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Winter break-down: Blue Jackets forwards have improved but look for more

Columbus has produced offensively after a slow start

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

As the Blue Jackets enjoy their winter break, with no games until Saturday in Buffalo, there isn't much to complain about when it comes to their play. 

A 16-2-4 stretch has given the team 36 of a possible 44 points over the past two months, leaping the team back into the playoff hunt. It's seemingly been a different hero every night, from players called up from Cleveland throughout the season to whichever goalie happens to be between the pipes. 

But if there's one spot that has to concern the team brass, it's the goal scoring.

Columbus enters the break scoring 2.71 goals per game this year, which ties the Jackets for 23rd in the NHL with Ottawa. Even during the 22-game run, Columbus has managed 3.05 goals per game, a much-improved mark but still just tied for 15th in the league since Dec. 9, when the streak started.

Head coach John Tortorella insisted on a defensive focus coming into the season given the young goaltending and the free-agent losses of some offensive standouts, but he also thinks there is the ability to put more pucks in the net in the locker room. 

"We need to keep improving in that area without losing our defensive frame of mind, also," Tortorella said. "We're still bottom in offense. I think we've done a terrific job as far as playing away from the puck; that should not stop you from offensive plays." 

One of the reasons for the team's struggles early in the season was a lack of finishing, as the advanced stats saw the Blue Jackets creating opportunities but simply not being able to put them in the back of the net. The team's shooting percentage hovered near the bottom of the league; while the mark has improved to north of 10 percent in the last 22 games, the Blue Jackets are still at 8.5 percent for the year, 25th in the NHL. 

What's gone well 

Having said all that, there are plenty of bright spots with the way the Blue Jackets have performed over the past few weeks. 

For the team to be competitive, the best players were going to have to produce on the score sheet. While such names as Oliver Bjorkstrand and Cam Atkinson struggled out of the gate, each has found his scoring touch as the season has gone on despite battling injuries.

There aren't many players in the league hotter than Bjorkstrand, who enters the break as the first player in CBJ history to score multiple goals in three straight games. The Danish winger has nine goals in his last six games, allowing him to grab the team lead with 16 on the season despite missing nearly a month with an oblique/rib injury. Improved strength and explosiveness have allowed him to marshal his elite shot into a bigger weapon as he gets to dangerous areas on the ice. 

"He's fearless now," captain Nick Foligno said after Bjorkstrand scored twice in the victory Wednesday vs. Winnipeg, including the game-winning goal when he fought through a check along the boards then scored from in close. "He's being rewarded for it. He puts himself in such great positions because he gets his nose dirty, then he's now in scoring areas. He has a pretty big scoring area because of his shot. He's made good on that, and it's fun to see him feeling really good." 

Video: WPG@CBJ: Bjorkstrand sends puck top shelf for lead

Atkinson was off to a frustrating start as well as the CBJ mainstay coming off a record-tying 41-goal season had four tallies in his first 27 games. Then something clicked, as Atkinson ripped off five goals in an eight-game span before being injured Dec. 19 vs. LA, then added three goals in two games after coming off injured reserve in early January. 

Considering Atkinson and Bjorkstrand combined for 64 goals a season ago, production from the two is imperative, and it's what Tortorella expected when they came off injured reserve.  

"Both players, Cam and Bjorky -- Bjorky was probably our best player at the particular time for a number of weeks before he got hurt," Tortorella said. "Both players were playing well when they were injured. It doesn't surprise me. They give us a lift with their scoring. It's something we need." 

The two have joined a pair of consistent producers in the lineup in Pierre-Luc Dubois and Gus Nyquist. Dubois has adjusted to playing without Artemi Panarin, and the 21-year-old centerman is on pace for 61 points for the second straight year with a 15-23-38 line through 51 games. He has six multipoint outings in his last 20 games and has a 5-15-20 line in that time frame.  

"I think I can step it up," he said. "I think it's the tip of the iceberg. I feel good, but I know I can still improve a lot. I know there's still a lot to learn. It's all about being patient, being experienced, because it doesn't happen overnight. Greatness doesn't happen overnight. I want to be a great player, and it's going to take a lot of practices and a lot of games." 

Nyquist, meanwhile, has been a solid free-agent signing, with 11 goals and 32 points to put him on pace for 52 points, just above his career average. His output places him second on the team in points behind Dubois. 

Where there can be improvement 

If there's a big place the Blue Jackets need more, it's from the team's depth scoring. The next highest-scoring forward after those four is Foligno, who has a 6-15-21 line through 48 games played. While Foligno has been a solid possession-driving forward and a physical presence, the offensive numbers are flagging a bit considering the 32-year-old averaged more than 19 goals per season over the previous three campaigns. 

Alexander Wennberg has had a solid bounce-back season but is at five goals and 20 points, while Boone Jenner is at an 8-9-17 line and Sonny Milano is next with five goals and 16 points. While youngsters like Milano, Alexandre Texier, Emil Bemstrom and Eric Robinson have looked better and contributed more as the season has gone on, the Blue Jackets will be looking to get more production out of its secondary scoring to continue their push up the Eastern Conference standings.  

On the spot: Josh Anderson 

The big power forward has missed much of the season with a pair of upper-body injuries, and when he has been active, Anderson has just a goal and four points in 26 games. With the way Bjorkstrand and Atkinson have come back, there is hope the 25-year-old Anderson can do the same, as he's one of the most unique players in the NHL given his size, speed and ability to put the puck in the net. Coming off a 27-goal season, Anderson was thought to be one of the key pieces of the offensive puzzle for the Blue Jackets this year, so his lack of production has been another hurdle the Blue Jackets have had to overcome on their way to climbing back into playoff contention.  

"You have to join in when you come back," Tortorella said. "He's a big piece of the puzzle for us there. He's going to go back in when he's ready, but join in, and that's the good thing here. (Our success), I think it forces people to join in." 

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