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Columbus Blue Jackets 2023-24 NHL Season Preview

Columbus Blue Jackets
(Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

Columbus Blue Jackets 2023-24 NHL Season Preview

Look at the Columbus Blue Jackets roster last year on paper, and there’s actually quite a bit of promise to it. Former No. 2 overall pick and 40-goal scorer Patrik Laine. Another former top-10 pick and two-time Norris vote-getter Zach Werenski. Promising highly-drafted young talents such as Kent Johnson, Kirill Marchenko and Adam Boqvist. And of course, the belle of the 2022 free agency ball, a top-four Hart vote-getter twice in Johnny Gaudreau, fresh off a 115-point season. There were holes on the Blue Jackets roster, of course. But there was also a lot to be excited about.

By the end of the season, that wasn’t really the case. Injuries quickly killed off any promise the 2022-23 Blue Jackets had. They had a coach who wasn’t a fit in Brad Larsen. And some of those intriguing young talents didn’t quite have the seasons Columbus was envisioning.

The Blue Jackets didn’t have the busiest offseason, although they targeted their main need — defense. But the talent that didn’t unearth itself last year should still be there — plus one particularly intriguing new addition to Columbus’ prospect pool. A clean bill of health means renewed hope in Columbus as the Blue Jackets prepare for a critical campaign.

Line Combinations (Via Daily Faceoff)

Johnny GaudreauBoone JennerPatrik Laine
Kent JohnsonAdam FantilliKirill Marchenko
Emil BemströmCole SillingerJack Roslovic
Eric RobinsonSean KuralyAlexandre Texier
Bold = New Addition; Italics = Rookie
Zach WerenskiDamon Severson
Ivan ProvorovAndrew Peeke
Erik GudbransonAdam Boqvist
Elvis MerzļikinsDanill Tarasov

New Additions

From the start of the cap era through 2021-22, no NHL team ever allowed an average of more than four goals per game. Last year, the Blue Jackets were one of two to “reach” that threshold (Anaheim was the other). Losing Zach Werenski for nearly the entire season certainly hurt, but that doesn’t excuse the rest of the defense cratering. Columbus’ 3.02 expected goals against per 60 minutes at 5-v-5 was also second-last in the NHL (Anaheim was its own breed of brutal at 3.41). And that history was made with a well-playing Joonas Korpisalo starting 26 of their games.

Columbus doesn’t have him as a safety net this year. What they do have, however, is two new top-four caliber defensemen. Neither are without their warts. Damon Severson had a great nine seasons with the Devils, but can be a bit too mistake-prone for someone without elite offensive upside (he’s only reached the 40-point mark once). Ivan Provorov is almost the exact opposite — reliable in his own zone but not capable of generating a ton of offense despite consistently getting top-minutes at 5-v-5 and on the power-play in Philadelphia. Columbus is all in on both; they committed $50 million to Severson over eight years (after trading a third for his UFA rights) and dealt a first and a second to a divisional rival for Provorov.

The focus isn’t quite as much on these two, though, because of what happened after the Blue Jackets made those early offseason moves. Adam Fantilli was once regarded as a unanimous choice to go No. 2 overall behind Connor Bedard. But the Ducks went a bit off the board, allowing Columbus to snag the franchise center they’ve been lacking for their 20-plus-year history. Blue Jackets fans won’t cheer for just any Michigan Wolverine, but Fantilli has the tools to be an exception to the rule.

