No team in the NHL is hotter than the Columbus Blue Jackets in the new year. Columbus is 8-2-0 in their past ten games, which includes three shutouts and a pair of wins against the Boston Bruins. The team has now crept their way into the top wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, jumping ahead of the likes of Philadelphia, Carolina, and Toronto. Even more impressive is that the Blue Jackets have made this run while missing many of their best players: starting goaltender Joonas Korpisalo, top scorer Cam Atkinson and fellow forwards Oliver Bjorkstrand, Josh Anderson, and Alexandre Texier, and defensemen Ryan Murray and Dean Kukan. With those players on their way back to health – Atkinson made his return on Thursday – one would think that Columbus has a chance to not only sustain their success, but possibly even improve upon it.
Yet, the question then becomes whether the team can really buy in to this season after the events of 2018-19. Last year, the Blue Jackets went all in, trading away Anthony Duclair, two top forward prospects, a first-round pick, two second-round picks, and three additional picks to load up with rentals Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid. The team also opted not to move their own impending free agents in Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Although Columbus stunned the Tampa Bay Lightning with a first-round sweep, the first playoff series win in franchise history, they fell in the second round and lost each of those six free agents in the off-season. If the Blue Jackets are again in a position only to battle for a wild card spot down the stretch, can the team risk another season of lost prospects and draft capital? Only time will tell how long the team can continue this dominant stretch and what position they may be in by late next month, but another active trade deadline would be a difficult hit to the team’s pipeline.
- Columbus’ best bet may be to depend on their internal options to get healthy and play to the best of their abilities. The team announced a step in the right direction today, as Bjorkstrand has been activated from the injured reserve and will return to action for the first time since December 22. Bjorkstrand is actually returning earlier than his expected four-to-six week timeline, healing quickly from broken ribs. Bjorkstrand was on pace for a career year prior to his injury, with 23 points in his first 36 games. The 24-year-old winger was embracing his increased responsibility and Columbus has to hope that he can continue to excel in his elevated role the rest of the year. With Bjorkstrand back, Kevin Stenlund is the odd man out, reassigned to the AHL.
- If the Blue Jackets are to lean on their existing roster this season for a playoff run, another intriguing situation will be the trade status of Alexander Wennberg. Wennberg has been on the trade block since early last season and in the minds of many hockey pundits remains a player that Columbus would like to move. The young center has not lived up to the long-term extension the team signed him to back in 2017, which carries a $4.9MM cap hit for three more years beyond this season. However, as opposed to last season when Wennberg recorded only 25 points and was scratched a handful of games, Wennberg too has embraced his increased role in the wake of free agent departures and injuries this year. The 25-year-old has played in all but one game for the Blue Jackets, recording 20 points. This puts him on pace for 34 points on the year, a sharp uptick from last season. It also makes him a top-six scoring forward for the team so far this year. Can Columbus afford to move out a player in such an important role this year for only salary cap purposes when they are trying to make it back to the postseason?