Whether you agree or disagree with his vision and roster moves, you have to give Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen credit for one thing. He is not afraid to take a risk or make every effort to improve his roster.
Wednesday’s stunning signing of unrestricted free agent Johnny Gaudreau was perhaps the biggest move of his tenure in and it has certainly raised eyebrows around the league given where Columbus finished the 2021-22 season. They were not a playoff team, nobody expected them to be major players in the free agent market (especially for Gaudreau), and there is still some debate as to how good they can actually be this season.
It is not the first time Kekäläinen and the Blue Jackets have done something like this.
Think back to the 2019 NHL trade deadline when Columbus, facing the prospect of losing Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky after the season in unrestricted free agency, not only kept both players, but went all in by adding Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Keith Kinkaid, and Adam McQuaid in an effort to make the playoffs. They did, and then pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in Stanley Cup playoff history when they swept a record-setting Tampa Bay Lightning team in four games.
This is the offseason version of that.
Lucky number 13 for @johngaudreau03 😎@RuoffMortgage | #CBJ pic.twitter.com/Iok88OMD1I
— Columbus Blue Jackets (@BlueJacketsNHL) July 14, 2022
[Related: Blue Jackets sign Gaudreau in free agency stunner]
In a league where most GMs and teams seem to be incredibly risk averse, Kekäläinen’s approach is a breath of fresh air for fans that like seeing teams make an effort to get better. Sometimes that is all it takes. Think back to last offseason when the Los Angeles Kings, still considered to be in a rebuild, spent big money on adding Viktor Arvidsson and Philip Danault to complement their young players. The result was a rapid improvement that put them in the playoffs ahead of schedule, while they were a close Game 7 away from actually advancing. They made an actual effort to get better, and they did.
The question here is how much better are the Blue Jackets going to be?
Columbus was a 10th-place team in the Eastern Conference this past season and is not really considered a contender. But there is still a lot of talent here.
Cole Sillinger is entering his second year and coming off of a rookie season where he scored 16 goals and 31 points as an 18-year-old.
Oliver Bjorkstrand and Gustav Nyquist are legit top-six forwards. Jack Roslovic and Boone Jenner have that ability. There are also some interesting young players like Emil Benstron and Alexandre Texier with potential.
On defense, Zach Werenski is a legitimate top-pairing defenseman while the Seth Jones trade has helped rebuild that unit around him with talented young players (Adam Boqvist, Jake Bean, and No. 6 overall pick.
Now they have a bonafide superstar and one of the league’s elite players on their roster. For a team that badly needed a star and has watched their own stars leave town one after another, this is a massive moment.
There are two wild cards that will determine what this team can do this season (and in the near future).
What happens with Patrik Laine?
This is significant.
Laine remains a restricted free agent while the Blue Jackets have just a little more than $3 million in salary cap space remaining, per Cap Friendly.
Does Laine still factor into their short-term (or long-term) plans? Or is Gaudreau seen as a replacement for him? If it is the former, a lineup that has both Laine and Gaudreau in it has the potential to be fairly dynamic. That is two stars on the roster, especially given the way Laine bounced back this year offensively.
If they are going to keep him they are going to have to move out salary somewhere to fit him under the cap. Jakub Voracek‘s $8.25 million salary cap is costly over the next two years and would be a prime candidate to move if they could find a taker.
Simply swapping out Laine for Gaudreau might be an upgrade, especially if you factor in a return on a hypothetical Laine trade, but it is probably not as big of an upgrade as having both of them on the roster together.
The other big X-factor for every team.
This was a big problem for the Blue Jackets during the 2021-22 season as both Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo struggled. The team finished in the bottom-10 of the league in both all situations and 5-on-5 save percentage, and it was a significant step backwards from what the duo has shown in the past. It is also totally understandable that both goalies struggled given the offseason death of teammate Matīss Kivlenieks. Merzlikins talked after the season how he had games where he struggled. It would be unfair to use his performance this past season as a measuring stick of what to expect moving forward. As good as professional athletes are at their jobs, they are still human.
Merzlikins does not have a huge track record in the NHL, but his first two years in the league were extremely productive. Among the 40 goalies that appeared in at least 50 games during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, Merzlikins’ .920 all situations save percentage was fifth best in the NHL while his .922 even-strength save percentage was 11th best.
There is every reason to believe that both he and Korpisalo can be better this season.
Based on the 2021-22 season Columbus would have a 19-point gap to make up in the playoff race to make the playoffs. That is a lot. But with better goaltending, a full season of Laine, the addition of Gaudreau, and some of their young players could help get them there.
[Related: 2022 NHL Free Agency Tracker]
Every year there are multiple teams that make the playoffs after missing the previous season. It is a given that it will happen. For as good as the Eastern Conference and Metropolitan Division is there are some teams that could be vulnerable. Washington is getting older and will be without some key players at the start of the season (and perhaps Nicklas Backstrom all season). Boston’s roster is a total wild card right now as nobody knows if Patrice Bergeron (or David Krejci) will be back, while they will be starting the season with multiple key players sidelined, including Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy. Pittsburgh is a year older with some questions.
As for their non-playoff competitors, the Islanders have lost in the dust and missed out on everybody. The Devils were still 20 points back of the Blue Jackets and both teams lost out on Gaudreau to the Blue Jackets. Detroit might be able to make a move up, but they signed a bunch of good players instead of a superstar.
It is not a given, but there is a definite path to the playoffs for Columbus and the potential is certainly there. In a league where teams are afraid to take a gamble the Blue Jackets have a way of keeping things interesting. Sometimes you just have to try. Maybe if it works other teams will follow.
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.