After a seemingly endless summer of waiting, dotted with exciting trades and swirling rumors, October has arrived in Ohio’s capital once more. With it, a new season of NHL hockey for the Columbus Blue Jackets, and a few new faces making their way into the mix. After following what proved to be a stellar regular season campaign in 2016-17 with stagnation in the first round of the playoffs, the Jackets entered the season surrounded by uncertainty and have, for the first month at least, handled it all with poise belying their relative youth. Here is the Columbus Blue Jackets winners and losers of October.
Columbus Blue Jackets Winners and Losers: October 2017
In what has proven to be a record October for the Blue Jackets, yet to find their core identity and struggling mightily on the man advantage, the team has somehow come out the other side with a record of 8-4-0 and a position atop the Metropolitan Division. Although the season is still in its infancy, the signs so far must be reassuring to the Fifth Line faithful as well as the players themselves. With one month down in the marathon season, it’s important to take a second and reflect on those players who have shone on the ice and those who have lost a bit of their luster.
With his first full month as a Jacket behind him, it’s pretty clear that the club has found a potential talisman in the talented young Russian. Though he has scored just one goal outside the shootout, he has contributed majorly in the assist department, logging nine helpers through the first twelve games. Spending most of his time centered by Alexander Wennberg has apparently gotten the creative juices pumping, as Panarin has become a key linchpin in the Jackets top line and is already making incisive, intelligent passes in addition to his often jaw-dropping ability to keep the puck attached to his stick like a yo-yo on a string.
One area in which he has come up lacking has been in the realm of goalscoring. Here, however, he has been the victim of both a frighteningly bad powerplay unit converting at just over 8% on the season as well as an uncharacteristically low shooting percentage and a lot of pinging iron. As of November 1st, Panarin is shooting a dismal 2.8% according to NHL.com, a number that belies just how well he’s actually played. If he can continue to make intelligent passes while getting into the right spots to shoot, that percentage will inevitably rise, along with his goal tally.
The fact that he leads the team in shots (36) proves that he is unafraid to take chances, and once he begins to convert on a more regular basis, there’s no telling how high his ceiling can be. Time after time, Panarin has proven himself to be an elite player in a league chock full of elite talent. This year should be no different, even without lord and savior Patrick Kane.
In obvious news, the defending Vezina Trophy holder has turned out, once again, to be a pretty good goaltender. Rebounding from last season’s case of “Playoff Bob,” he has started the season right where he left off in April of last year, posting a record of 7-2-0 in nine games played. Beyond his impressive record, the underlying statistics are an even stronger indicator of just how good he’s been so far. In these first nine games, he has faced 273 shots and has turned away all but 18. This is good enough for a goals-against-average of 1.97 and a save percentage just above .930.
While these numbers will certainly regress to the mean as the season goes on, the best news for fans of the Jackets is that Bobrovsky’s mean is head and shoulders above the average NHL goaltender. There have been games already this season in which the smiling Russian has stood on his head to compensate for defensive lapses and offensive floundering, and this trend will undoubtedly carry through the rest of the season. If he can continue to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, this Jackets squad can and will play with absolute confidence in front of the brick wall between the pipes.
3. Ryan Murray
One of the most stunning transformations within the Blue Jackets organization over the past few years has been that of the defensive corps from a bumbling group of barely cohesive individuals to one of the best top-to-bottom units in the league. Of course the pairing of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski has proven to be nothing short of elite, and David Savard seems to have dragged Jack Johnson back into the realm of respectability, but the most interesting development so far this year has to be the resurgence of Ryan Murray as a viable defensive option.
Maybe it’s the absence of the pressure associated with being a first round draft pick, or maybe it’s the fact that the spotlight is shining brightly on the first pairing. Either way, Murray has come out of the gates playing very well indeed for a man considered expendable by the fanbase for the majority of the past three years. His average time on ice per 60 minutes has climbed steadily to nearly 17 minutes per game, and his underlying statistics have been improving as well. In addition to a goal and two assists, he has added twenty blocked shots and a Corsi-for percentage of 52.1%.
Coach John Tortorella has certainly noticed his improvement, and Murray is beginning to find himself on the ice late in close games and in crucial situations. While he may never reach the heights expected of him when he was first drafted, Murray is becoming a solid, dependable defenseman before our very eyes, and the defense as a whole is benefiting from the added reliability.
At this point, Dubinsky might as well have an honorary plaque in the loser’s section as a perennial candidate for inclusion, as this is likely the third or fourth time he’s been here. The main issue with Dubinsky, of course, is the matter of return on investment. Despite management’s admittedly successful purge of contractual deadwood in the past two years, Dubinsky’s contract remains the one true albatross preventing the club from pursuing better options. A $5.85 million per year contract is great for a young centerman who continually produces, but Dubinsky has neither youth nor production on his side.
Twelve games into the season, he has managed a paltry two points, both from assists. Furthermore, his Corsi-for percentage is hovering right around 50% and he isn’t even winning half of his face-offs. There’s only so much value in leadership and grit, and the sum of those two falls well short of $5.85 million without the production to back it up. Perhaps it is this realization that lead Coach Tortorella to strip Dubinsky of the assistant captaincy this past week. Although he’s consistently been a fan favorite for his passion and work ethic, the fact that Dubinsky won’t be a free agent until he’s 35 years old will continue to hurt the organization if he can’t find a way to regain at least a fraction of his scoring touch and face-off dominance. No matter how enjoyable it is to watch him pester Sidney Crosby to no end (and it truly is enjoyable), what he offers simply isn’t worth the cost.
Ask any Blue Jackets fan to describe the goalie situation for the past year or so, and the answer would likely be a resounding “I don’t know.” The organization ditched Curtis McElhinney and Anton Forsberg because out of all the potential backups to Sergei Bobrovsky, Korpisalo looked the most NHL-ready of the prospects at the time. One month into the new season, however, this confidence in Korpisalo’s readiness has taken a bit of a hit. In his three starts so far, he has posted a record of 1-2-0 with a save percentage below .900 and a goals-against-average of 3.67. In short, he’s been the anti-Bobrovsky.
That isn’t to say that he hasn’t shown flashes of brilliance, because he certainly has. In the win over Winnipeg, for instance, he saved 24 of 26 shots and looked confident throughout the game. The other two starts, however, have seen a shakier, less reliable Korpisalo facing two of the league’s best offenses in Chicago and St. Louis, who put four and five past him, respectively. The NHL season is a marathon, and the Jackets simply cannot continue to rely on Bobrovsky alone without facing burnout and possible injury. If they hope to continue to play well deep into the season, Korpisalo will need to find a vein of consistency and quickly.