The Columbus Blue Jackets are the most underrated team in the NHL as the league starts its postseason tonight. The Blue Jackets are one of the four best teams in hockey—joined by the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks. You can make a good case for any one of these teams to win the Stanley Cup. But its Columbus who comes in at the relatively long odds of 10-1 to hoist the Cup.
Part of the problem is that the Blue Jackets aren’t as good a story as the other three teams. They aren’t a proven winner with championship players, like the Blackhawks and Penguins have. On the other end of the spectrum, they aren’t a team like the Capitals, where a history of playoff failure has given their pursuit of the Stanley Cup a Cubs-esque feel. Columbus is just a relatively young franchise in a college football town.
The Blue Jackets also don’t have a signature star—look at the other three contenders and you see names like Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. All of them have won the Hart Trophy, given to the NHL MVP. Columbus doesn’t have anyone you’d put in that class.
What Columbus does have is the single most important thing you can have in postseason hockey and that’s a big-time goaltender. Sergei Bobrovsky started 62 games this season and finished with a 93.3% save rate. That’s the best in the league and the 28-year-old Russian is likely to win his second Vezina Trophy—the NHL equivalent of the Cy Young Award for goalies.
The Blue Jackets also have offensive balance to make up for the lack of a single star .Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno and Brandon Saad are the lead scorers, but what stands out the most with this team is the number of complementary offensive players who chip in. Two defensemen, Zach Werenski and Seth Jones each scored double-digit goals and had 30 or more assists. A number of other players, from Sam Gager to Brandon Dubinsky to Scott Hartnell have shown themselves capable of stepping up.
If this were the NBA, Columbus would be in trouble. That’s a league where production is about the stars, especially at playoff time. The NHL is the opposite—you’re much more likely to succeed getting contributions from a large number of players and having your star be the guy in the net. That’s exactly the profile Columbus has.
The division-based format of the NHL postseason makes it necessary to tune in right away. Columbus and Pittsburgh start their best-of-seven tonight. The winner is highly likely to face Washington. That means two championship-caliber teams are going to be gone before the conference finals.
I’m well aware of the danger in picking Columbus—or for that matter anyone out of the mighty Metropolitan. Chicago is the safer pick, with an easier route to the Finals and at the very least, unlikely to make a prognosticator look stupid by going out in the first round. But I’ve looked stupid enough other times in my life to not fear it here—I believe Columbus is going to win the Stanley Cup. And I believe even more strongly that at those 10-1 odds, they’re the only team worthwhile actually wagering on to do it.