This Season and Beyond is a series in which I dissect the rosters of franchises going through heavy turnaround. This summer the Columbus Blue Jackets experienced the misfortune of watching various talented players walk away from the organization. Not an enjoyable situation to be in. This was the byproduct of a risky decision made back in February.
Columbus went for it all at the trade deadline and then proceeded to lose it all in free agency. The argument that it was a successful attempt could be made, and I do respect and admire the direction that general manager Jarmo Kekalainen took at the deadline, but it’s safe to say that they have fewer assets now than they did the week prior to February 25th, 2019. Nonetheless they are here in a position that might be considered less than ideal.
But is it that bad?
I can and will make the argument that while the Blue Jackets are not in the most stellar scenario, they certainly are not in quite as dire of a situation as some pit them to be.
Sure, trading Panarin and Bobrovsky at the deadline while obtaining key assets similar to those that Ottawa acquired in all likelihood would have been the smarter decision for the future, but they went on a different path. That path at the very least got them the pleasure of their first playoff series victory against one of the greatest regular season teams in NHL history. A sweep at that.
While the team will have to maximize the opportunity they have of developing and drafting correctly for any legitimate chance at contention in the near future, they still have a collection of young but talented core pieces on the roster and I am certain that many teams around the league would love to have pieces like that.
The Blue Jackets will certainly miss the impact that Duchene provided in his brief stint but this department of the team was doing fine before he got here. A significant part of that is due to the emergence of Dubois.
Pierre-Luc Dubois is their top option down the middle and is a fairly good one at that. Dubois was the somewhat controversial third overall selection back in the 2016 draft and all he has done since then is prove Columbus right for taking him. The 21 year old centreman produced a very respectable 61 points which I consider decent albeit slightly lower-end production from a number-one centre. For someone who was 20 for the entirety of the season? Impressive.
Behind Dubois are a few options. Boone Jenner is the prime candidate for that role but Alex Wennberg is also a dark horse option. Jenner was the primary pivot behind Dubois for the majority of the season and is the more proven commodity. That proven commodity may however be better suited for a third line role on a legitimate playoff team as he has only surpassed 40 points once, a season which he had scored 30 goals back in 2016. At 26 he might have some minimal growth remaining but it’s not something should be expected. Meanwhile Wennberg has, at his peak, been a legitimate top 6 centre. He is young at 24 years old and is currently signed to a huge contract signed after a breakout season in 2016-17, a year that he is yet to replicate.
With a disappointing season like the past one, those days may seem so long ago. Who knows though? He’s young and will get an increased role regardless which makes a bounce back season a possibility, especially if he can regain his shot.
The fourth line spot will likely be occupied by Riley Nash. Nash signed with the Blue Jackets on July 1st back in 2018 after scoring a career best 41 points in Boston. He cashed out by signing a three year deal in which he will earn a total of $8.25 million. This past season was rough though as his production in retrospect to the prior season fell off of a large cliff as he totalled 12 points in 78 games. Nash will certainly be looking to bounce back as well.
So the Blue Jackets have some underperforming centremen. That’s an issue. Outside of Dubois, not one single player performed near peak statistical output and if Columbus wants any chance of sniffing the postseason, one of the bottom-nine pivots need to regain what made them successful in the past. Would it surprise me if one did? Not really; crazier things certainly have happened. Wennberg had a career-worst 3.1 shooting percentage while Nash had the worst season that he has ever had in his career. I would assume that one bounces back. If I had to bet on who, my money would be on Wennberg.
Leading the charge is Cam Atkinson who is coming off of a breakout season in which he potted 40 goals. Atkinson is regarded by many as one of the more underrated players in the league and I tend to agree with that sentiment. Going into 2019-20 I doubt that he repeats the 40 goals, especially with the departure of Artemi Panarin whom Atkinson spent approximately 70% of his even strength minutes alongside, but I do think that he will continue to be an effective top 6 winger.
Gustav Nyquist was signed by Columbus on July 1st to replace the gap that Panarin left behind. He’s coming off a campaign where he had a career best in points that he likely will not match but he is a consistent 50 point producing option and a top 6 winger who can produce is what they expect.
