Welcome to our latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. The Puck Drop Preview series takes you through each team as the season is fast approaching. The preview will focus on the narratives surrounding the team ending last year, during the offseason, and heading into the 2021-22 season. Puck Drop Preview also focuses on what the season has in store for each team from a roster and expectations perspective. Join us, as we look at all 32 teams before the season starts. Today, we take a look at the 2021-22 Columbus Blue Jackets.
2021-22 Columbus Blue Jackets
The wheels fell off for the Blue Jackets after four straight seasons of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Columbus seemingly had nothing go right as all phases of their game struggled. Being thrust into a tough Central Division against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, and Nashville Predators didn’t help. The Jackets finished last in the division even behind the also-ran Detroit Red Wings after finishing with an 18-26-12 record in the 56-game campaign.
The Blue Jackets’ hallmarks of strong coaching, solid defence, and good goaltending all failed them in 2020-21. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen ended the Pierre-Luc Dubois drama by trading him to the Winnipeg Jets for Patrik Laine to try to jumpstart the sagging offence. However, they finished 27th in goals scored with 134 and struggled on the power-play with a 15.4-percent success rate.
Ending Torts Reform
Kekalainen made the hard choice of firing John Tortorella, who is the winningest coach in team history. However, it seems like a new voice needed to be heard in the locker room. Tortorella won 227 games behind the bench and earned the Jack Adams Award for the league’s top coach in 2017. Brad Larsen takes over behind the bench, but there’s already some turnover as Sylvain Lefebvre was fired for not getting vaccinated for COVID-19.
It was sad seeing Tortorella’s run end in charge of the Blue Jackets, but he was easily their best coach in team history. He brought toughness and an edge to the club that made them too difficult to play against. He’ll likely be remembered fondly in Central Ohio.
Dealing with Tragedy
The Blue Jackets’ family is also dealing with another tragedy in the death of goalie Matiss Kivlenieks. He was killed trying to save people from fireworks over the Fourth of July holiday. The death rocked the hockey world and will serve as motivator for the Columbus goalies. Kivlenieks died a hero and he’s still greatly missed.
Roslovic was the player that shined in the whole deal between the Jets and Blue Jackets. He flourished as he equaled his career-best 12 goals in just 48 games. His familiarity with Laine may help the Finn, who only scored 12 between the two teams. Voracek is a natural playmaker and fits in with Laine and his still good shot. It’s going to be odd seeing a lineup sheet without Cam Atkinson‘s name on it after he was swapped for Voracek.
Bjorkstrand has gotten double-digit goals in four straight seasons with the team. He looked solid in Olympic qualifying for his native Denmark as well. Domi was dangled in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, but was not selected. He could be trade bait again if the Jackets struggle this season. They’ll also miss the pivot, who is out until December. Texier did get a career-high in points and will likely see increased minutes.
Robinson is a player that some thought would have been taken by Seattle. However, he stayed put and many hope he can take an increased role. One could argue the second and third lines have interchangeable parts. Domi, Texier and Jenner can play any forward spot, so that gives them versatility.
Kuraly will give the Jackets a nasty streak and has veteran experience. Hoffman is likely one of the oldest rookies in recent memory at 28. He spent the last decade overseas in Switzerland. Bemstrom gets first crack on the win, but don’t be surprised to see some rotation at the spot. Chinakhov likely spends time in the AHL in Cleveland.
It’s a different and young blue-line group after David Savard got dealt at the deadline and Seth Jones was shipped off to the Chicago Blackhawks. Boqvist will get a chance at some sustained top-pair minutes. Werenski who recently signed a long-term extension is the main piece of the rebuild. Gavrikov is the “old man” of the regular group at 25 years old. Bean, Peeke and Carlsson will get opportunities to also get regular playing time in this youthful group. Kukkan, Bayreuther and Lehtonen will be solid extra pieces that can slide into the lineup.
The Jackets do have strong goalies, but they struggled last season. One of those goalies may be on the move if the season does go south. Both goalies are unrestricted free agents, but Korpisalo has a friendly deal at $2.8 million. Either goaltender would get a nice return, but Kekalainen will wait for the right deal. The Jackets have done well to ship out assets and dealing either goalie continues that.
Players to Watch
Merzlikins vowed to try and win the Vezina Trophy for his fallen friend. The Latvian struggled by giving up 2.77 goals-against, but the struggles on defence didn’t help that number. There will be some growing pains with a young defence, but Merzlikins is going to give a maximum effort. He can put up strong numbers even with a questionable lineup in front of him.
The former University of Michigan product signed a six-year, $57.5 million extension in the off-season. He’s the franchise player after Jones was dealt to the Blackhawks, but is going to have to prove that big price tag. He was injured most of last season, but can put up some big numbers from the backend. Werenski notched at least 35 points in every full season of play.
The Finn is going to do all he can to earn the big payday he’s seeking. Laine struggled last year, but is going to give it one more go in Columbus after getting a $7.5 million deal for this season. A big season is the key to unlocking that long-term deal with a nice number. He’ll be itching to put last season behind him.
Prediction for 2021-22 Columbus Blue Jackets
This year might be a rough one for Blue Jackets fans. Management has hit the reset button with the new coach and trading assets like Jones. There’s going to be some pain in the next couple of years. It’s all about building a new core and getting assets. Picks like Kent Johnson and Sillinger are a good start, but more needs to be done. Kekalainen went all-in during the 2018-19 playoff run that didn’t get to the Eastern Final.
It also doesn’t help that the Jackets return to a very tough Metropolitan Division with the contenders like Hurricanes, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, and New York Islanders. The New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers have also made significant changes to their roster. Columbus has been underestimated before, but it looks like a tall order to contender with all of the challenges facing them.