Pandemic Punts: Can Blue Jackets be more than underdogs in 2020-21?

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Different NHL teams come into the 2020-21 season with different expectations. Yet, with COVID-19 looming to throw a wrench in even the best-laid plans, PHT asks: what if each of the NHL’s 31 teams had to “punt” their 2020-21 season? Some situations are more realistic than others, but hopefully this serves as an interesting exercise. In the latest edition of Pandemic Punts, PHT looks at the 2020-21 Columbus Blue Jackets.

For previous editions of Pandemic Puntsclick here.

The baffling 2020-21 Blue Jackets

During the previous two seasons, it was easy to form a narrative for the Blue Jackets. Yet, heading into the 2020-21 NHL season, it’s difficult to get an overarching sense of where the Blue Jackets are really going.

Again, looking back, it’s interesting to track their trajectory. As you likely recall, Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen went for it during the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline. Instead of getting something for Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky — two free agents who would walk — the Blue Jackets instead added Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. In the process, they essentially lit their 2019 NHL Draft stock on fire.

When it comes to those results, it depends on your expectations. On one hand, they pulled off that still-shocking-sweep of the dominant 2018-19 Lightning. Yet, after that triumph, the Blue Jackets fell to the Bruins in the second round. Were the Blue Jackets justified in swinging for the fences? Perhaps, but one playoff series win (even an unforgettable sweep) probably isn’t worth waiting until pick 104 to make your first selection.

After the smoke cleared from 2018-19, people understandably expected little of Columbus in 2019-20. Rather than falling apart without Bob and Bread, the Blue Jackets managed to hang in the East playoff bubble. Once again, they pulled off an upset in eliminating the Maple Leafs in the Qualifying Round. Yet, once again, they ran out of gas after squeezing every last drop out of John Tortorella’s system.

While the Blue Jackets hope Max Domi gives their offense a boost (and doesn’t give Torts too many conniptions), it’s fair to say that Columbus had a fairly quiet offseason overall. So … again, what can we really expect from the 2020-21 Blue Jackets?

Should they try to recoup some of those lost 2019 NHL Draft assets by punting? Are they in position to go from underdogs to somewhere closer to favorites? Let’s dig in.

Werenski, Jones won’t be cheap much longer

Take a look at the Blue Jackets roster, and front office, and you’ll see an interesting mix of good and bad — sometimes in the same people.

Over the years, John Tortorella’s reputation has fluctuated wildly. Is he something of a genius who can get the most out of a limited Blue Jackets roster? Perhaps he’s too old-school and “fiery” for his own good? Maybe it’s a combination of those thought processes. (Especially if you ponder questions such as “Did he rub Panarin the wrong way?”)

Even Seth Jones is a bit of a riddle. By the “eye test,” Jones ranks as an elite NHL defenseman. Yet, for those who dig deeper, Jones becomes more divisive. To me, he’s another reminder of how tough it can be to gauge defense in the sport, and maybe the most profound example of how the 2020-21 Blue Jackets are a tough nut to crack overall.

Detroit Red Wings v Columbus Blue Jackets
(Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

However you feel about Jones, there’s no denying that he’s crucial to the Blue Jackets. The same can be said of fellow defenseman Zach Werenski.

So, because it’s the 2020-21 Blue Jackets, there’s a mix of good and bad. The good is that both are young (Jones: 26; Werenski: 23), and relatively cheap (Jones: $5.4 million cap hit; Werenski: $5M). The less-good is that they’re only so cheap for two more seasons.

Tough questions about their approach (and money)

Looking at the Blue Jackets’ roster, there’s room to punt in 2020-21, if they want.

With Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo both on two-year deals, Columbus may opt to move one, if their season goes awry (and if there are fears of Seattle’s expansion draft). More pressingly, Nick Foligno and David Savard rank as aging veterans on expiring contracts.

It’s possible that Kekalainen will glance up and down that roster and decide to slightly retool. Maybe it’s best to take a step back, and regear a supporting cast around Jones, Werenski, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and possibly Domi?

That’s an idea, but the counter is that certain important forwards aren’t getting any younger.

Both Cam Atkinson and Gustav Nyquist are 31, with at least three years of term. It’s unlikely that the Blue Jackets signed 37-year-old Mikko Koivu with punting 2020-21 in mind, even if it was a one-year, low-dollar deal.

It’s all quite tricky. Especially when you consider less pleasant dollars-and-cents factors.

If box office revenue is even more limited for 2020-21, would the Blue Jackets be wise to move out money, and hope for a better push in 2021-22? (If Forbes’ numbers are at least somewhat accurate, it’s been a tough financial stretch for Columbus.)

It’s one thing to lose money while contending for the Stanley Cup, as reigning champion Tampa Bay may have done. (Again, if Forbes’ numbers are right.)

But what if the Blue Jackets’ ceiling is that of a staunch defensive team that can only make it so far? Would they be better off taking a step back now, in hopes of making a leap afterward? Again … with the 2020-21 Blue Jackets, it’s all quite baffling.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.