Oliver Bjorkstrand

How good can the Blue Jackets be after signing Johnny Gaudreau?

blue jackets gaudreau
Gerry Thomas, Getty Images

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.

[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.

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    NHL Rink Wrap: Playoffs are no guarantee for Golden Knights

    NHL Rink Wrap: Playoffs are no guarantee for Golden Knights
    Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Sunday’s top NHL players

    Roman Josi, Predators

    Most of all, Roman Josi and the Nashville Predators want to make the playoffs. The fights for the West’s final playoff spots could be fierce, so they shouldn’t take anything for granted.

    In the Wild, the Predators have an opponent that opens the door for higher ambitions. With Minnesota slipping lately, the Predators have a shot at climbing into the Central Division’s top three.

    Winning on Sunday didn’t hurt that cause. If Juuse Saros isn’t leading the way for the Predators, then you can make a safe bet Roman Josi is doing the work. In this case, he impressively piled up two goals and two assists to help Nashville outlast Minnesota 7-4.

    With plenty of time left in the season, Roman Josi’s already set new career-highs for goals (17) and points (66). Not bad for someone who’s already won a Norris Trophy.

    Cole Sillinger and Oliver Bjorkstrand, Blue Jackets

    In the Sunday NHL Takeaways, we’ll dive into some of the Golden Knights’ problems. But let’s not totally take away from what the Blue Jackets brought to the table. While a playoff bid is unrealistic, this team’s looking like one of the more dangerous spoiler threats in the East.

    Sometimes that boils down to Patrik Laine heating up. During the NHL action on Sunday, it was about Cole Sillinger (hat trick) and Oliver Bjorkstrand (1G, 3A) lighting it up. Max Domi might help his trade deadline value with two assists, as well.

    Still just 18, Sillinger’s generated a solid 21 points in 57 games this season.

    Could the Blue Jackets build a future worth getting excited about? They still need to make the right moves, but there are at least moments of promise.

    Darcy Kuemper, Avalanche

    For a portion of the season, it felt like the Avalanche were winning despite Darcy Kuemper. Watch out if he maintains what’s been a promising stretch of confidence-boosting play.

    Against a strong Flames team, Kuemper pitched an impressive 46-save shutout. That marks Kuemper’s third shutout in about a month, and leaves him with four on the season.

    Now Kuemper presents a strong record (28-8-2) and save percentage (.922). That’s the sort of production Colorado was hoping for when they needed to cough up a first-rounder to land Kuemper.

    Sunday NHL highlights

    Check out that Cole Sillinger hat trick, the first of his young career:

    You can read more about Mikko Koivu becoming the first Wild player to have their number (9) retired here, or just watch the ceremony below.

    Watch highlights of the Sabres upsetting the Maple Leafs in the 2022 Heritage Classic. Really, though, so much happened — including Auston Matthews scoring, but also warranting a hearing for going after Rasmus Dahlin — that you should read more about it here.

    Pierre-Luc Dubois scored the OT game-winner as the Jets beat the Blues:

    The Cole Caufield rejuvenation continues with this OT tally that put the Habs over the Flyers:

    One of Claude Giroux‘s last points with the Flyers could be his 900th:

    Sunday NHL Takeaways

    Golden Knights’ playoff hopes take another hit after fourth loss in a row

    No, the Vegas Golden Knights aren’t certain to miss the playoffs. But the threat of missing out entirely is rapidly devolving from “unlikely” to “approaching a terrifying coin flip.”

    Simply put, there’s no way this was part of the plan for a team that keeps going all-in. Truly, you may need even more analogies and/or metaphors for dangerous gambling for what’s happening. This is the part of the gangster movie where a goon starts threatening to break something.

    They’ve now lost four in a row after falling to Cole Sillinger and the Blue Jackets. All four of those games ended in regulation, so no “charity points” to salvage some feelings. They’re also 4-9-1 in their last 14 games.

    This latest lost followed certain patterns. All things considered, Jack Eichel has been contributing. (He scored a power-play goal.) It wasn’t enough. The banged-up Golden Knights started Logan Thompson in net, while Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone rank among the injured.

    You can’t just assume goaltending is the issue, or a lack of luck. Beyond injury luck, at least. Through the first two periods, the Blue Jackets outshot the Golden Knights 30-15. Columbus probably “deserved” this win, something this Natural Stat Trick chart might hint at:

    NHL Rink Wrap: Playoffs are no guarantee for Golden Knights Natural Stat Trick
    via Natural Stat Trick

    Not good. Not good at all.

    Latest slips should make Ducks obvious trade deadline sellers

    Around the NHL, teams are making curious decisions not to sell at the trade deadline. Extending Rasmus Ristolainen instead of trading him? Very curious, very Flyers. The Stars extending Joe Pavelski makes more sense with their solid playoff odds, and the short-term, manageable price … but it’s not guaranteed to be the best choice overall.

    If anything, the Ducks should be emboldened. A thinner market only makes someone like Rickard Rakell more desirable. The smart move would be to sell high on Hampus Lindholm, among others, as well.

    But we’re pretty much at the point where any argument for keeping players can only be rooted in the long-term.

    Put simply, the Jets match the Ducks’ 64 standings points this season, yet Winnipeg has two games in hand. The Canucks hold significant advantages over the Ducks, too.

    And those two teams don’t really seem to have the greatest hopes of making the playoffs. So, time to take your medicine, and hope that trade deadline selling translates to a better, bolder future.

