The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Columbus Blue Jackets.
2020-21 Season Review
• Record: 18-26-12 (48 points); seventh place in Central Division
• Postseason: Did not qualify for playoffs; drafted Kent Johnson No. 5 overall
• Offensive leader: Oliver Bjorkstrand (56 games, 18 goals, 26 assists, 44 points)
• Free Agent Additions: Jakub Voracek (trade with Flyers), Adam Boqvist (trade with Blackhawks), Zac Rinaldo, Jake Bean (trade with Hurricanes), Sean Kuraly
• Free Agent Subtractions: Seth Jones (trade with Blackhawks), Cam Atkinson (trade with Flyers), Michael Del Zotto
Biggest Question Facing the Blue Jackets
• What is going to happen with Patrik Laine?
This is a two-part question, really. The first part is the most pressing for this season and is simply, can he bounce back from what was a lousy 2021-22 season?
When he arrived in Columbus there was some obvious excitement because of the type of player he is and the impact he can make as a goal scorer when he is at his best. But there was also the question of how his style would fit with former coach John Tortorella. The answer turned out to be not well. Laine was benched on more than one occasion under Tortorella and never seemed to find his game after the trade, finishing the season with the worst offensive numbers of his career. It was tough to watch at times.
[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]
But the 2021-22 season represents a fresh start, a more normal season, a new coach, and hopefully the return of the 35-40 goal player the Blue Jackets thought they would be getting.
The second question is what exactly is his future going to be with the Blue Jackets? That, too, was an important question when the Blue Jackets initially acquired him in the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade. He signed a one-year deal this offseason and will again be a restricted free agent after this season. We know the Blue Jackets’ history with retaining higher profile players (it is not great) and at some point they are going to have to make a long-term decision on how to keep him. If they want to keep him.
What’s the salary cap situation?
It is not a bad situation. The two most significant long-term contracts on the roster are the recently acquired Voracek (three more years at more than $8 million) and Zach Werenski‘s brand new, massive contract that will pay him more than $9.5 million per season for six years. That contract begins during the 2022-23 season. Werenski’s deal was seen as maybe a slight overpay, but he is a fantastic player and it was important for the Blue Jackets to retain one of their star players. If you are going to have a slight overpay under the salary cap, that is the type of guy to overpay.
The Blue Jackets have some salary cap flexibility, but they do have the Laine situation to deal with, as well as pending unrestricted free agents Max Domi and both goalies, Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins after this season.
• Adam Boqvist
Boqvist is one of the key parts of the Seth Jones trade to Chicago, and he could help make this a big win for the Blue Jackets. While his name may not yet carry the same clout as Jones’ around the league, he does have a chance to be an impact player for the Blue Jackets right now.
He has shown flashes of that over his first two years in the league, and had some of the best underlying numbers of any Blackhawks defender a year ago in terms of shot attempt differential, scoring chances, and expected goals. Entering his third season in the league he should be ready for a step forward and become a key long-term part of the Blue Jackets’ blue line.
Expectations might be low for the Blue Jackets this season but there is some talent here, and it is a team that has at times over the past few years overachieved. Werenski is a legit top-pairing defender, and with Laine, Voracek, Domi, Oliver Bjorkstrand, the return of a healthy Gustav Nyquist, and some intriguing young players (Alexandre Texier, Emil Bemstrom, Eric Robinson) there is some talent here. They also have the potential for a strong goalie duo with Korpisalo and Merzlikins. They are not going to be an easy team to beat on most nights and if the goaltending excels there is a chance they could hang around in the playoff race. The biggest problem is going to be the fact they play in the Metropolitan Division where pretty much everybody is good and competitive. So the best case is Laine scores 40 goals, Nyquist has 60 points, Werenski keeps being a star, Boqvist becomes a star, and the goalies help keep them competitive.
The other side of the equation here is if Laine does not bounce back, Boqvist does not take a step forward, and the goaltenders are either average or below average. The latter point and Laine, though, are the keys here. They do not have much of a chance to compete if Korpisalo and Merzlikins are not good, and they need Laine to be the player they thought they were acquiring for a variety of reasons. Ranging from the fact they need an impact goal scorer, to the fact they used their most significant trade chip at the time (Dubois) to acquire him. All of that would not only put them in the draft lottery, but also with some of the best odds.
Pointsbet – Columbus Blue Jackets Stanley Cup odds
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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.