We're back, baby!
A little more than three months after the Tampa Bay Lightning hoisted the Stanley Cup for a second consecutive year, the NHL is ready to kick things off once again.
It's going to be different – hopefully, in all the best ways. Commissioner Gary Bettman says that all but a few of the league's arenas will be operating at full capacity to start the season. All but four NHL players have been vaccinated against COVID-19. The Seattle Kraken have officially entered the league as its 32nd team.
And here in Columbus, we're not quite sure what to make of the Blue Jackets.
Are they rebuilding, retooling, reloading...? It's a tough read. They think they can compete. Most pundits and analysts around the game think Columbus is bound for a lottery pick (which wouldn't be a bad consolation prize). So, we've gathered the 1st Ohio Battery staff to discuss and debate some pressing topics ahead of the 2021-22 season opener.
Without further ado, let's roll.
Will Zach Werenski have a season worthy of his new extension? (note: it doesn’t officially kick in until next season)
Dan Dukart: Is Zach Werenski a top-10 defenseman in the game? Realistically probably not, but then again, three of the six highest-paid defensemen in the NHL this year are Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson, and P.K. Subban. Put another way, I think way too much is being made about what may be a slight overpay. Werenski is arguably the most important player on the roster, and he signed long-term to stay in Columbus. Now that he’s the guy, I expect him to be a legitimate first-pair defenseman.
Rob Mixer: Everything seems to be pointing in that direction, but obviously, we’ll need to see how things go once the season begins. Werenski is a talented player who can drive offense like few other defensemen can, and there will be a spotlight on him this year and beyond – especially when that mega-extension kicks in next season. But for all intents and purposes, he’s that guy right now (as Dan said). He’s the leader of a young but intriguing blue line and has all the tools to be one of the best in the league.
Ed Francis: No, but it’s still a great contract. For one, he’ll continue to grow into the role of an elite top-pairing blueliner. For two, by the time he hits the prime of his career towards the end of the contract, he’ll be considered a value. And you’re not just paying him for the on-ice stuff, either. If there even was an overpay, it was a small price to pay (literally) to send a message to the rest of the team and around the league that top talent does want to be here.
Will Chase: Yes. He is the guy now for the Columbus Blue Jackets and will see the bulk of ice time of anyone on the roster, you’d have to think. He made a big statement for the team, organization, and city when he agreed to an extension and I know he’s wanting to prove himself, outside of Seth Jones’s shadow. More than that, be a factor in turning this team around. Assuming healthy all season, he should be in Norris Trophy conversation. Not saying finalist, but we know how important and good he is. The rest of the league will only continue to find that out.
Jacob Nitzberg: It sure looks that way. He'll quarterback the team's number-one power-play unit, play big minutes, and continue to grow into his role as the team's number-one defenseman. Werenski will only get better (he's 24), and the rest of the Blue Jackets' young defensive corps will have the opportunity to grow with and learn from him.
Does Columbus find its No. 1 goalie early in the season, or will this be a true tandem?
DD: Look, I like Joonas Korpisalo, but what are we even doing here? He’s a career .905 sv% goalie who has been over that average just once in the past five years. Merzlikins is paid more now because he’s better now. The organization gave him an extension over Korpisalo because the expectation is he’ll be better in the future. As far as I’m concerned, Columbus found its No. 1 goalie a while ago.
RM: I, too, am a Joonas Korpisalo fan but this is Elvis Merzlikins’ team now. The Blue Jackets committed more money to him the last time around, and it appears that’ll be the case this time too after his five-year extension. Merzlikins is a career .920 goalie, which is more than enough to win you games provided you can score goals (TBD on that front for Columbus in 2021-22).
EF: Korpisalo’s efforts over the last few years are greatly appreciated. But he’s not on this team in six months. I would grade both him and Merzlikins in the B to B+ range right now. The difference is that I can’t see Korpisalo ever becoming more than a B+, and Merzlikins can turn into an A or A+ goalie. People want to talk about Merzlikins being inconsistent, but he’s only been that when his playing team is inconsistent. If he gets consistent time this season (he will) and still stinks, I’ll eat crow. With one of the most inexperienced defense groups in all of hockey, though, be careful of how you define “stinks”.
WC: I think Elvis should have the bulk of starts but it should be a 60-40 split at most. Both play well when they have an opportunity to string together some starts, but you don’t want to wear them thin either. The best-case scenario is a true tandem that plays well any night of the week.
JN: Yes, they've found their number one. No matter how you look at it, Elvis Merzlikins has been better than Joonas Korpisalo in net, and we're not talking about a small sample size here. The organization committed to Merzlikins long-term because they see him as the guy for the future, while Korpisalo will be a free agent at the end of this season.
