NHL 2022 Offseason Guide: The Columbus Blue Jackets
The 2021-22 season was a happy surprise for the Columbus Blue Jackets and their fans. After finishing last in their division and fourth-worst in the league during the shortened 2020-21 season, expectations were not high. Additionally, they traded away Nick Foligno and David Savard at the 2021 Trade Deadline, as well as Seth Jones and Cam Atkinson during the off-season.
But with multiple players having bounce-back or breakout years, the Jackets managed to stay in the hunt for a wild card spot until the final two weeks of this season. The team accomplished this even while dealing with injuries to key players. The Blue Jackets even set franchise single-season records in goals for (258) and against (297). While the latter is considerably less impressive, it could be the byproduct of having one of the youngest defensive corps in the league.
Long-time general manager, Jarmo Kekäläinen, has shied away from calling his plan a rebuild. Instead, opting to use the word “restart”. He plans to add size and toughness to the roster to get them back to contention as quickly as possible.
The Columbus Blue Jackets roster is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. However, it may be closer to contention than previously thought. Boone Jenner, appointed captain in October, had a major resurgence. Had he not been sidelined due to injury, he would have achieved career-best totals in goals, assists, and points. Patrik Laine faced a similar situation. He only played in 56 games, but he was producing at a point-per-game rate for the first time in his career.
Another big reason for the Blue Jackets outperforming expectations this season was the emergence of their young players. Cole Sillinger’s season was a welcome surprise for the Jackets. It is not often that a player drafted outside the top five can join the NHL immediately. But that is exactly what Sillinger did, finishing with 31 points in 79 games, as the NHL’s youngest player. His competitiveness is what has allowed him to stick in the NHL at only 18 years old. It is clear that the Blue Jackets have a special player who could potentially be their future No. 1 center.
Sillinger was not the only rookie to debut for the Columbus Blue Jackets this season, however. Yegor Chinakov, considered a far reach on draft day in 2020, showed flashes of skill that silenced the naysayers. He only scored 14 points in 62 games and was healthy scratched at times. But, once he has fully adjusted to moving from Russia to America, that skill will be on display night in and night out.
Nick Blankenburg and Kent Johnson also joined the team to finish the regular season once their college seasons ended. Blankenburg joined the team and was given the chance to play with Zach Werenski. The pair did well together in the four games they played and should be explored further this coming season. Johnson may not have scored any goals in his nine-game run, but his passing skill is evident. Although he played center in college, it does not appear that will be his role in the future.
The Blue Jackets also have their goalies locked up for the foreseeable future. Whether that will be a good or bad thing remains to be seen. Elvis Merzļikins was handed the starting job this season and turned in below-league-average results. Since 2019-20, his first (and best) season, his goals against average has gone up, and his save percentage has gone down. There is still reason to believe in Elvis, however; the Columbus Blue Jackets allowed the most shots on goal of any team this season. They also allowed the ninth most high-danger shots against. Merzļikins could stand to improve from the defense in front of him improving.
Also of note is Joonas Korpisalo, and his situation as a native of Finland. All Finnish men must join the military for anywhere from six months to a year once they turn 18. This service can be pushed back until age 28, and that is exactly what Korpisalo did. He was expected to appear for his mandatory service on April 11th. However, due to his hip surgery in March, the Finnish government has granted him a special extension until the summer of 2023. That means after this coming season ends, Korpisalo must report to Finland to don his country’s uniform for at least six months, a timeframe that could potentially cause him to miss the beginning of the 2023-24 season.
Finally, onto the Jackets’ defense. This is the aspect of the roster that needs the most attention. Zach Werenski turned in a great season after long-time partner Seth Jones was shipped off to Chicago. Nick Blankenburg was the only other defenseman to finish with an even-strength Corsi for percentage above 50%. Beyond those two, the defensive group in Columbus is small and inexperienced. Kekäläinen has named this as one of his biggest focuses this off-season in his “restart”.
The number one team need for the Columbus Blue Jackets this off-season will be to rework their defense corps. Two things the team wants to add are size and toughness, specifically on the blue line. Only two defensemen are below 6′ on their current roster (Nick Blankenburg and Adam Boqvist). However, none of them play a particularly “big” style, with the exception of Vladislav Gavrikov.
Could Tyler Myers be an option for the Jackets? His contract is a bit prohibitive, but he could bring exactly what the team is looking for. Additionally, Vancouver is looking to gain some cap flexibility and off-loading Myers’ $6 million would be very attractive to them.
Another issue for Columbus is creating space for their young forwards. Players like Cole Sillingger, Kent Johnson, Liam Foudy, and Kirill Marchenko will need space on the wings. The Jackets might be able to move out one or both of Emil Bemstrom and Eric Robinson. A Gustav Nyquist trade is also a possibility. The 32-year-old was still productive, notching 53 points. But this is the last season of his current contract. And with the upcoming young players who require roster slots, it makes sense to trade him instead of letting him leave for nothing at the end of his deal.
With $21 million in cap space for this season, the Columbus Blue Jackets will be able to sign all their important restricted free agents. The most essential one is Patrik Laine. He will be able to command at least $9 million. After Laine, Adam Boqvist and Nick Blankenburg will both need new deals, but neither will be close to that $9 million number. The most likely deal for both is a bridge deal for two or three years, worth a couple million dollars annually. The other six RFAs will be easy to sign, no more than $1 million each.
This will likely leave the Jackets with around $2 million in space. But, if they move out any of Bemstrom, Robinson, or Nyquist they will open even more space. This could be enough space to add 2nd or 3rd pair defenseman that brings the toughness they want.
For the second season in a row, the Jackets have multiple high picks in the first round. Two of the five picks they will have made after the 2022 Entry Draft came from the Seth Jones trade. With the sixth overall pick acquired from Chicago, Columbus could look to Cutter Gauthier. Gauthier is a center that fits the prototypical power forward description. At 6’3” and 194 pounds, his speed and edge work are great. He also possesses a strong, quick wrist shot and the willingness to drive the net. With comparisons to Chris Kreider, he brings all the elements the Jackets are looking for right now.
At 12th overall, Columbus could go in two different directions. They could choose to draft another center in Conor Geekie or opt for big defenseman Lian Bischel. Geekie is another large center (6’3”/196 lbs). His play making ability really pops, finding creative ways to distribute the puck to his teammates. His skating could use work, but with his combination of size and skill, he is sure to make the NHL.
Bischel is a 6’5” left-handed defenseman playing in the SHL right now. As an 18-year-old, he is already one of the most complete players in the draft. He is a defensive defenseman, with a hard shot. He may not have reached the scoresheet much in the SHL, but against his age group he put up great numbers.
The Columbus Blue Jackets were not on anyone’s radar to make the playoffs this season. But even through injuries to key players, the team showed that they are much closer than people thought. General manager Jarmo Kekäläinen will have to make decisions about moving out two or three players, and he needs to sign several contracts. With veterans returning to form, young players continuing to grow, and another two picks in the first round; the Jackets are set up very well for the future.
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