Our Columbus Blue Jackets 2019-20 Preview is a part of our series covering the entire NHL. Check them out here in the lead up to another exciting season.
Was it worth it? That is the question many of us are asking about the Columbus Blue Jackets this offseason. The team went all-in at the trade deadline in the hopes of attaining a deep playoff run. And, they sacrificed a lot to do so. Although the season was their most successful in team history, finally making it out of the first round of the playoffs in a dramatic sweep of the President’s Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning, they were quickly disposed of in the second round. Not only did they give up a selection of their best prospects and draft picks to acquire pieces such as Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, they held off on trading Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky at the trade deadline. All four of those players subsequently left in free agency for nothing.
The NHL’s boldest GM, Jarmo Kekalainen, does not think he has sacrificed the team’s future for this one playoff run, and he may be right due to the roster pieces already in place. However, the hit they will be taking to their prospect pool is going to hurt. They lost some of their better prospects and will now have a total of 10 picks in the 2019 and 2020 drafts combined, with only one of them being in the first three rounds (a first in 2020).
Luckily, the team has a solid core in place and they are led by John Tortorella on the bench, who is known for creating hard working, gritty teams. The system he has implemented in Columbus has them primed for relative success, as they focus on an aggressive forecheck, similar to how Vegas succeeded in their inaugural season.
They utilize speed, relentless physicality, and pressure in order to dominate the play. As we saw in the playoffs, this strategy can work, as they controlled play against the Lightning for a large portion of the series. But, they lack the star power to win with this against other teams, as we saw in Boston where the Blue Jackets struggled to gain control of the play the same way they did against Tampa Bay. This strategy, however, does help to minimize the effect of a lack of highly offensive, scoring talent on the roster.
Cam Atkinson is the team’s premier offensive player, coming off of a 40-goal season. He has been a consistent 20-goal player for the last six seasons, and will now be looked to even more for providing offense on a roster that has just lost their best scorers and goalie. Pierre-Luc Dubois will receive an expanded role this season and is now the team’s number one centre from this point on. Coming off of a 61-point sophomore season, the young centre is well on his way to becoming an excellent two-way forward with a scoring threat to set him apart in the league.
The strength of the Blue Jackets’ roster is in their depth. Not many teams could lose four of the most talented players on the roster and still be able to appear somewhat competitive on paper. One key reason for that is the drafting and development of players within the organization. Looking back over the last decade shows that the Blue Jackets have been able to fill-out their roster with their own draft picks. Key players, including (but not limited to) Cam Atkinson, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Josh Anderson, Boone Jenner, David Savard, Markus Nutivaara, and Zach Werenski are all homegrown players.
It is incredibly important for the success of an NHL team to have a core group of players that have been drafted and developed in-house. And although they have lost a good chunk of prospects and draft picks for a few year span last season, the team is looking at later round picks, such as Trey Fix-Wolansky, to develop into productive NHL’ers in the years to come.
The Blue Jackets will be hard pressed for scoring next season, which means two main things. They need their first line to produce at their highest level all season long to stay competitive. And, they need the middle forward lines, particularly the second line, to find a way to produce at a level comparative to the rest of the league.
Leading the Blue Jackets at centre will be the aforementioned Pierre-Luc Dubois. He will be looking for another increase in offensive production this season. As he will no longer have Artemi Panarin at his side, Dubois will need to find a different way to generate offense. Just as important will be improvements in his defensive game, as he is still receiving fairly sheltered minutes (67% offensive zone starts) but has the potential to be a reliable two-way forward. Also needing improvement are his faceoffs, which have hovered at 43% in both of his seasons thus far. This will be a huge season for Dubois to prove his worth to the organization in the last year of his entry-level deal. The team is looking for star forwards, he can be the guy.
Alexander Wennberg has been a polarizing player in the Blue Jackets’ organization. Although he is a talented player capable of filling a middle line centre role, he has struggled to consistently find his offensive game at the NHL level. He ended up a healthy scratch and even as trade bait through the end of last season. He will have his work cut out for him in the 2019-20 season, as there will be a spot for him on the second or third line if he can rekindle his offensive touch. There is frustration with him in the organization, as he still has 4 years left on his contract that pays him $4.9 million per season.
Boone Jenner, a success story out of the Blue Jackets’ organization, will fill the role that Wennberg does not. A reliable, physical, two-way forward, Jenner does not have the offensive production to be a second-line centre, but may be thrust into that role if needed. Riley Nash and Brandon Dubinsky will occupy the fourth line centre role and possibly one of the winger spots on that line.
