In a pattern that feels all-too-familiar to fans of the Columbus Blue Jackets, the club is once again facing an exceedingly tough schedule in the 2016-17 season. After last year’s 18 back-to-back series, tied for most in the league, this year’s schedule includes a league-most 19 back-to-back games. What’s more, this year looks to be front-loaded with difficult games, a fact that won’t be comforting to fans of a team that began the 2015-16 season with a record of zero wins and eight losses and never managed to pull themselves out of the league’s doldrums. If the Jackets hope to have any success in the 2016-17 season, they’ll have to fight through October’s imposing slate of games featuring many of the league’s best teams.
The Cream of the Crop
The Blue Jackets’ season begins in earnest on October 13 with a home game against the Boston Bruins at Nationwide Arena, and only becomes more difficult from there. After facing a Bruins team looking to return to the playoffs, the next matchup comes against the San Jose Sharks on October 15, a club fresh off of a playoff run to the Stanley Cup Final and hoping to repeat and build upon that success again this time around.
Following the faceoff against the Sharks, the Jackets then play their final home game of October against the familiar and ever-dangerous Chicago Blackhawks on October 21. Despite the home ice advantage that comes with each of these matchups, the statistics heavily favor the away team in each of them. All three teams finished last season within the top half of the league in terms of points, and within the top 10 in terms of goals scored per game and powerplay percentage. The key to success will be to stay out of the penalty box and to limit the amount of shots that find their way through to Sergei Bobrovsky.
On the Road Again
After this three-game home stand, the Jackets take to the road for the remainder of October in a tough Westward swing. Beginning with a game against the Dallas Stars on October 22, the club will head out to the West Coast to visit each of California’s three teams: The Los Angeles Kings on October 25, a rematch against the Sharks on October 27, and finally a trip back to Los Angeles County on October 28 to take on the Anaheim Ducks.
If the three-game home stand was difficult, then this road trip has the potential to be crushing by comparison. The Stars possess the highest-scoring offense of 2015-16 and will be up against a Jackets defense that allowed the second-most goals throughout all of last season. Furthermore, the Kings sat atop the Pacific Division last year, while the Ducks boasted the best powerplay percentage in the entire NHL and had a goalie in John Gibson that allowed the second-fewest goals against at an average of 2.07 per game.
To add more difficulty to an already brutal first month, two of the Jackets’ 19 back-to-back series take place in the month of October, the first of which requires the team to travel over 1,000 miles from Columbus to Dallas overnight before traveling over 1,400 more miles to reach Los Angeles. While the second back-to-back requires traveling a mere 365 miles between San Jose and Anaheim, the team will undoubtedly still feel the full effect of both the distance traveled and the battle of the night before. Combined with the difficulty of the teams they have to face, this distance could wear down the Jackets and make an already brutal month that much harder.
The Good News
With the combination of last year’s sluggish start and the uncompromising start to this year’s campaign, it’s understandable for fans of the Jackets to feel concerned about a repeat of last season. On the other hand, however, there are a multitude of reasons to be optimistic moving forward. Firstly, and not least importantly, is the form of number one goaltender (and cop) Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky struggled throughout last season with injury and a lack of confidence, but has seemingly made great strides in this off-season. After shedding approximately 17 pounds, or 8.5% of his body weight, Bobrovsky went on to provide a stellar performance in net for Team Russia at the World Cup of Hockey, where he saved 133 of 143 (.930 SV%) shots faced before falling to eventual champions Team Canada.
— FOX Sports Ohio (@FOXSportsOH) October 7, 2016
Additionally, the Jackets’ defense, which offered very little help to Bobrovsky last season, looks to be considerably stronger with the addition of Seth Jones last January and the rapid ascension of young star Zach Werenski from the NCAA to Calder Cup champion within the span of a year. If Ryan Murray and David Savard can play to their full potential, this defensive corps has the potential to be miles ahead of last season and may help the Blue Jackets be more competitive throughout.
In terms of offense, the loss of Ryan Johansen is certainly noteworthy, but the Jackets will look to account for his production by committee. In addition to the three likely 50-point scorers of Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner, and Brandon Saad, players like Alexander Wennberg, Sam Gagner, and Oliver Bjorkstrand should help boost the offense into the top half of the league after finishing 19th last season in goals scored. Add to that the offensive contribution of Jones, Murray, and Savard, and a lack of goals should not be an issue this season.
While it is certainly true that October could be an extremely difficult month for a Blue Jackets’ squad desperate to improve upon last year’s failures, it also has the potential to be a launchpad for something better. These are, without a doubt, some of the toughest opponents in the NHL, and success against them now could boost confidence for later fixtures. While it seems unlikely that the Jackets will be pushing for a playoff spot this year, a noticeable improvement in early-season form will almost certainly play a major role in how the season ends.