Josh Anderson is another player that had a career season. Will he match it next year? Who knows. If he does though, it would be a sight to behold. The 25 year old power forward had 27 goals and 214 hits — both career highs. In the 2018-19 season only one other player had over 25 goals and 200 hits. That player was Alexander Ovechkin.
Something that Atkinson and Anderson have in common are the fact that they were quality players selected outside the first two rounds and Oliver Bjorkstrand continues that trend. Bjorkstrand now has a 40 point season under his belt and just had 23 goals last season. He is the result of good drafting followed by successful development and at a fairly young 24 will be relied upon to take the next step.
Depth is a crucial part of the lineup and good depth is required for success. Here, Columbus will also be banking on a few young players to step in and play a valuable role in future success. Players such as Alexandre Texier and Emil Bemstrom who are two of Columbus’ top prospects will be looking to make the transition to the NHL in the following season and if the transition is seamless, you could see some noise being made by the Jackets.
Lastly but certainly not least is Nick Foligno. The Blue Jackets captain will likely continue to do what he does; be a good middle-six option while being a quality leader, often an undervalued part of a young team.
Columbus’ wings were expected to take a hit for the majority of the past season as many anticipated Panarin signing elsewhere — which he did. It’s not like it’s an irreplaceable hole, losing a star will always hurt but the addition of Nyquist through free agency and injection of prospects such as Texier and Bemstrom will ease the pain. I think that the quality of wingers on this team might surprise some people. It’s not their forte but it will come in handy, especially if they have any aspirations of contention.
The saving grace/redeeming quality of the team will easily be the defenders. As I said, the situation is not that bad and in large part due to the strength of their backend. Leading the group is a future potential perennial Norris trophy candidate in Seth Jones. Jones was acquired via trade for Ryan Johansen and that transaction looks more like a heist these days. I think it made sense for Nashville to try to do what they did but Jones’ progression has been profound as he has blossomed into a top tier young defender in the league. His impact cannot be understated, he averaged over 25 minutes per game and has made a considerable positive impact on all facets of the game. In 2017-18 he was fourth in Norris voting after a season where he had near 60 points and while that took a bit of a dip in 2018-19, I expect him to rebound next season.
Behind Seth Jones is another quality young blueliner in Zach Werenski. The 22 year old entered the league back in 2016-17 and made his mark with a quality season that earned him well deserved Calder consideration as he was one of the three finalists. His role has increased as his career has progressed and he has shown consistent ability to produce 40-plus points from the backend while playing 22 minutes a night. Again, he is only 22 and is expected to only get better with time.
The wealth of quality blueliners possessed by Columbus doesn’t quite end there though as they feature quality throughout the backend.
Ryan Murray was considered a slightly disappointing selection relative to draft position but then had a fantastic past season. If he can translate his success from 2018-19 into 2019-20 while being unscathed injury-wise, Columbus might have another top pairing caliber defender.
David Savard is the eldest of the projected top six but is plenty good. He has been more of a shutdown option for the Blue Jackets averaging 56% percent defensive zone starts in his eight-season tenure as a Jacket and will likely continue that role while others focus on the offensive side.
The recently turned 25 year old Markus Nutivaara was an absolute steal in the seventh round of the stacked 2015 draft. He’s another player that I consider underrated. One of the premier bottom pairings defenders in the league currently and still has time to develop further.
Lastly are Scott Harrington and Dean Kukan. Harrington just played his first NHL season as a full-time player while Kukan continues to be a depth player for the team. Both are 26 years old.
Columbus has a great defensive core. It’s good now and it will be good beyond this season with six of the top seven being aged 26 or younger.
To illustrate my point with a visual, I used the WAR data as distributed by evolving-hockey.com and added each teams total WAR from the blueline. WAR is a quantitative statistic that measures and assesses the impact a player makes on his team both offensively and defensively and how it helps in winning. By combining WAR by all defencemen on a team, I would then gather the total impact and contributions made towards by the blueliners on a team. Columbus ranks fifth league-wide.
A few things should be clarified. One: WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is a stat that describes performances of the past, not one that predicts the future. This list ranks bluelines from last season and not everything will necessarily remain the same. Turnaround is common in the NHL and that is a trend that will likely continue. Two: teams run different systems and some may better benefit defenders. Still, I felt that it was a nice way to point out the strength of the Blue Jackets defence as their blueline remains largely untouched and will only progress from development. It would not surprise me at all if Columbus has the top d-core in the league a few years down the line. Though as previously mentioned hockey is extremely unpredictable and turnaround is a factor that must be considered. Still, it helps describe what I’m trying to say. It is a very quality groups of defenders and is one that will prevent the Blue Jackets from finishing near the bottom.
Remember how I mentioned that one of the bottom-nine centres need to bounce back for any semblance of a chance at success? Take that and multiply it by ten for goaltending. In net there’s a lot of uncertainty. Sergei Bobrovsky left and signed a gigantic contract worth $70 million with the Florida Panthers this summer. Set to replace him are two young and experienced goalies in Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. Korpisalo is certainly the more experienced option and will likely begin the season as the starter but for Columbus to have any success, he is required to have a save percentage above .900%, something he has not been able to do the past couple seasons. On the contrary, Merzlikins has put up good statistical numbers for his team. Only issue is that it was done in a Swiss league and not in North America. In my opinion, this tandem is likely one of the weakest ones in the NHL. Both goalies are still fairly young at 25 though meaning that they could still grow into the role. Goaltending could be the primary reason that the Blue Jackets fail to reach the playoffs.
Outside the NHL:
As prospects turn pro and are projected to fill a role in the current NHL roster, it’s good to see what the succession plan is for the older players that still remain. Outside the NHL, Columbus still have a few decent prospects but it's definitely not a pool that invokes envy from other teams. The prospect pool was the department that took the biggest blow from the aspirations of contention. The lack of picks in 2019 coupled with losing some prospects has led to a fairly bare group. Regardless of that, while they certainly are not spectacular, and I would say that it’s even fairly underwhelming, there’s still a few nice pieces. Foudy was drafted in the first round in 2018 after an impressive second half of the season followed by once again impressing scouts at the combine. Foudy projects to be a speedy middle-six option and while it might not be spectacular, he is still a solid prospect regardless.
Aside Foudy are some decent prospects in the defensive department with Gabriel Carlsson and Vladislav Gavrikov along with goaltenders in Vladislav Gavrikov and Daniil Tarasov and forwards in Kirill Marchenko and Trey Fix-Wolansky. All are unlikely to become much at the NHL level but a few two could surprise and grow to be full-time NHL players one day.
The prospect group aside from those expected to make a push for a roster spot are exceptionally bare. This was expected with the moves at the trade deadline and is the main reason many think lowly of the future of the team.
It will be a bit of a struggle to acquire legitimate prospects. They have their first in 2020 but lack their second and third. Also have their first in 2021 but not their second. The lost picks will certainly make it tougher to elevate the status of their prospect pool as it is a hurdle that they are going to have to navigate through. Still are reasons for optimism though as fortunately for Blue Jackets fans, the team has been able to find a few gems in the late rounds of the draft. The previously mentioned Nutivaara is one but so are Atkinson, Anderson, Bjorkstrand, Savard, and even top prospects like Bemstrom. This bodes well for Columbus as they will be required to continue their successes at the draft to amplify the opportunities of team-related success ahead.
Despite not selecting until the fourth round due to the aforementioned trades in this past draft, the future is brighter than many think. They have some very quality core pieces in Dubois, Jones, and Werenski and that alone should keep them in relevancy for a while. Something that they should prioritize is adding some more forwards to replace those that are aging and getting some more certainty out of their goaltending situation.
Going ahead I think that this core could contend but that entirely depends on what they can add to the group. I don’t anticipate playoffs for the Blue Jackets in 2020 but as teams such as the Penguins and Capitals age and as the core players develop, a window will open. It’s now up to Columbus executives such as Jarmo Kekalainen to maximize the opportunity ahead.
My prediction is that the Blue Jackets remain somewhat competitive in the following season but in the end will fail to clinch a playoff spot. I used the point projection tool created by Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey on Twitter) to verify my prediction and I would that say it does just that.
Again, a lot of factors on the performances in net. Currently there’s a huge question mark but it won’t be long until that question is answered. I guess that also applies to the rest of the team as well. A wait-and-see approach is less than ideal for most teams but with a young core and legitimate pieces to succeed, maybe patience is what fans will have to preach. At least for the time being.