The Columbus Blue Jackets were picked as a sleeper threat by many last season but instead struggled from start to finish, ending the year in dead last in the Metropolitan Division. They haven’t changed much with their roster over the summer but are hoping a healthier squad with a return to form from some key veterans will lead to better results in 2016-17.
Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch was kind enough to chat with us about the key questions and storylines surrounding the team as we head towards the start of the season.
PHR: The decision to draft Pierre-Luc Dubois third overall over Jesse Puljujarvi back in June was a shocker to many. Why did GM Jarmo Kekalainen feel he was the better fit for the Blue Jackets?
AP: Many will point to the fact that Dubois played center for a half-season in major junior, and the need for a skilled center has been significant since the trade of Ryan Johansen to Nashville. But the answer is much simpler than that. They just like Dubois better as a prospect. They like his motor, his work ethic, his personality, the straightforward style of his play. This is going to be an easy one to track — Puljujarvi vs. Dubois — in the years that follow, but I give the Blue Jackets and Kekalainen credit for taking the guy they believed was the right pick, even though it subjected them to ridicule. If the Blue Jackets had done that in 2005 — they had Anze Kopitar No. 3 on their list before Doug MacLean chickened out — they would have drafted Kopitar, not Gilbert Brule.
PHR: Columbus is likely to have several players from their Calder Cup winning squad last year up with the big club in 2016-17. Who are some of the youngsters that are likely to push for a roster spot?
AP: Unless Zach Werenski has a poor training camp, he’s on the club. Josh Anderson and Oliver Bjorkstrand need good camps to make the club, but both could do it. I think Sonny Milano needs more seasoning, but he could blow people away in camp. If I’m the Blue Jackets, I want to see Milano playing like an offensive star in the AHL — that’s his profile, right? — before he’s called up to the NHL. One of the two young goaltenders, Joonas Korpisalo and Anton Forsberg, will likely make the club as Sergei Bobrovsky’s backup, putting the other youngster and Curtis McElhinney back to AHL.
PHR: The core of this team didn’t change much this offseason. Why should fans be confident that the Jackets can rebound after finishing in the Metropolitan Division basement last year?
AP: Frankly, they shouldn’t be. I’m not saying they won’t climb out of the basement; in fact, I suspect they will. But this club has made a habit out of crushing the fans’ hopes right out of the gate. Last five years combined, in the first 20 games of the season, the Blue Jackets are 30-60-10. Season over. There are plenty of cynical, pessimistic fans in Columbus. They’re the ones who will be pleasantly surprised if this club actually plays up to its ability and becomes a consistently competitive NHL franchise. It’s long overdue.
PHR: There have been rumors dating back to last season that the team has been shopping Scott Hartnell. Do you expect him to continue to be on the trade block into 2016-17 and will they be able to move him at some point?
AP: I don’t think anything has changed that would take him off the trade market. It’s an awkward spot, to be sure, because now the whole world knows that his team has tried to trade him. Hartnell is an old-school guy. He’s a professional. He can block this stuff out and play. But I can’t imagine he’s as excited about being in Columbus as he expected to be two years ago when he waived his no-trade clause to facilitate the trade. Remember, he came here because he expected playoff runs, rivalries, big games. There’s been none of that. If the Blue Jackets are out of it at the trade deadline, and Hartnell has remained productive, I think they’ll be able to move him then.
PHR: What would you peg as the biggest strength and weakness for the Blue Jackets?
AP: Biggest strength? The entire organization should have a massive chip on their shoulder. They’ve had back to back unacceptable seasons, despite being a salary cap team in a small market. In 2014-15, they used injuries as an excuse, even though hockey players and coaches always say it’s never an excuse. Last season … no excuses. They should be motivated — if not by pride or competitive spirit — by embarrassment. The spirit of this group will be interesting to monitor. Weakness? The franchise goaltender has a chronic groin condition that has sidetracked three straight seasons now. Can Bobrovsky get past this? Huge question in Columbus. If the answer is ’yes’, the Blue Jackets are competitive. If the answer is ’no’, the Blue Jackets have big trouble.
Aaron Portzline has been with the Dispatch since 1988 and has covered the NHL since 1999. He is currently the Chair of the Columbus Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and we thank him for taking the time to talk with us. Give him a follow on Twitter at @Aportzline.