With the curtain closed on the Blue Jackets 2018-19 campaign, we thought now would be a good time to think ahead to next season.
It’s too early to know what this team’s lineup will look like, but by reading the tea leaves, we have at least an idea.
It’s discouraging that after the most successful season in franchise history, we’re left with the offseason uncertainty of the club's potential next season. That’s the NHL though, where windows can open and close with very short notice.
So, without further ado: will the Blue Jackets contend for a playoff spot in 2019-20? We pitted two of our writers, Chris Pennington, and Dan Dukart, against each other to debate:
The Case for the Playoffs (Chris)
Let’s set the stage, first, and just say Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin are gone. It’ll make it easier on all of us to accept it now.
Matt Duchene, on the other hand, is a little more of a wild card. He’s arguably the best player at his position the club has ever had, and the coveted No. 1 center the team has been needing for since Ryan Johansen left.
He wouldn’t be easily replaceable, but even if he darts - I believe Columbus is still in a position to grab a playoff birth. For the record, I’m not saying what would happen in the playoffs...just that they could make it.
Depth on Depth on Depth
These Blue Jackets, minus Bobrovsky, Panarin, and Duchene, still bolster one of the deeper lineups in the league. Those three aside, the Blue Jackets had 10 players record over 25 points during the regular season and four players with 23 goals or more.
For reference, the Boston Bruins, the team most likely to win this year’s Stanley Cup, also had four players over 23 goals and just eight players above 25 points.
The team also had five defensemen above 20 points on the year (the Tampa Bay Lightning had four), and likely will have a fight for the sixth spot between Dean Kukan and Vladislav Gavrikov?! Yeesh, that's a good problem to have.
Room to Shine Offensively
The start of the 2019-2020 season will be interesting for a few reasons for Columbus, but one of them will be figuring out how to live life without Panarin. In two seasons, Panarin shattered practically every club record imaginable.
The team will be shell-shocked, to say the least, but I think this could ultimately be good for them. The Blue Jackets, as deep as they have been the past few years, have counted on Artemi Panarin to go get the game-winning goal a few too many times (he had eight last year, for the record).
In this year’s playoffs, that ultimately proved to be their downfall - Panarin cooled off, and the Blue Jackets scored zero goals in their final two home games without him. Yikes.
Think the departing of Panarin (and potentially Duchene) will motivate the likes of Pierre-Luc Dubois, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Josh Anderson to be prolific forwards? Hell yeah, it will. There's an opportunity for these three, along with others such Alexandre Texier, Emil Bemstrom, and dare I say Alexander Wennberg(?!) to make an impact on the offensive end, with what will likely be a lot more room on the ice and stat sheet.
Lighting a Fire Defensively
Losing Bobrovsky might hurt the most out of all the unrestricted free agents - but this could be a blessing in disguise. It became clear over the past seven seasons that the Blue Jackets became a little too comfortable knowing they had this Russian veteran between the pipes.
They were more okay with turnovers, odd-man rushes and penalties because hey, they’ve got Sergei Bobrovsky behind them. That plan failed them in the playoffs, A.K.A., Bobrovsky got tired.
Elvis Merzlikins won't be the perfect swap-in for Bobrovsky by any means, but look at the four remaining teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs right now: Tuukka Rask (who had a mediocre regular season), Martin Jones, Petr Mrazek and Jordan Binnington? What? No Henrik Lundqvist or Jonathon Quick? Great teams can compensate for an average goaltender, folks.
My closing statement: Remember the 2008-2009 Blue Jackets? The team that had R.J. Umberger as its second-leading scorer? Where Fedor Tyutin was the best defenseman on the team, and the goaltender was a rookie?
Yeah, they made the playoffs. Why can't these Blue Jackets next season?
The Case Against the Playoffs (Dan)
Before I dig in, note that I’m assuming that Matt Duchene is not going to be with the team next season. If he is, consider me more optimistic. As I try to illustrate below, there’s a case that losing Duchene is arguably more of a loss to the team than Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky.
Speaking of which… I’ve long accepted that Panarin and Bobrovsky will move onto new teams (or maybe just one team), and that will obviously hurt their playoff prospects. Remember, it took the Blue Jackets until game 81 this season before they clinched a playoff berth, and that was with Bobrovsky playing much better in the second half of the year and Panarin setting a franchise record for points in a season.
Lacking the No. 1 Center
So much of a team’s success hinges on their center play. They help the defensemen keep the puck out of their net, and are responsible for driving the play on offense. John Tortorella has all but given up on Alexander Wennberg as a top-six center, and after two years of inactive and uninspiring offensive play, it’s hard to blame him.
Pierre-Luc Dubois took a nice step in his second year, but can’t shoulder the load by himself. Boone Jenner, Nick Foligno, Riley Nash, and Brandon Dubinsky can all play center, but none of them are top-six centers. If the Blue Jackets lose Duchene, I’d expect them to be active in free agency or via a trade, but if they can’t replace him, I’m very confident this team won’t be in the hunt for a playoff berth.
Big Goalie Skates to Fill
I’m actually bullish on Elvis Merzlikins, but expecting a goalie who has never played a professional hockey game in North America to supplant a two-time Vezina Trophy-winner is, in a word, wishful. There may be growing pains in his first season, and we’ve all been spoiled by the Russian insurance policy these past eight years. Many may fail to be patient, particularly as the club will want to capitalize on the momentum it gained with the fan base this spring.
Fault in their Stars
While I’m confident in this team’s defense corps and the long-term prospects in net, the forward group - especially if Duchene doesn’t return - will be young and exciting, but lacking star power. A quick depth chart may look something like this (Note: this exercise assumes none of the UFAs will return and is merely a representation to illustrate the lack of center depth and star power throughout the lineup):
|Alexandre Texier||Pierre-Luc Dubois||Cam Atkinson|
|Emil Bemstrom||Boone Jenner||Josh Anderson|
|Alexander Wennberg||Nick Foligno||Oliver Bjorkstrand|
|Eric Robinson||Brandon Dubinsky||Riley Nash|
Alexandre Texier and Emil Bemstrom could be studs in the NHL for a long time, but it would be absurd to place the burden of replacing Panarin, Duchene, and Dzingel solely on two 19-year old rookies. Oliver Bjorkstrand and Josh Anderson must take the next step, and both have the potential to be 30-goal scorers.
If that happens, and Cam Atkinson can replicate his 40-goal campaign, they may have enough scoring punch to compete for a playoff spot. While the future of this team still looks extremely promising, a lot of things would have to break right for them to be back in the playoffs in 2019-20.
We hate that this is even a debate, and hopefully, we'll have some more clarity as the summer progresses with free agency. For now, the Blue Jackets' 2019-2020 season breathes uncertainty, but thankfully there's still room for positive thinking.