Welcome to the Five-Year Plan. In this summer exercise, we forecast the rosters for all 31 current NHL teams for the 2023-24 season. Are we bound for folly? Sure, but the point of the exercise is to give some sense of where an organization is heading based on current long-term contracts and the prospects they have in the system.
Some ground rules: No trades will be made and no future draft picks will be included – so you won’t see the likes of Alexis Lafreniere or Quinton Byfield on any roster, even though they will certainly be NHL stars in 2023-24. All current contracts are honored and most restricted free agents are projected to stay with their teams, unless it is determined the player will lose his spot or move on in the future. Some future unrestricted free agents will be kept on if the players are deemed integral and likely to re-sign. The Seattle expansion draft is not considered. With all that established, let’s take a look at Columbus.
If you're looking at the pure depth of Columbus' roster, the club has done a great job at the draft table – Foligno and Robinson are the only two players above the club didn't select. But the only forward drafted after 2009 with at least 200 points is Ryan Johansen, who currently plies his trade in Nashville. So, while the Blue Jackets have drafted well enough to have a homegrown roster, they're still missing a few players who can really take the offense to the next level, and that's clear when you look at this group.
Dubois and Atkinson will be the undisputed offensive leaders for the next decade, with newcomer Texier likely to crack into the top six this coming season. Wennberg, Anderson and Bjorkstrand would provide a good veteran presence on the second line, contributing 40-45 points a year between the trio in an important secondary scoring role. Whether they'd be a second line on any other NHL team is up for debate, so while it's a good start, some upgrades are in order.
Prized prospects Fix-Wolansky and Foudy will be in the early stages of their career in five years, providing depth and fighting for time on the power play. Bemstrom and Robinson can play both wings and bring strength and speed to a bottom six that will need it. Foligno will be a UFA in two years, but the Blue Jackets likely won't want to let their captain leave if he can provide veteran leadership and 25-30 points in a lesser role. Of course, it would have to be at a discount from his current $5.5 million AAV, but the Blue Jackets have never struggled with cap space.
Columbus' biggest strength will be its blueline, with two future Norris Trophy contenders in Jones and Werenski leading the way. Jones will be 29 and Werenski will be 27, so both will be in their prime years and young enough to keep around for another 6-8 years past that, at least. Murray would be the final remaining member of the current roster to stick around, with the current 25-year-old looking to ink a big deal after his bridge deal ends in 2021. That is, of course, if he stays healthy and doesn't miss a lengthy number of games, something he has managed to do just once in six years.
This scenario would require letting Markus Nutivaara walk in free agency, but at 29 years old in 2023-24, they'll have younger options to fill a second-/third-pairing role. Of the Blue Jackets' top prospects, the team isn't lacking in defensive depth. Gavrikov is ready to toil in a bottom-pairing role this season as a rookie, but one with five years of experience in the KHL already. Peeke and Carlsson are both a few years away, but will have experience leading Cleveland's blueline in the AHL. Ryan Collins and Tim Berni are longshots to make the NHL at this point, but can fill shutdown roles after some extra development time.
The next two or so years will be challenging for the Blue Jackets in net after losing Sergei Bobrovsky to free agency, but the club's depth is impressive in net. It wouldn't be surprising to see Merzlikins take over as starting goalie before the end of 2019-20 after making Swiss league shooters look silly over the past six years – not to mention his exploits at the Spengler Cup and World Championship. In five years, the then-30-year-old will be in his prime years and capable of leading the team to consistent playoff runs, but Tarasov won't be too far behind. Tarasov will be 25 by then and will have a few years of experience as a starting goalie in Europe to his credit. In this scenario, Veini Vehvilainen will have moved on, with the 27-year-old challenging for a job elsewhere.
The Blue Jackets have some work to do over the next few seasons, and their current prospect base is only going to get them so far. Atkinson is the only player signed for 2023-24 and two more are signed until 2022-23, so the Blue Jackets are fortunately not tied to any bad long-term contracts right now. Acquiring draft picks has to be a priority: the Blue Jackets have their first-round pick for the next three years, but have nothing in the second round until 2022 (they had just three picks total this past June). The team has an influx of defensive talent they can move to beef up the offense, but the roster is a work in progress.
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