NHL.com is looking ahead to the Stanley Cup Qualifiers by examining five of the biggest questions facing each of the 24 remaining teams. Today, we look at the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Columbus Blue Jackets were 33-22-15 (.579 points percentage) and will enter the Stanley Cup Qualifiers as the No. 9 seed in the Eastern Conference. They will play the No. 8 seed, the Toronto Maple Leafs (36-25-9, .579 points percentage), in one of eight best-of-5 series. The start date and hub city have not yet been determined.
Here are 5 questions facing the Blue Jackets:
1. Are they healthy?
The Blue Jackets led the NHL with 419 man-games lost to injury this season, including forwards Josh Anderson (44 games), Cam Atkinson (26), Oliver Bjorkstrand (21), and Alexander Wennberg (12); defenseman Seth Jones (14); and goalie Joonas Korpisalo (24). But with the season paused since March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, they’ve had time to get a little more healthy. Jones (Feb. 11) and Bjorkstrand (March 3) are expected to be back after each had ankle surgery with a recovery time of 8-10 weeks; and Atkinson (ankle), forwards Alexandre Texier (back) and Nathan Gerbe (groin), and defenseman Dean Kukan (knee) are expected to return to the lineup.
2. Does coach John Tortorella’s experience give them an edge?
It does according to captain Nick Foligno. “In a shortened series, I think the coach that knows his team best and knows how to get the quickest performance out of his team, you know, is going to have an advantage. … I’m sure Torts is dialed into that,” the Blue Jackets forward said last month. Tortorella has coached Columbus for five seasons, and his 209 wins are the most in its history. In 19 NHL seasons, he is 655-515-120 with 37 ties with the Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers, Vancouver Canucks and Blue Jackets. Tortorella won the Stanley Cup with the Lightning in 2004 and last season coached Columbus to a sweep of Tampa Bay, which had won the Presidents’ Trophy, in the Eastern Conference First Round. His counterpart, Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe, is in his first NHL season after replacing Mike Babcock on Nov. 20. The Maple Leafs were 27-15-5 under Keefe, who coached the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League to the 2018 Calder Cup championship.
3. Where will the goals come from?
The Blue Jackets were tied with the San Jose Sharks for 27th in the NHL in goals per game this season (2.57); the Maple Leafs were third (3.39). The Columbus offense will receive a boost with the return of Bjorkstand, who led it with 21 goals, and Atkinson, who scored 12 goals in 44 games but scored an NHL career-high 41 in 2018-19. Eight Blue Jackets scored at least 10 goals this season, and they’ll need that same type of balance against the Maple Leafs.
4. Can they contain the Maple Leafs?
Columbus should be confident after its performance against Tampa Bay last season. In that series the Lightning, who led the NHL in goals per game (3.89), scored three goals in the opening 17:50 of Game 1 but managed just five goals in the final 222:10. Although forwards Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, are no longer with the Columbus, the group of defensemen who so effectively held Lightning forwards Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov to a combined one goal remains intact. This time around, Jones, Zach Werenski and David Savard will try to contain Auston Matthews (47 goals, second in NHL), Mitchell Marner (51 assists, tied for ninth) and the rest of Toronto’s high-powered offense.
5. Which goalie will emerge as the starter?
The Blue Jackets tied the Arizona Coyotes for third in the NHL at 2.61 goals against per game thanks to Korpisalo (19-12-5, 2.60 goals-against average, .911 save percentage, two shutouts) and rookie Elvis Merzlikins (13-9-8, 2.35 GAA, .923 save percentage, five shutouts), who each stepped up as the No. 1 at points during the season. Korpisalo, who was named to the NHL All-Star Game for the first time, was the starter until he sustained a knee injury on Dec. 29 that caused him to miss eight weeks. Merzlikins started 21 of the next 24 games, going 12-5-4, before Korpisalo returned Feb. 24 and started four of Columbus’ final five games prior to the pause.