Final Report Card for Columbus Blue Jackets' 2013-14 Season
The 2013-14 NHL season has come to an end for the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the campaign will be remembered as a historic one for the franchise. After waiting 13 years, the club came up with a postseason victory and gave the Pittsburgh Penguins everything they could handle in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal.
President of hockey operations John Davidson saw the Blue Jackets take another leap toward relevancy this year, and it seems that the goal of changing the culture of hockey in Ohio is on the right track.
Last month, NHL.com's Dan Rosen sat down with Davidson and asked him about what would be important to Columbus moving forward:
...whatever happens, as long as I see marked improvement, especially with the future of our club, then I know we're going in the right direction. And it's more than just what is on the ice here; it's also with what's on the ice around the world with our future players and how they're improving, where they're playing, what they're doing. We've seen a lot of upside. A lot of guys are having good seasons.
The former St. Louis Blues executive wasn't sure if the Blue Jackets were going to make the postseason at that point, but he was still evaluating the current team while keeping an eye on the future. That's what makes this campaign such a successful one for Columbus.
Young players like Cam Atkinson and Ryan Johansen settled in at the NHL level while veterans such as Jack Johnson and Artem Anisimov became part of the solution for the Blue Jackets.
This is a squad that is being built from the ground up—through the draft and through smart trades that make sense. After nearly making the playoffs in 2013, you can't look at this team and say that it didn't take a step forward this year.
All statistics appear courtesy of NHL.com unless otherwise noted and are accurate through the end of Columbus' 2013-14 season.
As per Davidson's directive, the Blue Jackets are building from within. Key forwards like Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky were brought in via trade, but if the team is going to have any success, it will come from homegrown draft picks.
Making the right call on draft day wasn't Columbus' strong suit for a while, but the Jackets seem to be turning that around. Ryan Johansen erupted seemingly out of nowhere this year, leading the team in scoring with 63 points and 33 goals.
Youngster Cam Atkinson also improved on his 2013 numbers, scoring 21 times and adding 19 assists. Some squads claim to take score-by-committee approach, but the Blue Jackets live and die by that mantra. They roll something closer to two second lines and two third lines than a traditional one-through-four breakdown, leading to a nice offensive spread.
Nine players had more than 30 points, and Columbus was the 12th most proficient goal-scoring team during the regular season despite missing Nathan Horton and Marian Gaborik for a majority of the year. You really couldn't ask for anything more from this group of fast, north-south forwards.
There's room for improvement but plenty of opportunity to grow as well.
Final Offense Grade: B+
The Blue Jackets feature two prominent offensive defensemen in Johnson and James Wisniewski. The former led the team in scoring during the postseason while the latter trailed only Johansen during the regular season.
If offense from defense helps win Stanley Cups, Columbus is sitting pretty. Ryan Murray scored 20 points as a rookie defenseman and averaged more than 19 minutes a night on the blue line. He'll be a good one for the Blue Jackets.
Fedor Tyutin is also one of the NHL's best-kept secrets and has been strong and steady on the back end since the 2008-09 season in Columbus. The offensive production doesn't always come at the expense of defense—a kick to the chest of the reputations of both Wisniewski and Johnson as free-wielding gunslingers on the blue line.
This is a young and talented group of players that will continue to improve as Murray and David Savard evolve, and they were a middle-of-the-pack squad in terms of average goals allowed during the regular season.
Almost as good as the Chicago Blackhawks, actually. They still need to allow fewer shots against, but that will come with experience.
Final Defense Grade: B
Coming into the season, it was believed that the Blue Jackets wouldn't be able to replicate 2013's success without another other-worldly performance from Sergei Bobrovsky. He struggled with injury during the campaign, leaving Curtis Mcelhinney to start 21 contests.
Columbus secured points in 11 of those games—winning 10 of them—so while it's clear that Bobrovsky is important, he isn't the only good player suiting up for the Blue Jackets.
After winning the Vezina Trophy, Bobrovsky had a lot to prove as a 25-year-old with a fresh two-year "prove it" deal. He finished 10th in the NHL in wins with 32 and was eighth in save percentage (.923). Tack on five shutouts, and it's safe to say that the Russian backstop didn't regress to a norm too far below his Vezina numbers.
Columbus' duo battled hard every night and gave the Blue Jackets every chance to win. That's all you can ask of your masked men.
Final Goaltending Grade: A
The Blue Jackets had a more effective power play than the San Jose Sharks, New York Rangers and Anaheim Ducks during the regular season, finishing just outside the NHL's top 10 with a 19.3 percent conversion rate.
The uninformed assumption would be that Johnson and Wisniewski powered things from the blue line, but Columbus received big contributions from R.J. Umberger, Mark Letestu and Johansen on the man advantage.
That trio alone piled up 19 power-play goals and lead the team in that regard.
Columbus' penalty kill wasn't quite as strong, finishing 14th in the league during the regular season, but the two special teams numbers add up to more than 100 percent—typically the goal of most coaches. The Blue Jackets would like to improve on their 82.1 percent kill rate, but all told, special teams were solid throughout the regular season.
Special Teams Grade: B
According to Aaron Portzline of The Columbus Dispatch, the Blue Jackets are interested in locking up Todd Richards to a long-term deal that would keep him in Columbus for the foreseeable future.
General manager Jarmo Kekalainen sat down with the bench boss following the team's first-round elimination and had this to say about the meeting, according to Portzline:
I told the coaches today that we, as an organization, would like to make a long-term commitment to the whole group of them, because they've earned it. It will bring stability to the organization. ... We'll start with Todd, because it's his staff. But we'll talk to him and go through the process and try to get him under a long-term deal, and then get his assistants (associate coach Craig Hartsburg, assistant coach Dan Hinote and goaltending coach Ian Clark) on board with contracts that are of the same length.
There are a handful of coaches that will lose their jobs following elimination in Round 1, but Richards guided the Blue Jackets to another level this season. It would have been shocking to see Kekalainen do anything other than heap praise on Richards.
Coaching Final Grade: A
All franchises have to start somewhere. The Montreal Canadiens didn't start out with 24 Stanley Cups, the Detroit Red Wings weren't always a lock to make the playoffs and the Chicago Blackhawks were once voted the worst franchise in all of sports by ESPN.
Some fans and pundits that are embedded in more traditional hockey markets may scoff at the idea of hockey succeeding in Ohio, but it's well on its way. No matter how you look at it, the 2013-14 campaign was the best in Blue Jackets history.
A short history, but this is an important footnote as the franchise continues to bring in top-end young players to go along with some of the strongest hockey minds around. The campaign wasn't perfect, and defeating the Penguins would have been spectacular, but there's a lot to build on.
The Blue Jackets did exactly what they were supposed to do and are poised to improve in 2014-15.
Overall Grade: A