Straight Jackets: Welp.
Man, that sucked.
It always does. And it never hasn’t.
Last Wednesday, trailing 1-3 in games to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Jackets were playing probably their best game of the series — and that’s saying something, because, despite the deficit, the series was evenly matched. A little more than halfway through the third period, Oliver Bjorkstrand scored on a rebound to put the Jackets ahead in the game 4-2. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper challenged the goal, but the call was not reversed, and that resulted in a 2-minute penalty for Tampa Bay.
Caveat: The CBJ power play had been anemic in the series, as it had been in the play-in series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. But this power play seemed to be approached in an almost lackadaisical manner. Instead of the Jackets building on momentum, the ice tilted Tampa’s way again, and you were left hoping the CBJ could just hold on until the clock read 0:00.
They couldn’t. Tampa scored twice in the final minutes, and then in sudden death overtime to end the series.
Get Straight Jackets delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
It was almost as if the Lightning learned something in getting swept by the Jackets in the first round of last year’s playoffs. And it shows that progression as a team in the NHL playoffs is not linear; just because the Jackets won a series last year didn’t mean they were going to advance further this season. (Winning the Toronto series was great, but it just got the Jackets into the real first round of the real playoffs.)
What does all this mean for next season?
Roster stuff isn't the only thing that needs to be analyzed; there is still the question of how the league will operate as a global pandemic continues. But that aside, there is a clear consensus that the roster just wasn’t good enough.
What’s settled? The goaltending duo of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins seems set. Both netminders performed well in both the regular season and the bubble. Unless someone knocks your socks off with a trade offer of a high-end forward, they’re probably both back.
There is definitely depth on defense. Barring a trade, the Jackets are about nine deep in NHL defensemen. Seth Jones’ injury allowed Zach Werenski to establish himself as a legitimate second #1 d-man, which shouldn’t be viewed as a luxury but a strength around which to build. But do any of David Savard, Ryan Murray, Vladislav Gavrikov (unlikely), Dean Kukan, Markus Nutivaara or Scott Harrington (unlikely for a different reason) intrigue another team enough in a package to upgrade the forwards?
At forward, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Alexandre Texier and Liam Foudy all took steps forward in the bubble. Vets like Nick Foligno, Cam Atkinson, Gustav Nyquist and Boone Jenner were hit-and-miss. Alexander Wennberg upped his game but can you believe in that long-term? Emil Bemstrom looked like a player who needs more time in the minors or in Europe, but it’s unlikely either of those is going to happen.
General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen has already implied the dreaded “grow from within” strategy, and that’s fair to a point. But he also needs to strongly consider a move in a shallow free agent class or do some dealing.
In a compressed offseason, it could get interesting.