The 2019-20 Blue Jackets season is here.
And while it's technically been a short summer – the shortest in franchise history – it's felt like a long summer, hasn't it? What's done is done. The Blue Jackets are sporting a fresh new look in many aspects and this season is set up to be as intriguing as any in recent memory; it feels like things could do in a myriad of different directions.
We've gathered our team at 1OB to talk about the season and some of the big storylines leading into opening night. Here we go.
Which player’s training camp performance was a pleasant surprise, and secondly, which was a disappointment?
Sam Blazer: As the No. 1 stan of the Sonny Milano Fan Club, I do find it surprising that he made the team. Part of it is not wanting to lose him for nothing...he is a former first round pick after all. But I think it is interesting that they are giving him a chance in the first place. I wonder what the context will be when he enters the lineup. If he is used as an offensive weapon, I believe he can still succeed. On the other end, I had visions of Dano dancing in my head. I thought in my dumb nostalgia head that he would be a near lock for a bottom-six spot. I do think he is one of the first call-ups if he performs in Cleveland.
Chris Pennington: Alexandre Texier taking a huge leap from end-of-the-year addition to first-line-winger has been a breath of fresh air in the midst of a discouraging free agency for Columbus. Texier has the IQ to go along with his talent, and his next biggest hurdle will realistically be putting on the pounds. He might get knocked off the puck a little more than we’d like to see early on this fall, but a full year under NHL-caliber conditioning, training and dieting should help the kid bulk up.
I feel weird even calling this a disappointment, but I would’ve loved to see Elvis Merzlikins ball out and confidently take the starting role by the time opening night rolled around, but that’s not the case quite yet. Merzlikins is, admittedly, still adapting to the smaller ice size of the NHL, and as a result, had a good-not-great camp and preseason. Maybe it’ll be good to not throw him into the spotlight just yet though – let’s let him grow a bit.
Dan Dukart: It’s been nice to see Andrew Peeke rising up the club’s depth chart. He hasn’t even played a professional hockey game, and was with the Blue Jackets after his season ended at Notre Dame. Clearly there’s a lot to like about the 21-year-old defenseman and it sounds like he could be a mid-season call-up if necessary.
On the other hand, Eric Robinson being cut early is a bit disappointing. He seemed like a player on the verge, but his lack of offense is holding him back. Another year – or at least part of one – in the AHL should help his development.
Ben Jandrain: Joonas Korpisalo had a few jaw-dropping saves last Friday against against the New Jersey Devils, reminding us of what he’s capable of, which was a refreshing sight to behold. I believe that performance confirmed he’s the No. 1 guy in net to start the season.
Based off of my preconceived notions, not seeing a single goal from Oliver Bjorkstrand in the preseason is a bit of a disappointment. Bjorkstrand started slow this past year before heating up, so it would’ve been nice to see him light the lamp at least once before we got underway.
Peter Fish: Jakob Lilja. He's a relatively unknown player for Blue Jackets fans, but one that came over from Djurgårdens with Emil Bemstrom and after a strong season in the SHL, Traverse City and then training camp, he is on the opening night roster and slated to start on the fourth line with Riley Nash and his partner from Sweden, Bemstrom.
On the other end, Bjorkstrand. After an amazing end to the 2018-19 campaign – nine goals in 10 games – the young Dane was not able to pot a single goal in the preseason. If the second line of Gus Nyquist, Alexander Wennberg and Bjorkstrand is going to work, he will need to shoot the puck early and often. If those pucks do not end up in the back of the net, then the line won’t last long.
Jacob Nitzberg: I was impressed with Sonny Milano’s play. He’s got something to prove, and if he didn’t make the opening-night roster, his time with the Blue Jackets may have been over. Sure, he’s got some holes in his game still, but he did enough to convince John Tortorella and co. to give him one more shot at the NHL.
