The Columbus Blue Jackets head into the 2022-23 regular season with cautious optimism.
The Mike Babcock debacle withstanding, the actual roster has had a pretty good couple of months. The club will introduce Adam Fantilli, who is right there with Rick Nash as the best prospect the organization has ever had the fortune of drafting. They acquired two top-four defensemen in Damon Severson and Ivan Provorov, and (at least, for the moment) appear to be mostly healthy.
Still, trophies aren't handed out in the offseason. And while nobody expects this team to contend for one of those this year, anyway, expectations are rightfully higher. The Athletic is in the midst of releasing its season previews and expects the Blue Jackets to finish with 74 (74.3, to be specific, which is not a possibility) points, a 15-point improvement from last season's nightmare but still 27th in the NHL. That projection puts them ahead of only the Philadelphia Flyers in the Metropolitan Division. Meanwhile, ESPN thinks the Blue Jackets will finish ahead of the Washington Capitals but still finish sixth in the eight-team division. Put another way, even a rosier projection has them a ways away from making the playoffs.
It had me thinking: if the playoffs, a metric of success that is both a big deal (you're in the dance, and anything can happen) and also not a big deal at all (literally half the league makes the playoffs) are an unlikely scenario, what does success look like for this team, this season?
The Kids Continue To Develop
The future of the Blue Jackets sure seems bright, with Fantilli, David Jiricek, Kent Johnson, and Cole Sillinger, all 20 or younger. It's likely that all will play in the NHL this season, though how much remains to be seen since each is waivers exempt and the AHL is a damn fine league just down the road. But regardless of where they play, the single most important metric of success this year is: in a year's time, are the kids listed above (to say nothing of the other youngsters on the roster) better suited for genuine NHL success than they are today?
Subjective? Sure. But critical to the long-term success of the organization. Still, it's important to remember that development is not linear, and setbacks are the norm, not the exception. I like to think that Pascal Vincent is well-suited for the role of shepherd, but we can't know until we see it.
An Identity Is Established
Brad Larsen may have gotten the raw end of the deal last season with a roster decimated by injuries, but it's still hard to say with much conviction that the team had any sort of coherent identity. And, frankly, if the team did have an identity, it was with a negative connotation. As in, this team's identity is that it bleeds scoring chances and must be fun as hell to play against.
Vincent's primary focus should be to cultivate a framework that translates to on-ice cohesion. Mistakes are going to happen, and I think most can understand and appreciate where this team is in its lifecycle. But getting his team to play with an identity is paramount. So far, he's said all the right stuff publicly. But like he said, "Words are cheap". Let's see it.
This franchise has had trouble stringing together two steps in the right direction for most of its existence. This offseason was just further evidence of that.
I'm not sure - genuinely - if points are the be-all, end-all, for this season. Of course, it would be nice to play meaningful games in 2024. But more than having an arbitrary points total (i.e., beating 74.3 points), it would just be good to head into an offseason thinking, "You know what, this team could really do some damage next season." This team finished in 31st place last season. There's almost only one way to go, and it sure would be nice to see some strides.