The Blue Jackets are on the brink of franchise history. They have never been a playoff team in consecutive years. With two games to go, they are on the post-season doorstep. Pretty impressive considering six weeks ago it didn't look like they'd make it to the front porch.
Back then, the Jackets were nearing the end of a disappointing month of February. It was thought to be a critical month. The CBJ played Metropolitan Division opponents 10 times over a 12 game stretch. They managed to win only three times during that run. They were also in the throes of a prolonged offensive slump and relied heavily on goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. It felt like Bob had to be perfect in order to win. It also felt like a season with high expectations was going to end with a fizzle. That's when the team MVP went to work--and I don't mean Bob, Artemi Panerin, or any other player on the ice.
With the February 26 trade deadline approaching, General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen put his chips on the table and bet on his team. Rather than standing pat or moving pieces off of the active roster, Kekalainen, without disrupting the locker room, added three veterans--forwards Mark Letestu and Thomas Vanek and defenseman Ian Cole. From that moment on, the Blue Jackets have been a different team.
In the 18 games since Letestu, Vanek and Cole arrived, the Jackets have caught fire, going 14-3-1. The stretch included a 10 game winning streak and the dormant Blue Jackets offense has caught fire. In the first 24 games after the New Year, the Jackets scored three or fewer goals 22 times. In 18 games since the deadline, they've only scored three or less only 5 times. But wait----there's more.
In 62 pre-deadline games the Blue Jackets scored five or more goals in nine times. Tuesday night's 5-4 overtime win over Detroit was the ninth time in 18 games the Jackets have scored five or more. Before the deadline, the Jackets were averaging 2.62 goals per game. They're averaging just over 4 goals a game since the deadline. As Aaron Portzline, Blue Jackets reporter for The Athletic points out, no one is scoring, or winning like the Jackets since February 26th.
The trio of 'new Jackets' have been productive. Letestu, who was with the Jackets from 2011-15, scored in his very first game back, Vanek has seven goals and seven assists with the CBJ and had a hat trick in Edmonton March 27 and Cole has two goals, five assists and a plus/minus of +11 since coming to Columbus. More than that, the acquisitions have created depth and flexibility and have ignited the rest of the team.
Panerin, Kekalainen's signature move of the off-season, has been outstanding all season, but in particular, over the last month. His electric game tying power play goal Tuesday night, that brought the Jackets all the way back from a 4-1 deficit gave him 80 points (27 goals, 53 assists) on the season--an all time franchise record.
Panerin's 53 assists are also a franchise record. He's been on fire since the deadline, especially the last 10 games when Panerin has six goals and 13 assists. Meanwhile, Chicago--which dealt Panerin to the Jackets for Brandon Saad, has failed to make the post-season for the first time in a decade. Score one for Jarmo.
Another Kekalainen win is 19-year old rookie center Pierre-Luc Dubois. It was Dubois who won the Detroit game, firing a rocket past Jimmy Howard at 2:55 of overtime. P.L.D. was the 3rd overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft--and a controversial pick at the time. Other prospects were rated higher, but Kekalainen saw something others didn't. It's paying off as Dubois is one of the league's top rookies with 20 goals, 26 assists and is the center on the Jackets number one line, playing alongside Panerin and Cam Atkinson.
We don't know what is going to happen for this Blue Jackets team from here. Thursday night is huge, as they host Pittsburgh in what could be a playoff preview and potentially will determine home ice advantage in a first round series.
Whether the Jackets ride this momentum to a win Thursday and a substantial playoff run is still to be determined, but one thing I do know----they're in this position because of some shrewd moves by their G.M. The best news of all--the Blue Jackets are built for the long haul. They have the youngest roster in the NHL. Way to go Jarmo. You have my vote for Jackets MVP.