Bidding Adieu: As 2023-24 Closes On Blue Jackets, Storylines To Watch For Next Year's New-Look Team

By Will Chase on April 15, 2024 at 1:45 pm
Columbus Blue Jackets' Adam Fantilli celebrates his goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the third period at Nationwide Arena.
Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

One game to go before the most important offseason to date gets started for the franchise.

The Columbus Blue Jackets play the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night, and once the final horn signifies the end of the 2023-24 regular season for Columbus, the offseason will be underway.

A franchise desperate to get back to the playoffs has a lot of work to do this summer to start down that goal.

Looking back at head coach Pascal Vincent's first year in Columbus, things started okay before nine straight November losses all but ended the club's chances of playing meaningful hockey this time of year.

Before we reached Thanksgiving, national pundits were continuously honing in on the Blue Jackets' off-ice drama, with topics swirling around the hot seat of then-general manager Jarmo Kekalainen to Elvis Merzlikins wanting a "new scenario," to David Jiricek's comments and the handling of his being up-and-down between Columbus and AHL Cleveland.

Two weeks ago, I said, "This season has been a clunky, at times vomit-inducing roller coaster ride, swallowing up a head coach before the season, its longest-tenured general manager, and a few castoffs at the trade deadline."

The ride is nearing its end. How will it start again next year?

Who Will Be The Opening Night Goalie In 2024-25?

The 2022-23 season started with Daniil Tarasov between the pipes, as Merzlikins was a late scratch due to illness.

Could the 2024-25 season begin with Tarasov as the new No. 1?

Merzlikins still has three more years left on his contract, with a cap hit of $5.4 million per year. It surely feels like the 30-year-old has used up whatever chances he has left to be the main guy for the Blue Jackets in goal.

If inconsistent play on the ice isn't enough for you to wonder if he can still be the guy, and sure, it's not like he has had the best team in front of him, you can point to the other stuff.

Goalies have to be unflappable, and Merzlikins wears his emotions on his sleeve, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. See Patrick Roy.

But you have to keep your emotions in check during key moments and we saw instances — the Tom Wilson game on Dec. 21— where he completely lost his cool during overtime as he got into it with Wilson and was assessed a roughing penalty in which Alex Ovechkin went on to win the game for the Washington Capitals on the power play.

As Vincent said, it cost them the game.

There's also the question of whether or not you can rely on Merzlikins. He's dealt with his share of injury and illness throughout his Blue Jackets tenure.

Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells said, "Availability is the best ability," and it's hard to know what you're getting from one game to the next with Merzlikins.

Of course, the biggest question is twofold. Who's the next general manager going to be, and what do they think of Merzlikins?

Adding to that question, regardless of whether incoming brass sees him as part of the solution for the Blue Jackets, how difficult will it be to move his contract?

Tarasov and Jet Greaves have played well during their second-half opportunity. Greaves could be ready for the NHL, but he's only played nine career games at the highest level. Tarasov has played like a No. 1 before his latest injury, and health has been the question for him.

Yes. Who will be in the net is certainly the question.

What Can We Expect From Patrik Laine?

One of the interesting storylines coming into this season was the experiment of Patrik Laine at center.

instead, he only played 18 games.

The season got off to an unfortunate start four games into the year after Laine was injured following a cheap shot at the hands of Rasmus Andersson late in the Oct. 20 victory over the Calgary Flames. Then he suffered a broken collarbone against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 14.

Laine entered the NHL/NHL Players' Association Player Assistance Program in January.

First and foremost, we hope Laine is getting the help he needs. If and when he's ready to return to the NHL, we'll see where Laine fits on this roster and what he can do for the club.

When healthy, he can score with the best of them, but time will tell on what's next.

Can Adam Fantilli Be a 50-Point Player?

Adam Fantilli put up 27 points (12 goals, 15 assists) in an injury-shortened 49-game campaign. He was on pace for 45 points, and if he's healthy next season, he could post a 50-point season, right?

Adam Fantilli

  • 49 Games
  • 27 Points
  • 12 Goals
  • 15 Assists

Fantilli registered his first NHL point, an assist, on opening night against the Philadelphia Flyers.

He had his first two-game point streak and multi-point game on Oct. 24 against the Anaheim Ducks when he had a goal and an assist.

Fantilli had his first three-point game and two-goal game against the New York Islanders.

His career-long point streak is four games (Dec. 23 - Dec. 30).

Will Vincent Be The Coach?

I go back to what Vincent said when he was hired last September, days before training camp.

"Words are cheap."– Pascal Vincent

I mean, words are cheap. I get it. But when they see us out there, they'll see it. We're going to compete, we're going to work hard, we're going to be structured, and they'll see that the team is improving. The goal is to win as many hockey games as possible, to make the playoffs, and from there who knows what's gonna happen. So that's what we're gonna try to do. There's nothing I can say today that can convince anyone. I want them to come here and watch us. That's how we're going to convince them.

As the Blue Jackets were closing out the 2022-23 season, the team was battered by injury and buried in the standings.

When it came to evaluating the second-year coach, Brad Larsen, the front office wasn't going to base their final evaluation on wins and losses.

As the current season closes, it's much the same in terms of injuries over the final weeks of the season and a bad record pitting the Jackets at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division, locked into the fourth-worst record in the NHL.

One might assume a head coach only one year into his contract would be safe, but hardly anyone can be safe when a new GM is on their way in, and the franchise is desperate to turn things around.

As the incoming GM figures out what they consider part of the solution for the team moving forward, the biggest component of that factor would have to include the bench boss.

Vincent had a less-than-ideal start to his new gig when he was appointed as head coach just days before his first training camp. The roster clearly has work to do before it can compete with the league's heavyweights.

Vincent has worked to change the culture of the club, and it would appear his players have bought into the approach.

But just as wins and losses might be hard to pin solely at Vincent's feet, one can always find something to quibble over whether it's lineup utilization, daily ice time, and healthy scratches.

Even if Vincent has done a good job with what he has to work with, and even if ownership wouldn't ideally want to pay another coach to go away and for one to come in, what if the right coach became available?

You saw how fast the New York Rangers said goodbye to Gerard Gallant after two playoff years and brought in Peter Laviolette.

This is the best opportunity upcoming for the Blue Jackets to fix what ails. It can be done. But if the franchise doesn't get the next GM hire right, the repercussions will be disastrous.

Personally speaking, it's tiring watching a bad team play for 82 games season after season.

Knowing full well the intentions of a rebuild and what that would bring, it's time to see the benefits of a talented, young roster and the team as a whole take a collective next step.

While we likely won't know for a while whether the team gets this next hire right, they must just get it right.

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