Blue Jackets in a tricky spot after 2021-22 season

Blue Jackets in a tricky spot after 2021-22 season
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PHT’s “What Went Wrong?” series asks that question about teams who’ve been eliminated from the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Why did this team fall short, and how surprising was that fall? Are there signs that things might go right next season? This series tackles those questions, and more. In the latest edition of “What Went Wrong?,” PHT breaks down the 2021-22 Columbus Blue Jackets.

Without context, you’d always want your team to be “better than expected.” Right?

Sure, but when it comes to planning for the future of a team, sometimes there’s a risk of being a victim of even fairly modest success.

To the credit of Brad Larsen and others, the Columbus Blue Jackets were a lot better than expected in 2021-22. Instead of tanking alongside the Coyotes and Sabres, the Blue Jackets seem slated to be the second-highest-ranked Eastern Conference team outside of the playoffs.

At 35-36-6, the 2021-22 Blue Jackets are close to the NHL’s wonky version of a “.500” team. Considering their fire sale during the last trade deadline, Seth Jones‘ departure, and the dire end of the John Tortorella era … hey, not awful.

Yet, with all of that positivity, the Blue Jackets ended up mathematically eliminated from the playoffs with two weeks remaining in the 2021-22 season.

[Read the latest PHT Power Rankings]

So, you face a tug-o-war of optimism and pessimism. How much should the Blue Jackets weigh a respectable 2021-22 season? Should they grumble about falling in “puck purgatory” by being too good for the best draft lottery odds, but too bad to make the playoffs?

If Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekäläinen reads too much into the positives of the 2021-22 season, he could risk rushing things along. That said, Kekäläinen also must grapple with the finite nature of patience. He can only sell so much of a long rebuild, particularly considering how long he’s been around (Columbus hired him as GM in 2013).

Whether you’re working through the present results of the 2021-22 season or trying to make plans for the future, the Blue Jackets face some intriguing challenges.

2021-22 Columbus Blue Jackets: The bad, the good, and maybe the not-as-good-as-you-think?

Again, considering the cellar-level expectations of the Blue Jackets, Brad Larsen & Co. should be lauded for icing a team that could upset others on many nights.

An optimist will view this as laying down a foundation for future success. Yet, a more pragmatic breakdown may inspire some doubt about the team’s structure. Glance at the 2021-22 Blue Jackets Team RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey:

This chart summarizes some of the Blue Jackets’ larger trends.

  • On one hand, they scored quite a few more goals than they were expected to, at least at even-strength.
  • Countering that, their goaltenders allowed more goals than expected, too. Big-picture, they probably received a few extra lucky bounces this season (mainly on offense).
  • Their special teams weren’t very good. Their underlying numbers were mainly that of a below-average, sometimes bad team. But not a disaster. Faint praise or not, things could’ve been worse. They just weren’t quite as promising as you might guess from a team that kinda sorta slightly hovered in the East playoff bubble. (Kinda, sorta.)

The deeper you delve, the more troubling things look for the 2021-22 Blue Jackets on the defensive side. Hockey Viz paints the bleakest picture:

Look up and down the Blue Jackets roster, and you won’t see a lot of great options on defense. Even a skilled player like Zach Werenski brought value more in range of a “nice top-pairing defenseman” rather than a true No. 1 ace.

As with most larger problems for NHL teams, it’s often not about personnel or coaching; it’s often some combination of both. It’s up to the Blue Jackets to decide if another season of Larsen makes sense — even if, deep down, it’s to tank — or if a more experienced coach might at least bring the Blue Jackets’ underlying numbers closer to average.

While it’s debatable if it was totally worth the offensive sacrifices, it’s staggering to consider how much stingier the Blue Jackets were as recently as 2019-20. That was even when Seth Jones was becoming more of a polarizing all-around player:

Patrik Laine and other key Blue Jackets free agent/offseason questions

So, so many factors play into how the Blue Jackets may handle the pending RFA status of Patrik Laine. Let’s collect some of the key elements.

  • Patrik Laine just turned 24. He’s a pending RFA with arbitration rights. It won’t hurt that he’s on a point-per-game pace (56 in 56) and already has three 30+ goal seasons, could reach that in 2021-22 (26 now), and nearly got there in 2019-20 (28 goals).
  • Don’t blame Patrik Laine if he wants stability. This season, he’s been on a one-year deal. His previous contract only covered two, and before that, it was his rookie contract. Sooner or later, players with his numbers tend to land term when they want it.
  • Yet, the Blue Jackets might benefit from seeing if he can truly grow his game. For all the strides Laine’s made to improve his offensive production, the same questions remain about his all-around value. His Evolving Hockey Player Card captures some of the pros and cons.