What are realistic expectations for Cole Sillinger and Yegor Chinakhov?
DD: For sake of brevity, I’ll lump them together, even though it’s fairly nuanced. The best-case scenario is both are fixtures in the top-nine, and maybe even see power play time. The worst-case scenario is both struggle and are sent to AHL Cleveland for further seasoning. Realistic expectations are probably somewhere in between. If both can look like they belong at the NHL level and end the season on an upward trajectory, I’ll be pleased. But I’d rather be cautiously optimistic and be pleasantly surprised than the opposite.
RM: Cole Sillinger is so exciting. Am I just a bit concerned about him jumping into the NHL at 18 years old? Maybe. But when a player shows he’s ready, he’s ready. Don’t hesitate. I’m looking forward to seeing how he can hang, and I think he’ll only get better as the season moves along. As far as Chinkahov, well, they’re already off to a suspicious start, especially if he’s not in the opening night lineup.
EF: This is going to sound so cliche, but they’ll both have their ups and downs. It’s really, really hard to make an NHL roster if you’re a teenager, and I have trust in Jarmo & Co. that they wouldn’t put Sillinger in the opening night lineup unless they were supremely confident that he’s ready. A successful season for him – and for Chinakhov too, really – is to stick in Columbus for the duration of the season.
WC: We have to remember that both are rookies, and Sillinger was just drafted! Like, it’s awesome how they’ve looked so far but they’ll struggle like anyone over the course of 82 NHL games against the league’s best night in and night out. The 4-1 lead that turned into a 5-4 shootout loss in the preseason to the Buffalo Sabres could be a microcosm of the season ahead. Exciting but with growing pains. I’m curious to see how both play out of the gate (especially how they handle Chinakhov if he doesn’t play opening night) and I just want to see them properly develop and have adequate ice-time, whether in Columbus or Cleveland. Is 30-40 points a good number? We’ll find out.
JN: Before training camp began, I'm not sure how many people thought that Chinakhov or Sillinger, let alone both, would even make the Blue Jackets roster. In my mind, they've already exceeded expectations in that regard. Now that they're on the team, their development will be the most important thing. Can Sillinger play center consistently at an NHL level? Can Chinakhov do enough to stay in the lineup on a nightly basis? Realistic expectations would be both Chinakhov and Sillinger bouncing up and down from Cleveland to Columbus over the course of the year. I don't think it's realistic to expect both of them to remain on the roster over the course of an entire season. At the NHL level, it'd be realistic for Sillinger to excel on the power play and Chinakhov to score a couple of beautiful goals, but consistency will be the key.
What will be the Blue Jackets’ biggest strength, and what will be their downfall?
DD: Their lack of experience on the defense and high-end skill at center will be their downfall. Their biggest strength will be their wingers. I don’t think they’ll finish towards the bottom of the NHL in scoring this year, as they did a year ago, but there are probably plenty of 4-3 losses in their future.
RM: I think their strength will be their collective stubbornness, if that makes sense. No one expects much of them. There’s a clean slate with Brad Larsen and a new approach, one that seemingly has the players interested. They’ll be a fast and aggressive team that’s going to make mistakes and (hopefully) grow throughout the season, but whether that’s enough to do anything more than blow a few last-place projections out of the water, who knows? Their weakness will be their lack of high-end talent; there’s just not enough to sustain and will likely be the reason why they don’t contend for a playoff spot.
EF: The strength will be the top line duo of Patrik Laine and Jake Voracek, especially on the power play. It’s an area we’ve seen the Blue Jackets struggle for years, but it really seems like they could have a Top 10 (okay, 10th-ish) power play this season. Give these guys a man-advantage and let ‘em go to work. As for the weakness, it’s plain and simple: inexperience. A lot of these guys, particularly on the blue line, just don’t have the know-how to succeed long-term yet. The key word in that sentence is yet, which makes this team exciting despite the fact that a playoff berth is unlikely.
WC: Power play will be the strength under the leadership of Brad Larsen (ironically) and more specifically due to off-season additions like Adam Boqvist, Jakub Voráček, and Jake Bean. Zach Werenski, Patrik Laine, and Oliver Bjorkstrand are there if you need them. And yes, they need them! I know the power play has been bad to downright horrid over the last few seasons, however, I don’t look for them to just be better than 25th in the league, yet be significantly improved. If not now, when? What else changes.
JN: The Blue Jackets' biggest weakness is down the middle of the ice. They're rolling into Opening Night with Alexandre Texier, Jack Roslovic, Cole Sillinger, and Sean Kuraly as their top four centers. There's not a lot of experience there, and they don't match up well against other teams in terms of depth at center. Their greatest strength, however, will be their wingers. Adding Jakub Voracek gives the Blue Jackets a dynamite playmaker to pair with sharpshooter Patrik Laine. Gustav Nyquist is back, and he'll play on the second line with two-way star Oliver Bjorkstrand.
