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 Roslovic, Joona 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.
Kekalainen calls the Bjorkstrand trade the "ugly" part of the business in the cap era.— Jeff Svoboda (@JacketsInsider) July 23, 2022
"There were no good options available for us, really. This was the best of the no-good options that was available for us to become cap compliant." #CBJ
For those who think Bjorkstrand is a better player than Laine?
Wait, wait. What?! Seriously?! Oliver Bjorkstrand, who is much better player overall than Patrik Laine, was traded from the Columbus Blue Jackets to the Seattle Kraken in exchange for 3rd and 4th round draft picks 2023. These are terrible decisions by Columbus in our eyes. pic.twitter.com/2mAtiL4p3y— Andy & Rono (@ARHockeyStats) July 22, 2022
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.
Patrik Laine on he and Gaudreau (and others) pledging their futures to Columbus: Personally, I dont get it, why big names have left before. For me, that was never in my head that I wanted to go somewhere else. Theres no place I would rather play in this league. #CBJ— Jeff Svoboda (@JacketsInsider) July 23, 2022
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, and Boqvist, a full season out of Blankenburg will be a storyline to watch, and of course Gudbranson. Can Jake Bean make a defensive improvement?
#CBJ general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said he expects Alexandre Texier to return to the team after missing the end of last season for personal reasons. "He was probably our best forward at the time," Jarmo said.— Jeff Svoboda (@JacketsInsider) July 23, 2022
With Alexandre Texier back with the team as 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.
If this is #CBJ's opening lineup on Oct. 12, they will have $2,354,167 in cap space. Not saying these will be the exact lines or even the exact roster, but the Jackets are certainly not cap-strapped. Screenshot from @CapFriendly. pic.twitter.com/s3RP563bRM— Coby Maeir (@CobyMaeir) July 23, 2022
Without ever really knowing, it feels like you can place pre-season projections on a team based on what we know. You can place conservative estimates on things like the number of goals or points for a player, assuming a player and team's health of course. For instance, 30 goals for Laine seems realistic and that might be fewer than what he'll ultimately produce. Gaudreau scoring 75-80 points might be a conservative estimate but you get the idea.
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.