COLUMBUS (WCMH) — The Blue Jackets open the NHL season on Thursday night. Here are answers to 21 questions before they take to the ice for their first game:
- When do they start?
The Blue Jackets open the 2021 season at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Nashville Predators, one of their Central Division rivals. The teams will meet again at Bridgestone Arena at 8 p.m. Saturday.
- When do they play their first home game?
The first game at Nationwide Arena is at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21 against the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, another Central Division opponent. The Lightning ended the Blue Jackets’ playoff run last season four games to one in a first-round series.
- The Predators and Lightning are in the same division as the Blue Jackets? When did this happen?
That’s one of the changes brought on this season by the coronavirus pandemic. The NHL realigned its divisions to reduce travel among U.S. teams and to cluster all seven of its Canadian teams together. In the Central with the Jackets are Carolina, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit and Florida in addition to Nashville and Tampa Bay. Here are the other divisions.
- Can I at least go see them play?
No, you’re going to need Fox Sports Ohio to watch them, at least for now. The Blue Jackets have not announced when they might start allowing fans at games, or how many. They would need approval from state officials first. It is worth noting that the Cleveland Cavaliers of the NBA have capped crowds at 10% of arena capacity for their home games, so a similar solution may be in the works for the Jackets.
- What else is different about the schedule?
Check out the complete schedule here. All games will be against division opponents, and the league decided against any preseason exhibitions. Also, notice how the NHL is scheduling two-game series (sometimes three) in the same city to reduce travel. But it has largely done so without burdening teams with games on back-to-back nights. The Jackets only have four sets of back-to-backs on their 56-game schedule, although the first set is soon: Jan. 18 and 19 at the Detroit Red Wings.
- Who’s new to the team worth watching?
The key offseason acquisition was center Max Domi, who came to the Jackets in a trade with Montreal. Domi had 72 points during the 2018-19 season, the most recent full-length season. He is projected to join the second forward line and give the Jackets something they have long lacked, depth and talent at center. But there is a “but.”
- What’s the “but” at center?
The Blue Jackets and top-line center Pierre-Luc Dubois stretched contract negotiations up to the start of training camp before he signed a two-year, $10 million deal. The Jackets drafted Dubois with the third overall pick in 2016, and he has delivered with point totals of 48, 61 and 49 the past three seasons. But the tone and outcome of the contract discussions seems to indicate that Dubois wants to play elsewhere. It will be interesting to watch how long he stays with the Jackets, how well he handles the waiting game, and how it affects the team.
- What about the rest of the forward lines?
The wings on the first two lines are all familiar names: Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Alexandre Texier and captain Nick Foligno. Foligno is the likely choice to play up on the second line next to Domi while Gus Nyquist recovers from shoulder surgery. On the bottom six, look for returning players such as Emil Bemstrom, Boone Jenner and Riley Nash, rookie Liam Foudy, and newcomer Mikhail Grigorenko, among others.
- Is there anyone else special to keep an eye on at forward?
Here are two: one young and one old. Foudy is 20 and an incredibly fast skater. The Jackets used him in 10 playoff games last season, and he responded with a goal and an assist. On the other end is Mikko Koivu, who is 37 and has been in the NHL for 15 seasons, all with Minnesota. Koivu would pair well together with Jenner on a checking line. But why these two? Because Koivu plays center, and the Jackets are expected to groom Foudy for that position. Refer back to Dubois above, and these two may end up taking on bigger roles than expected.
- What about on defense? Who’s good there?
The top pairing of Zach Werenski and Seth Jones is the envy of nearly every team in the league — that is, when both are healthy. That’s why depth played a huge role in the Jackets allowing 183 goals last season, third-fewest in the league. In the offseason, the Jackets traded away Ryan Murray and Markus Nutivaara, but among those returning are Vladislav Gavrikov, Dean Kukan and David Savard. Look for Andrew Peeke, who appeared in 22 games last season, to take on a bigger role.
- And how about at goaltender?