Based on estimates from The Athletic’s Shayna Goldman and Dom Luszczyszyn (sub required), Patrik Laine’s recent work would translate to $5.2M in market value. In a nutshell, Laine’s defensive game is weak, and while he remains a fearsome shooter, his playing style doesn’t always translate to a volume of high-danger scoring chances for his teams.

We’ve discussed Laine’s traditional stats, what would be an understandable drive for stability, and red flags about his overall impact. What about the Blue Jackets’ side, though?

On one hand, the Blue Jackets made a brave move last offseason. Presented with Seth Jones’ trade request, they traded out a player with iffy underlying numbers and big contract demands. Despite the hockey world knowing that the Blue Jackets couldn’t keep Seth Jones, the Blackhawks still sent an enormous trade package Columbus’ way.

However you feel about Jones’ value, it was the wiser move for the Blue Jackets.

Frankly, I wondered if why the Blue Jackets didn’t at least consider trading Patrik Laine at the past deadline. (Perhaps there’s a chance they did, but word never surfaced?)

Theoretically, the Blue Jackets could’ve tried to rekindle the spirit of that Jones trade: get key rebuilding pieces for a talented-but-perhaps-flawed player who was soon to cost a lot more money. (Or, if Laine doesn’t cost more, he’s likely to carry riskier term.)

That said, there’s a different factor to consider. The Blue Jackets have struggled to retain stars for years now. Jones continued an exodus that included Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, and even a deadline pickup like Matt Duchene. Pour in painful Rick Nash memories, and Blue Jackets fans may just want the “win” of Columbus keeping a big name like Patrik Laine around.

Handing Zach Werenski a big contract extension last offseason may only accomplish so much.

More on the offseason, rebuild for Blue Jackets

To review: the Blue Jackets have a huge decision to make with Patrik Laine. Signing him could be a PR move as much as a push to score goals.

If they’re savvy, they’re also wondering about coaching and their team structure.

Consider a few other factors for the Blue Jackets heading into the offseason, free agency, and next steps of their rebuild.

  • Laine isn’t the only contract situation of note. Jack Roslovic is a pending RFA. Could the Blue Jackets trade Joonas Korpisalo‘s rights before he becomes a UFA? Adam Boqvist, a key part of the Seth Jones trade, is also an RFA.
  • Cap Friendly estimates more than $28M in cap space for the Blue Jackets, with 15 roster spots covered. That circles back to how important it is for the Blue Jackets to take a sober look at 2021-22. Bolstering the lineup is wise; over-reaching could be dangerous, as they’re likely not a Nazem Kadri or John Klingberg away from being a viable contender.
  • The 2022 NHL Draft Lottery will be something to watch, as it’s not yet clear which of the Blackhawks’ first-rounders will go to the Blue Jackets.
  • Ratings vary as wide as 16th to 6th, but either way, the Blue Jackets infused their prospect pool with real value after trading the likes of Nick Foligno, David Savard, and Seth Jones. Will management decide to trade away some of their upcoming draft surplus for more immediate roster help, or take a patient approach. (Again, that’s why it’s so important that the Blue Jackets assess their 2021-22 season honestly, rather than overly positive or negative.)

Whether it’s Kekäläinen or a new GM running things for the Blue Jackets, it will be fascinating to see how they handle decisions like Laine’s contract, possible creative trades, and generally how aggressive to be in free agency.

Because, in this case, the answer to “What went wrong?” is “more than some might think.”

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.

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    Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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    ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

    Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

    These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

    In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

    “Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

    Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

    “He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

    Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

    “I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

    Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

    “I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

    Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

    “I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

    Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

    The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

    One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

    “It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.

    Bruins rolling, rest of NHL making final push for playoffs

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    SUNRISE, Fla. — Bruce Cassidy’s Vegas Golden Knights lost eight of 10 games going into the All-Star break after leading the Pacific Division at the midway point of the NHL season.

    They’re still safely in a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but they can’t keep it up.

    “We’re still in a good position – that’s the way we look at it,” Cassidy said. “There’s not too many teams that can cruise home the last 30 games in this league, and we’re certainly not one of them.”

