Columbus Blue Jackets
(Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports)

The Columbus Blue Jackets are the NHL’s cockroach. They’re not in the biggest market. They don’t have a stacked roster on paper. When they do make the playoffs, they’ve always been the underdog. In fact, no team has won fewer playoff series than Columbus’ one (two if you count their qualifier round victory over Toronto in the bubble).

But despite having the odds stacked against them, the Blue Jackets refuse to give in. After losing three superstar players (Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, and Sergei Bobrovsky) following their first series win in 2019, most expected the Blue Jackets to fall off. But despite an injury epidemic during the regular season, Columbus stayed in the playoff chase all season. They took down another highly skilled contender in the Maple Leafs, then took the same Tampa Bay squad they incredibly upset last year to five overtimes in Game 1.

Ultimately bowing out to the Bolts in five brings no shame to the Blue Jackets. Columbus played valiantly all season long. Their key to success was a well-oiled defensive machine that allowed the fewest expected goals and tied Arizona for the third fewest actual goals allowed. A deep defensive, two impressive young goaltenders, and a Jack Adams nominated coach led the way. But after a quiet offseason, will the Blue Jackets be able to build on 2020’s success?

Projected Lineup

Nick FolignoPierre-Luc DuboisCam Atkinson
Boone JennerMax DomiOliver Bjorkstrand
Alexander TexierMikko KoivuEmil Bemstrom
Eric RobinsonRiley NashMikhail Grigorenko
Forwards (New Players in Bold)
Zach WerenskiSeth Jones
Vladislav GavrikovDavid Savard
Scott HarringtonDean Kukan
Defensemen
Elvis Merzlikins
Joonas Korpisalo
Goaltenders

Dropping D-Men

The Blue Jackets came into the offseason needing to clear cap space to account for some RFAs getting raises. Seeing veteran Brandon Dubinsky and his $5.85 million cap hit going on long-term injured reverse (LTIR) certainly helped. But by the time that became official, GM Jarmo Kekalainen had already cleared out $7.3 million in cap space. And that salary flexibility came solely from the loss of two important defensemen.

While Ryan Murray never lived up to the hype of being picked 2nd overall in 2012, the 27-year old developed into a legitimate top-four shutdown defenseman. While he does have a lengthy injury history (he played just 27 games last year and has only played more than 70 once in his career — 2015-16), Murray is as dependable as they come when he is on the ice. He’s graded out exceptionally well in Expected Goals For (over 52%) the last three seasons. And the only Blue Jacket who averaged more PK time than Murray’s 2:05 last year was Seth Jones.

Though he’s failed to build on an outstanding 2017-18 season, Markus Nutivaara is still a quality middle of the lineup defenseman. A rare left-handed shot that plays the right side, Nutivaara can move the puck well and makes a reasonable $2.7 million for the next two years. Murray only had one year left on his contract, so I can see why Kekalainen was looking to move him.

The problem with trading Murray and Nutivaara is the incredibly weak returns Kekalianen got for both. Yes, revenues have been shot and the cap stayed flat because of the pandemic. But teams like Toronto and Arizona were able to move expensive players and still get useful assets back. The return for Murray? A 5th round pick from New Jersey, the same return Anaheim got for trading one of the worst defenseman in the league (Erik Gudbransson) to Ottawa.

Nutivaara was shipped out for Cliff Pu, who’s stock has fallen considerably since being an important part of the Jeff Skinner trade in 2018. Pu played just fourteen games last year between the AHL and ECHL, and doesn’t look likely to ever crack in the NHL. Yes, Columbus has the defensive depth to survive their losses. But the Blue Jackets certainly downgraded their backend. It would’ve been one thing if they used that extra $7.3 million to pursue a desperately needed forward upgrade. Well…

One Step Forward, How Many Backward?

It’s hard to say the Blue Jackets used that extra cap space to boost their attack. Yes, the club did bring in Max Domi, signing the restricted free agent to a 2-year deal worth $5.3 million per. But that had less to do with the defensive depletions and more to do with Josh Anderson needing a change of scenery. Anderson followed up an impressive 27-goal 2018-19 season with just 1 goal in 26 games last season before a shoulder injury ended his year.

Domi himself put up impressive numbers in 2018-19 (a career-high 72 points), but fell out of favor in Montreal last season. His scoring numbers dipped, and by the playoffs, Domi found himself on the fourth line of a team who’s biggest weakness was finishing on chances. Acquiring Domi is less of a pure upgrade and more of a mutually beneficial lateral move involving two players who needed changes of scenery. Domi is more of a playmaker, but he did put up 28 goals two seasons ago and brings the one thing Columbus desperately needs: skill. He should be a great fit behind Pierre-Luc Dubois down the middle.

Well, about that. Let’s address the elephant in the room. Dubois is still a restricted free agent in need of a new contract. He’s put up 48+ points in each of his three NHL seasons, and he’s probably Columbus’ most complete forward. Besides, it’s starting to become normal for RFA negotiations to last to near or even into training camps. The Islanders are in the same boat with their first-line center Mat Barzal. Dubois is skating in the area, so there should be nothing to worry about-

Oh no. Oh no, no, no, no. For a city that has trouble attracting and retaining its best players, this could be devastating. The Blue Jackets have already lost one of their most skilled forwards in Gustav Nyquist for the next 3-4 months from shoulder surgery. They’re going to blow this, aren’t they?

Well, that was a quick turnaround. The long-term relationship concerns still scare me, though. Whether it’s Rick Nash or Jeff Carter or Panarin or Duchene, every star forward Columbus has ever had seems to bolt sooner than those in other cities. Five million is a pretty cheap cap hit for what Dubois brings to the table. Dubois’ advantage is the deal comes with a $6.65 million qualifying offer for 2022, guaranteeing a raise that already would’ve been a shoe-in. Assuming Dubois develops as expected, of course.

Tandemonium

Like quarterbacks, it’s often said that when you have two good goaltenders, you really have none. Injuries prevented that scenario from playing out last regular season, but the Blue Jackets enter 2021 with a fierce battle for the starter’s role set to play out.

Joonas Korpisalo had long been hyped up as the future of the Blue Jackets when the dark day that Bobrovsky left arrived. That day came last fall. Korpisalo lived up to the hype, posting his best save percentage (.911) since he was a rookie in 2015-16. Last year was the first time since that season he stopped more goals than expected. By all accounts, things were going great in Korpisalo’s first year as Columbus’ number one.

And then it all fell apart. Korpisalo was injured in a shootout that never should’ve happened on December 29th. That easily could’ve been the end of Columbus playoff hopes right then and there. Instead, rookie Elvis Merzlikins stepped up and proved he was just as good, if not better, than Korpisalo. Merzlikins put up an otherworldly .932 save percentage after Korpisalo went down, stopping the ninth most goals above average in the NHL on the year.

Both goalies put up save percentages over .940(!) in the playoffs, but Korpisalo won the job back, starting nine of Columbus’ ten playoff games. The Blue Jackets can’t really make a wrong decision with which goalie they trust moving forward, but they need to make a decision eventually. The fact that Columbus won just one actual Stanley Cup Playoff game with gaudy goaltending numbers like that is another indictment for their forward corps. Both goalies are on two year deals at perfectly reasonable cap hits, and should have a nice amount of trade value. They could Kekalainen get the extra offensive jolt the Jackets desperately need.

Here’s another season preview for a team looking to take a step up after a first round exit in 2020 — the Montreal Canadiens.

The Verdict

John Tortorella has always done more with less. However, for the second consecutive season, the Blue Jackets roster looks worse than the one they had the previous fall. Part of that is due to external factors out of Kekalainen’s control. And while Columbus has developed an impressive identity with their two goalies and one of the league’s best defense pairs in Zach Werenski and Seth Jones (it’s criminal I’m just mentioning these two now – both are outstanding top-pair defensemen who can and have done everything).

Yes, offense wins games, and defense wins championships. But the Blue Jackets have never done enough of the former to give them a legitimate shot at the latter, outside of the gutsy deadline buy for Matt Duchene, who sparked with Panarin and led Columbus to their first series win in franchise history.

With both of those stars departing last summer, Columbus’ offense cratered. The Blue Jackets generated the fifth fewest expected goals for in the league last year. They scored the fourth fewest. Their power-play was 27th. Only Anaheim, Arizona, New Jersey, and Ottawa’s leading scorer last year had fewer points than Pierre-Luc Dubois’ 49 (San Jose’s Timo Meier was tied with Dubois).

It was surprising not to see the Blue Jackets use the savings from the Murray and Nutivaara deals. Maybe Taylor Hall was set on playing with an elite offensive center (which Dubois isn’t quite, yet), but even a Mike Hoffman type player would’ve helped.

The good news is this isn’t a make or break year for the Blue Jackets. There’s time for Kekalainen to address this weakness, whether it’s at the deadline or next offseason or in the future. Twenty-one year olds Bemstrom and Texier figure to be key parts of that solution. Same for 2018 1st rounder Liam Foudy, who got his first NHL action last year. Cam Atkinson is an underrated sniper. Boone Jenner will hopefully bounce back to his 35-40 point level. Oliver Bjorkstrand scored at a 60-point pace last year. And Nick Foligno is a great two-way player who chips in and is a great captain.

It’s not that the forward core lacks good players. They just don’t have enough truly great ones. Finding them, either through internal boons from their top prospects (and young players like Bemstrom and Texier), or another gutsy addition like the Duchene trade, will be the key to the Blue Jackets taking the next step. It’s a risk they’ll likely eventually need to take to escape the league’s mushy middle, which they currently sit in the upper end of.

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*Statistics from Natural Stat Trick