Here’s the latest file in THN.com’s analysis of the off-season plans for all 32 NHL teams. Today, we’re examining the Columbus Blue Jackets.
2021-22 Record: 37-38-7
Finish In The Metropolitan Division: 6th
Salary Cap Space Available (As Per CapFriendly.com): $19.5 million
Restricted Free Agents: Emil Bemstrom, F; Patrick Laine, F; Nick Blankenburg, D; Adam Boqvist, D; Gabriel Carlsson, D
Unrestricted Free Agents: None
What Columbus Has: More or less their entire lineup under contract or team control, with only Laine being a true top talent who needs a raise from the $7.5 million he earned last season; a hardworking group; veteran, skilled forwards in Jakub Voracek, Jack Roslovic, Gustav Nyquist, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Boone Jenner; offense-generating blueliners Zach Werenski and Vladislav Gadrikov;
What Columbus Needs: Veteran help for the defense corps; a vastly-improved penalty kill; more high-end talent at the top of the lineup; Laine’s signature on a below-maximum-value, long-term new contract; better overall showings from their goalie tandem of Elvis Mezerkins and Joonas Korpisalo
What’s Realistic For Columbus Next Season: Expectations for the Blue Jackets were not high for the Blue Jackets last season, and although they came out of the gate winning seven of their first 11 games, it didn’t take long for their lack of Grade-A talent to push them down the Metropolitan Division standings. An 8-13-6 stretch through early April snuffed out any post-season hopes for them, but they worked hard under head coach Brad Shaw, and we should expect to have the same blue-collar efforts from them in 2022-13.
However, a playoff berth in 2022-23 is not going to be easy for Columbus. It’s accurate to say they were considerably better than the seventh-place New Jersey Devils and eighth-place Philadelphia Flyers, the Blue Jackets ended the regular season 19 points out of the final playoff spot in the Metro. That ought to give you an indication of how far the Jackets still have to go to be a legitimate threat to make the post-season.
Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen has nearly $20 million in cap space with which to improve his lineup, but nearly one-third of that will go to Laine, and the rest will have to go to their four other restricted free agents. Because of their failures in recent years, the Blue Jackets aren’t seen as a Grade-A destination for free agents, so Kekalainen may have to go the trade route to affect the amount of change the Jackets need to battle past the fifth-place New York Islanders, and the four Metro playoff teams (Washington, Pittsburgh, the New York Rangers, and Carolina) to make the playoffs for the first time since 2019-20.
The Blue Jackets have a devoted fan base and ownership that doesn’t require them to cut payroll costs in the name of profit, but they’re in the much-maligned mushy middle of the league right now: too good to be at the bottom of the league standings and assure themselves of a top draft pick, and not good enough to be a playoff team. If they can get improvement out of their two goalies, they won’t sink any lower in the standings, but that would make for small consolation if it means they’re on the outside looking into the playoff picture once again.
Kekalainen is a realistic hockey team architect, and he understands full well how much the Jackets will need to succeed at putting fear into opponents on a nightly basis. He has the cap flexibility to make notable off-season moves, but he’ll have to give up something meaningful – a high draft pick, perhaps? – to get something meaningful. A playoff spot still feels too far away for them right now, but they may be a dark horse to surprise observers and eke out a lower playoff seed. It will take a whole lot to go right for that to happen, though, and they don’t have the organizational depth to shake off any in-season injuries. Some good karma from the hockey gods could go a long way for Columbus this coming year.