Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Pool Outlook for Columbus

Like the Minnesota Wild yesterday, you can draw quite a few comparisons to the Columbus Blue Jackets, in terms of how the team was built, how it was a properly slow build and then how unlucky they were to be in such a good division, that finishing 3rd in the Metropolitan was hardly a proper reward for such a good season.

The Jackets management team have done a magnificent job of drafting quality players and making great use of players that they have acquired, that may have been cast offs from somewhere else.  They have been able to put these guys together, form a cohesive group and they were able to win games in the regular season.

50 wins, in fact, but that was still only good enough for 3rd place in their division, as they were unfortunate to be playing in the same division, at the same time, with the likes of the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were not slouches this season either.  108 points would have been great in the Atlantic or the Pacific divisions, but no, they finished 3rd and drew the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round of the playoffs.

In terms of playoff experience, the Jackets may not have had as much as some teams and that may have been the real telling factor, especially matching up against the defending champs and if they had any hopes, they would have been hoping that the Penguins had played too much hockey in the last couple years.  That wasn't the case, as the Penguins rolled over the Jackets in five games and that was just the first stepping stone for the champs.

Columbus may not have been able to find the scoring they needed in the playoffs, but there are still lots of good things coming, another comparison to the Wild yesterday, it's all coming around for them, but with this many teams making good, it'll be hard to share the championship with so many.

The hockey pool could identify with what the Blue Jackets were doing, even after a poor 2016 season, everyone knew that their injury situation was the reason why the year before was so poor, so it didn't stop the group from picking 13 players at the October draft.  A bit of a rough start saw a bit of a shift in that thinking, as three were dropped to two being picked up at the first player swap, while another drop happened at the second swap as well.  That still left 11 players active on pool teams, which is still pretty deep, it was just a matter of finding the right players.

There was sense of normalcy returned to the team, as Sergei Bobrovsky came back from an injury-plagued year to be the team's top pool scorer, finishing with 41 wins in 63 appearances for 96 points, good enough for 4th overall in pool scoring.  He turned out to be a bargain pick, as he was the top Jackets player taken, down in the 3rd round, 60th overall.  I'm sure there were 20+ teams still kicking themselves for passing over him two or three times this year.

Believe it or not, the Jackets were under-utilized in the pool, as 14 players finished the year in the pool worthy conversation, but of course, Bobrovsky was the only goalie worthy, thanks to his workload.  Cam Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg, Brandon Saad, Nick Foligno, Sam Gagner, Brandon Dubinsky, Scott Hartnell, Boone Jenner and Josh Anderson were all worthy from up front, while rookie Zach Werenski, Seth Jones, David Savard and Jack Johnson were all worthy from the blueline.

That's a lot of scoring depth for one season!

What I Said Last Year, At This Time...

Last season's prediction wasn't terrible, but it stumbled when the Jackets lost so many important pieces to long-term injury.  This summer for Columbus should be about making sure their depth is accounted for, especially on the blueline, because as good as Joonas Korpisalo was in relief, he couldn't do it all.  I don't expect a lot of improvement from the Jackets in the 2017, unless Sergei Bobrovsky is able to play 65+ games and they are able to add a good veteran piece to their blueline.  Seth Jones will come around to play a lot more meaningful minutes and he'll likely produce in them, but it seems more likely that the Jackets will need some extra help, like a team above them falling off the map, than having their own merits guide them to the playoffs.  The Jackets will compete, but succeed is a different story.

The return of Bobrovsky was the key to the return of the Jackets to the playoffs, but it sure helped that the combination of Werenski and Jones on the blueline really made the team pop from the back end, but it was one of those situations lacking experience, that dropped them a bit in the playoffs.  Nevertheless, you can't gain the experience without getting there and the Jackets are really getting somewhere now.

