Expectations this year for the Columbus Blue Jackets were low, to say the least. They had just lost star forward Artemi Panarin, starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, and veteran forward Matt Duchene. On top of this, they did not make any major moves in the off-season just bringing in Gustav Nyquist. Nyquist is very solid, but he is not close to the level of Artemi Panarin. Coach John Tortorella had a tough task on his hands from the get-go.
Who They Lost
In the 2018/19 season, Artemi Panarin had 86 points for the Jackets which led the team by a wide margin. The next highest point-getter was Cam Atkinson with 69. Panarin is a superstar play-maker who was absolutely not replaced in the off-season. To add to this, Panarin had 95 points with the Rangers in 69 games this season and is one of the leading candidates for the Hart Trophy.
Bobrovsky or Bob is a 2-time Vezina winner and was their clear starter for the last 7 seasons. Bob did not have his best season in 2018/19. However, he still led the league in shutouts and put up a .925 save percentage in the playoffs. Matt Duchene was a rental acquired from the Senators at the trade deadline. Duchene took a little while to adjust, but when he did he was phenomenal. He had 5 goals and 5 assists in 10 games in the playoffs for Tortorella’s Jackets. Unfortunately for CBJ, Duchene decided to sign with the Nashville Predators in the off-season.
John Tortorella or “Torts” is an interesting figure, to say the least. He is known for being very blunt and flying off the handle with reporters. Some examples of his bluntness were when he stated that Carl Hagelin “stinks on the powerplay” or when he said “I don’t think he knows how to play” in reference to Anthony Duclair. Tortorella may not have the most agreeable personality in the league, but he gets the job done. Torts won the Cup with the Lightning in 2004 and have already won the Jack Adams award twice. His success mainly comes from his system of aggressive forechecking, hard backchecking, and aggressive shot-blocking.
On top of one of the worst off-season’s in NHL history, Tortorella had to deal with a conveyor belt of injuries. Blue Jacket players missed the most time due to injuries in the league. Let’s start by looking at the forwards. Josh Anderson only played 26 games because of a posterior labral tear in his left shoulder. Cam Atkinson one of their best forwards sprained his ankle multiple times and only managed to play 44 games.
Oliver Bjorkstrand who had a great season when he was healthy was injured on multiple occasions. Bjorkstrand managed 36 points in the 46 games he played. Those are the most notable forwards who missed games. I didn’t even get into Alexandre Texier, Alexander Wennberg, Emil Bemstrom, and Brandon Dubinsky. Even Nathan Gerbe who was filling in due to injuries himself got injured.
If you thought that was bad, just you wait. Seth Jones arguably their best defender and one of the best defensemen in the league missed 14 games of their 70 games. Zach Werenski who was having a great season also missed some time due to injury. Werenski missed 7 games and still managed 41 points. Ryan Murray missed most of the season only playing 27 games. He was constantly in and out of the lineup dealing with a hand injury. Dean Kukan and Markus Nutivaara both missed a substantial amount of time with injuries. Rookie Vladislav Gurikov was the only regular who did not miss any time due to injury. David Savard was also very consistent only missing 2 games.
The Jackets pretty much let Bobrovsky walk which was good and bad for them. Good because both Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins were excellent. Even third-string Matiss Kivlenieks had a better GAA this season in his 4 starts than Bobrovsky. Bob had one of his worst seasons yet with a .900 Save Percentage and a 3.23 GAA. The only bad part was they didn’t get anything for the 2-time Vezina winner. However, they signed both Korpisalo and Merzlikins so they are all set on goalies for at least the next 2 seasons.
When healthy Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins were both performed really well. The numbers may not back up Korpisalo as much as Elvis, but he was very solid between the pipes (especially against the Capitals). The Finn had a GAA of 2.60 and a save percentage of .911. Elvis was an instant sensation when he took over the starting role because of Korpisalo’s injury. Elvis was tied for fifth in save percentage at .923 and 5th in GAA at 2.35. I think that a good portion of this success is due to Tortorella’s system.
The Metropolitan division was an extremely tough division to play in this season. Every team at least made the qualifiers except the New Jersey Devils who missed it by 3 points with 2 games in hand. Tortorella’s Blue Jackets finished with 81 points in 70 games good for 5th in the Metro and the 9th seed in the East.
They finished with 98 points in 2018-2019 and secured the second wildcard spot. They would have had to get really hot to reach that point mark again by winning 9 out of the 12 games remaining. However, the Jackets were averaging 1.15 points a game. If they continued at that same pace they would have got 13.88 points from the last 12 games. Round that number up and that is 94 points only a 4 point drop off from last season.
John Tortorella did an excellent job instantly making this team successful after losing their 2 stars and a very talented forward in Duchene. Not only did he get them in the playoff hunt dealing with the most injuries in the league, but he did it in a highly competitive Metro division. A potential 4 point drop off after losing a Hart candidate and a 2-time Vezina winner is not too shabby at all. People may have legitimate reasons for not liking Tortorella personally, but there is no denying the excellent job he did this season.
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Picture of John Tortorella from Jason Mackey