Last Word on Hockey’s Puck Drop Previews are back for the 2023-24 season! As the regular season approaches, Last Word will preview each team’s current outlook and stories to watch for the upcoming year. We’ll also do our best to project how things will go for each team over the course of the campaign. Today, we’re previewing the 2023-24 Columbus Blue Jackets.
2023-24 Columbus Blue Jackets
This is a brand new era for the Columbus Blue Jackets. There’s a new coach in Mike Babcock and new potential number one centre in Adam Fantilli. The great reset is in full-effect in Ohio and it could be led by a contingent of players from the University of Michigan. (That last college football Saturday in November could get a bit awkward.)
General manager Jarmo Kekäläinen has seemingly shifted the fan base and its prognosis of doom. There’s some excitement around the club with the young players and the new coach. There are going to be some growing pains for the club, but there seems to be hope around the organization for the first time in a while.
2023-23 Columbus Blue Jackets Review
The club was seemingly doomed from the beginning with some key injuries. Losing defenceman Zach Werenski seemed really put a hurting on the franchise. The Blue Jackets went 25-48-9 in 2022-23, last in the Eastern Conference and 31st in the NHL, ahead of only the Anaheim Ducks. Signing Johnny Gaudreau to a lengthy deal was supposed to give Columbus that finisher they needed. However, a lot more problems came to light and caused a disastrous season.
The terrible campaign cost Brad Larsen his job and brought in Babcock, who has won wherever he’s coached. Kekäläinen had to get rid of some assets to accelerate the rebuild and he did some in dealing Joonas Korpisalo, Gustav Nyquist, Vladislav Gavrikov and Jakub Voracek at the deadline. This cleared out some salary cap space and allowed the team to be flexible going into the offseason.
The team also had also had a solid draft and landed Fantilli with the third overall pick. Michigan teammate Gavin Brindley was taken in the second round and got William Whitelaw in the third.
The big change is Babcock behind the bench. He’s won games, but there are some skeletons in the closet. (Just ask Johan Franzen about that.) Babcock said that he’s improved his communication skills and is a better person thanks to his daughter. He spent time in the Canadian University level and credits his time away for improving. However, it’ll be interesting to see him deal with the struggles of a long 82-game season.
Babcock may already be on thin ice due to some stuff that came out on the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast. This stems from a story that Babcock called Boone Jenner into his office and demanded he give him his cell phone so the coach could go through the photos to see what type of person (captain) he had.
Fantilli is the future of the franchise down the middle, but Babcock is an old-school guy. He won’t hand Fantilli the keys to the kingdom right away. The Michigan product will eventually get his spot anchoring the top line. Howevert, it may be later in the year for the 2023-24 Columbus Blue Jackets. Marchenko could also fight his way onto the top line if he has a good start. He was a bright spot on a team that struggled last season.
Jenner is the reliable veteran that will provide leadership to the group. Gaudreau and Laine both want to wash away the taste of a bad 2022-23 campaign. Texier is back in the NHL after a season spent in Europe. Hopefully he can inject some more energy into the top six.
There’s a case Roslovic could get some time in top-half of the line, but this spreads around the scoring. Johnson and Chinakov provide intriguing options along the wing of this line. Having young and hungry depth forwards could be a boon and help the Jackets be a tougher out than some think.
Kuraly provides defensive leadership in the middle of the fourth line. Olivier also has some defensive skill on the wing for Columbus. Foudy and Robinson could interchange into the lineup at times. Robinson saw a lot of action under Larsen’s reign. However, Foudy might be in line for a chance to grab a full-time spot in the lineup.
Zach Werenski-Damon Severson
Ivan Provorov-Adam Boqvist
Werenski’s health is a big question mark is we go into the season. The Michigan man is the top defenceman on the squad, but injuries are always tough to gauge. Severson will want to prove that he was worth the big-money extension he received. They could be one of the better top pairings in the division once Werenski finds his footing again.
Provorov will also have something to prove after some struggles the last couple of seasons with the Flyers. Boqvist also had problems with injuries last season. The main concern is will there be a defence played on the pairing. Both players can show some offensive skill, but defence also needs to be a priority.
Bottom Pair and Extras
There’s some push to want Bean in the lineup with his big contract. However, Blankenburg was pretty steady on the bottom part of the lineup last season. Blankenburg’s versatility will lend him more chances in the lineup. Babcock will find uses for the defender. Gudbranson will occupy the other slot on the bottom pairing.
Jiricek will find a way into the lineup at some point in the season. However, it may take some time in the AHL for some seasoning. Injuries can always scramble up the pairings and lend Jiricek a way into the team sheet. Bean will get some chances to justify the contract, but he could become trade fodder if the Jackets fall out of contention. Peeke is a defender that does whatever is asked of him and get in the way of a shot or two if needed.
Extra: Jet Greaves
The net now belongs to Elvis after Korpisalo was sent to the West Coast. Merzlikins knows this is his starting job and will get the lion’s share of starts in net. The Jackets hired Niklas Backstrom (the goalie one) to hep with the goalies. Tarasov can be used in spots, but is the clear number two netminder. Greaves will likely start the season in Cleveland in the AHL, but could come up if there are are injuries.
Players to Watch
Columbus may have played its way out of getting Connor Bedard in the 2023 NHL Draft. However, Fantilli is a nice consolation prize. The Hobey Baker Award winner is a dynamic player and the future at the pivot position. Columbus hasn’t had that type of centre in a number of seasons and Fantilli could be the best thing about the 2023-24 Columbus Blue Jackets. There may be a period of adjustment, but expect him to be in the mix for the Calder Trophy.
Many expected the Jackets to struggle last season, but Werenski’s injury doomed the team to being a Bedard contender. The Michigan man has a lot of ability on both ends of the ice. He’s one of the stalwarts on this franchise and will be someone Babcock leans on. He’ll want to bounce back much like Laine and Gaudreau.
Prediction for 2023-24 Columbus Blue Jackets
Don’t expect the post-season for the 2023-24 Columbus Blue Jackets. However, don’t expect doom and gloom for the club either. Has Babcock become a kinder, gentler coach? How will the youngsters adapt? Will Laine and Gaudreau find their touch again? Is Fantilli going to challenge Bedard for the Calder? This team will have growing pains, but will be a tough team to contend with later on.
Prediction: Seventh in the Metropolitan Division. No playoffs.
Main photo by: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports