Nobody would blame you if you had low — or even no — expectations for the Columbus Blue Jackets entering this season.
The 2020-21 season was a bitter disappointment across the board, while they made some pretty significant changes to the organization. John Tortorella was replaced behind the bench by Brad Larsen, Cam Atkinson was traded for Jakub Voracek, and Seth Jones was dealt away for Adam Boqvist and draft picks.
With Columbus shifting back to the Metropolitan Division where pretty much everybody is good, it seemed like a long season was on the horizon.
But the Blue Jackets did have two things going for them that could dramatically change what their season looks like.
The first is the fact they have an upper-tier goalie in Elvis Merzlikins. A good goaltender can mask a lot of flaws and turn an average team into something competitive overnight.
The other is the presence of Patrik Laine.
Both of them are driving Columbus’ 3-1-0 start to the season.
Laine was acquired early last season from the Winnipeg Jets when the two clubs swapped disgruntled young players. The Jets got Pierre-Luc Dubois. The Blue Jackets got Laine and Jack Roslovic. Neither team, or player, ended up winning the trade with their individual performances in the immediate aftermath of the trade, and that was especially true in Columbus. After a strong start that saw Laine record 10 points, including six goals, in his first 10 games. And then? Almost nothing. He clashed with Tortorella, was benched on more than one occasion, and tallied just four goals and seven assists over the final 35 games of the season. Not at all what Laine or the Blue Jackets expected.
Nor is it an accurate reflection of what Laine is as a player.
💥 LAINE BANGER FOR THE WIN 💥 pic.twitter.com/Yfu9SZFmCn
— Columbus Blue Jackets (@BlueJacketsNHL) October 22, 2021
When he is at his best he is one of the league’s top goal scorers, and a player that still scores 30 goals for you in what is considered a “down” year for him. That is quite a wild card to have sitting on your roster, especially when he is still only 23 years old and entering what should be his prime years.
A big year from Laine and Merzlikins playing like an elite goalie? Suddenly your season and its outlook is wildly improved.
That is what has happened so far for the Blue Jackets.
In his first three appearances Merzlikins has stopped 89 out of 94 shots (.947 save percentage) and looked like the goalie Columbus hoped he could be when they signed him to a long-term contract extension over the summer. His track record in the NHL right now is still limited (only 64 games) but he has been consistently strong.
Laine also looks like a different player so far for the Blue Jackets, and closer to what he was during his peak with the Jets. He already has five points in the first four games, including two game-winning goals in overtime.
The odds are still stacked against the Blue Jackets given the division, but the start is at least encouraging. And if Merzlikins and Laine play to their maximum potential that is two high-end pieces at the top of the lineup.
Add in Oliver Bjorkstrand playing exceptionally well so far (seven points) and Boqvist maybe already being an upgrade over what Jones had given them the past two seasons and this season might be more interesting than expected. It would not be the first time in recent years this team overachieved and exceeded expectations.