Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2020-21, 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 2020-21 Stanley Cup pick. Today the series continues with the 2020-21 Columbus Blue Jackets.
2020-21 Columbus Blue Jackets
Only three players played the full-season for the Blue Jackets, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Gustav Nyquist, and Boone Jenner. It led to 26 players playing 10 or more games for the team. Regardless of who was in the lineup, the Blue Jackets were excellent defensively. They allowed the third-fewest goals in the NHL, the seventh-fewest shots, and took the fewest amount of penalties. The Blue Jackets needed it because their offence was lacking. They scored the fourth-fewest goals in the league. Columbus finished with 81 points and just out of the playoffs in a normal season, but because of the extended postseason format, they got in. For the disciplined way Columbus played, head coach John Tortorella was nominated for the Jack Adams Trophy.
Columbus played a five-game play-in round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Both teams traded shutouts and overtime wins in the first four games of the series. The Blue Jackets stuck to their defensive game and shut out Toronto in a pivotal Game 5 to move on.
Columbus faced the Tampa Bay Lightning for the second straight year in the first round of the playoffs. The year before, the eighth-seeded Jackets swept the 62-win Lightning. Game 1 was epic. The game went to five overtimes before Brayden Point of the Lightning scored the winner. It is the fourth-longest game in NHL playoff history, only two minutes behind the third-longest game. Korpisalo broke a league record with 85 saves in a playoff game. Columbus bounced back to win Game 2, but they lost the next three games, all by one goal, to lose to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions.
Dubois led the team with 49 points in the regular season and again in the playoffs with 10 points in 10 games. Korpisalo played nine out of 10 postseason games, had a 1.90 goals-against-average and a .941 save percentage.
The Blue Jackets made several trades this offseason. They traded longtime defenceman Ryan Murray to the New Jersey Devils for a fifth-round pick and traded defenceman Markus Nutivaara to the Florida Panthers for Cliff Pu. Their largest trade was moving power forward Josh Anderson to the Montreal Canadiens for top-six centre Max Domi and a third-round pick in 2020.
They bought out the remaining three years of centre Alexander Wennberg‘s contract. Replacing Wennberg as the third-line centre will be veteran Mikko Koivu, who signed as a free agent. They also signed Mikhail Grigorenko as a free-agent from the KHL to a one-year contract. They’re not done at the time of writing because they still need to re-sign restricted free agent Dubois.
Boone Jenner – Mikko Koivu – Mikhail Grigorenko
Injured: Gustav Nyquist
There are two issues with the Blue Jackets’ top line. The first is that Nyquist is out for a few months to start the season, the second is Dubois is a restricted free agent. Chances are that Dubois will re-sign. However, they still need a top-line left-winger and Alexandre Texier is the leading candidate. This line played 62 minutes with each other in the playoffs and performed well. They had a 55.04 Corsi for percentage at even-strength and outshot their opposition by 10. This is against Toronto and Tampa, two of the top teams in the East. Texier only had 38 games of NHL experience but projects to be a good playmaker. Bjorkstrand was on pace for 35 goals if he played a full 82 game season. Dubois can do a bit of everything.
Max Domi is a playmaking centre and Cam Atkinson is a goal-scoring winger; in theory, these two should fit well together. Foligno can do a bit of everything, score, set-up his teammates, hit and fight. Foligno and Atkinson played nearly 200 minutes together last season and they were better with each other than without. They had a 54.83 Corsi for percentage at even strength and a 58.48 shots for percentage, so they played a strong puck possession game. Their goals for and against were even. All three of them had their offensive numbers fall last season, so they should all be hungry to improve.
The third line of Jenner, Koivu and Grigorenko have no experience together, but all bring different skill sets. Jenner is a fierce competitor, bringing a hard forechecking game, with enough skill to chip in 25-35 points. Koivu is playing for his first franchise other than the Minnesota Wild, coincidentally for their expansion cousin. The 37-year-old is solid defensively and great in the face-off circle. His offensive game is going down and it may not be good enough for him to stay on the third line. Grigorenko is a mystery because he struggled as a young player in the NHL three-years ago. He went to the KHL and was mostly a point-per-game player there. The 26-year-old could provide some scoring punch or flame out. The third-line is a safe spot to test him.
