This NHL team posted an 81-point season (34-35-13), finishing 13th in its conference. This same team scored 215 goals that season, while allowing 258. Most astute Columbus fans will recognize those totals as the Blue Jackets from the 2010-11 season.
Do these ring a bell? This team had an 80-point season (34-26-12), finishing 12th in its conference. That group scored 217 goals, while permitting 260. Why, it’s the 2009-10 version of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
So what, you say? Well, look at what the Lightning did the following (last) season. They increased their points by 23 (103 with a 46-25-11 record), while scoring 30 more goals (up to 247), and allowing 20 less (down to 240).
Let’s not forget two playoff series wins (over Pittsburgh and Washington, no less), and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, where the ‘Ning fell one goal short of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals, losing 1-0 to Boston in Game 7.
So, can this season’s Columbus Blue Jackets become last season’s Tampa Bay Lightning? That’s a good question…can I get back to you in April?
While it’s not exactly an apples to apples comparison, I think it’s worth pointing out that from an offensive talent stand-point, Tampa Bay has two of the NHL’s highest scorers in the past two seasons in Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. While Vincent Lecavalier doesn’t put up the same stats he used to, he’s become a more rounded player, and is still an elite talent.
Columbus has certainly upgraded with Jeff Carter and Vinny Prospal, but few teams in the NHL have the dynamic forward play that the Lightning can boast.
The other major difference is that the Blue Jackets have the same coach and general manager from last season, while Tampa Bay brought in Steve Yzerman (GM) and Guy Boucher (head coach…and this will be the only time I mention that Boucher was offered the Blue Jackets job and turned it down.).
What really elevated the Lightning last year, were the moves that Yzerman made, especially on defense. Brett Clarke, Pavel Kubina and Marc-Andre Bergeron were free agent signings that paid off. Eric Brewer was added before the trade deadline. That’s a bit of an upgrade from Kurtis Foster, Andrej Mezaros and Matt Walker.
The Lightning also upgraded up front. Simon Gagne added a scoring touch, while playoff hero Sean Bergenheim was signed cheap (one-year, $700,000), and Dominic Moore chipped in 32 points from his center ice position. Adam Hall returned after spending a full season in the AHL, to contribute 18 points.
The third and fourth lines were the biggest difference in Tampa, for me. St. Louis went up five points from 2009-10 to 2010-11, while Stamkos registered four less. Lecavalier had 16 less, but played in 17 fewer games. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, goals for went up a total of 30. A Lot of that credit goes to Teddy Purcell, who went from 9 points (3-6-9) to 51 (17-34-51), as he played in 62 more games.
Similarly, the Blue Jackets made radical changes to their line-up. I’ve already mentioned Carter and Prospal, while the defense was improved with the trade (and eventual signing) for the rights to James Wisniewski, and the inking of Radek Martinek.
Columbus did not address the third and fourth lines, but are counting on improved play and growth from younger players.
The biggest concern heading into 2011-12 for the Blue Jackets seems to be goal-tending. Looking back at the Lightning’s situation, goals against was cut down by 20. However, I don’t think Tampa Bay got exceptional net-minding.
Yes, Dwayne Roloson carried the team at times during the post-season. Yes, he provided stability to the position, after being acquired from the Islanders on New Year’s Day. However, he only won 18 of 34 starts. His GAA (2.56) and save percentage (.912) was solid, but not outstanding.
Finally, the Lightning plays in what is usually the worst division in hockey (Southeast). While Washington has turned into a perennial power, Carolina has had its ups and downs, and Atlanta (now Winnipeg) and Florida have one combined playoff appearance since 2000-01. Last year, Tampa was 14-6-4 against its division, while Columbus was 8-11-5, a difference in 11 points right there.
So what has to happen for this year’s Blue Jackets to be last year’s Lightning?
First and foremost, it will take consistency. For two prolonged stretches last year (14-6 in the first 20 games, and 11-3-3 from mid-January through February), the Blue Jackets played very good hockey. Combine those two stretches, and its 1.43 points per game over 37 contests, which would extrapolate to a 117-point season over the full 82-game slate.
Now before getting carried away, let me caution that last year only Vancouver had that total, finishing with 117 points. In fact, since the lockout (and the introduction of the shootout where 3-point games are possible), only four teams have hit that mark, and all won the President’s Trophy.
2010-11 Vancouver 117
2009-10 Washington 121
2008-09 San Jose 117
2005-06 Detroit 124
Columbus may surprise some people this season, but the Jackets are not President’s Trophy material.
I mention consistency because the Jackets also had a dismal December for the second straight season. After that scorching 14-6 start, the CBJ had a literal reversal of fortunes, hitting the skids with a 6-14-3 mark.
Consistency extends to playing well at home, also. Columbus was just 17-19-5 in the not-so-friendly confines of Nationwide Arena. All 16 playoff teams last year had winning records at home.
Most importantly, the Blue Jackets need some young players to take the next steps in their careers to even begin to think about catching the Lightning in a bottle. Derick Brassard, Marc Methot, Kris Rusell, Matt Calvert, Grant Clitsome and Steve Mason are all in this category. Please note, I am not calling these guys out for poor play, just suggesting that if their games go to the next level, so too, can the Blue Jackets’.
Heady contributions from rookies like Ryan Johansen, Cam Atkinson, Maksim Mayorov, Tomas Kubalik, David Savard, John Moore and Mark Dekanich would be a boon as well. I’m not saying one of them needs to win the Calder, but just to provide steady, veteran-like play to bolster the third or fourth forward lines, the third defensive-pairing, or goalkeeping.
Injuries are always part of hockey, and good teams still find a way to keep winning even without key personnel in the line-up. I think the Blue Jackets organization is currently deeper than it has ever been, as witnessed by all the players still in the hunt for the final roster spots as camp wraps up this week.
Obviously, losing a Rick Nash, Jeff Carter, Steve Mason, or Fedor Tyutin (or an 8-game suspension to James Wisniewski) for an extended period of time isn’t an easy fix. But—as I said—good teams figure a way to get through it
Overnight success in professional sports takes a bit of a perfect storm. Those things are some of what the Blue Jackets might need for a bit of a Lightning show inside of Nationwide Arena in 2011-12.
Can this season’s Columbus Blue Jackets become last season’s Tampa Bay Lightning? I can’t wait to find out…the road begins next Friday.