Yes, it's unlikely that the Blue Jackets will make the playoffs this season.
But that doesn't mean it's impossible. Stranger things have happened. Although the odds certainly aren't in their favor, the Blue Jackets are capable of competing for a playoff spot if they can get the following three things to happen:
Consistent Center Play (And Perhaps Another Trade)
When you look at the Blue Jackets' current roster, and where they've fallen short in recent years, there's a gaping hole at the center position. Jack Roslovic is slated to be the number-one center, where he certainly had his ups and downs last season. He can grow into the position, but putting him at number-one to start the year feels like the Blue Jackets are throwing him into the fire.
The Blue Jackets' second-best center is Max Domi, but he's going to begin the 2021-22 season on the shelf for at least a month after undergoing shoulder surgery at the beginning of the offseason. He bounced around from center to wing and back again, finishing the year on a high note with some excellent, consistent play. Brad Larsen could use Alexandre Texier to fill in while Domi is injured. After Domi, Boone Jenner, who recently inked a four-year contract extension, is the likely candidate to center the third line. It's where he's played for virtually all of his career in Columbus, and it makes sense to leave him there given the current depth of the position. On the fourth line, it'll be free-agent signing Sean Kuraly, who has played a bottom-six role during his NHL career and will provide the Blue Jackets with hard-working minutes.
So, does Roslovic-Domi/Texier-Jenner-Kuraly get the Blue Jackets into the playoffs? Unless all four/five of them have career years, it's unlikely. If the Blue Jackets were in win-now mode, which they're decidedly not, they would need to move for another center. Right now, all the signs are pointing to them sticking with what they've got.
Anoint Elvis Merzlikins As The Number One Goaltender
It's past time for this to happen. Joonas Korpisalo is a great person and a good NHL goalie, but Merzlikins has the edge on him, and it's not particularly close. Since Merzlikins joined the Blue Jackets prior to the 2019-20 NHL season, here are the stats for the two netminders per Hockey Reference:
As you can see, Merzlikins has by far been the better goaltender. In the table above, GSAA stands for Goals Saved Above Average. It's calculated by taking a goalie's save percentage and shots faced and comparing that the league average save percentage on the number of shots faced. There has been a thirty-goal difference between Merzlikins and Korpisalo over the past two seasons. Another season of a platoon split would not be in the best interest of the club going forward unless they intend to offload Korpisalo, in which case other teams would want to see him play.
Development For Young Guns Comes Quickly
With some savvy moves from GM Jarmo Kekalainen this summer, the Blue Jackets have beefed up their prospect pipeline, as well as their NHL-ready talent. However, the NHL isn't an easy league for young players to come in and make an impact (unless your name is Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid). The continued development of these players will determine the Blue Jackets' success down the road.
Here are all of the Blue Jackets 25 and under who will make or have a shot at making the opening night roster:
- Liam Foudy
- Adam Boqvist
- Alexandre Texier
- Emil Bemstrom
- Andrew Peeke
- Patrik Laine
- Jake Bean
- Zach Werenski
- Kevin Stenlund
- Jack Roslovic
- Gabriel Carlsson
With that young core, the Blue Jackets are likely to take some lumps. However, everyone on that list already has NHL experience. The Blue Jackets will go as their young core goes, but an accelerated development is crucial to their chances of competing this year.