While attending Saturday's preseason finale, I struck up a conversation with the guy next to me.
"When (general manager) Jarmo (Kekalainen) started talking about another rebuild, I was really thinking about giving up on this franchise," he said. "I've been through enough of these."
"But I can't quit them. And it feels different this time."
Smart move, guy next to me. And yes, it does feel different this time.
The Columbus Blue Jackets finalized their roster for Thursday's season opener against the Arizona Coyotes, and it's one that very few would have imagined even a short time ago.
Cole Sillinger, who went 12th to the Blue Jackets in July's entry draft, made the roster. The 18-year-old center will become the fourth youngest player in franchise history, but shy of Rick Nash, carries potential that very prospects have had at that age.
Also making the roster is Yegor Chinakhov, the 20-year-old who has went from top round draft pick that few had heard of to KHL Rookie of the Year to opening night roster for Columbus — all in the span of one year and four days. Chinakhov signed his three-year entry level contract with the team late last season and thus enters this season in the second year of said deal.
While those two were the most talked about names by a wide margin over the last month, they're not the only signs of the youth movement that the Blue Jackets are taking.
Emil Bemstrom looked as sharp as ever in the preseason, and the 22-year-old may have stolen a roster spot from versatile forward Kevin Stenlund, who was given a long look over the last year and change but was placed on waivers Sunday, meaning the 25-year-old will either return to the minor leagues or, find himself with another team.
On the blueline, freshly able-to-legally-buy-alcohol (he's 21 now) defenseman Adam Boqvist will likely find himself as a part of Columbus' top defensive pairing. He'll be saddled up with Zach Werenski, a pairing that will allow the elder (though still just 24) blueliner to guide Boqvist — and create a fantastic scoring defensive duo that should start out good and only get better with the benefit of time.
Andrew Peeke, 23, is on the big team as well, and deservedly so after an impressive preseason that saw him make smart decisions both with and without the puck. He also looks to have developed strength and stamina over the summer, and it paid off in Saturday's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins as Peeke was all over the ice and being buzzed about by the 5th Line afterwards for his stellar play.
Realistically, it is incredibly unlikely that all four of these guys put up regular seasons as good as their preseasons. But that's okay; they don't need to. Rebuilds don't happen in a year and there's a lot to be said about learning and growth — two things the Blue Jackets will have plenty of this season.
The surprises weren't just with the youth movement, though. Max Domi, who had shoulder surgery in early June, was expected to miss five to six months. A return around Thanksgiving was assumed, but there he was, in the lineup Saturday —scoring a goal in the process, because of course he would. There's no official word yet on whether or not he'll be in the lineup Thursday, but it seems pretty clear that he'll be on the ice and looking to rebound from an inconsistent and below-average 2020-21 campaign.
Who we won't see on the Blue Jackets roster is also a bit of a surprise. Kevin Stenlund played in 32 games and had five goals and five assists last season, and signed a one-year deal worth just over one million in June, was placed on waivers after a very pedestrian camp and preseason. Until the last month or so, it was reasonable to expect Stenlund to be a bottom-six regular in the lineup, but those plans went out the window when Domi returned early and Chinakhov and Sillinger wow'ed throughout September.
Stenlund was not the only end-of-preseason waive, though. Gabriel Carlsson and Mikko Lehtonen drew similar fates, and now we wait to see whether or not the trio clears waivers. If they do, all three will be sent to Cleveland. If not, their time with the Blue Jackets comes to a ho-hum ending.
So where does all of this put the Blue Jackets for the 2021-22 season? It's hard to say, but it's tough to imagine this team as bad as some of the pundits around the league:
- MoneyPuck gives the Blue Jackets the 2nd lowest odds to make the postseason, at 10.2%. They project them to finish at 78 points, behind every team except the Buffalo Sabres.
- ESPN's Greg Wyshynski has Columbus at 26th in the preseason power rankings, behind Ottawa, Detroit, and Buffalo in the east.
- Vegas odds have the Blue Jackets over/under set at 76.5, tied for 29th in the NHL.
26th, 29th, 31st? Seems a little low, particularly those last two. This is a young team and one that's in the toughest division in hockey, so a playoff run should not be expected this season. But finishing above only a couple of other teams? The Blue Jackets do have a few big things going for them that should keep them well-clear of the basement:
- An above-average goaltending tandem
- A power play that looks vastly improved from previous seasons
- A top line that, with Patrik Laine and Jake Voracek, is capable of changing the game at a moments notice.
A very young defense, yes, but one that is full of efficient puck-movers.
All said and done, 23rd in the league feels about right, finishing closer to a playoff spot than last in the league. I'll take the Blue Jackets at 81 points, with a record of 35-36-11.
As for it feeling different? How can it not feel different? When fans were told to be patient and sit through a rebuild in previous years, it was under the assumption that guys like Vitaly Abramov, Kerby Rychel, Sonny Milano, etc., would be the ones who took the Blue Jackets to the promise land. Players who, if accurately projected, would maybe be a second or third line NHL forward. We've all seen how far that will take an organization.
But the Blue Jackets forward corp of today (and tomorrow)? Sillinger and Chinakhov, yes, but Kirill Marchenko is doing things in the KHL that other prospects from the Columbus pipeline could only dream of, and he'll be here next season. All three of those players have top-line potential at the NHL level. Even those who have proven themselves as top-six players at the NHL level are younger than the average player. Laine is just 23, Jack Roslovic is 24, Oliver Bjorkstrand is 26. With Voracek and Gustav Nyquist the exceptions, there isn't a player on the roster older than 29. Even Boone Jenner, who has seemingly been here forever, will be 28 for the duration of the season. Compare that to the 2018-19 Blue Jackets, who had five players in their 30's and three more who were 29.
Add to that the fact that the Blue Jackets have two proven top-four defensemen in Werenski and Vladislav Gavrikov, with newcomers Boqvist and Jake Bean seemingly on their way to filling the other two spots. The veteran of that group? The 25-year-old Gavrikov. It's a green blueline, but that green will fade as the season moves along.
Ugly games this season are inevitable. But, with appreciation for guys like Kole Sherwood, Steffan Matteau, Nathan Gerbe, Ryan MacInnis, and many other fringe NHL'ers who have wore the Columbus sweater in recent seasons — it will be easier to get through those ugly games knowing that the players on the ice are learning now to excel for years to come, as opposed to learning now to hope to stay in the league tomorrow.
The Blue Jackets should be one hell of a show in the future.
The pre-show starts Thursday.