2018 Pool Outlook

Forwards Cap Defense Cap Goalies Cap
Brandon Saad 6.000 Seth Jones 5.400 Sergei Bobrovsky 7.425
Brandon Dubinsky 5.850 Jack Johnson 4.357
Nick Foligno 5.500 David Savard 4.250
Scott Hartnell 4.750 Zach Werenski 0.925
Cam Atkinson 3.500
Boone Jenner 2.900
Matt Calvert 2.200 Ryan Murray 2.825
William Karlsson 1.000 Gabriel Carlsson 0.925
Pierre-Luc Dubois 0.925 Markus Nutivaara 0.818
Sam Vigneault 0.925 Jacob Graves 0.751
Sonny Milano 0.863 Blake Siebenaler 0.678
Lukas Sedlak 0.825 Scott Harrington 0.675
Jordan Maletta 0.793 John Ramage 0.613
Paul Bittner 0.778
Vitali Abramov 0.776
Justin Scott 0.751
Dante Salituro 0.725
Kole Sherwood 0.722
Nick Moutrey 0.693
Keegan Kolesar 0.692
Markus Hannikainen 0.675
David Clarkson 5.250

The Jackets head into this off-season with a good portion of their pool worthy players already signed up for the 2018 season, which suggests that they should be a popular team again this coming season and rightfully so.  Teams are going to feel that there is very few gambles on this team, besides the usual gamble about health, as they were scoring from just about everywhere last season.  Prepare for Columbus to be popular.

Potential Losses in the Expansion Draft

The Jackets may lose a veteran of either the forward or blueline persuasion, but it doesn't look like they'll be players that are key to their situation moving forward, rather it could be a benefit to their cap situation in the end.  Four players have no-move clauses, all of which are pool worthy, in Bobrovsky, Dubinsky, Foligno and Hartnell, I would imagine that they would lean towards youth in the 7F/3D/1G format of protection, which could leave both Matt Calvert and Jack Johnson as the two more interesting exposed players.  Of course, if I'm Vegas, I'm leaning towards a defenseman of quality, instead of a forward of quantity.

Free Agency and the Salary Cap

The Jackets have three free agents of pool worthiness to look after this off-season and I would have to think that all three are going to get long looks and not just because that two of them are restricted.  Both Alexander Wennberg and Josh Anderson are both underage free agents and they were big this past year, while Sam Gagner appeared to earn himself another deal from Columbus, as he meshed well with this club and how they were built.

The 11 players that are pool worthy and signed are coming in at $50.9 million today, which isn't leaving a great deal for their depth, but there are some names below that will fill in those gaps at a reasonable cost.  The Jackets only really need to tinker with their lineup, trying to find a veteran player that could lift them over, so some quality shopping around may generate that player at a reasonable cost.

There are a few places projecting that the 3rd overall pick in last year's draft, forward Pierre-Luc Dubois is going to make the jump up to the big club after being one of the last cut's from last season's camp.  Dubois is regarded as a top prospect in the league and he had a pretty good junior year, despite having a mediocre showing at the World Juniors for Canada.  Dubois is going to have to push an established player out of a spot, which will be okay by team management, if he can come around and score like they expect him to, as they drafted him over Jesse Puljujarvi last June.

Needs at the 2017 Entry Draft

The Jackets will pick from the 24th spot, much worse than their 3rd place pick last time around, but that's an indicator of how well they turned their season around.  With how this team has been built so far, they are not in a rush to get new, young blood in their lineup right away, so they can definitely find someone in need of some extra work, if they know that the instincts are there.  Speed and instincts are some of those attributes you can't really teach, so Morgan Frost has the upside that the Jackets could use in the future, as they'll let him get a bit bigger and figure out his overall game, but he's going in the direction they could use in a long-term prospect.

The Jackets are still a pretty young team, which has me on the fence about what they could do come playoff time still.  Losing out in the opening round with this talented group wasn't enough for me to think that they are going to improve by leaps and bounds.  one of the team's best players, Zach Werenski, will also have the potential of the sophomore jinx, which shouldn't do too much to the team making the playoffs, but some struggles might make it into a wild card spot, instead of a divisional spot... you know, if it happens.  Everyone is different.  The Jackets are prepped and ready to be good in the 2018 season, certainly a team to be excited about for the hockey pool, but they could just use more, be it experience or veteran savvy.
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