Where do you see this Blue Jackets team finishing in the Metropolitan Division?
DD: Probably last. The Metropolitan Division is strange in that, aside from the Islanders, I’m not convinced anyone is a true Stanley Cup contender, but virtually everyone else expects to make the playoffs, or, in the case of the Devils, at least be in the running when the music stops. The Hurricanes, Flyers, Rangers, and Capitals all figure to fight for a playoff spot, though all have flaws. It wouldn’t shock me if this is the year the Penguins take a step back, and the Devils are still unproven. But realistically, I don’t see them finishing ahead of any of those teams.
RM: I’m going to disagree with Dan about the last-place finish because I think the Blue Jackets are going to be a pleasant surprise for at least part of the season. Sixth, seventh? That may be more realistic.
EF: Islanders 108. Capitals 101. Hurricanes 98. Penguins 95. Flyers 90. Rangers 87. Blue Jackets 82. Devils 79. So, seventh. 35-35-12.
WC: I have Columbus finishing 6th, ahead of Philadelphia and New Jersey, and over on the 76.5 points line.
JN: I'm going to say last in the Metro. I think the Devils, who in my mind are the seventh-best team in the division, are still much better than the Blue Jackets.
Quick-take bold predictions: who will be the biggest surprise on this team, and who will be the biggest disappointment?
DD: Biggest surprise is Jake Bean. Bean never got the chance to prove himself in Carolina, and he was fantastic in the preseason (preseason… I know, I know). Now he’s been all but gifted a role in the top-four, either alongside Werenski or Vladislav Gavrikov. Either way, he’ll play a lot of minutes and should gain a ton of experience. It’s not always going to be pretty, but he’s my darkhorse. Biggest disappointment is Alexandre Texier. I hope I’m wrong, but he’s basically been on a negative trajectory since he joined the Blue Jackets just before ‘the sweep’ in 2019. I still have time for the player, but I wonder if this is the year that it becomes crystal clear that he’s a wildly gifted but frustratingly inconsistent player that is probably just a third-line type.
RM: The biggest surprise could be Joonas Korpisalo. In a good way, he’s got to be pissed off seeing the organization commit to someone who’s not him, and if I’m him, I’m ready to show them why they’re wrong. His career numbers aren’t anything special but if he’s got a chip on his shoulder in a contract year...you never know. Biggest disappointment? Echoing Dan here on Texier. I just haven’t seen anything to make me believe he’s ready for another step in his career – but I hope he shuts me up.
EF: Vladislav Gavrikov. Without Seth Jones on the team, it’ll put a little more pressure on Gavrikov to have consistent success, and I predict that he will. We’re not looking at a Norris candidate here, but with the aforementioned youth of the blueline, Gavrikov can be a stabilizer that keeps the Jackets in some games. The biggest disappointment is a tough one. Like Dan and Rob, I want to say Texier here. But the problem is semantics. Expecting Texier to be great and that not happening would be disappointing, but I don’t expect Tex to be great, so I can’t be disappointed in something I’m expecting. So, I’ll go with Eric Robinson. The team has a lot of faith in him and that’s got me thinking he’s going to have a break-out (20ish goals) season. Though as I type that, I feel like that’s a lofty goal for a middle-six guy who’s got 15 goals in 120 NHL games. Thus, let the disappointment commence.
WC: I’ll start with the second question first: I don’t know if it would be considered a surprise if Emil Bemstrom doesn’t have a better season, but it would be disappointing and possibly his last chance if he doesn’t get going. Maybe he has more success under the Larsen system. Can he get that shot going on the power play? If he doesn’t, it could be a disappointing end for Bemstrom.
I think Joonas Korpisalo can have a real effective season. He’s coming in with a chip on his shoulder, whether due to Elvis Merzlikins’s contract extension, or just the fact he wants to show he can be a No. 1 goalie for Columbus — or someone else. If he can stay healthy and play well when called upon, it will work out for him one way or the other. Merzlikins has had injury trouble as well and Korpisalo, assuming he channels the passion and energy the right way, could show the org he’s still capable of playing like an All-Star.
JN: The biggest surprise this season will be Gregory Hofmann. He's starting on the fourth line, but he can score goals in bunches. I could see him getting some time on the power play if the unit falters, but he should be able to provide some offense from the bottom of the lineup. The biggest disappointment will be Texier (although, of course, I'm rooting for him to figure it out). Like Dan said above, he seems to have regressed, but he's only 22. He's got time to figure it out. I'm not sure how long he'll stay on the top line between Laine and Voracek, though.