Playing Better Than Expected Has Set Bar For Blue Jackets, Now They Have To Raise It Moving Forward

By Will Chase on March 29, 2022 at 1:45 pm
Columbus Blue Jackets' head coach Brad Larsen talks with his team during a timeout against the St. Louis Blues at Nationwide Arena.
Jason Mowry-USA TODAY Sports

A year with no expectations comes with little pressure to win.

As we've seen play out this season on the ice, and have talked a lot about at 1st Ohio Battery, the Columbus Blue Jackets have played well above pre-season expectations and they've been fun.

Check out this snippet from before the season in The Athletic.

Season prediction: Lottery team by a mile
Offseason grade: B+

General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen cleaned out a veteran-laden dressing room, trying to rebuild the franchise on the fly. The Blue Jackets expect to be competitive this season, but not many expect them to qualify for the offseason. This is clearly a team that’s building for the future … the near future, it hopes. -Aaron Portzline

They're currently ninth in the East, four points clear of a pre-season favorite in the New York Islanders but trailing the Washington Capitals by 15 points for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference.

We're all excited that the team is playing better than expected. According to FiveThirtyEight's current projection models, the Blue Jackets are on track for 86 points.

It begs the question: Is this team closer to competing for playoff berths much sooner than anticipated and as early as next season?

The last thing you want is a team that plays better than you thought, thus raising future expectations, only for the team to struggle in the season after and trend backward.

The 2014-15 Blue Jackets team ended the season on a 15-1-1 run only to start 0-8-0 out of the gate in '15-16.

When a team exceeds expectations like the Blue Jackets have this season, a bar has been set. Going forward, they have to raise that bar.

A refreshing change of pace for this year's Blue Jackets has been a more explosive offense (3.21 GF/GP). A large part of this is thanks to the scoring eruption from Patrik Laine (25 goals, 24 assists) who is showing out in a prove-it year for the second year Blue Jacket (28 points since Feb. 1: 15-13).

Laine is certainly one of the most pressing off-season contracts to solve. 

While Jarmo Kekalainen has shown to play hardball with prior RFA, Laine has certainly shown he is the elite scorer Columbus banked on and as he displayed as a Winnipeg Jet from '16-17 through '19-20 where he scored at least 30 goals in three of those four seasons (28 in '19-20), and 44 in '17-18.

Aaron Portzline said in The Athletic a Laine contract extension with the Blue Jackets is on the list of priorities and contract talks have begun.

Prior to the trade deadline, we knew Domi was probably good as gone as a UFA-to-be. We also knew Boston Bruins' Jake DeBrusk had expressed a desire to be traded earlier in the season. Instead, DeBrusk agreed to a two-year extension.

The signing probably doesn't eliminate the trade possibility this off-season or next season. Rather, the extension likely makes the chance of a trade and impending return much greater now that teams know there's some degree of control remaining.

Whether or not it was ever a possibility, Domi for DeBrusk seemed to make sense in that the Bruins could have had an interest in Domi prior to the trade deadline. There were at least those of us who could have seen a possibility. 

At 25-years-old, DeBrusk (16 goals,11 assists) is a year younger than Domi and would slide in at either wing. He provides roughly the same point production Domi has put up this season with a track record of having scored 27 goals in ‘18-19. Domi's best season of 72 points (28 goals, 44 assists) in ‘18-19 might be an outlier. Coincidently, Domi had exactly nine goals in ‘16-17, ‘17-18, ‘20-21, and so far, nine goals this season to go with 25 assists.

DeBrusk's cap hit after his recent extension is $4 million as he'll make $8 million through 23-24.

Another type of player that could make sense for the Blue Jackets is Jakub Chychrun. We wrote about him earlier this season after Sportsnet said the Jackets expressed interest in the 23-year-old defenseman.

If there's an obvious area of need for the Blue Jackets, defense is certainly the spot. Per Evolving-Hockey their xGA/60 is last at 2.88.

Chychrun is locked up through '24-25 with a cap hit of $4.6 million so acquiring a player like him means you have to give to get. The Blue Jackets aren't necessarily in the position to trade away from their current assets as they look to build things the right way. Unless the asking price benefits the Blue Jackets in such a way that such a trade makes sense.

Goaltending is the other big area on the team that has to be better.

Elvis Merzlikins has played well in large portions for the club this season—his first full season in which he's received the bulk of starts—but he can improve. Among goalies with at least 50 minutes in goal, Merzlikins ranks 103rd in GSAx (goals saved above expected) at -13.07 per Evolving-Hockey. Joonas Korpisalo is 106th at -14.87.


Korpisalo had a worse season than usual, and we found out about the recent hip injury he was playing through that likely contributed to his poor play. Merzlikins has also battled ailments throughout this season.

We covered the nature by which the Blue Jackets play exciting, high-event hockey so the defense and goaltending can certainly get better moving forward and we should see improvement moving forward in Brad Larsen's system.

Daniil Tarasov is a goalie to watch as he probably (according to Portzline, maybe not quite yet?) takes over as the backup for Korpisalo next season since Korpisalo is a UFA. Hopefully, Tarasov is ready for training camp as he's currently recovering from hip surgery.

Impact prospects like Kent Johnson are on their way and we haven't even touched upon the upcoming drafts. The Blue Jackets are monitoring the Chicago Blackhawks and their situation, as Columbus can receive high lottery draft pick compensation as part of the Seth Jones trade last off-season.

As the team skates forward through the rest of this season and into the future, we'll see if an offense can continue scoring goals at an explosive tendency going forward and if the defense and goaltending can incrementally improve. If so, the Blue Jackets can be in contention status much sooner than we expected.

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