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Can the Blue Jackets have a Cinderella Run this year?

Can the Blue Jackets have a Cinderella Run this year? Paula R. Lively/via

Columbus currently in midst of best start in Franchise History


Just over a third into the 2016-17 NHL season, we’ve seen quite a few surprises so far. One of the biggest, for sure, has to be the incredibly hot start of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

A franchise that has reached the playoffs only twice since coming into the league in the 2000-01 season, the Blue Jackets are currently off to their best start in team history. They currently sit fourth in a top heavy Metropolitan Division with a 17-5-4 record.

What makes this start surprising is where this team was just last season.

Heading into the 2015-16 campaign, Columbus had some pretty high expectations. The Blue Jackets had just finished the 2014-15 season on a hot streak that saw them almost make the playoffs for the second straight year.

Not too long after the 2015 Stanley Cup Final finished, Columbus made headlines when they acquired freshly crowned Stanley Cup champion Brandon Saad from the Chicago Blackhawks in a move to bolster their offense and add some speed.

Signing 2011 Stanley Cup champ Gregory Campbell also helped expectations as Campbell was seen as a veteran that could help stabilize the center position in their bottom six. Having key players Sergei Bobrovsky, Brandon Dubinsky, Jack Johnson, and Ryan Murray back healthy after lengthy absences in 2014-15 had Jackets fans dreaming about the postseason yet again, as well.

However, those expectations were tempered very quickly.

Columbus started the 2015-16 season losing their first seven straight games, all in regulation, which led to the firing of then-coach Todd Richards. They would hire a former Stanley Cup winning coach in John Tortorella to try and save their season.

Despite losing their first game under Tortorella to go to 0-8-0 to start the year, the Blue Jackets would end up going a decent 34-33-8 under their new coach to finish the season.

They could not get over their horrendous start, however, as they finished dead last in the Eastern Conference, Metropolitan Division, and 27th overall in the league.

So, heading into this year, there probably wasn’t many people who would’ve predicted that Columbus would be top-1o in the league overall a third of the way into the 2016-17 season. But they are and, when you analyze things, you can see why.

Like most turnarounds, it has all started on the back end.

Heading into their game with the Edmonton Oilers tonight, the Blue Jackets are second in fewest goals against with 55. Bobrovsky, the 2013 Vezina Trophy winner, seems to have reverted to the goalie that won that trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender.

In 23 games this season, the 28-year-old Russian native is 16-5-2 with a 1.98 goals-against-average, .932 save percentage, and three shutouts. Backup Curtis McElhinney hasn’t been a slouch either when he’s had to play.

McElhinney has a 2.03 GAA and .930 SV% in four appearances.

Not only have their goalies played well, but the guys in front of them have bought into Tortorella’s defensive system.

Tortorella’s system is a pretty simple one: get in shooting/passing lanes and collapse to the front of the net when the puck is deep in the zone. Both the forwards and defensemen have bought in as they currently have the second-best team plus/minus rating in the NHL at +31.

In fact, of the players that have played at least 20 games this season, Columbus only has one player that is a minus. The next lowest plus/minus rating on the team is a +4.

Not only has their defense been stellar, but their offense has also been a big part in their hot start.

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The Blue Jackets are currently third in goals for per game (3.31). They may not have the superstar offensive names like other teams in the league, but they’ve been doing by committee.

Columbus has three players with 10 or more goals, four with 20 or more points, and 10 with 10 or more points, and they’ve put that offense on display on various occasions.

The Blue Jackets have scored four or more goals in nine games already this season, including scoring a franchise-record 10 goals in a 10-0 shutout over the Montreal Canadiens at the beginning of November.

Their power-play has also been very effective to this point.

They currently lead the league in power-play efficiency at 24.6%. It’s been even deadlier at home, where they have a power-play efficiency of 32.5%, which also leads the NHL.

If there has been one sore spot for the Jackets so far this year, it has been their penalty kill.

They are currently 17th in the league at 81.4% on the kill, despite only giving up 13 power play goals. If they can get that up near the top-10, it will only help solidify their place near the top of the conference and league.

When looking at the things on the ice that usually help teams make a long run in the playoffs, the Blue Jackets seem to have everything in place to make that happen. They also have a coach that has proven he can win.

Tortorella’s currently first in wins by U.S.-born NHL coaches with 493. He’s also proven he can take a team to the top, especially in the Eastern Conference.

His two most successful seasons behind the bench were when he was coaching an Eastern Conference team. The Boston native won the Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 and took the New York Rangers to the Conference Final in 2012.

So to answer the question posed in the title of this article, I do believe the Blue Jackets can be this year’s Cinderella story in the NHL. There are just a few little things that could alter that.

Obviously, injuries are the biggest concern for any team, especially when they’re rolling. They had a league-leading 502 man games lost to injury in 2014-15 and if they were to suffer that type of injury bug again, it could derail their great start.

Another thing that could hurt Columbus is if their offense dries up. Over an 82-game season, scoring slumps are bound to happen. It’s when they go for an extended period of time that they hurt team’s playoff chances.

If the Blue Jackets can avoid that long scoring drought, they will be fine.

Their competition could also affect their chance to make a run.

Being in a division with Pittsburgh, Montreal, Washington, and the Rangers is tough enough. But with Philadelphia playing extremely well, that just adds another team the Jackets will have to fight to secure a playoff spot.

Also, both of Florida’s teams have underachieved so far this season and if they can get back to the level they were at last season, they could have an impact on who gets one of the two wild card spots.

We’re obviously still a ways away from the postseason, but if Columbus gets there, don’t be surprised if they make some noise this upcoming spring.