Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2019-20, where Last Word on Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2019-20 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the 2019-20 Columbus Blue Jackets.
2019-20 Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets were one of many exciting, Eastern Conference teams last season. After a fairly mediocre first half of the season, the team faced an inevitable race for the Wild Card in early February. Entering the month, they held a record of 28-19-3. Statistically, they were simply mediocre. Nothing jumped off the paper, with star forward Artemi Panarin, and star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, leading the team for yet another year.
Trade Deadline Frenzy
Yet, Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen clearly saw the potential in his team. After years of mediocrity, Kekäläinen was finally ready to take a chance. On February 22, the Blue Jackets front office sparked a very exciting flurry of trades. This started with the acquiring of Matt Duchene from the Ottawa Senators. After being counted out by many rumours at the time, the Jackets managed to win away Duchene, sending Vitaly Abramov, Jonathan Davidsson, and two first-round picks in return. The next day they also traded for Ryan Dzingel from Ottawa. Dzingel was coupled with a seventh-round pick, with Anthony Duclair and two second-round picks going the other way.
Two days passed before August 25, the day of the NHL trade deadline. While there weren’t many more high-end players for the Jackets to pursue, they did manage to reel in both Adam McQuaid and Keith Kinkaid from the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils respectively.
These four trades effectively reshaped the Columbus lineup. While not poor before, the reshaping made the Blue Jackets a clear choice for a post-season entry. They set a 12-8-1 record following the Trade Deadline. This includes the 7-1-0 stretch that they finished their season with.
The hot streak continued into the post-season. After 21 games together, the newly built Blue Jackets roster had finally melded come to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The eighth-seeded Columbus faced off against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. The Lightning were the undeniable favourites for this series, having tied the NHL’s win record during the regular season.
Yet, the Blue Jackets managed to not only beat the Lightning, but sweep them. In fact, the Blue Jackets more than doubled the scoring of the Lightning during the series, scoring 19 goals but only allowing eight. This was jaw-dropping for fans around the league. For the first playoff series win in franchise history, the wild-card Blue Jackets managed to sweep one of the greatest teams in recent history. The excitement was short-lived, though. In the very next round, the Boston Bruins toppled Columbus in six games.
While the Blue Jackets may have boasted a very strong roster for the playoffs, they quickly fell apart once the season ended. Their stars, Bobrovsky and Panarin, both parted ways with Columbus once free agency opened. Bobrovsky signed a seven-year contract, with a cap hit of $10 million per season, with the Florida Panthers. Panarin also inked a seven-year deal, his with the Rangers, earning an average of $11.6 million each year. On top of their star power, the Jackets also lost all four of the players they acquired at the trade deadline.
The team did, however, cut their losses slightly. Highly-touted free agent Gustav Nyquist signed with the Blue Jackets. His deal lasts four seasons, with a cap hit of $5.5 million. While Nyquist surely doesn’t make up for the relinquishing of Panarin, Duchene, and Dzingel, he will help to stop the bleeding a bit.
The Nyquist signing was the only exciting part of Kekäläinen’s summer, though. Aside from it, the team didn’t accomplish much. They only possessed three low-end draft picks in the 2019 NHL Draft. Following the draft, they managed to re-sign all of their restricted free agents, save for Zach Werenski. This included names like Ryan Murray, Joonas Korpisalo and Sonny Milano, three players who will soon be tasked with the chore of leading the now broken Columbus roster back to their former glory.
Extras: Sonny Milano, Eric Robinson
The Blue Jackets lineup, as a whole, is absolutely riddled with question marks. Confidently preparing any sort of lineup is very difficult to manage. With that said, the top-six will look very familiar to observant fans.
Unlike many teams, Columbus was fairly stuck in their ways last season. The trio of Panarin, Dubois, and Atkinson topped the roster in almost every single game. This was for good reason, though, as the trio clearly worked wonders. Atkinson soared to a spot among the NHL’s best current goal scorers, with 41 of his 69 points being goals. Meanwhile, Dubois seemed to gain an immense amount of confidence in his game. There is no doubting that these two will stay together headed into next season. In Panarin’s spot will now be Nyquist, who should provide just enough stability to allow for another great year from both Atkinson and Dubois.
The trio of Foligno, Jenner, and Anderson was undeniably one of the most reliable third lines in the league last season. While Jenner and Foligno continued their routines as dependable assets in Columbus, Anderson had a terrific campaign. He scored 47 points in 82 games, far surpassing any prior career totals. Because of this outburst in scoring from Anderson, the whole trio is due for a healthy upgrade in ice time. Their reliability and consistency will be crucial in stabilizing a Columbus lineup that’s likely to undergo a lot of changes next season.
With that said, the new third line is loaded with potential. Texier looked very promising for the team in the post-season. Despite only having two regular-season NHL games under his belt, the 19-year-old managed three points in eight playoff games during the Blue Jackets short-lived run. Playing alongside a player as strong as Bjorkstand will only help to bolster Texier’s already strong game. Bjorkstand is similarly looking for his breakout season. While he did score 36 points in 77 games last season, adding five more points in 10 playoff games, there seems to be more to be desired from the 24-year-old. With the 2019-20 season comes a chance for Bjorkstand to finally show his prowess, as the Blue Jackets will give him every chance to succeed.
