Our offseason previews for all 31 National Hockey League teams continues with the Columbus Blue Jackets and their outlook for the summer.
The Jackets finished the 2017-18 season with a record of 45-30-7, capping a strong (albeit inconsistent) campaign with 97 points, earning them fourth place in the Metropolitan Division and a playoff birth as the first wild card in the East.
After taking two dramatic overtime victories in Washington to start the playoffs, the soldiers in Union Blue fell on their bayonets by dropping four-straight games (including three within the friendly confines of Nationwide Arena) to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals and were once again eliminated from contention in the opening round of the playoffs.
I mean, would they really be the Blue Jackets if they didn’t get your hopes up before firing them out of that cannon?
Though the core of a solid-if-not-spectacular team is likely to remain through the summer, the front office is now feeling the pressure of raising a team that they drug out of the trenches by the bootstraps to the next level. The fanbase will no longer accept ‘just making the playoffs’, and though there’s still plenty of promising youth onboard, some key players like captain Nick Foligno are sliding into the back half of their careers. This is a team that needs to win, and needs to do it soon.
How can they do that? I’m glad you asked. (If you didn’t actually ask, I’m still going to tell you.)
2018 NHL Entry Draft
The Jackets are decently well-stocked to try and score some talent in this year’s draft, with a pick in each of the first three rounds, along with another in both the sixth and seventh. It will be those early-round picks that are likely to mean the most to GM Jarmo Kekalainen and his staff, as this year’s extremely deep draft class means that you’re likely to nab some serious quality (or perhaps have a bigger bargaining chip should you decide to trade picks for another asset) deeper in than usual.
It’s not overly likely that the CBJ will look to acquire further picks, though they could perhaps look to trade up from their 18th spot in line. With Jack Johnson a pending UFA who looks very likely to be on the move (his recent time in Columbus has been tumultuous, and a change of scenery could be the spark he needs to reignite his career) come July 1, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we could see a deal made to send his negotiating rights and that 18th pick to a team further up the draft order.
As for likely selections with whatever first round pick they happen to have (we’ll pretend that if they trade up, it will be a small swing, maybe in the 12-15 position at most), a few names stand out to me as filling potential needs.
Serron Noel, a 6-foot-5, 205-pound right winger out of the OHL (Oshawa Generals) could be a fit on a team with few natural right wingers. A solid, if not outstanding scorer in juniors, Noel is still filling out his large frame and is likely to continue improving his burgeoning offensive game, drawing comparisons to power forwards like Wayne Simmonds. An eventual perhaps third-and-fourth line RW tandem of Noel and Josh Anderson would be a lot of meat to throw at opposing defenses.
Bode Wilde, a 6-foot-2, 196-pound right shooting defenseman from the United States National Team Development Program, is a very good possibility. Regarded as one of the better all-round defenders in a draft that is not lacking them, Wilde could eventually complete a defense corps that boasts himself along with David Savard and Seth Jones down the right side. Not a bad lineup there. In particular, his booming slap shot would be a welcome addition on a power play unit that hasn’t had a true cannon since James Wisniewski‘s departure. Also, he has a sick hockey name.
My personal pick for the most likely selection comes in the form of Swedish Elite League center Isac Lundestrom. At 6-feet and 185 pounds, he’s not far off from good NHL size, and with the additional polish his defensive game could use, he’d likely have plenty of time to hit the weight room before reaching the Jackets lineup. But his elite offensive capabilities and, in particular, blinding speed address two of the club’s biggest shortcomings. He also provides versatility, having proven himself capable of playing the left wing well. Regarded by some scouts as having potentially the highest ceiling of any center in the draft, he could be a mid-round steal for Columbus.
Pending Free Agents
The UFA list for Columbus isn’t huge, but it does contain a few potentially interesting names. NHL regulars Johnson (who’s possible fate has already been discussed, so we’ll skip over him in this section), Thomas Vanek, Matt Calvert, Ian Cole, and Mark Letestu are the most notable names (no offense to Jeff Zatkoff, Taylor Chorney, Andre Benoit, Cameron Gaunce, and Alex Broadhurst).
