The Columbus Blue Jackets enjoyed what was a mixed bag of a 2018-2019 season, one that came with some remarkable post-season highs yet one that was toughened with some pure, cold reality.
The Blue Jackets pulled into the station with some serious roster questions and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen took some considerable risks. He held on to free agents like Artemi Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, this despite their quantified longings to seek engagement elsewhere at season’s end.
When the dust settled, Columbus posted a 47-31-4 record – good for 98 points. That put them two points ahead of the Montreal Canadiens and one behind the Carolina Hurricanes, in perfect position for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. And they surprised everyone with that berth, sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning out of the post-season before losing to the Boston Bruins in the second round.
The Blue Jackets performed well enough, scoring 258 goals in the regular season. That put their offence one goal behind the Bruins but nine ahead of the Habs.
Columbus allowed 232 goals against, though, and that made them the fifth stingiest team in the Eastern Conference. Only the Carolina Hurricanes, Lightning, Bruins, and New York Islanders had tighter defensive performances in the regular season.
This was, in some part at least, due to Bobrovsky. The netminder put up a 2.58 goals against average and a .913 save percentage, winning 37 games in 61 starts. The numbers were slightly higher than his career average and far, far off his career best performances, but the job was done and Bobrovsky proved that he was there to win – even with any contract questions down the line.
Those contract questions also dogged Panarin, but he did no less than finish as the Blue Jackets’ top scorer. His 87 points put him atop the ladder, even if Cam Atkinson led the way in goals with a career-best 41.
Columbus boasted five players with 20 or more goals in 2018-2019, while nine had more than 11 goals.
With the team hanging on to that advertised playoff spot, it fell back to Kekalainen and those contract questions. Something was churning in the locker room, however, and to the GM it felt a lot more like hope than “better luck next year.” He’d hedged his bets by February, acquiring a veritable mountain of Ottawa Senators castoffs in Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, and he pushed all his chips into the middle.
For the Blue Jackets, 2018-2019 was to be the year. The make-or-break year. The year that would sell the league on Columbus as a serious hockey destination, somewhere you can take the money and win.
What went wrong?
Columbus ran into a brick wall known as Tuukka Rask, that’s what went wrong. Despite hustling more than the Bruins and producing more offensive opportunities, the Blue Jackets just couldn’t get the puck past Rask when it mattered most. They were outscored 17-11 in the second round series and came close enough to force six games. That’s not a bad showing for the wild card also-rans.
That’s not to say that nothing went wrong for the Blue Jackets in the regular season, but a lot of that stuff relates to contracts, management and location, location, location. Having so much doubt in the near future didn’t help, nor did Columbus not exactly being the sort of market that entices people to stay.
With 2018-2019 in the rearview mirror, the Blue Jackets had a chance and didn’t make it. You can’t fault Kekalainen for trying, but with Duchene, Bobrovsky, Panarin, etc. all out the door and with cash still on the table, what’s a GM to do?
(Lead photo credit: NHL)