.
Return to Play
When the NHL halted play due to the COVID-19 pandemic 10 weeks ago, the Blue Jackets had banked 81 points through 70 games, good enough for 5th in the Metropolitan Division and the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. That’s an astonishing accomplishment for Tortorella and his team. However, the NHL is reportedly leaning towards a different playoff picture.
The latest news from the NHL offices is that play would continue with a 24-team playoff scenario, offering the Blue Jackets a firm sport “at the dance.” What’s even more exciting is that the team would finally be set to welcome back several important players from injured reserve. Here’s a look at which Blue Jackets will be returning to the lineup as they gear up for a (hopefully extended) playoff run in the midst of an unprecedented season.
Forwards on the Mend
The injury bug has taken a chunk out of the Blue Jackets’ forwards. If there is any silver-lining stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that the team is getting healthy at the perfect time. First up, is Frenchman, Alexandre Texier. Out since New Year’s Eve with a lumbar stress fracture, the speedy winger has only appeared in 36 games this season. His injury was thought to be serious at first, but the Blue Jackets are hopeful he can be back in the lineup should the NHL resume play. His quickness, stickhandling skills and ability to chip in offensively would be a welcome addition to the bottom-six forward group.
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Physical winger, Josh Anderson, who’s been out since mid-December with a shoulder injury, is an interesting case. He underwent surgery in early March which sidelined him for 4-6 months. If all goes well and the NHL is back by early or mid July, Anderson could be ready for action. Imagine what a player like him could add to a Blue Jackets lineup come playoff time when the intensity and physicality are ramped up? The team is cautiously optimistic about the prospects of Anderson making a return.
Next up is diminutive winger, Cam Atkinson. Sidelined since mid-February with a sprained ankle, he is a shoo-in to return to the lineup once play resumes. In 44 games this season, the Riverside, Connecticut native, tallied 12 goals and 26 points while playing a responsible two-way game. He “brings it” on every shift, is an excellent teammate, and a great competitor for a player of his stature (5-foot-8, 175 pounds). He alone will be a massive boost to the Blue Jackets come playoff time.
Oliver Bjorkstrand will also be in the mix to return to the lineup should the season resume. Out of action since late February with an ankle injury, he will be gearing up for the playoffs. With an original 8-10 week timetable, he has benefited from the time off and, barring any significant setbacks, should be clear to return when play continues. Prior to injuring his ankle, Bjorstrand was having an excellent season, scoring 21 goals and 15 assists in 49 games. His hockey IQ, experience, and consistency should bode well for the Blue Jackets.
On the Blue Line
The biggest question surrounding the Blue Jackets if/when the NHL comes back will be the health and availability of star defenseman, Seth Jones. Since being traded from the Nashville Predators, Jones has blossomed into one of the most reliable, game-changing, blueliners in the game.
After fracturing his ankle in February, he was ruled out of action for 8-10 weeks. That injury required surgery, rest, and of course, ample recovery time. This setback was a blow to the team given Jones’ presence, skating ability, size, and his all-around game as one of the best defensemen in the NHL. Thankfully (and with crossed fingers), the timetable for his return should be completed if play continues. Like those listed above, Jones’ return makes the Blue Jackets a major threat in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. The tandem of Jones and Zach Werenski on the backend would be a major headache for any opposition.
Blue Jackets Prognosis
At this point, no one knows what a “return to play” scenario will look like. Proposals have been introduced, rumors have swirled, and players have chimed in with their opinions. The NHL, its players, management and fans remain optimistic that hockey will return this summer. After the lull and the gloom of COVID-19, any safe format would be welcomed and embraced with open arms amidst such uncertain times.
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One thing we do know is that if we can watch hockey (even without fans in arenas), the Blue Jackets’ roster will have a significant upgrade. The players who missed major parts of the campaign would combine to make the team one of the most fascinating to watch over the next few months.