Are the Columbus Blue Jackets a legitimate Stanley Cup contender this season?
Greg Wyshynski, senior writer: There is a lot to like about the Blue Jackets as a contender. Such as the fact that Sergei Bobrovsky has given up more than two goals in just four of his past 17 starts. Or the fact that Columbus has found two effective defensive pairings in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, and David Savard and Ian Cole, the latter of whom have been quite solid in their 14 games together since Cole joined the team at the trade deadline. Or the fact that the Blue Jackets are No. 7 in the NHL in Corsi (51.65) and expected goals for per 60 minutes (2.7) at even strength. And as they've proved recently, when the Jackets are playing at the peak of their powers, they're darn near unbeatable.
There are other things to not like about the Blue Jackets. Such as the fact that despite their greatness at 5-on-5 -- and they've been quite good -- their special teams have been the opposite story: a power play that's second to last in the NHL (15.3 percent) and a penalty kill that's 24th (77.7). Or the fact that as good as Bobrovsky is, he has a career .877 save percentage in the playoffs, including an .882 performance in five games last postseason. Or the fact that if the playoffs started today, the Blue Jackets would play the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team against which they have lost have lost eight of 11 postseason games and two playoff series.
So here's where I am with Columbus: I'm ready for it to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. There is a party of Nashville-like proportions ready to pop in that town if the Blue Jackets go on a prolonged playoff run. But I'm not convinced of that legitimacy yet, given those underlying concerns.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: There are three ingredients a team needs to make a surprise run at the Cup: getting hot at the right time, a goaltender who can stand on his head and a stingy defense. The Blue Jackets have found their stride in March. Bobrovsky, the reigning Vezina winner, didn't have his best season, but it's still damn good (34-22-5, .922 save percentage, 2.37 GAA) -- and an argument could be made that he's still the most talented goalie in the league. And then there's the Columbus defense. The Blue Jackets rank ninth in both shots allowed per game (31.3) and goals allowed per game (2.68), while Jones has emerged as a Norris Trophy candidate. What's more: You could even make a case for the Jones- Werenski duo as the NHL's top pairing.
But a few things still concern me about the Blue Jackets. As Greg noted, their power play has been abysmal all season and hasn't improved much, even as the team went on a 10-game winning streak. Since the beginning of March, a stretch in which Columbus went 10-3-0, the Blue Jackets converted on only 5 of 34 man-advantage opportunities (14.7 percent). Columbus also doesn't have more than one elite scorer. Its No. 1 threat is Artemi Panarin (25 goals, 44 assists for 69 points), and below him, no forward has more than 39 points.
That said, there's enough to like about these Blue Jackets. Should they make it past the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round -- their current draw -- I think this team could beat anyone.
Chris Peters, NHL prospects writer: I'm a little less optimistic for the Blue Jackets this year, but I feel they're right on schedule in their development as an organization. The gantlet they would have to run through is daunting. As Emily noted, Columbus' current first-round draw is the Penguins, a team it hasn't beaten yet this season. The Blue Jackets also have just one win in four games against the Washington Capitals. As impressive as Columbus was on its recent winning streak, it's hard to get that to translate into the postseason.
With all that said, I think the Blue Jackets are better positioned for a run next season. Their core will still be under contract, with Bobrovsky and Panarin heading into the final year of their deals in 2018-19. One would assume that Columbus will attempt to get extensions done this summer. Perhaps the same could be said for Werenski, who will be on the last year of his entry-level deal. And there should be room to add some pieces in the offseason.
The Blue Jackets have some great pieces to continue building around, including youngsters like Pierre-Luc Dubois, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Sonny Milano who will likely contribute in an even bigger way next year. The biggest question mark for Columbus, aside from those extensions, is what to do with the blue line. Cole and Jack Johnson will be unrestricted free agents on July 1, while Ryan Murray and Markus Nutivaara are arbitration-eligible restricted free agents. They don't have a ton of internal help waiting in the pipeline; only 21-year-old prospect Gabriel Carlsson looks like he could make the jump to full-time NHL duty next season.
That's a lot of work to get done in one summer, but the most important pieces are in place for the Blue Jackets for 2018-19. I don't think they have a championship run in them this year, but the "Stanley Cup window" is creaking open. Expect it to open a little wider next season. I can't wait to see what they do this postseason, though. When Columbus is on its game, it's a blast to watch. And there isn't a defensive pair in the league I enjoy watching more than Jones and Werenski.