Despite a frustrating postseason exit at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Columbus Blue Jackets are well-positioned in the future, thanks in large part to GM Jarmo Kekalainen.
While the majority of pundits expecting Columbus to take a step backward after a UFA exodus (to say nothing of a league-leading 419 man-games lost), the Blue Jackets qualified for the postseason for the fourth consecutive season, one of just six teams in the league that can make that claim. John Tortorella was (properly) nominated for the Jack Adams Trophy, and his team's performance in the playoffs did nothing to hurt his case (though the voting took place before return to play).
But the vision for how the roster is built falls on Kekalainen, and he's done a masterful job. Under his guidance, the Blue Jackets have adopted a brick-by-brick, draft-and-develop program that is among the best in the league. He knows that overextending credit for expensive UFAs on July 1 (not in 2020) is a losing recipe. Instead, growing from within by finding inefficiencies in the draft (i.e., European goaltenders) and via trade (Seth Jones, Artemi Panarin) is a more sustainable path to success.
Columbus also has the most "home grown" draft picks on their team. pic.twitter.com/cA4tFhzW7l— NHLtoSeattle (@NHLtoSeattle) August 17, 2020
"It's going to have to be that balance. I don't believe in the July 1 signings to be the answer or recipe for success", Kekalainen said in his postseason press conference. "That's been shown very many times. It's going to be a different date, obviously, this offseason. But growing from within is going to be a key for us. I think we have some really good young players that have taken that big step in the right direction, and they'll take another one or two in the near future with Liam Foudy, Alex Texier, Emil Bemstrom, those guys."
Bemstrom (21), Texier (20), and Foudy (20) are all demonstrably ahead of schedule. Foudy looked the part of NHL contributor from his first stride in the postseason. Bemstrom had an up and down season but maintains a high ceiling due to his shot and natural goal-scoring abilities. Texier took a major step in the playoffs for the second consecutive season. His development trajectory is exciting, and Tortorella has mentioned a few times that he's trending towards being a center in the future. Then there's Pierre-Luc Dubois, who established himself as a legitimate 1C during these playoffs, posting 10 points in 10 games and being a "baller" and a "cornerstone", in the words of Lightning coach Jon Cooper. Between Dubois (22) and Texier, the Blue Jackets are better established down the middle of the ice than ever before.
In February, The Athletic ranked the Blue Jackets prospect pool last in the NHL. And while Bemstrom and Texier had already "graduated", the truth remains that the organizational pipeline is barer than many would like. Still, there are a few marquee pieces to be excited about in the future.
"We have some excellent prospects in our system that we're going to, unfortunately, have to wait for a couple more years in Russia playing in the KHL with (Kirill) Marchenko and (Dmitri) Voronkov. Those guys are big parts of their KHL teams right now already and most likely will be ready to play in the National Hockey League right away when they come here. But again, we have to wait for them a little bit."
The Blue Jackets roster is well-constructed to compete again in 2020-21. As Carlo Colaiacovo, former NHL player and current radio show co-host in Toronto mentioned on twitter, none of the eight teams remaining have a player that makes $10M+ AAV. The Blue Jackets most expensive player is Cam Atkinson, who makes $5.85M. And while that will likely change this summer as Dubois is an RFA, the point remains that this club is not hamstrung by bad contracts. On the contrary, Jones (25) and Zach Werenski (23), arguably the top defense pairing in the NHL, combine to make $10.4M.
Consider that the Maple Leafs big four forwards made $40.5M in 2020. The Blue Jackets entire forward group made $40.6M. One of these situations allows for roster flexibility. The other puts an obscene amount of pressure on a small group of forwards to carry a team through a grueling gauntlet of playoff games. And while the Maple Leafs undoubtedly have more skill up front than the Blue Jackets, we saw first-hand that a deep lineup results in more favorable outcomes. When Kevin Stenlund scored in Game 5, he became the 14th Columbus player to score a goal in the 2020 playoffs. Only Vegas (16) had more players with a goal. That's depth.
This isn't to say that there isn't room for improvement. The Blue Jackets forward group finished the 2019-20 season with just 141 goals in 70 games among forwards. Only one team had fewer - Detroit - according to The Athletic's Front And Nationwide podcast.
To get to the next level, the Blue Jackets will have to accept some pain. They're going to have to move players on this roster that are important (but not foundational) pieces. There are simply too many third-line players and not enough finishers to compete with the Tampa Bay's of the world.
Kekalainen deserves a ton of credit for bringing the Blue Jackets to the point they're at now with solid team-building and roster construction. But now that they've made the playoffs four straight years, the pressure is on to find a way to get over the hump.