Watching highlights of the 2019 Columbus Blue Jackets sweeping the dominant Tampa Bay Lightning is like watching an episode of The Twilight Zone.
It's hard to believe that was just two years ago.
Fast forward to today and the team is almost completely unrecognizable. In the immediate aftermath of the eventual exit at the hands of the Boston Bruins, Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Matt Duchene left via UFA. Later, Columbus traded Josh Anderson and Pierre-Luc Dubois, two players who epitomized the blue-collar, hard-to-play-against team the Blue Jackets had become. Then, at the 2021 trade deadline, the Blue Jackets, clearly out of the playoff picture, made the difficult (albeit correct) decision to move on from David Savard and Nick Foligno, key pieces of their leadership group and pending UFAs that fetched first-round picks (to say nothing of Riley Nash, who was also moved). Finally, this past weekend, the Blue Jackets traded Seth Jones and Cam Atkinson, leaving Boone Jenner, who has been an assistant captain since 2015-16, as the last man standing from the team's 2021 (official) leadership group.
It's easy to understand why Blue Jackets fans are pessimistic. The organization has had a difficult time convincing its best players to spend their UFA years with the franchise. Jones wanting out in the same year that Anderson and Dubois all but forced their way out of town is just the latest kick in the pants for a franchise - and fan base - that deserve better.
On the other hand, it's also easy to be optimistic about the future. Maybe not the immediate future, but this past weekend was a 'capital s' success for the organization. From an opportunity cost standpoint, avoiding Jones' 8x9.5M contract is a huge win. Both beat writers for The Athletic's Chicago bureau agreed that GM Jarmo Kekalainen fleeced Stan Bowman and the Blackhawks, who gave up two first-round picks and a 20-year old top defense prospect in Adam Boqvist.
Separately, the draft was a major success. By taking Kent Johnson and Cole Sillinger with picks 5 and 12, the Blue Jackets addressed the organization's gaping hole at center ice. With the selections of Johnson and Corson Ceulemans (26th overall), the Blue Jackets took players with incredibly high ceilings. And with the picks of Sillinger and Stanislav Svozil (69th overall), they added players that should become solid, dependable (though maybe unspectacular) NHL contributors.
Perhaps flying under the radar was the acquisition of Jake Bean from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for the acquired second-round pick from the Blackhawks. Bean, like Boqvist, is a young defenseman with a first-round pedigree and solid upside. He was buried behind a loaded defense corps in Carolina, playing on the third pair. In Columbus, the 23-year old will have a chance to develop into more.
The Atkinson trade seemed to catch everyone off guard, but I understand why it made sense for all parties. He'll be missed in Columbus, especially for his contributions off the ice, being an ideal ambassador for the city, and for his contributions to local youth hockey. Atkinson admitted that going through a rebuild wasn't ideal for him. From an on-ice standpoint, it makes sense that the Blue Jackets would want to add a playmaking winger, particularly in an attempt to find a linemate for Patrik Laine, who struggled to find his groove in his first season in Columbus. Jakub Voracek, for all of his flaws, is an elite passer, and for a team in a rebuild with a ton of cap space, adding the extra AAV won't be problematic. In a similar vein, Voracek's contract runs through 2023-24, one year less than Atkinson's.
If it feels like this is a brand new team, it's because it basically is one. And with a young core with players like Zach Werenski and Laine, three new first-round picks, and two more in 2022, plus a talented trio of Russian prospects, the cupboard has been restocked.