Blue Jackets' future bright despite playoff exit

by 2d ago
Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

Better days are still ahead.

Despite the Columbus Blue Jackets' playoff elimination Thursday to the Pittsburgh Penguins, there's plenty to smile about after the best season in franchise history.

The Blue Jackets wrapped the regular season with 108 points, fourth-highest league-wide and the best finish in franchise history, a 15-point margin over the previous high mark.

This year was the 16th NHL season in Columbus, but just the third time the team advanced to the playoffs. The good news is that postseason appearances will be far more frequent in the future.

Three key pieces emerged to show why this season, and the years ahead, will be successful for the Blue Jackets:

John Tortorella

Eyebrows were raised when the Blue Jackets hired Tortorella to take over for fired bench boss Todd Richards last season. Tortorella, of course, was coming off a short-lived tenure with the Vancouver Canucks, relieved after one year on the job.

It only appeared to get worse when Tortorella manned the bench for Team USA at this summer's World Cup, where some curious coaching choices and lineup decisions led to a fast exit for the American squad.

But Tortorella arrived at Blue Jackets' training camp voicing a fresh approach. He emphasized that his team would need to ready its conditioning to play his up-tempo style, going as far as to eliminate the team's morning skates as a means to conserve energy.

The approach paid off handsomely, as the Blue Jackets put together their best ever season that saw them finish one victory shy of the NHL's all-time mark after rattling off a 16-game win streak.

Tortorella has resurfaced as one of the NHL's top coaches, and with it, has brought the Blue Jackets into the contender column after years in the league's basement.

Sergei Bobrovsky

The Blue Jackets' netminder missed most of the 2015-16 season, limited to just 37 games as he dealt with a groin injury.

The lost time hurt Bobrovsky's performance on the ice, too, as he put together a losing record last season, alongside average numbers in the most important columns: a 2.75 goals-against average and a pedestrian .908 save percentage.

But Bobrovsky was back on the case this season, stringing together a franchise-record 41 wins, topping the 33-win season Steve Mason achieved in 2008-09.

Not only was Bobrovsky breaking franchise records, but his performance was among the best league-wide, finishing with the NHL's best GAA and save rate, and just one win shy of Edmonton's Cam Talbot and Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals.

The Blue Jackets' can put the concerns of Bobrovsky's injury-riddled campaign of 2015-16 behind them and be safe with the knowledge they have stability between the pipes.

Youth Movement

If it wasn't some of the key veterans making noise this season, it was the Blue Jackets' impressive crop of young players.

Columbus saw the emergence of a handful of young talents in 2016-17, and the most important may have been from center Alexander Wennberg, who took control of the top pivot duties after former middleman Ryan Johansen was dealt to the Nashville Predators last season.

All of 22 years old, Wennberg wrapped his third season with 59 points, good for second on the team behind Cam Atkinson. Wennberg also led the team with 46 assists, a mark that puts him third-best in franchise history for helpers in a season.

On the blue line, Seth Jones was a strong presence through his first full season in the Ohio capital after being added from the Predators last year. Jones led all Blue Jackets' defenders, averaging 23:24 in ice time.

But the most impressive play on the back end came from rookie defenseman Zach Werenski. The 19-year-old stepped into the Blue Jackets' lineup and compiled 47 points. It's that type of performance that saw Werenski finish as one of three candidates for this year's top rookie.