Fast Forward To End Of Season, Big Decisions Loom For Franchise In Transition

By Will Chase on March 25, 2024 at 1:45 pm
Columbus Blue Jackets head coach Pascal Vincent stands behind the bench during the third period against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center at San Jose.
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

With 11 games to go, the finish line is in sight for the 2023-24 season.

After being whacked twice in a pair of games over the weekend, the Columbus Blue Jackets move onto the fourth game of their season-long five-game road trip on Tuesday night against the Arizona Coyotes.

Stanley Cup contenders in the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights outscored Columbus 10-3 and collectively outshot Columbus 98-46 last Friday and Saturday night. Fun fact: the road game in Vegas was the 900th all-time away game for the Columbus franchise, per The Athletic's Aaron Portzline.

Columbus scored the first goal in both games before the onslaught by the opposition. After being outshot 51-24 by Colorado — a season-high for shots allowed — Columbus led 1-0 and outshot Vegas 10-8 through one period on Saturday. Then they fired just 12 more shots at the net the rest of the game. The top line of Johnny Gaudreau - Boone Jenner - Alex Nylander had zero shot attempts.

"I don't know what the hell we're doing out there as a team," said Mathieu Olivier to Bally Sports Ohio's Dave Maetzold after Saturday's second period. 

Columbus trailed just 2-1 despite being outshot 22-3 in the period.

Following Saturday night's defeat, head coach Pascal Vincent acknowledged several factors contributing to the lopsided loss.

​"Team looked tired," Vincent said. "When the body gets tired, the brain shuts down. And I saw a lot of mistakes.

"We were second on loose pucks. Protecting the middle of the ice in the (defensive) zone ... we were getting better at that, but today in the second period, we didn't take care of that.

"Part of it is Vegas turned the heat up a little bit more."

Vicent also acknowledged that his team is down seven NHL regulars while they play teams gearing up for the playoffs.

Adam Boqvist, Yegor Chinakhov, Justin Danforth, Adam Fantilli, Kent Johnson, Sean Kuraly, and Patrik Laine are all out of action for Columbus.

This has provided late-season looks for players, including Jake Christiansen, Brendan Gaunce, Carson Meyer, Mikael Pyyhtia, and Trey Fix-Wolansky. James Malatesta was recalled for Saturday night's game but did not play.

In spurts, the Blue Jackets picked up their play following the All-Star Break but are just 7-12-2 since Feb. 10. They're staring at a last-place finish in the Eastern Conference as the remaining part of the season circles the drain. The Washington Capitals' victory on Sunday officially eliminated Columbus from the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year.

Restricted free agents include Chinakhov, Christiansen, Meyer, Jake Bean, Kirill Marchenko, Alex Nylander, Cole Sillinger, and Alexandre Texier. Kent Johnson is also on the list but not eligible for an offer sheet. Gaunce is an unrestricted free agent.

According to CapFriendly, the Blue Jackets have a projected cap space of $4,217,635 as of today, Monday, Mar. 25.

There are many questions for the team to figure out over the offseason. The biggest being, who will the new GM be?

Assuming that's taken care of fast, one of the biggest personnel questions for the team concerns who's in the net next season.

Elvis Merzlikins, who has been average at best this season (12-16-8, 3.40 goals against average, .899 save percentage), is owed $5.4 million through 2026-27.

Will there be a buyout after the season of Merzlikins?

Daniil Tarasov (7-10-3, 3.24 GAA, .904 sv%) has shown improvement in his opportunity over the last month as he's been one of the best goalies in the league since Feb. 10 — 4-5-1, .923, 2.72.

Jet Greaves has spent most of his time with the Cleveland Monsters but has looked the part in a small sample-sized opportunity at the NHL level for Columbus.

There are many questions surrounding the roster as currently constructed, and answers will begin to form with the hiring of its next general manager.

Will the GM look to make a change behind the bench?

Columbus is still paying Brad Larsen through this season, Mike Babcock, Jarmo Kekalainen through next season, and Alexander Wennberg for two additional seasons after this one.

Will ownership stand in the way of another head coaching change if it's in the best interest of the team?

How will the team build around their expensive veterans, including Gaudreau ($9.75 million per year through 2028-29), the captain, Jenner ($3.75 million per year through 2025-26), Zach Werenski ($9,583,333 per year through 2027-28), and Damon Severson ($6.25 million through 2029-30)?

There's also Erik Gudbranson ($4 million through 2025-26).

While Kekalainen's strengths with the Jackets included identifying talent, can the next GM shape and mold the best team moving forward?

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