Going into this season, there were plenty more questions than answers for the Columbus Blue Jackets. After going all-in with hopes of making a deep postseason run in 2018-19, they not only didn’t have many tradeable assets (at least that they wanted to trade) or players to show for it. While going all-in last season, the Blue Jackets acquired Matt Duchene, Adam McQuaid, and Ryan Dzingel, among others. They also decided to keep both Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky even though both of them were likely to walk in free agency this past summer. So, while trading a slew of draft picks and players for those listed and not trading their goalie and star forward, they made it clear that it was now or never. It was risky, but they decided to do it anyway.
Fast forward to this season, and not a single one of those players is still in Columbus. Yet, at 29-16-3 (67 points), the Blue Jackets are third in the Metropolitan Division and fifth in the East.1 To say that they have been arguably the biggest surprise in the NHL so far this season would be quite an understatement. Many projected the CBJ to be one of the worst teams in the league, not fighting for one of the top spots in the postseason. Head coach John Tortorella has certainly made quite an impression (as he continues to do so), but the chemistry and development of the players on the team shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Having a legitimate goalie is vitally important if you want to be successful and win games in the NHL. There’s so much more that goes into winning, but a solid goalie is certainly a good start and can change things immensely, no matter who else is on the team. After the type of season Bob had last season (especially in the playoffs), it was tough to see him go, but given the amount of money the Florida Panthers paid him, it was obvious that Columbus was going to let him walk in free agency. Little did Blue Jackets fans (and probably the team?) knew, the goalies that Columbus would somehow be even better. Yet, here we are.
Joonas Korpisalo, who was the backup last year, took over the starting spot to start the season. He was playing really well before suffering a torn meniscus on December 29, one that has caused him to not return yet. Even though he hasn’t played in over a month, Korpisalo did enough to be named an All-Star and his 17 wins are 14th-most in the league. Quite impressive, huh?
Then, in Korpisalo’s absence, Elvis Merzlikins has stepped up in a huge way, such a way that has caused some to question what Torts will handle the situation in front of the net once Korpisalo is healthy. After a shaky start to his career, Merzlikins is essentially unstoppable right now. Since taking the full-time starting role, Merzlikins is 10-2-0 with a 1.75 GAA and a .947 save percentage. Keep in mind, this was all after he started the season 0-4-4 as the backup goaltender.
The rookie is tied atop the league in save percentage (.929), fifth in goals against (2.3 per game), and tied for first in shutouts with (four). In his last seven starts, the Blue Jackets are a perfect 7-0 and Elvis has had four shutouts, a .965 save percentage, and allowed just 1.14 goals per game. Two of those seven wins have come against Carey Price and Bobrovsky as well.
While the defense has certainly helped, Columbus’ netminders have been nothing short of dominant this season. The CBJ have allowed just 135 goals (2.5 per game), which is the fewest in the NHL. No matter who is in net, the defense paired with the goalie have been sensational.
Imagine thinking you'll ever score a goal on CBJ, DAL, or BOS. pic.twitter.com/Yx1rM3DJSN
— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) February 5, 2020
After losing so much over the offseason paired with the number of injuries the Blue Jackets have had to fight through already this season, the offense has been a bit bumpy and inconsistent. While players such as Pierre-Luc Dubois, Gustav Nyquist, Zach Werenski, Seth Jones, Oliver Bjorkstand, and Cam Atkinson have helped carry the load, Columbus’ 2.7 goals per game are just 22nd in the league. That said, when you have such a dominant defense and goalie(s), it doesn’t really matter, as the Blue Jackets have already proven. Whether it’s the stars, role players, or guys who have been called up from Cleveland due to injuries, the success this team has had has been a total team effort. Then again, while the defense and goaltending continue to bail them out, the offense has to figure it out before the playoffs begin. That’s quite important if Columbus wants to make another run in the postseason.
The Blue Jackets are red hot. After losing five of six games in early December and falling to 12-14-6, the Blue Jackets are 17-2-3 since that stretch, including 8-1-1 in their last 10 games. Columbus is also 13-0-4 in their last 17 games against Eastern Conference teams. They have been nothing short of dominant.
With the trade deadline coming up on February 24, the Blue Jackets likely won’t make too many deals given that the amount of assets they have (that they actually want to trade) is quite minimal, especially after all of the draft picks they traded last season at the deadline. It will just be interesting to see if they can find a way to improve the team, especially if this hot streak somewhat continues the next two weeks.
Either way, the type of season the Blue Jackets are having is awesome. No one expected it. A team that was projected to be one of the worst teams in the NHL is not only in a prime spot to make the postseason but to fight for one of the top seeds in the conference as well. Enjoy this, Columbus. The CBJ are for real!