The fourth-line is a typical grinding, and hard to play against type of line. Robinson and Gerbe are physical players who will battle hard every shift. Nash is a dependable defensive centre.
Liam Foudy and Emil Bemstrom are extras because they are waivers exempt and easy to bring into the line-up if the team needs offence. Foudy brings lots of speed and a decent amount of skill. Bemstrom has a good shot.
The 2020-21 Columbus Blue Jackets top-four remains unchanged from last year, and with how well they played defensively, that is a good thing. Jones and Werenski are one of the top pairings in the NHL. They are both excellent skaters, reliable in their own zone, can move the puck up the ice either with a pass or with their feet, and are a threat offensively. Werenski led NHL defencemen with 20 goals in 63 games. It was also one behind Bjorkstrand for the team lead. They played against the opposition’s best and were even with them puck possession-wise. But on the scoreboard, they were more effective with a 62.50 goals for percentage.
Gavrikov and Savard are similar statistically to the top pair. They are even with their opponents on puck possession and scoring chances, and they were on the ice for three more goals for than they allowed. Neither of them is fancy offensively, but they are great defensively.
This will be Kukan and Peeke’s first full NHL season, so they are a raw pairing. Last season, both Kukan and Peeke were over 50 percent in Corsi for and shots for percentage. Kukan was on the wrong side of the goals for percentage at 38.94. Scott Harrington is a dependable veteran who can step in if they have trouble.
Coming into this season, both Korpisalo and Merzlikins were unproven goaltenders; they could both make a case for being the starter by the end. Merzlikins had the better regular season with a .923 save percentage compared to Korpisalo’s .911. Merzlikins’s save percentage was 10th in the NHL, and his five shutouts were second. However, Korpisalo was more trusted in the playoffs and was spectacular. He had two shutouts, a .941 save percentage and set an NHL record with the most saves in a playoff game. With two quality netminders, this will be more of a tandem than a traditional starter and backup relationship. Both goalies should expect to see lots of action, especially with a compressed schedule this season.
Players to Watch
It will be fascinating to see what Texier can do with top-line minutes. Aaron Portzline of The Athletic wrote that Texier’s playmaking ability could complement Dubois well. It will also help a goal scorer like Bjorkstrand. Texier will also see power play time, so he could have a breakout season.
Many unknowns are surrounding Grigorenko. He was once a top prospect because of his size, skill and shot. Grigorenko still has those traits, but how good will he be in the NHL? He played two full seasons in the NHL between 2015-17, where he scored 27 and 23 points. That is his floor and will make him a good bottom-six player. But he played well in the KHL and might have more to give. Grigorenko was known for being a dispassionate player at times, and if that continues in Columbus, it will not go over well with head coach John Tortorella. Grigorenko will need to bring his skill and up his intensity to stick with the Blue Jackets.
Prediction for the 2020-21 Columbus Blue Jackets
With their defence hardly changing outside of their top pair and getting better defensively on offence with Koivu, the Blue Jackets should remain a strong defensive team. They also should be better offensively. Atkinson, Foligno, Domi and Jenner all experienced down years last year, and odds are a few of them will bounce back. Texier and Bjorkstrand can take steps forward as permanent top-line players, and Grigorenko, Bemstrom, or Foudy could break out. It wouldn’t be surprising if one of Korpisalo or Merzlikins took a step back because of their inexperience, but chances are at least one of them will be stable. With a boosted offence, strong defence, and hopefully good goaltending, the Blue Jackets will be a better team.
The Blue Jackets moved into the new Central Division because of necessary realignment to accommodate the North (Canadian) Division. Tampa Bay, even without Nikita Kucherov, will be a lock to make the playoffs. Meaning Columbus will be in a battle with the Carolina Hurricanes, Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, and Florida Panthers to get one of the other three spots. The 2020-21 Columbus Blue Jackets toughness has me predicting them to be in the third or fourth spot in that division, and therefore making the playoffs.