    Cassidy’s old team, the Boston Bruins, probably could. They’re atop the NHL and running away with the Atlantic Division.

    With 39 wins and 83 points through 51 games, Boston is on pace to break the record for the best regular season in NHL history. The Carolina Hurricanes, who beat Boston in seven games in the first round last year, are next in the standings at 76 points.

    “Top to bottom, there’s no weaknesses,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said.

    The Bruins are in a class of their own, but the playoff races behind them in the East and West should be hot down the stretch with roughly 30 games to go before the chase for the Stanley Cup begins.

    METROPOLITAN DIVISION

    The Hurricanes rode a seven-game winning streak into the break, putting some fear into the Bruins in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage through the postseason. Winger Max Pacioretty re-tearing his right Achilles tendon five games into his return didn’t slow them down, and if their goaltending holds up, Carolina stands a good chance of reaching the East final.

    “This team, it’s a special group of guys,” said Brind’Amour, who captained Carolina to the Cup in 2006 and is in his fifth year as coach. “We kind of show that nightly. It’s just very consistent, and they take their job real serious. They do it right.”

    The second-place New Jersey Devils are contending for the first time since 2018. Bottoming out the next season helped them win the lottery for No. 1 pick Jack Hughes, a two-time All-Star who has them winning ahead of schedule.

    “Much better than being out of the mix,” Hughes said. “We’re really excited because it’s going to be a lot of important hockey, and it’s going to be really competitive and we’re really pumped to be where we are.”

    They’re followed by the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. All three New York-area teams could make it, which was the expectation for the Rangers after reaching the East final last year.

    “I think the run last year really taught us a few things and stuff that we obviously could build on for the rest of this year,” 2021 Norris-Trophy winning defenseman Adam Fox said.

    ATLANTIC

    The Rangers lost to the Lightning in six games last spring, when two-time champion Tampa Bay reached the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive season before getting beat by the Colorado Avalanche.

    The Lightning are almost certain to face the Toronto Maple Leafs – who haven’t won a playoff series since the NHL salary cap era began in 2005 – in the first round and remain a threat to the Bruins.

    But Boston has separated itself despite starting the season without top left winger Brad Marchand and No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy. The Bruins have lost only 12 games under new coach Jim Montgomery.

    “You just keep winning,” said All-Star right winger David Pastrnak, who’s tied for third in the league in scoring. “Every single line and every single guy is going and it obviously builds our confidence. It’s funny sometimes what confidence can do in hockey.”

    The Islanders should have some more confidence after acquiring 30-goal scorer Bo Horvat from Vancouver, but still need to make up ground to get in.

    CENTRAL

    Defending champion Colorado climbed in the standings – winning seven of eight going into the break despite an injury-riddled first half of the season. Captain Gabriel Landeskog still has not made his season debut since undergoing knee surgery. It would be foolish to bet against the Avs coming out of the West again.

    “It’s up to us: We control our own fate,” All-Star center Nathan MacKinnon said. “We need to definitely keep playing the way we were before the break. No matter who’s in the lineup we were playing well, playing hard, so it would definitely help with healthy bodies.”

    They still trail the Dallas Stars, Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild in the Central, and the Nashville Predators are on their heels. Only the Stars and Jets are essentially guaranteed a spot.

    “Every point, you grind for it,” Stars leading scorer Jason Robertson said. “Every point’s going to be a dog fight, so it’s going to be a fun 30 games down the stretch.”

    PACIFIC

    Undisputed MVP favorite Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, who were swept by Colorado in the West final, have a little bit of catching up to do in the Pacific Division.

    The top spot is held by the Seattle Kraken, who surprisingly are on pace to make the playoffs in their second season but still need to fend off the Los Angeles Kings and the Vegas Golden Knights.

    Edmonton – and the Battle of Alberta rival Calgary Flames – have the talent to not only get in but make a run. McDavid leads the league with 41 goals and 92 points, 16 more than No. 2 scorer and teammate Leon Draisaitl, and is producing unlike anyone since Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux in the mid-1990s.

    Now he’ll try to carry the Oilers into the playoffs and beyond.

    “It hasn’t been easy at all for our group. We’ve kind of had to battle for everything that we’ve got,” McDavid said. “We’ve always been a second-half team for whatever reason. Even since my first year, we’ve always been better in the second half, so we’ll definitely look to continue that. That being said, we’re not going to hang our hat on that and expect that to carry us to the playoffs. There’s a lot of work to be done.”