Vanek’s stint in Columbus started off very well, gelling quickly with linemates Alexander Wennberg and Boone Jenner to put up great numbers in early games following his acquisition at the deadline. But the magic wore off and he was all-but-invisible during the playoffs, often looking far too slow to keep up with the game. Acquired for an absolute steal (Jussi Jokinen, a waiver wire pickup, and Tyler Motte, a throw-in on the Artemi Panarin trade that had bounced around between the AHL and the Jackets’ fourth line all year), it doesn’t hurt the organization at all to simply let him walk.
Calvert was protected from the expansion draft in place of 2017-18 40-goal scorer William Karlsson. That isn’t necessarily relevant information, but I enjoy pain. Anyway, Calvert enjoyed a so-so year, producing nine goals and a career-high (tied) 24 points in 69 (nice) games played. A solid contributor on the penalty kill, and a constant spark plug on the fourth line, his never-quit playing style has endeared him to Columbus fans, but he may have to take a hometown discount if he wants to stay.
Cole played extremely well down the stretch for Columbus after his acquisition from Pitt…Otta…it was weird, but you get the point. He basically made Jack Johnson expendable, and he has said many times that he absolutely loves the city and his new teammates. It’s of course always a matter of numbers, but don’t be surprised to see Cole back in Union Blue next year.
Letestu loves Columbus, lives in Columbus (his family never left when he went to Edmonton), and has said he would like to finish his career there. Still a more-than-serviceable fourth line center that can help your special teams units, it’s likely he’ll take a hometown discount and remain with the organization.
The RFA list is smaller, but contains three major names in Jenner, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Ryan Murray.
Jenner is a fan favorite, and one of the hardest-working 30-goal scorers you’ll ever find. But after a breakout 30-goal, 49-point 2015-16 campaign, he’s tallied just 31 goals and 65 points in 157 games since. If not for a late-season hot streak when paired with Wennberg and Vanek this season, his numbers would have been significantly lower. At times the game just seems too fast for his skating abilities, and even at just 24 years of age you wonder if he can improve it enough to stay useful. I’d expect him to get a bridge extension on a pay level similar to his current $2.9M, but Boone has a lot to prove going forward.
Bjorkstrand is coming off of his entry level contract, and I’d expect a bridge-style deal similar to what I listed for Jenner. Posting 11 goals and 29 assists for 40 points this season, ‘Olli’ showed flashes of his potential, but still needs to get a little more confident in himself, and particularly in his laser beam wrist shot.
Murray is a very intriguing topic. Though ever-dependable, the former WHL standout and second-overall pick has never really hit the stride he was projected to, particularly in the offensive department. Derailed time and time again by injuries (often to his legs, which are probably the silky-smooth skating defender’s greatest weapons), Murray has played all 82 games just once in 5 NHL seasons, and has missed no less than 19 games in any other campaign.
At 24-years-old, he’s definitely still young enough to sell as ‘Still coming into his own’ and his potential ceiling should be alluring to many teams. With other good young left handed defenders waiting in the wings (Markus Nutivaara, Gabriel Carlsson, Dean Kukan, Vladislav Gavrikov), the time could be right to try and swing a sign-and-trade type of deal to send Murray out in exchange for some offensive power. The Senators come to mind as a potential trade partner, as a spoil of offensive firepower up front is countered by a defense corps that is suspect at best, especially with the likely departure of Erik Karlsson. Mike Hoffman‘s name was already tied to Columbus around the trade deadline last year, but former Ohio State standout Ryan Dzingel could be a potential fit, as well.
I don’t expect a particularly busy or flashy offseason in Columbus, but Kekalainen and company can’t just rest on their laurels, either. They have a very good group that really needs just a few things to get them over the hump. Add another solid offensive threat or two to compliment the dynamic Panarin/Pierre-Luc Dubois line, sprinkle in a reliable veteran depth blueliner, and hinge your bets on a new goaltending coach for Sergei Bobrovsky (longtime man Ian Clark is departing the team this summer) helping him get past his playoff struggles, and you might be on to something.
Oh, and you may want to figure out what to do with that abysmal Brandon Dubinsky contract…