Columbus Blue Jackets Season Review & What's Next?
The Columbus Blue Jackets are watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs from home for the second year in a row. In their first season under head coach Brad Larsen, the Jackets finished with a 37-38-7 record (81 pts.), placing them 10th in the Eastern Conference.
Like any team, the Blue Jackets had reasons for optimism and a few concerns. Let’s look back at Columbus’ 2021-22 season to assess what went right, what went wrong, and what lies ahead for Ohio’s NHL club.
It was reasonable to expect some growing pains with Larsen replacing veteran coach John Tortorella on the bench. But to its credit, Columbus never rolled over even after the playoffs fell out of reach.
The Blue Jackets were one of the NHL’s greatest surprises around Thanksgiving, opening the season at 12-6-0. But even as the losses started to catch up to them, they never fell further than three games below .500. In fact, they were two games over .500 as recently as April 13 before losing six of their last eight contests, five of which were in regulation.
Jakub Voracek finished the year as the team leader in points. The 32-year-old replaced longtime Blue Jacket Cam Atkinson on the wing, dishing out 56 assists as part of his 62 points. Three other players eclipsed 50 points, including Patrik Laine, who had 26 goals and 30 assists in 56 games.
The Blue Jackets, who many experts pegged as a bottomfeeder going into the season, set a franchise record of 258 goals. And goaltender Elvis Merzlikins stood tall to finish with a 27-23-7 record despite facing more shots than all but three goalies in hockey.
Columbus managed to surpass expectations due to its potent offense. But it could have been even better if it wasn’t for a suspect defense.
Merzlikins had a good year, but he wasn’t enough to prevent the Blue Jackets from allowing 297 goals, another franchise record, and approximately 35.2 shots per game. Only four players with ten or more games under their belt registered a positive plus-minus, while nine players were -10 or worse.
Oliver Bjorkstrand was the worst offender, finishing with a -35, the third-lowest in hockey and first amongst forwards.
Additionally, Columbus wasn’t “special” on special teams. The Jackets finished the year ranked 24th on the power play and 20th on the penalty kill. Considering they weren’t world-beaters at even strength either, some serious scoring regression is ahead unless the PP improves.
The Jackets might also want to see more from Zach Werenski. Columbus’ No. 1 defenseman had an average TOI of 25:39, the seventh-most in hockey, and finished at -15. He did, however, net a career-high 48 points in only 68 contests.
Despite their poor defense, the Blue Jackets played much better than many anticipated. They never quit and managed to stay in playoff contention until the last month of the regular season. Nevertheless, GM Jarmo Kekalainen is staring at an offseason that will define the franchise for years to come.
Columbus must make decisions on key restricted free agents Laine, Jack Roslovic, and Adam Boqvist. Kekalainen can match any offer those players might receive from another team, which bodes well for re-signing Roslovic and Boqvist. Laine, however, isn’t so black and white.
After averaging a point per game, Columbus knows Laine is its best player. The 24-year-old is also open to signing a long-term deal. Odds are the two sides can work out an extension, but the question is ultimately how long and how much? This season, Laine made $7.5 million and will presumably look for a higher AAV despite no 30-goal seasons since 2018-19.
Assuming Laine and Roslovic are back, the Blue Jackets will need to move some forwards. Columbus has a plethora of centers and wings under contract next year, preventing top prospects like Kent Johnson and Liam Foudy from cracking the lineup. Look for Kekalainen to shop a few vets like Gustav Nyquist or Alexandre Texier to clear some room.
Finally, the Blue Jackets have a chance to score a nice coup in the NHL Draft. Thanks to last year’s Seth Jones trade, Columbus owns the Chicago Blackhawks’ first-round pick as long as it doesn’t land within the first two spots. Unless Chicago moves up, the Jackets will have a pick between No. 6 and No. 8 along with their own first-rounder.
The Blue Jackets have to feel encouraged about this season, but they must look toward the future. They’re not a single player away from contending in the loaded Eastern Conference, so a blockbuster signing or trade shouldn’t be expected.
Columbus should go into the offseason focusing on its RFAs and finding a way to plug its young players into the lineup. After that, the Jackets will have a chance to land two top-12 picks in July’s draft, further bolstering a solid prospect pool.
Even if the Blue Jackets aren’t a playoff team in 2022-23, their overall direction is enough reason for fans to be encouraged.
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