The Blue Jackets bring back two who played extensively last season: Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. Korpisalo had a .911 save percentage in 35 starts, and Merzlikins had a .923 in 31 starts. On paper, having two equivalent goalies could be a problem if it prevents one from developing a rhythm as the regular starter. But in this unusual season, which will be staged in fewer than four months and with COVID-19 concerns, it may be an asset.
- So what happens if a player tests positive for COVID-19?
If a player has symptoms and tests positive, he will isolate until cleared to return and his team will perform contact tracing. If a player tests positive without symptoms, the player will isolate and be retested three times over the next three days. He will have to test negative each time to be cleared. That does mean a player could potentially miss three games without ever being sick in the case of an initial false positive. And on the benches, coaches will be required to wear masks during games.
- Did you just say that John Tortorella will have to wear a facemask?
That’s what the NHL is requiring. Tortorella is back for his sixth season as coach, and he is rejoined by assistants Brad Larsen, Kenny McCudden and Brad Shaw. Paul MacLean, who was brought on last season to help fix the power play, has departed. (And the power play still needs help.) Jarmo Kekalainen has been the general manager since 2013, giving the team off-ice stability as it has put together four straight playoff seasons.
- What was last season like again? It seems so long ago.
Well, it’s more like it took forever. The Blue Jackets’ first preseason exhibition was on Sept. 17, 2019, and their last playoff game was on Aug. 19, 2020. The Blue Jackets could be wildly inconsistent. They followed a stretch of nine wins in 10 games with eight straight losses. And injuries to Jones and Korpisalo threw the team for a loop at times. When the league went on an indefinite hiatus in March during the initial outbreak of the coronavirus in North America, the Jackets were 33-22-15 and in ninth place in the Eastern Conference.
- And the playoffs?
After the NHL cut short the regular season, it added a qualifying round to the playoffs. And by the time it started in August, the Blue Jackets were fully healthy. They drew eighth-place Toronto and advanced in five games. In the next round was Tampa Bay in a rematch of a playoff series that the Jackets won in four games the previous year. But this time the Lightning was too much, and for the third time in four years, the Jackets were ousted from the playoffs by the eventual Stanley Cup champion.
- The Lightning and the Blue Jackets are now in the same division. Who else is good?
Twenty-four of the 31 NHL franchises made the playoffs, and seven of those teams are now in the Central. Besides the Lightning and Blue Jackets, that’s Carolina, Chicago, Dallas, Florida and Nashville. The one team that didn’t qualify is Detroit, and oddly enough, the Red Wings have won the Stanley Cup more times (11) than the rest of the division combined (10).
- Who looks good around the league?
The Colorado Avalanche is widely seen as the team to beat. It plays in the West Division, where St. Louis is the top challenger. Toronto and Calgary look good in the North, and it’s hard to pick even one or two teams from the East: Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and both New York teams make it too tough to call. And Tampa Bay rules the Central until dethroned.
- What will the Stanley Cup playoffs look like?
The top four teams in each division will qualify and play two rounds of best-of-seven series to determine the winner. Those four teams will be seeded for what’s being called the Stanley Cup semifinals, with the winners advancing to the finals.
- Is there anything else we’ll see for the first time?
How about this: The Blue Jackets not wearing blue? They will have a special alternate jersey with red as the primary color and a variation of the team’s original logo on the front. Every NHL is doing something similar, although it’s more unusual for a team with a color in its name.
- We’ve made it to question No. 20. What’s so significant about it?
It’s because the Blue Jackets are celebrating their 20th season in 2021. Look for a special patch on their uniforms during home games. The team will commemorate the anniversary throughout the season.
- So, if it’s the 20th season, then why are there 21 questions?
Because originally, this wouldn’t have been the Blue Jackets’ 20th season, it would have been their 21st. They played their first game on Oct. 7, 2000. What changed things? The NHL lockout of 2004 that led to the cancellation of the 2004-05 season. It pushed the Jackets’ party back to this year.