Are you ready? We’re back to the 82-game regular season format, which means more joy and also more pain. It’s a roller coaster of emotions every season because there are always surprises, and the good ones can make us feel like geniuses while the bad ones feel like belly flopping into an empty pool.
But we’re all gluttons for punishment, so we might as well stay as informed as we can to later rationalize why the fantasy hockey gods hate you. Yes, they specifically hate you.
2021-22 Fantasy Outlook: Columbus Blue Jackets
Last season: As the season progressed, it became apparent that the Jackets weren’t really going anywhere. The trades for Max Domi, Jack Roslovic and Patrik Laine weren’t panning out. John Tortorella could no longer squeeze anything out of a roster that had to win games through sheer will. And so, GM Jarmo Kekalainen got to work, trading Riley Nash, David Savard, Nick Foligno and Seth Jones in quick fashion, and then gained one year of cap flexibility swapping Cam Atkinson’s contract with four seasons remaining for Jakub Voracek’s three. The BJ’s ultimately finished fourth-last in the league and Tortorella was not re-signed. The sweet memories of the forever-underdog Blue Jackets toppling Goliath-like foes will remain, but sometimes you need to take a step back to take a leap forward.
Best option: Oliver Bjorkstrand, RW
It’s slim pickings through the Jackets lineup, but the 26-year-old Bjorkstrand, whose five-year, $27-million extension kicks in this season, has become a very reliable top-six scorer. He’s either reached or on pace to score at least 20 goals in each of the past three seasons, and THN’s Pool Guide is projecting him to lead the team in scoring with 60 points. The lack of playmaking centers really hurts the Jackets’ army of wingers, and so the fantasy values of Laine, Voracek and the returning Gustav Nyquist all take a hit, but Bjorkstrand has the upside of youth. He’s also far more consistent than Laine, who has the potential to score at least 30 goals but isn’t particularly good at generating offense by himself. Over the past three seasons, Bjorkstrand’s 2.27 5v5 xGF/60 is the highest among forwards still with the team and much better than Laine’s 1.80 5v5 xGF/60, according to naturalstattrick.com.
Hidden gem: Adam Boqvist, D
Boqvist was a vital piece of the trade package the Jackets received for Jones, and will surely get more playing time than the 16:59 he averaged in 35 games with the Blackhawks last season. Most of the power-play minutes will obviously go to Zach Werenski, their best player, but the Jackets may opt for a two-defenseman set on their top unit like they did last season with Werenski and Jones (both him and Boqvist are righties), and it’s debatable if they even have enough personnel to ice a four-forward set. With a bigger role waiting for him, Boqvist’s numbers should improve, though like many young defensemen he will go through growing pains. He could be worth a late-round flyer, or at least worth keeping an eye on if he suddenly gets hot.
Goalies: Elvis Merzlikins should get the inside track given his stronger performance last season, and he’s got his eyes set on a pretty lofty goal to honor good friend Matiss Kivlenieks. Joonas Korpisalo can definitely hold his own – who could ever forget that 85-save playoff performance – but other than his rookie and 2019-20 season, Korpisalo has been a below-average goalie according to hockey-reference.com’s GSAA. Merzlikins’ track record isn’t as long, but he’s shown great promise over the past two seasons, ranking fifth with a .920 Sv% (min. 50 GP), tied with Andrei Vasilevskiy and Connor Hellebuyck. It’s likely Merzlikins manages to keep them in games but without much goal support he’s going to have a very hard time getting wins, which ultimately hurts his fantasy value because it’s such an important category. If goalies are a rare commodity in your league, having both Merzlikins and Korpisalo would be ideal, but if goalie spots are limited and managers are only keen on certain matchups, Merzlikins is the guy to target.
Outlook: Scoring goals is going to be a chore because they really don’t have one top-six center. Domi’s poor defensive play means he’s a better winger than a center, and he is slated to return in December following shoulder surgery. Roslovic looked promising in spurts but loses 60 percent of his faceoffs and hasn’t consistently shown high-end playmaking ability or hockey IQ. That leaves – gulp –Boone Jenner, Alexandre Texier and Sean Kuraly.
There’s additional quality on the wings, including the speedy Liam Foudy (18th overall pick in 2018), sniper Yegor Chinakhov (21st, 2020) and 28-year-old Gregory Hofmann, a former teammate of both Merzlikins and franchise icon Rick Nash (now the Jackets’ director of player development) in Switzerland, and a two-time Swiss National League champion.
There’s upside, but a lot of it will probably go unrealized, which renders most of the BJ’s mid-round fantasy options at best and only worth rostering if managers are patient and willing to go through dry spells as Kekalainen prepares to rebuild.