After Star-Studded Off-Season, Where Do The Columbus Blue Jackets Go From Here On The Ice?

By Will Chase on July 26, 2022 at 1:45 pm
Columbus Blue Jackets' Patrik Laine skates the puck past Los Angeles Kings defenseman Olli Maatta in the third period at Crypto.com Arena.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
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Is this it?

The off-season isn’t over but it appears the Columbus Blue Jackets have their 2022-23 roster, more or less, intact.

It's been a busy past few weeks, which all began with the first day of free agency on July 13, signing defenseman Erik Gudbranson to help beef up the Blue Jackets blue line and add some snarl, before signing superstar winger Johnny Gaudreau later that day. Then they locked up Patrik Laine to a four-year extension on July 22.

There’s also been a slew of summer signings and additions including forwards Trey Fix-Wolansky, Carson Meyer, Josh Dunne, Mathieu Olivier (acquired via trade from the Nashville Predators for a 2022 fourth-round pick) Brendan Gaunce, Liam Foudy, Jack RoslovicJoona Luoto, and Kirill Marchenko. Defenseman Nick Blankenburg and Adam Boqvist signed new deals. Then goaltenders Daniil Tarasov and Joonas Korpisalo came to new agreements.

The most obvious and notable departure from last year’s team is Oliver Bjorkstrand, a salary cap casualty after the extension for Laine to make the team cap compliant for next season.

For fans who don’t understand why the Blue Jackets traded Bjorkstrand and not some of the other names like Gus Nyquist? Dan Dukart tells us why.

As Kekalainen explained, there was little choice.

For those who think Bjorkstrand is a better player than Laine?

Bjorkstrand is a solid two-way player and he is the type of player every team wants and needs. He's coming off his best season to date, setting career highs in goals (28) and points (57) while matching his best season from 2017-18 in assists (29). On the other hand, Laine is the most prolific scorer the team has had since Artemi Panarin and is one of the most gifted shooters in the league. We saw that on full display between January and March of last season when Laine scored 21 goals and had 40 points over that span.

Gaudreau will challenge for the scoring and points mantle as his recent 115-point-producing season more than doubled that of Bjorkstrand’s 57 total points last year. It's probably not fair to expect 115 points next season out of Gaudreau but he will get his points. As a facilitator, Gaudreau will feed Laine and that will be a combo to watch.

In spite of losing the all-around talents that Bjorkstrand provides, the Blue Jackets are better today than they were before these moves. Better than when each member of the team fielded questions about their season in review and their off-season ahead during their end-of-season press conferences.

The question is how much better?

That’s what we’ll find out. As Kekalainen and every member of the team will tell you, making the playoffs and winning the Stanley Cup remains the goal. Most pundits will say they’re not a true Stanley Cup contender yet and that's probably the case. They might not even be a playoff team next season as the Spittin' Chiclets mentioned at 1:28:20 following their interview with Gaudreau.

At 1:20:00 of the episode, Paul Bissonnette said he could see Laine becoming a 50-goal scorer with Gaudreau now feeding him the puck, and cited the success Gaudreau had with Matt Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm in Calgary, a line that combined for 301 points (124 goals, 177 assists) last season.

Another interesting story, in light of the summer blockbuster moves, is the narrative change developing for the city of Columbus. To have two big stars in both Gaudreau and Laine want to be in Columbus and express that desire more than once is certainly huge.

Becoming a destination for the league's best hockey players is an intriguing element that opens several doors down the road. When it comes time to enter the sweepstakes for additional top-tier players to help limit the gap between pretender and contender status, shore up deficiencies, or be that mid-season playoff push and game-changer, the city of Columbus is looking more prominent on the map as a hockey destination.

While Bissonnette and fellow co-host Ryan Whitney don't see the Blue Jackets as a playoff team next season—who really knows yet, Rear Admiral, the other co-host, thinks they could be—Kekalainen's team is definitely rocking the formidable nucleolus which Bissonnette also referenced during the episode. 

Just as we really didn't know what to expect going into last season, and we have a better idea of the team now, there are still plenty of questions to ask about this club.

While the offense looks to be even better, and potentially more historic after last season’s scoring surge, will the defense take the next step now? Is goaltending going to be more consistent?

Tarasov's three-year extension might be among the bigger wins for the club once he's recovered from hip surgery. Korpisalo could be better now that he's corrected his own hip ailment. Elvis Merzlikins was given the bulk of starts during last season's late stretch to close out the year in an effort to get used to playing more important games, ideally for a playoff race this season.

Merzlikins looked better as he played out the longer string, having started 12 of 13 games, going 5-6-2 in April with a 2.55 GAA and .926 SV%. Only in October did Merzlikins have a better GAA (1.98) and SV% (.939). Overall, Merzlikins finished 32nd among qualified goaltenders (minimum 1000 minutes) with a -6.76 GSAx per Evolving-Hockey. That's not a great number but he did improve upon that number from March.

With that said, the goaltending will be better if the defense is better. Individually, there is a lot to like with Zach Werenski, Vladislav Gavrikov, Boqvist, a full season out of Blankenburg will be a storyline to watch, and of course Gudbranson. Can Jake Bean make a defensive improvement?

With Alexandre Texier back with the team as is expected, it would be huge if he is able to pick up from where he left off. Boone Jenner figures to be the first-line center between Gaudreau and Laine but what if Cole Sillinger or even Kent Johnson can make it work from the top?

Johnson might get a chance at center but Sillinger could be the one to show drastic emergence after a full rookie season and off-season to make the adjustments he spoke about at the end of last season.

If Roslovic can be the second-half player that he showed he can be for a full year this upcoming season, that could make things interesting as to what that means for other players in the lineup. Who knows what the lines will look like but we have a pretty good idea as to what things could look like.

This off-season has certainly been a win for the Blue Jackets.

The extra intangibles of Johnson playing a full season, Sillinger playing his second season, Merzlikins taking a step, other elements like Kirill Marchenko getting a shot, and how the chemistry between Laine and Gaudreau work out are all the questions we don't know the answers to yet, but it will be fun and exciting to see play out.

We might know what the team had in players like Bjorkstrand, and while change or uncertainty can be risky, there is the invaluable upside of what awaits.

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