The Blue Jackets are weak on the wings. Cam Atkinson leads the way and will be joined by Gustav Nyquist on the first line. Nyquist is a major downgrade on Artemi Panarin, which is why it will be oh so important for him, and the rest of the first line, to produce at least on par with last season.
After the first line the winger spots are largely taken up by varying degrees of talented role players. Alexandre Texier impressed in his brief NHL and AHL debuts last season, and due to the lack of wingers with a scoring touch, don’t be surprised to see him get a shot fairly high in the lineup for an offensive boost, possibly alongside Wennberg. Captain Nick Foligno is a great option on the third line, with his playstyle and production level. The team has a few options for the bottom of the lineup, as Markus Hannikainen, Sonny Milano, or even a right winger playing on his off-wing could slot in down here.
Marko Dano has returned to the Blue Jackets organization with some experience. He has never really stuck around in the NHL and finds himself on the move a lot. Dano could be an option in a middle or bottom-six winger role if he can make the team and be a reasonably productive player.
Oliver Bjorkstrand and Josh Anderson will be the go-to options on the right side in the middle-six. Bjorkstrand was an outstanding offensive player in juniors but has not developed past approximately 40 points in the NHL, which he has hovered around the last two seasons. He is another player who can take advantage of the lack of scoring depth on the wings to boost his own game. He began to do so by the end of last season in an expanded role through the playoffs, and his aggressive offensive style and shoot-first mentality could be useful in helping Wennberg find his game.
Josh Anderson, coming off of a career high 27-goal season, is the perfect player for John Tortorella. He has size, speed, hits, and an offensive instinct improving year after year. He will be an excellent force in the middle-six for Columbus, though do not be surprised to see him jump up the lineup in certain situations.
Columbus is a very strong defensive team. Seth Jones has developed into one of the best defensemen in the league, and he showed it big time in the 2019 NHL Playoffs. Defensively strong, smart, physical, and has an excellent offensive touch with a booming slapshot. He is a bonafide number one defenseman, a valuable commodity, and will be a huge part of how the Blue Jackets can try and remain competitive this coming season. David Savard and Zach Werenski are two more great options for the Blue Jackets. Werenski is the younger, more offensively minded defender who pairs fantastically with Jones on the first pairing. Savard is the more defensively sound, steady presence who will lead the second pairing and take on the more defensive roles.
Despite entering his seventh professional season, we still do not know what to expect out of Ryan Murray. He was in the midst of a career season, putting up 29 points in 56 games while being third on the team in TOI/GP until getting injured and missing the last quarter of the season. Injuries have been a big part of the delay in his development, but the hope for the Blue Jackets is that he continues where he left off and can become a mobile, two-way defenseman to help bring some offense alongside David Savard.
There will be more shifting and uncertainty on the bottom pairing, but Markus Nutivaara is a near lock with Scott Harrington likely on his side. A long-shot, but plausible option, will also be another late-round success story, Vladislav Gavrikov. He made his debut at the end of the playoffs last season, and already impressed Coach Tortorella. He has spent the last six seasons in the KHL and is ready to make the leap over to North America. Although he will not blow anyone away with offensive talent, Gavrikov is projected to be an excellent defensive, shutdown defenseman.
With a complete lack of proven options in net after the departure of Sergei Bobrovsky, this position will be a major make or break point for the success of the team. Longtime prospect and back-up Joonas Korpisalo will finally get his shot at the starter role for the team. But, his statline over the last 4 seasons as back-up is not overly impressive, with a 2.89 GAA and .907 SV%. Those will have to improve for the team to have any real success.
Although he has no experience in North America, Elvis Merzlikins signed with the Blue Jackets late last season and is now prepared to come over to the team. He has been a highly touted goaltending prospect for a while now, as he has put up fairly impressive numbers with Lugano of the NLA in Switzerland. It is hard to project exactly how he will perform, and if he will need a season in the AHL to adjust, but a summer of preparation and a hot start could propel him over Korpisalo.
As both goalies are still young and developing, they will be thankful for the strength of the team’s defense to help as they adjust to the speed and positioning required of NHL goalies.
Columbus Blue Jackets 2019-20 Prediction
6th-8th Metro Division
Unfortunately, the Blue Jackets suffered massive losses to their roster that barely got them into the playoffs last season. They did not add much in return, nor were they able to come close to replacing the loss of Sergei Bobrovsky. An elite level goalie can do wonders for a team in the standings. In their division, the teams below them (for the most part) got much better and moved forward in their rebuilds. The division is still highly competitive, and the Blue Jackets do not have what it takes to compete with them on paper. It is possible they can still outperform the Rangers and Devils, but unlikely they compete for a playoff spot.