Columbus Blue Jackets are in free fall, but splat is the way to go | Michael Arace

Blue Jackets defenseman Erik Gudbranson watches the replay on the scoreboard as the Sabres celebrate a goal.
Blue Jackets defenseman Erik Gudbranson watches the replay on the scoreboard as the Sabres celebrate a goal.

Previously in this space, in Thursday morning’s print editions, we began a discussion about tanking. Wait. It wasn’t about tanking per se. It was more about the NHL draft lottery. The essence of it was this:

The Colorado Avalanche’s quest to win the 2022 Stanley Cup began with the selections of Gabriel Landeskog (the No. 2 overall pick in 2011) and Nathan MacKinnon (No. 1 in 2013); in the 13 years prior to Colorado’s ultimate rise, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning combined to win eight Stanley Cups; in the case of each of these teams, their ascent to Cup contention was linked to bottoming out and winning the highest draft picks – Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman in Tampa, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in Chicago, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh.

Parity runs in draft cycles.

We also put up for discussion a statement: The 2022-23 Blue Jackets, who were in 31st place in a 32-team league heading into the weekend, are the most talented terrible team in franchise history, and that's not a bad thing. More on that in a minute.

The Jackets (last place in the Metro) had lost 10 of 11 heading into their game against the Carolina Hurricanes (first place in the Metro) Saturday night. The game against the Canes in Nationwide Arena was the first of a weekend back-to-back, with the Sunday game being in Washington (which is on a bit of a heater right now). Then, on Tuesday, the Jackets visit Tampa.

The Jackets’ schedule will not relent. Near the end of the month, they’ll swing through Western Canada with four games in six days. The trip culminates with a Vancouver-Seattle back-to-back.

February’s schedule begins with a home-and-home back-to-back with Toronto and ends with road games in Minnesota and Buffalo.

In March, the Jackets will play 10 of their 13 games on the road. Absolutely brutal.

Somwhere in there, will Johnny Gaudreau take a few games off to address a lingering groin issue? This is not to say that John Hockey has, or will develop, a groin issue. He has been an iron man. But, you know, we all need some maintenance days every now and then – especially when nobody is needed for a playoff push, not in Columbus, because the Jackets’ playoff push was over before Thanksgiving.

Does defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov, whose negotiations on an extension seem stalled, fit under the salary cap in years to come? Or, does he have to be moved at the March 3 trade deadline? That’s not a tanking move, not exactly; it can be filed under “asset management.”

If you thought the Jackets had a rough time in December, when they lost 10 of 14, well, it’s entirely possible that any one of the next three months will be worse.

Add a wicked schedule to a wiped-out roster, and the Jackets have an organic formula for tanking. They don’t even have to try that hard. Zach Werenski (torn labrum) is out for the season; Jake Voracek (concussion) is out indefinitely; Boone Jenner (thumb) will have missed a month before he gets back. And so on.

That’s not tanking. That’s just bad luck. As John Tortorella used to day, “You gotta eat it.” Is it possible that the Jackets will have a plucky streak, and, say, win four games in row on the road in March? Sure. But to what end?

At this juncture, what is vastly more important than the Jackets’ record is their diligence (and, fans can hope, their success) in developing their young talent. They have a pipeline. They need to show it’s operational.

Kent Johnson (No. 5 overall in 2021) and Cole Sillinger (No. 12 in ‘21) are getting their reps in Columbus. Good. Other youngsters – forwards Emil Bemstrom, Kirill Marchenko, Yegor Chinakhov (currently on IR) and defensemen Adam Boqvist and Nick Blankenburg, to name a few, are defining themselves. There’s a lot of upside still to consider with these dudes, even Bemstrom.

We’re back to that phrase, “talented and terrible.” Stay with the “talented.” Werenski is a bona fide No. 1 defenseman. Gaudreau is an elite player and Patrik Laine remains one of the most feared shooters in the league. Johnson has it in him to be another Gaudreau. They have some pieces here.

Defenseman David Jiricik (No. 6 overall in 2022), who is playing in AHL Cleveland, might’ve been the best defenseman at the recently completed World Junior Championship. Out a little further in the weeds is junior defenseman Denton Mateychuk (No. 12 overall in 2022), a skating fool. There is hope for the defense in the future.

Unless they screw things up, the Jackets are going to have one of the worst records in the league. How bad (good) will it be? Look, nobody expects anyone other than the Chicago Blackhawks to win the lottery, because that’s how the league works. But it’s OK to dream of Connor Bedard in Columbus.

The 2023 draft is loaded, especially with high-end centers. Like, NHL-ready types. Right now, the 6-2 losses are gut punches – but the 7-5 losses aren’t so bad. Anything beats mediocrity. It’s a good year for putrefaction.

marace@dispatch.com

Get more Blue Jackets news by listening to our podcasts

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Columbus gaining speed in the race to the bottom, where award awaits