Elvis Merzlikins didn’t have a great preseason, but my expectations of him may have been inflated just a bit. It’s going to take some time for his game to transition to the smaller and faster-paced NHL rinks, but he showed flashes of his ability throughout. Elvis may have entered the building, but the performance might have to wait for a few weeks.
Does it feel like this is the year of Alexander Wennberg’s resurgence – and why?
SB: As the No. 1 stan of the Alexander Wennberg Fan Club, I do think he bounces back. Not in a big way, but big enough that you have more faith in putting him out on the ice. That will be a big change considering where they were before. Gus Nyquist should help as his trigger and it should allow Wennberg to get some space. Let him find his confidence and you'll see that a talented hockey player is still there. My guess is 40 points on the year.
CP: Well, in the words of John Tortorella…
“Forget about skills. Forget about X’s and O’s. It’s a [expletive] mindset of [expletive] believing,” Tortorella said. “It’s amazing what can [expletive] happen. So you stand in there, and you don’t take a [expletive] backward step, not for a [expletive] second.”
Wennberg undoubtedly has the potential to be a game-changer. He was the first-line center on the best regular-season team in Blue Jackets history. Not to break out my Freudian psychoanalysis, but I think Wennberg’s personality is just not one of most NHL players. He’s calm, quiet and reserved, which is not ideal for a centerman who needs to dictate play. If he can learn to flip the switch in-game and hone in on an aggressive playing style, he may end up taking Dubois’ job. A lot of his quotes from this summer point to a changed mindset in the (still young) Swede.
DD: Hockey is a game of confidence, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that Wennberg’s confidence has been shot down in the past few years. I’m cautiously optimistic that he turns his career around this year, and I base that exclusively on the expectation that he’ll play with fellow Swede Gustav Nyquist, who could/should help Wennberg return to form. Putting Oliver Bjorkstrand, a grade-A sniper, on his other flank should give Wennberg weapons that he can utilize. If (and it’s a big if) Wennberg can start the season with even a reasonably decent stretch of play, I would expect him to rediscover his production.
BJ: No. After scoring a combined 10 goals in his last 141 regular-season outings, it’s hard to imagine his game to suddenly come back to life in the offensive end. Yes, his play has dropped off and he ONCE was expected to do great things and that the coaching staff is trying (once again) to put him in a favorable position to succeed. I’m admittedly a little harsh here, but until he proves us wrong on the ice, I’m not convinced a resurgence is in the cards.
PF: Yes. *mic drop*
JN: I’m on the fence, but I’m leaning towards yes. Wennberg has always had the skill, but his confidence is what’s been holding him back. I think playing with fellow Swede Gus Nyquist (and likely Oliver Bjorkstrand) will re-energize Wennberg’s offensive game. He won’t be expected to score very much on that line, but hey...it wouldn’t be frowned upon.
Give us one reason why the Blue Jackets will make the playoffs in 2019-20.
SB: As the No. 1 stan of the Columbus Blue Jackets Fan Club, I think it will be the unknown goaltending. They aren't going anywhere without either player, Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins performing. If they get league average goaltending, they should compete and sneak in. I am not seeing another virtuoso performance from Columbus. They are a borderline team as it is, and they're going to need help. One of the goalies emerging will be enough to get them over the proverbial hump.
CP: Sadly, it’s the same reason they may not go very far in the playoffs – scoring and effectiveness by committee rather than abusing a superstar. When Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky were cold last season, the Blue Jackets struggled. The life of the team depended on them, which in the playoffs, is when the stars get hot and teams win championships. But the regular season is such a marathon and being able to have contribution across the team and not rely on one or two guys is a good way to make the postseason. Again, once they get there, you might want to look away...but you never know!
