The Columbus Blue Jackets walked out of the 2015-2016 season with a 34-40-8 record, good for last in the Metropolitan Division. They fell short of a playoff berth again, but there is a general feeling around this franchise that the same core that took them into the post-season in 2013-2014 can do the same again in 2016-2017.
Head coach Todd Richards was tossed after a 0-7-0 start and John Tortorella was brought in to shake things up. He’ll embark on his first training camp with the team, something he’s been planning since January, and he’ll have a real chance to assess his lineup. Little has changed in the off-season, but the Blue Jackets are betting on an infusion of young talent from the Lake Erie Monsters to help turn the tide.
Columbus did lose Jared Boll and Fedor Tyutin to free agency, but things are relatively the same in the locker room and that could give Tortorella a lot to work with. That said, the Blue Jackets have a lot of ground to make up – to say the least. They occupy a tough division that includes the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, and New York Islanders.
Winger Brandon Saad led the way in goals and points last season and many are expecting big things from the 23-year-old. He had 53 points in 78 games. He has yet to crack the 60-point mark, but most indications suggest he’s a reliable bet for some consistent points. If Tortorella decides that Saad could use more power play time, we could see a serious jump in points.
23-year-old Boone Jenner had 30 goals last season and piled up 49 points. Nine of his goals came on the power play and he has the ability to put the puck in the net on a reliable basis. He also owns a good frame at 6’2, 215 pounds, and can slip into any forward spot. The Blue Jackets tried him out last season at centre and he seemed to excel, so look for more of the same in 2016-2017.
Brandon Dubinsky is a solid two-way pick. He managed 48 points last season, including 17 goals, and is another example of the versatility up front in Columbus. He averaged nearly 19 minutes a game and plays a defensively accountable game, even if he can be prone to some bad penalties. Injuries can also be an issue.
21-year-old centre Alexander Wennberg was able to benefit from the exit of Ryan Johansen and put in some ice time next to Saad. He had 40 points in 69 games, 39 of which came in the stretch from December 5 to the end of the season. He saw time on the power play and has tremendous passing ability. Wennberg could stand to shoot the puck more.
Seth Jones inked a six-year contract with the Blue Jackets this off-season and is ready to emerge as the best player on this team. The 21-year-old defenceman averaged 22:04 a game last season and could see a jump in ice time this season. He can slip into a shutdown role or put points on the board, plus he’s in possession of a deadly point shot that can create havoc on the power play.
22-year-old Ryan Murray is among the most composed defencemen in the NHL. He makes few mistakes and averaged nearly 23 minutes a game, putting up 25 points over the course of 82 games. Murray can play a shutdown and offensive role and is a mobile skater, which makes him a threat coming out of his own end.
Jack Johnson had 14 points in 60 games last season and averaged over 24 minutes of ice time a game. Columbus has been relying on him in all situations and that’s left him open to complications. A simpler approach to his game could prove beneficial. Dalton Prout is a big blueliner with a knack for doing what’s asked him, so he’s a safe bet for time in Tortorella’s system.
Sergei Bobrovsky continues to be the top guy in Columbus and should get plenty of starts. He won the Vezina Trophy in 2012-2013, but the Blue Jackets have seen very little of his top-end skill. 2016-2017 could end that and he could have a bounce-back season. Or he could build on last season, where he posted a 2.75 goals against average and .908 save percentage.
Veteran backup Curtis McElhinney is signed for another season, but he may not see much usage with 22-year-old Joonas Korpisalo in the system. The Finnish netminder was 16-11-4 last season, with a 2.60 goals against average and a .920 save percentage. He’s cool under pressure and the Blue Jackets are hoping he’ll turn into something special soon.
Columbus is very excited about their prospects and for good reason. They boast one of the deepest prospect pools in the NHL currently, with a wealth of NHL-ready players. Defenceman Zack Werenski seems as prepared as can be. The 19-year-old went a point-per-game in Michigan and joined Lake Erie for a playoff push, becoming the power play point man right out of the box.
Calder Cup MVP Oliver Bjorkstrand should be another big arrival. The “Great Dane” has a big shot with a quick release and plays an aggressive game. He’s a good fore-checking forward and that should help force some turnovers out of the opposition. