The Columbus Blue Jackets went from “all in” to “all gone” in a matter of weeks.
After making a big splash at the trade deadline, the Blue Jackets finally won their first playoff series in franchise history, a stunning sweep of Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay in the first round. The party ended in the second round against Boston, however, and then the hangover hit on July 1, when goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, left winger Artemi Panarin and center Matt Duchene all departed via free agency.
The question “Was it worth it?” will be discussed in Ohio for years to come. GM Jarmo Kekalainen has said repeatedly he would “do it all over again,” and a large swath of the fan base seems to agree. The Jackets’ roster is still dotted with promise, not just in established veterans but bright young players, too. But the mass exodus of talent has left Columbus with significant questions.
The loss of Panarin to the division rival New York Rangers is a major blow for the Blue Jackets. In two seasons he set two franchise season scoring records and averaged over a point per game. Gustav Nyquist was signed as a free agent, and while there’s no expectation he’s going to replace Panarin’s offense, he has the playmaking ability to keep the No. 1 line afloat, along with center Pierre-Luc Dubois and right winger Cam Atkinson.
Duchene was only in Columbus a short time, but his absence brings the team back to square one at No. 2 center: hoping Alexander Wennberg can rekindle his career after two poor seasons. Elsewhere, Kekalainen has spoken glowingly of rookies Alexandre Texier and Emil Bemstrom and their ability to create offense.
Any blueline that features Seth Jones and Zach Werenski on the top pair is pretty special, but the Blue Jackets believe they have one of the deepest corps in the NHL. Werenski (38 goals) and Jones (37) are both in the top 10 in the league in goals by defensemen over the past three seasons, and Jones has become a perennial Norris Trophy candidate.
If Ryan Murray can stay healthy, the Blue Jackets have three high-end blueliners. He was one of the team’s best players before suffering another back injury in February. Murray or up-and-coming Markus Nutivaara will play with stalwart David Savard on the second pair, pushing the other to the third pairing. Keep an eye on Vladislav Gavrikov, who comes over from the KHL with great promise.
For the first time since 2013, the Blue Jackets can’t lean on Bobrovsky. The starting job will initially fall to incumbent backup Joonas Korpisalo, who played sparingly behind Bobrovsky but has struggled – perhaps understandably – with consistency and the odd bad goal. But it remains to be seen how long Korpisalo can hold off Elvis Merzlikins, a 25-year-old Latvian who has played well on the international stage and dominated in Switzerland. He has star potential.
Columbus tied Tampa and Arizona for the league’s best penalty kill. The Blue Jackets were shorthanded only 200 times, the smallest figure in the league. Meanwhile, it’s been two-and-a-half seasons since the power play has been anything but a liability. It was 28th last year, and that was with Panarin operating in the left circle. Perhaps having a less obvious focal point with the man advantage will help, but this is an area where even slight improvement could make a big difference.
The Blue Jackets had more drama than an afternoon soap opera with the impending free agency of Bobrovsky and Panarin hanging over the team last season. They’ll be missed, but it’ll be refreshing to get back to hockey in 2019-20.
rookies From Merzlikins in goal to Texier and Bemstrom on the wing and Gavrikov on defense, the Blue Jackets will lean hard on first-year players this season. Center Liam Foudy, a first-round pick in 2018 (18th overall), has a chance as well, but he’ll likely return for another year of junior.
Kekalainen opted not to ply free agency for a veteran goalie, meaning it will fall to unproven Korpisalo and untested Merzlikins to handle the job. If they can replace Bobrovsky without too much of a drop-off, the Blue Jackets can hang with the pack of second-tier playoff clubs in the East.
The off-season departures weren’t limited to the ice: John Davidson, who helped stabilize the franchise when he joined as president of hockey operations in 2012, returned to the Rangers to replace Glen Sather. That puts Kekalainen at the top of the hockey side and begins a new era for the organization.
– Aaron Portzline
Stanley Cup Odds: 65/1
Projection: 8th in Metro
Columbus went for it last year, and it cost them at the draft. With just three picks, the Jackets’ first selection, 104th overall, was used on Eric Hjorth, a big, raw defenseman who missed most of his draft year with a knee injury. In the grand scheme of things, the Jackets’ pipeline is in decent shape thanks to a couple late-round gems in Emil Bemstrom and Trey Fix-Wolansky. At the high end of the draft, 2018 first-round speedster Liam Foudy is looking like a great pick already.
1. Liam Foudy, C
Age 19 team London (OHL)
Elite skater can sometimes move quicker than his hands can finish. But the skill isn’t far behind.
Acquired 18th overall, 2018 NHL ’20-21
2. Vladislav Gavrikov, D
Age 23 team St. Petersburg (KHL)
Came over late in season and was impressive in taste of NHL playoffs. Still needs seasoning.
Acquired 159th overall, 2015 NHL ’20-21
3. Elvis Merzlikins, G
Age 25 TeamLugano (Sui.)
An extremely confident netminder who will have shot at the starter’s role with a good camp.
Acquired 76th overall, 2014 NHL ’19-20
4. Gabriel Carlsson, D
Age 22 TeamCleveland (AHL)
Injuries have held back his development, but he’s steady, smart and efficient in his own end.
Acquired 29th overall, 2015 NHL ’20-21
5. Daniil Tarasov, G
Age 20 TeamNeftekamsk (Rus.2)
Blessed with a big, lanky frame, he moves around well in crease, but he’s years away from impact.
Acquired 86th overall, 2017 NHL ’23-24
6. Alexandre Texier, LW
Age 20 TeamKalPa (Fin.)
Got some NHL experience in the playoffs. His quickness and skill showed up in big moments.
Acquired 45th overall, 2017 NHL ’19-20
7. Andrew Peeke, D
Age 21 TeamNotre Dame (Big Ten)
Played steady but was unspectacular in three NCAA seasons. Decent shot, but he doesn’t use it.
Acquired 34th overall, 2016 NHL ’21-22
8. Emil Bemstrom, C
Age 20 TeamDjurgarden (Swe.)
Had terrific rookie season in SHL, showing a good nose for net. Was dynamite at the world juniors.
Acquired 117th overall, 2017 NHL ’21-22
9. Veini Vehvilainen, G
Age 22 TeamKarpat (Fin.)
Back-to-back goalie-of-the-year awards in Finland. Eager eyes on how he fares in AHL.
Acquired 173rd overall, 2018 nhl ’22-23
10. Trey Fix-Wolansky, RW
Age 20 Team Edmonton (WHL)
Incredible playmaker put up great numbers in past two WHL seasons. Small but solid.
Acquired 204th overall, 2018 NHL ’21-22