With so much promise in Texier and Bjorkstand, it’s hard to imagine this line would receive third-line minutes. Yet, the struggles of Wenneberg are what ultimately weighs the trio down. Wenneberg was highly-sought after earlier in his career, with many thinking he’d become the next elite playmaker in the league. This has yet to happen. Instead, he’s resigned to lackluster scoring and disappointing play. After a measly 25 points in 80 games last season, many fans aren’t feeling very optimistic about the 25-year-old’s play anymore. If he doesn’t rebound well this year, he could soon be out of Columbus.
The last line on the Columbus offence is completely up for debate. Dubinsky will surely centre the trio but the men flanking him will shift intermittently throughout the year. While many say that Nash and Markus Hannikainen are perfect options, neither found any sort of success last season. As a result, the vacant wings could instead be used to give prospects like Milano, Bemstrom, or even Fix-Wolansky a chance at the NHL.
Ryan Murray – Denis Savard
Vladislav Gavrikov – Markus Nutivaara
Extras: Adam Clendening
The Blue Jackets defence shares the same motif as their offence: experimenting is key. While the top pairing of Werenski and Jones is obvious, the other two could be mixed in any way. Columbus has players like Clendening, Dean Kukan, Scott Harrington, or Gabriel Carlson all poised to positively impact the lineup. There’s no denying the strength of this defencive core. It’s a tremendous group of at least nine players.
Yet, if head coach John Tortorella isn’t careful, he could compromise the entire blue-line. Constantly switching around lines and moving players in-and-out of the lineup is very unhealthy for a team, especially one as volatile as the Blue Jackets will be this season. If Tortorella can find a lineup he’s happy with early on in the year, the Blue Jackets defence should provide a tremendous backing to a potentially shaky offence. If changes are consistently needed, though, the defence could easily become the Achille’s Heel of the team.
If the defence isn’t what brings down the Blue Jackets, the goaltending very well could be. The team’s front office has remained adamant about sticking with the inexperienced duo of Korpisalo and Merzlikins, instead of acquiring a veteran goaltender. This is, again, an experiment.
Korpisalo has served as the team’s backup goaltender, off-and-on, since the 2015-16 season. In total since then, he’s set a record of 41-31-9. This includes the 10-7-3 record he set last season, despite tallying a lackluster goals-against-average of 2.95 and save percentage of 0.898.
Merzlikins spent the last six seasons with HC Lugano in Switzerland’s top league. He’s seen a fair amount of success through this tenure, setting a save percentage of at least .920 in four of his six years. His statistics show that he could transition well over to North American hockey, although many goalies struggle immensely when making the change from European to North American leagues. Sticking such a potential boom-or-bust player into an immediate NHL role can be very daunting.
While both goalies may have promising potential, neither are proven at the NHL level. Finding a way to ease them both into their new roles could be hard and, ultimately, hurt their game as a result. Columbus is walking a very fine line by not bringing in a proven goalie to replace Bobrovsky. With the potential risks, it’s hard to see why a team with over $15 million in cap space decided against this. Nevertheless, the two goalies will see every opportunity to show off, as Columbus will undoubtedly need consistency in between the pipes.
Players to Watch
Korpisalo has, quite frankly, struggled immensely over the course of the past few seasons. He recorded a .920 save percentage during his rookie season but hasn’t topped 0.905 since then. With so many struggles coming in a backup role, a promotion to starter may be a bit premature.
With that said, Korpisalo’s best year came when he appeared in the most games. He played in 31 games during his rookie season, setting a 16-11-4 record. At the end of his rookie campaign, expectations were sky-high for Korpisalo. If he can rekindle this magic, he could become a fine candidate for the new starting role. If he continues to struggle, Korpisalo could single-handedly bring down the Blue Jackets this season.
Texier started last season in Finland’s top league, playing with Kalpa. He recorded 41 points in 55 games with the team, before moving to Columbus’ AHL affiliate. After seven games and seven points, in the AHL, Texier was recalled by the Blue Jackets. Despite journeying from league-to-league, he remained dominant everywhere he went.
This upcoming season will be his first chance to prove what he has at the NHL level. With Panarin now out of the picture, the Blue Jackets will have to turn towards young talent to pick up the slack. With Texier’s production in both the AHL and Finland’s top league, he could become an extremely reliable scorer for the team. He looked unfazed in his NHL ice time last season, even when that ice time came with the pressure of playoffs. For as much poise and finesse as he flaunted, expecting Texier to be a difference-maker next year is not far fetched.
Prediction for the 2019-20 Columbus Blue Jackets
Next season will be a very important year for Columbus. They barely managed to squeeze into the playoffs last season and are now left without both Panarin and Bobrovsky. In their place are multiple unproven, young players, meaning every game will be a gamble for the team. With the immense improvements seen in the Eastern Conference, a post-season birth may be a bit far-fetched for Blue Jackets fans. For now, the priority is simply making sure players like Texier, Wenneberg, and Korpisalo can have strong years and hope to fill the massive holes left by the players lost this summer. While the Jackets roster does have quite a few strengths, there are simply way too many question marks to defiantly say they’ll make the post-season this year.