Blue Jackets in a tricky spot after 2021-22 season

Blue Jackets in a tricky spot after 2021-22 season
Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images

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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