A banner 2016-17 ended in a disappointingly fast playoff exit. The Jackets have a few holes to fix, but they may be forced to do so from within, as they have no cap space and multiple free agents to re-sign.
To gripe or not to gripe. That’s the question when it comes to the Columbus Blue Jackets’ highly eventful season, which managed to be thrilling, uplifting and crushing all at once.
We saw a team whose only noteworthy off-season additions were Sam Gagner and rookie Zach Werenski jump from 76 to 108 points, which were a franchise record. The Jackets posted the NHL’s second-longest winning streak of all-time at 16 games. They’ll likely boast the 2016-17 Vezina Trophy winner in goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, and blueliner Zach Werenski has already been named a finalist for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Coach John Tortorella has as strong a chance as anyone to earn the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year, too.
It was the franchise’s most memorable, successful season ever. And yet…five games. That’s all it took in the playoffs to quickly shove Columbus into a drawer until next October. The NHL’s cruel divisional playoff format forced the Jackets, who had the NHL’s fourth-highest point total, to play the team with the NHL’s second-most points, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even though Pittsburgh played the entire series without star goalie Matt Murray, injured in Game 1’s warmup, and top defenseman Kris Letang, Columbus only managed a single win. Losing Werenski to a broken cheekbone in Game 3 didn’t help. The Penguins’ speedy attack, always relentless under coach Mike Sullivan’s north-south system, overwhelmed Columbus’ ‘D,’ which had no answer for rookie Jake Guentzel, who made magic with Sidney Crosby and Conor Sheary. Bobrovsky just happened to stumble into one of his weakest stretches of the season at the wrong time. Columbus lost by multiple goals in Games 1, 2 and 5. And that was it.
Given how dominant Columbus was for extended stretches this season it’s tough not to taste bitterness after the quick exit. Still, Columbus established a lot to build on this season. What must it do to make a deeper run next year?
Back to ‘Bob’ for a second. At the end of Thursday’s playoff schedule, which included Columbus’ elimination, he’d faced more high-danger scoring chances than any goalie in the post-season field with 37. That’s 37 high-end opportunities against, which is more than seven per game, and ‘Bob’ posted an ugly .730 save percentage against those attempts. Bobrovsky posted an amazing .864 high-danger SP in the regular season, which bested every starting goalie in the league not named Cary Price. The point here isn’t that ‘Bob’ faltered, though he obviously did in Round 1 – it’s that the Jackets allowed too many great chances, and a goalie can only bail out a team so many times before they go in. They’re called high-danger for a reason. Goalies aren’t expected to stop them every time.
With or without Werenski, the Blue Jackets need more help on defense. He and Seth Jones give this team a phenomenal pair to build around for years to come. David Savard is serviceable, and Jack Johnson quietly bounced back for a decent year. Ryan Murray, taken second overall in the 2012 draft, played his last game of 2016-17 March 11, going down with a broken hand. He’s averaged 55 games per season. He can’t stay healthy.
So the Jackets need another top-four defenseman, and they’re unlikely to get that from within, as Werenski was the true gem who elevated to that status. Big, smooth-skating Swede Gabriel Carlsson, picked 29th overall in 2015, certainly has potential and will likely make the team full-time next year, but he’s no lock to instantly become Hampus Lindholm. Columbus is good enough to win now, and it could use an established veteran to bolster the ‘D.’ Someone in the mold of shutdown Washington Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner, an unrestricted free agent this summer, would be ideal.
The other reason why Columbus couldn’t keep pace with Pittsburgh: team speed. This is a veteran team up front, with tremendous size and physicality from the likes of Nick Foligno, Brandon Dubinsky, Boone Jenner and Scott Hartnell. The forward group was very strong on the forecheck, helping overwhelm Pittsburgh at times. Brandon Saad, Cam Atkinson and Alexander Wennberg do bring a speed element. But the forward group as a whole isn’t the fastest.
What Pittsburgh had that Columbus couldn’t match, most of all, was star power at forward. The Jackets deploy more of a death of a thousand cuts approach, with excellent depth and four lines that can put the puck in the net. But to hang in the Metro, the Jackets will eventually need an elite scorer or two. Who might elevate to that level?
Maybe it’s Oliver Bjorkstrand. He was a prolific scorer in major junior with the Portland Winterhawks and eventually found his touch with AHL Cleveland, keying a Calder Cup run last spring. He had six goals and 13 points in 26 games while averaging about 14 minutes this season with the big club, occasionally getting looks on the top line, and his possession numbers were strong, particularly in the playoffs. He could be the team’s next great scorer. Or maybe it’s Pierre-Luc Dubois, drafted third overall last spring. His development didn’t progress as expected this year in the QMJHL, but he still has immense potential. He’s being groomed as a center and could become a Vincent Lecavalier-type player.
Neither prospect is a sure thing, of course. Nor is breakout junior scorer Vitaly Abramov or enigmatic Sonny Milano. Again, in theory, the Blue Jackets would do well to seek a major forward upgrade via the veteran route.
The problem, though? It’s tough to see how GM Jarmo Kekalainen can find the money for a top-four defenseman or a frontline forward, let alone both. The Jackets currently have just $2.91 million in projected cap space for 2017-18, per capfriendly.com. Wennberg, a restricted free agent, has likely played his way past a bridge deal and into a long-term pact that should carry a $5-million cap hit at minimum. Even checker Josh Anderson exploded for 17 goals this season and will get paid as an RFA. Just to make room for those two on the books, Kekalainen will have to shed salary, and his two backup goalie options, Joonas Korpisalo and Anton Forsberg, are also RFAs.
Kekalainen can rely on the expansion draft to help him out at least a little bit. The Vegas Golden Knights might grab left winger Matt Calvert at $2.2 million. Maybe Kekalainen opts to protect seven forwards and three ‘D,’ which would leave one of Savard, Johnson and Murray exposed.
Even in the best-case financial scenario, which would airlift Johnson’s $4.36-million cap hit out of Columbus, Kekalainen would be scrambling to use that money solely on his RFAs. What he and the Jackets really need is a taker for Hartnell at $4.75 million. He has a no-movement clause, meaning he must be protected in the expansion draft, and he’s unlikely to waive it for Vegas given he’s never won a Stanley Cup and plays on a legit contender now. Hartnell’s contract doesn’t necessarily lend well to a dump-off trade to a salary floor team, either, as he has two years left on his deal.
Kekalainen, then, will have to get very creative if he wants to make noteworthy changes to this roster. The more likely scenario has Columbus icing a similar team next year and hoping for internal improvements from Bjorkstrand, Dubois and Carlsson. That would still put this team in the mix. But leaping ahead of the star-studded juggernauts like Pittsburgh and Washington? Doubtful. It will take real financial ingenuity to make the current incarnation of the Jackets drastically better than they are right now. The fan base would be wise to temper expectations this summer.