    Maple Leafs goaltending is a mess, and Matthews risks suspension

    Again, read up on that mess of a Heritage Classic for the Maple Leafs vs. the Sabres. Did Auston Matthews cost himself and his team a suspension on top of a bad loss? The Bruins might be licking their chops, as they could squeeze into the Atlantic top three if Toronto trips and falls. [UPDATE: Matthews has been suspended two games.]

    Monday’s big story

    Coyotes, Senators players can boost trade deadline value

    Monday’s lone game is one with little bearing on this season’s standings: the Coyotes visit the Senators. You could argue the winner might be the team improving 2022 NHL Draft Lottery odds.

    Yet, with the trade deadline a week away, plenty in the hockey world might imagine various Coyotes and Senators fixing their problems. That, along with being the only NHL game on the Monday docket, could have people watching.

    It also could be fun to see if Nick Schmaltz stays hot. Schmaltz can extend his point streak beyond five games, as it’s already been a doozy (5G, 9A for 14 points). Considering the term on Schmaltz’s contract ($5.85M cap hit through 2025-26), my guess is that he won’t factor into a ton of trade deadline talks.

    Although, if someone wanted to do something bold, and anti-rental, then who knows?

    Sunday NHL scores

    Penguins 4, Hurricanes 2
    Sabres 5, Maple Leafs 2
    Canadiens 4, Flyers 3 (OT)
    Blue Jackets 6, Golden Knights 4
    Jets 4, Blues 3 (OT)
    Predators 6, Wild 2
    Islanders 4, Ducks 3
    Avalanche 3, Flames 0
    Lightning 2, Canucks 1
    Kings 3, Panthers 2 (SO)

    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.

    Patrik Laine is back on track, and that is good news for everybody

    Patrik Laine
    Minas Panagiotakis, Getty Images

    There are not many players in the NHL that can shoot a puck and score goals the way Patrik Laine can when he is on top of his game. At his best, he is an elite finisher with a bomb of a shot that can change a game in an instant.

    A little more than a year after the trade that sent him to the Columbus Blue Jackets, they are starting to see that version of him.

    Laine is currently on a heater of a run for the Blue Jackets over the past few weeks and continued on Saturday afternoon by scoring a game-winning goal in the final seconds of regulation against the Montreal Canadiens. It was a vintage Laine shot, blasting a one-timer just under the crossbar on the power play to lift the Blue Jackets to a 2-1 win.

    With that goal Laine is now on a six-game point streak that has seen him score seven goals and record 11 total points. For the season, he is now up to 13 goals and 26 total points in 27 games. Project that out over 82 games and it is a 40-goal, 80-point pace over a full season. Those would be some of the best numbers of his career, and a huge turnaround from when he first arrived in Columbus.

    The Blue Jackets acquired him from Winnipeg in the blockbuster deal that sent Pierre-Luc Dubois the other way, and the early returns last year made it seem like a lose-lose trade for everybody. Dubois struggled in Winnipeg, while Laine and Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella clearly did not click (shocking almost nobody). In the first part of this season Laine dealt with injury and the death of his father, all of which kept him out of the lineup for about two months.

    It has been in the month-and-a-half since his return that his game has really started to take off, and especially over the past few weeks.

    This is great news for everybody involved.

    For the Blue Jackets, this is the version of Laine they were hoping to be getting when they made the trade for him. An elite goal scorer, a star, and a difference-maker at the top of their lineup. They desperately need a player like that, and Laine has all of the tools to be that player. He is still only 23 years old and while his past couple of years have been “down” a little bit offensively, he still has a track record of being a 40-goal scorer in the NHL.

    For Laine, it is the simple fact that he is a restricted free agent after this season and in line for a new contract. He is playing out a one-year deal worth $7.5 million and could be playing his way to a nice long-term deal if he keeps scoring goals at this pace.

    At this point it is probably too late for the Blue Jackets to make a run for a playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division or Eastern Conference Wild Card race, but if he keeps playing like this there is a solid core in place here for the Blue Jackets to build around. The Seth Jones trade could be a major building block long-term (netting the Blue Jackets Adam Boqvist, the pick that turned out to be Cole Sillinger, and potentially another very high draft pick this offseason) around veterans like Laine, Zach Werenski, and Oliver Bjorkstrand.

    Laine, Merzlikins powering Blue Jackets’ strong start

    Columbus Blue Jackets
    Ben Jackson/NHLI via Getty Images

    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.

    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.

    Denmark qualifies for men’s Olympic hockey tournament for first time in 75 years

    2022 Winter Olympics

    We still do not know if NHL players will be participating in the 2022 winter olympics, but we do know the countries that will be in the men’s tournament. And one of them will be a first-timer.

    With its 2-0 win over Norway on Sunday in the qualifying tournament, Denmark punched its ticket for the men’s Olympic hockey tournament for the first time ever.

    Denmark joined the IIHF in 1946 and has never qualified for the Olympics until now.

    [Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

    Frederik Storm scored the game-winning goal on Sunday while goaltender Sebastian Dahm stopped all 26 shots for the shutout. Winnipeg Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers, who played in the qualifying tournament, also scored a goal in the win.

    If NHL players participate in the 2022 Beijing games Denmark will have a handful of notable players likely representing them, including Ehlers, Lars Eller, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Frans Nielsen, and Frederik Andersen.

    With Denmark in the tournament, the Olympic groups will look like this:

    Group A: United States, Canada, Germany China

    Group B: Russian Athletes, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Denmark

    Group C: Finland, Sweden, Slovakia, Latvia