Entering last season, seven of the eight Metropolitan Division teams had some level of hype surrounding them. Then there were the Columbus Blue Jackets. To their credit, the Blue Jackets did not roll over and die, finishing at just under a .500 record. However, they still were not a good team, sitting sixth in the division. With a ridiculous amount of cap space and almost all of their stars gone, Columbus did not garner a ton of attention during the season, aside from one man.
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By the Numbers
Power Play: 18.6% (24th)
Penalty Kill: 78.6% (20th)
Goals For: 258 (14th)
Goals Against: 297 (28th)
In pure 2020-21 spirit, Patrik Laine only played in 56 games last year. An oblique strain limited him to that, but he was electric when he did play. Laine scored 26 goals with 30 assists, reaching the point-per-game mark for the first time in his career. The bulk of his scoring came in a stretch from January 30th to March 19th, where Laine played in 22 games, scoring 19 goals with 12 assists for 31 points. There were significant concerns about his play under John Tortorella after the trade to Columbus. Laine was a superstar in his first year under new head coach Brad Larsen. He played in 23 fewer games than Jakub Voracek and 24 less than Oliver Bjorkstrand but was still just two goals and six points away from the team lead.
Goaltending was a major issue for the Blue Jackets all season long. In 2020-21, they split starts between Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo. Last year, Korpisalo’s play forced them to break that up. And not in a good way. In 22 games (17 starts), Korpisalo had a .877 save percentage and a 4.15 GAA. Somehow the team managed to give him a 7-11 record. That is also not to say that Merzlikins was good either. In 59 outings, he had a .907 save percentage with a 3.22 GAA. For a player under contract for the next five seasons at a $5.4 million cap hit, Columbus needs a lot more out of Merzlikins.
Behind the Bench Analysis
The Blue Jackets promoted Larsen to head coach before the season, marking his first head coaching job in the NHL. More significantly, they gave him nothing to work with. Considering how bad the goaltending was (and that is not on the coach), it is very hard to provide a significant evaluation of Larsen. However, from the moment he was hired, Larsen has given off severe “guy before the guy” energy.
Front Office Analysis
General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen is on the opposite side of the spectrum from Larsen. He has been in the same position since 2013, with only two playoff series wins (one if you don’t count the play-in round during 2020) under his belt. Kekalainen saw his chance to win in 2018-19 when he traded for Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel when both Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky were free agents. That team was able to sweep the first-place Lightning but did nothing else; all four then left in free agency. The worst part is that Kekalainen could not do anything about it. With stars constantly wanting out, the team is stuck in an unfortunate position of mediocrity. However, the team had three first-round picks last draft, so there is hope for the future.
2022 NHL Entry Draft
Columbus has the sixth overall pick from Chicago, thanks to the Seth Jones trade. Not to mention, their pick is 12th overall as well. Trading away Nick Foligno and David Savard at the 2021 trade deadline gave the Blue Jackets an extra third and fourth-round pick, but they also traded their third-rounder to Winnipeg in the Laine trade. Just like last year’s draft, this year will be a significant year for the future of the franchise. The players joining 2021 picks Kent Johnson, Cole Sillinger, and Corson Ceulemans will have to be difference-makers.
Laine is a restricted free agent, marking the first thing on the agenda to do this offseason, along with fellow RFA Adam Boqvist. Laine is 24 and coming off a monster season, so the team could also look to trade him if the return is massive. To be somewhat successful next year, Columbus will need to add another defenseman or two. Gabriel Carlsson and Gavin Bayreuther played in a combined 81 games last year, which looks even worse when both averaged 13 minutes on ice a game or less. Acquiring a player who can have an impact on the bottom pair should be a goal. The team has over $20 million in cap space, with no UFAs and just Laine and Boqvist being RFAs looking to command a significant price. So there is room to spend.
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Main Image Credit: Embed from Getty Images