Welcome to the latest file in THN.com’s continuing “Three Burning Questions” series – a trio of major questions for every NHL franchise heading into the start of the 2022-23 regular season. In this file, we’re posing Three Burning Questions about the defending Stanley Cup champion Columbus Blue Jackets.
THREE BURNING QUESTIONS FOR THE BLUE JACKETS IN 2022-23:
1. Can new star winger Johnny Gaudreau propel the Jackets into the playoffs? Columbus’ marquee off-season acquisition, former Flames star winger Johnny Gaudreau, shocked the hockey world by choosing the Blue Jackets as his new home for the next eight seasons, signing a mammoth $68.25 million contract that makes him Columbus’ highest-paid player at $9.75 million per season. But does that acquisition make the Blue Jackets into a surefire Stanley Cup playoff team?
The short answer to that question is, “no”. While Gaudreau’s arrival gives the Jackets a bona fide No. 1 line – one that includes winger Patrik Laine and center Boone Jenner – and a solid, if older line in pivot Jack Roslovic and 33-year-old wingers Jakub Voracek and Gustav Nyquist, Columbus still has depth issues both up front and on defense, and that’s a problem in the highly competitive Metropolitan Division. We can’t forget the Jackets finished 19 points out of a playoff spot last season, and there are seven teams in the Metro that could, if things go right for them, qualify for the post-season.
Gaudreau is a marvelous talent, but he can’t be expected to put Columbus on his shoulders and carry them singlehandedly into the playoffs. There has to progress from within, and perhaps, an in-season trade or two, to give them enough skill and will to get there.
2. Will Columbus’ younger players – especially on defense – evolve into difference-makers this season? The Blue Jackets have eight players who are at least 28 years old, and nine players who are 25 years old or younger. Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen knows what he can expect from his veterans, but it’s the youngsters who are the big question mark with this group, particularly on defense, where three of the top six D-men are 24 or younger.
To that end, what’s fair to ask of 24-year-old blueliner Adam Boqvist? The Swede had 11 goals and 22 points 52 games in his first season in Columbus and his third in the NHL, and he’s projected to play on the top defensive pairing alongside star Zach Werenski, but Boqvist averaged only 17:02 of ice time last season, and he’s going to be given more time than that this coming year.
Elsewhere, 22-year-olds Jake Bean and Andrew Peeke both averaged more than 20 minutes of ice time per game in 2021-22, but the signing of journeyman Erik Gudbranson pushes them down the lineup into the final defensive pairing. Can both of them flourish with fewer minutes from head coach Brad Larsen?
At forward, Columbus’ projected third-line includes two 19-year-olds (winger Kent Johnson, who has nine games of NHL experience, and center Cole Sillinger, who is an NHL sophomore), and a 22-year-old (Kirill Marchenko, who has yet to play in the NHL). That’s an area that could prove to be a problem if this inexperienced trio can’t cut the mustard. All in all, Kekalainen could target this line as an area that needs improvement during the year.
3. What does Columbus have to offer in trades to address in-season issues? The Jackets are returning with the same goaltending duo of starter Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo, a pair of 28-year-olds who haven’t lit up the league with elite play. Merzlikins is entering his fourth NHL season, but his save percentage has dropped every year since his rookie year, and last year came in at a pedestrian .907 SP. He’s entering the first year of a five-year, $27-million contract that shows him management believes in him, and now he’s got to demonstrate he’s worth a $5.4 million average annual payday.
Korpisalo, meanwhile, signed a one-year, $1.3 million contract to stay in Columbus and begin his eighth NHL season as a Blue Jacket. It’s true he’s played on bad Blue Jackets teams for much of his career, but his individual numbers – including his SP, which has been better than .897 just once in the past five seasons, and last year, came in at a five-year low of .877 – put him squarely in the backup role. He will be much easier to trade than Merzlikins if things go squirrely in Columbus’ net, and if Kekalainen finds a veteran goalie on the trade market, it won’t take much for him to say goodbye to Korpisalo. Either way, the pressure is on both Blue Jackets goalies to post better showings as the team’s overall expectations have increased.
If they don’t, there’s not a ton Kekalainen can offer in trades unless he’s willing to give up his top draft picks – he’s got all three first, second and third-rounders, as well as Calgary’s third-round pick in 2023 – or veterans Nyquist (who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer) and Voracek (who has one more season under contract after this one). But Kekalainen would need a talent that’s a needle-mover to part ways with those types of assets. That said, there’s huge pressure on Jackets brass to ensure this lineup does make the playoffs this year, so don’t be shocked if there are a couple of additional major personnel moves on the horizon this season.