DD: John Tortorella probably isn’t known as the NHL’s best tactical coach, but he’s certainly on the short list of best motivators. This team is tailor made for a coach who is surely going to weaponize the “us against the world” mentality, and I’d expect the team to rally around that mantra. Last year, the New York Islanders were smeared by just about everyone after their captain, John Tavares, left as a UFA. With a new coaching staff/systems in place, they surprised everyone. It’s apples and oranges, but it wouldn’t be a shock if Tortorella is able to reproduce a similar magic.
BJ: The mentality of this team is completely different this year. A year ago, the over/under for the Blue Jackets was 97.5 points. Expectations were for Columbus to be legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference. Also, there were two players (Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky) who made it rather evident they didn’t want to play here. Fast forward to today: the over/under is 84.5 points, and nobody’s making an evident case to want to go elsewhere. This team doesn’t have an elephant in the room to deal with and will constantly have a chip on their shoulder throughout the campaign. A different mentality, indeed.
PF: Defense, defense, defense. While the Blue Jackets lost Panarin, Duchene, Dzingel and Bobrovsky, they were able to retain their young defensive unit together. The group is another year older and has another year of experience under their belt including more playoff experience, but there is now increased pressure on them. With two mostly untested netminders and an offense that could take a step back this season, the defense will need to lead the way for the club.
JN: This group has the potential to become the most cohesive locker room group we’ve seen in a long time. Everyone in union blue wants to be here and wants to win here, including John Tortorella, one of the best coaches in the NHL at lighting a fire underneath players. He’ll have no shortage of bulletin-board material this year, as the Blue Jackets are projected to miss the playoffs by most media outlets. With a unified locker room and many leaders, the Blue Jackets will have the ability to make the playoffs and make some noise.
Which newcomer will have the biggest impact for the Blue Jackets this season?
SB: As the No. 1 stan of the Emil Bemstrom Fan Club, how could it not be him? He is going to get every opportunity offensively. If he is placed on PP1, it will be perfect for him. He is going to put up points and gain confidence, and he makes the team better. If he gets going, I think a 20-goal season is a no-doubter for him. Putting him in a spot to succeed is step one.
CP: Going to go with Gus Nyquist and having him hit 50 points. Watching the veteran winger at training camp, he was already a vocal leader on the ice, and in the preseason had quickly developed superb chemistry with Wennberg and Oliver Bjorkstrand. Being counted on as a second-line winger and not being pressured to make an impact right away will allow Nyquist to ease into his new role and play freely. No one expects him to be an Artemi Panarin. So just go have fun, Gus.
DD: Elvis Merzlikins. I’m not sure he’ll be the team’s starter by the end of the year, but I expect he’ll have a significant impact on the franchise, and frankly, on this fanbase. Sergei Bobrovsky was a fan favorite, but he wasn’t a rock star. If Joonas Korpisalo was a more established goalie, it would be difficult to pick Merzlikins, but the fact that Korpisalo is a sub-.900 save percentage goalie over the past two seasons gives credence to the idea that Merzlikins could get more looks than we think. And if that’s the case, he’ll have a chance to win the No. 1 job. And I’d say that’s a pretty large impact for a newcomer.
BJ: Gus Nyquist is a slam dunk here. I’m bullish on Bjorkstrand 30-plus goals this season, and Nyquist is a big part of it. Not to mention, Nyquist has been a reliable 40-point performer in the National Hockey League and as a 30-year-old veteran, he’ll provide valuable insights and leadership for the young forwards in the lineup.
PF: Emil Bemstrom. He is starting on the fourth line, but is on the first power play. In the SHL, Bemstrom was a power play specialist for Djurgårdens and he will do the same in Columbus. This team had the 28th-best power play last season and Bemstrom could be the answer.
JN: I’ll go with the obvious: Gus Nyquist. Sure, the Blue Jackets lost Panarin, but Nyquist is good for 50-60 points a year. He’ll form an offensively talented line with Wennberg and Bjorkstrand, and will likely find himself time on the Blue Jackets’ top power play unit. Additionally, he’s a veteran presence on what figures to be a very young Blue Jackets club.