3 Faces to Watch

  1. Patrik Laine — Not to throw cold water on Columbus’ hopes, but Laine is proof that not all No. 2 picks have a smooth journey to stardom. In fairness to Laine, he hasn’t been put in a position to maximize the use of his A+ shot in the last couple of seasons. Columbus does have some intriguing young centers, so hopefully, they can find a combination that truly unlocks his lethal potential.
  2. Alexandre Texier — Texier had some big moments in Columbus’ 2019 playoff run as a 19-year-old when he looked like a key piece for the Blue Jackets. Since then, he’s played 36, 49, 36 and zero games over the last four seasons. He did score 20 points in 36 games in 2021-22, so it’s not like his upside has vanished this year. But with him becoming an RFA at the end of next season, this is a huge year for Texier to prove he can stay healthy and contribute at the NHL level.
  3. David Jiříček — He may not be listed on this projected lineup, but it won’t be long before Jiříček is ready to take center stage. Severson probably isn’t a true top-pair caliber defenseman. Jiříček, taken No. 6 overall in 2022, had a strong first season in North America in the AHL (although a four-game NHL audition did not go well). There’s no need to rush him, but Columbus also really hasn’t had a franchise defender in its history. Jiříček is their best bet to change that.

Riser and Faller

Riser: Another former Michigan Wolverine Kent Johnson made his mark as a rookie with a Michigan goal last season. It was an exciting moment itself, but more so for what it could signal about Johnson’s upside. His underlying numbers weren’t the greatest, but putting up 40 points as a rookie is nothing to scoff at. Can Johnson avoid the dreaded sophomore slump? We’ll find out.

Faller: Elvis Merzļikins burst onto the scene in 2019-20, giving Columbus a young two-headed monster in net with Korpisalo. It looked like the Blue Jackets’ crease would be in good shape after the departure of franchise face Sergei Bobrovsky the previous summer.

Things have not gone as planned since. Merzļikins was ok in 2020-21, pretty solid in 2021-22 and then cratered last season. How bad was he? Negative 25.9 goals saved above expected (aka 25.9 goals saved below expected), dead last out of 107 NHL goaltenders. Of course, the tragic passing of fellow young Columbus goaltender and his good friend Matiss Kivlenieks cannot be ignored. Returning to the ice certainly could not have been easy for Merzļikins. Hopefully, with some more time passing since Kivlenieks’ heartbreaking passing, Merzļikins can return to rookie form.

The Big Question

Well, it was going to be about the log jam on defense. Werenski, Provorov and Severson are all locks. Adam Boqvist is close to one as well. Erik Gudbranson and Andrew Peeke’s spots are far from secure. Jiříček, Jake Bean, Tim Berni, Nick Blankenburg and Jake Christiansen are all 25 and under and played for the team last year. Only Jiříček and Blankenburg are waivers exempt. That’s definitely a storyline worth your focus, right?

The Provorov and Severson additions may have been a bit controversial, but they pale in comparison to Columbus’ now-former head coach, Mike Babcock. Hiring the three-time Stanley Cup finalist and 2008 champion seemed like a risky idea at best given the outcry of stories from his former players. That would have cast enough of a storm over the team on its own. But then Babcock found himself in hot water for looking through the phones of his players. While it was initially reported as just something Babcock did to see pictures of families to bond with players, it appears that it was something more sinister, or at the very least uncomfortable. The main evidence for that? Babcock’s resignation on Sunday.

Needless to say, making a coaching change this close to the start of the season almost never happens. Whatever the Blue Jackets were planning for this season is completely in flux now. It’s a tough spot for new coach Pascal Vincent and the entire roster. This is the type of thing that can derail a season before it even begins. Hopefully, the Blue Jackets players and coaching staff can move past it. But it’s another unnecessary obstacle to a team already facing an uphill climb to relevance this season.

The Verdict

Things won’t be easy for the Blue Jackets this season. The Metro remains one of the deepest divisions in hockey. Columbus finished seventh last season and while they’ve gotten better, so have most of the teams ahead of them. Unless Fantilli is a star from day one, their center core is still one of the league’s weakest.

If not for the coaching chaos, I would probably feel better about their chances of being at least a solid team this season. That’s now become impossible to ignore now with Babcock out of the picture. The Blue Jackets have the talent to be respectable this season. But given the adversity already facing them, this could be the type of blow-up season that results in the big-time change up top the team has avoided for a long time now.

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Advanced Stats via Natural Stat Trick and MoneyPuck.com; Contracts via CapFriendly

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