Columbus hockey fans are looking forward to the coming week-plus. It’s that time of year. Hope springs autumnal.
Young Blue Jackets will be practicing at the Ice Haus from 12:15-1:15 p.m. Wednesday. The practice is open to the public at no charge.
Former first-round draft picks Adam Fantilli (No. 3 overall this year), David Jiricek (No. 6 in 2022), Denton Mateychuk (No. 12 in 2022) and Corson Ceulemans (No. 25 in 2021) are expected to participate. Hardcore Jackets fans are also curious to see other pieces in the stockpile, such as Luca Del Bel Belluz, Jordan Dumais, Stanislav Svozil and Dmitri Voronkov, among others.
They’ll then play in the prospects tournament in Traverse City, Michigan, which will run Thursday through Sunday.
Already, a large group of veterans has returned to Columbus to twirl through informal workouts at Nationwide Arena. It’s that time of the year. The nights are getting cooler, the summer flowers are getting leggy and there are a few yellow leaves on the lawn. Hockey season is nigh.
The official reporting day for physicals and testing is Sept. 20. Training camp opens a day later. The Jackets’ first home exhibition is against Pittsburgh Sept. 24. The Jackets’ season opener will be against Philadelphia at Nationwide Arena Oct. 12.
If you’ve been poring over fantasy rankings to prep for your draft, you might have noticed that there is no shortage of experts who have Connor Bedard, who has yet to play an NHL game, ahead of anyone in Union Blue. While there is no direct correlation between individual fantasy rankings and team success, it’s at least a faint, preseason indicator that a Jackets’ turnaround is not about to induce whiplash.
On my list of forwards, I have Johnny Gaudreau at No. 30 and Bedard at No. 31. Discuss among yourselves. The point here is that the Jackets (and the Blackhawks) still have some tough sledding ahead. Oh, the future looks bright: Add Kirill Marchenko and Kent Johnson to the above list of prospects at Traverse City, and what you have is one of the deepest, most talented prospect pools in the NHL. But it won’t make the Jackets a playoff team in 2023-24.
As training camp beckons, hope burgeons in Columbus. Mike Babcock, a 700-game winner, is now behind the bench. Veterans Ivan Provorov and Damon Severson have been added to the defense. With the return of a healthy Zach Werenski and a motivated Patrik Laine, and a new goalie coach for mercurial Elvis Merzlikins, and so on, and so forth, the Jackets are improved.
They may be vastly improved, except on Pride Night, which the league has eliminated anyway.
Besides, they can’t get any worse than they were last year, right? … Right?
It’s nice to think that the Jackets can jump into playoff contention. It’s nice to think that the structure and discipline Babcock is sure to instill will take a lot of pressure off Merzlikins, who last season sported a ghastly 4.23 goals-against average had a garish .876 save percentage. It’s nice to think that Cole Sillinger, who gave new meaning to “sophomore slump,” will be recognizable, that Fantilli will give Bedard a run for the Calder Trophy, that all the forward lines will make sense now that the team has a bona fide No. 1 center, even if said center is a rookie. And so forth. One thing I’m betting on: If Laine is still lingering in the late rounds of my fantasy draft, I’m jumping on him.
In the grandest scheme of things, though, the East is still a beast.
The Boston Bruins aren’t going to rack up 135 points again because 1) that was insane, not to mention unprecedented, and 2) Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci have retired, leaving two giant holes in the middle of the top two lines. But even if you spot the Bruins half of their goal differential from a year ago, you’re still talking about a plus-64 – which just might lead the league.
The Bruins are a playoff team. So are the Toronto Maple Leafs (111 points last year) and the Tampa Bay Lightning (98). Indeed, it may be that the Atlantic Division also gets the two wild cards in the East – Florida (92) made it to the Stanley Cup Final last spring and Buffalo (91) and Ottawa (86) are on the rise.
The Blue Jackets are not better than the three teams that finished at the top of the Metropolitan Division last season – Carolina (113), New Jersey (112) and the Rangers (107). Are they better than Washington (80)? Pittsburgh (91) just added Erik Karlsson to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Think about that power play. Are the Jackets better than that?
Have a nice day.
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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Columbus Blue Jackets’ rebuild resumes in 2023-24 but playoffs distant