The Hooley, Monday, April 24

posted by Bruce Hooley -

Columbus Blue Jackets brass faces some tough decisions in the off-season, and I'm not just talking about who to protect and who to expose in the NHL expansion draft this summer.

Team President John Davidson and GM Jarmo Kekalainen will be wrestling with whether they can truly count on players they thought were guys who could build the Blue Jackets ito a viable Stanley Cup champion.

First on that list has to be goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who everyone agrees was the best goalie in the NHL this past season. Bob will win the Vezina Trophy for the best player at his position for the second time in five years.

But for the second time in four years, he performed below expectations in a first-round playoff loss to the PIttsburgh Penguins.

That didn't set off alarms when it happened in 2014, because no one expected the Jackets to contend. But it's a five-alarm concern now that Bob looked worse than average in a 4-1 series loss to the Pens, who never failed to score less than three goals against him.

Head coach John Tortorella was careful not to criticize Bobrovsky during the Penguins series, but he was more candid about his goaltender after the Blue Jackets' elimination.

"The regular season is great, but the playoffs are what count," Tortorella said. "Listen, Bob isn’t that experienced in the playoffs. He hasn’t played a ton of playoff games. But he’s in the same type of process as some of our other guys who just need to be better in the playoffs. Let’s not single out Bob, but that position is very unique in our game.”

Translation: You can't win without a great goaltender in the playoffs. Bobrovsky is a great goaltender, but unless he translates it to the post-season, it won't be good enough.

Davidson and Kekalainen also have other worries to wrestle with.

Despite a 50-win, 108-point season, they have to face the sobering reality that they can't just wait for their young team to mature and know that alone will guarantee a time when Columbus will be superior to the teams in its division or its conference.

Pittsburgh has a far more skilled roster at the top, and its headliners, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, have lots of years left. Waiting on Oliver Bjorkstrand, Josh Anderson, Alexander Wennberg, Zach Werenski and Seth Jones to just automatically advance to the throne is not a good strategy.

The Blue Jackets have tons of young talent, which is a good thing. But knowing when to part with young talent to acquire better veteran talent that's needed to take the next step is a vital decision the Blue Jackets' braintrust must navigate carefully.

You don't want to bail on a youngster who becomes  a bonafide superstar somewhere else in two or three years. But you also don't want to hold onto a young player who you love and have that kid remain stuck where he is, particularly if another team might fall for his potential and give up a king's ransom to get him.

I wonder if that's what happened to the Blue Jackets when they grabbed Brandon Saad from the Chicago Blackhawks two years ago. Saad had played on two Stanley Cup championship teams, and the Jackets were hoping they'd acquired a franchise cornerstone.

They paid him accordingly, but Saad hasn't been everything the Jackets hoped for.

Is Wennberg that same sort of guy, or is Wennberg, who centers the Jackets top line, a player who will figure out next year the weaknesses Pittsburgh exposed this year and be the better for it?

Werenski had a phenomenal first year. No one questions his ability. His durability may be another matter. He'll have to learn how to protect himself next year when teams will be gunning for him with physical play aimed at putting him on the shelf.

The Jackets had plenty of balanced scoring this year, but when everyone is capable of scoring, no one is specifically responsible for it in a series of importance like the one against Pittsburgh.

No one stepped forward for Columbus to offset Crosby, who was either doing it himself or setting up his young linemates. It's not a coincidence when a star wins a championship. Most often, it's because stars are essential to winning a championship.

Which brings me back to Bobrovsky. He's as close as the Jackets have to a star. He hasn't played one in the post-season, but I'm not ready yet to label him one of those guys who vanishes when the lights are the brightest.

Here's what I think happened to him. Late in the year, the Blue Jackets couldn't score and relied on him so much I think Bob felt the pressure to be perfect every night.

He held up well under that duress in March, but eventually it overwhelmed him. It's just not practical to expect a goaltender to allow an average of one goal per game, which is what Bobrovsky had to do in March to keep the Blue Jackets even with Washington and Pittsburgh in the Metropolitan.

Team captain Nick Foligno seemed to confirm my suspicion when he said this:

"The biggest thing for him is not to feel like the weight of the world is on his shoulders. Maybe because of the way the series started, he felt like he had to be Superman."

Yeah, the Blue Jackets scored only one goal in each of the first two games in Pittsburgh. It's very hard to win that way, because it's just not realistic to tell any goalie to shut out the Penguins.

Bolstering the offensive corp will take some of that burden off Bobrovsky next year and hopefully allow him to arrive not just physicaly fresh for the playoffs, but mentally fresh, too.

That that could make a world of difference for the Blue Jackets as they try to win their first playoff series in franchise history.


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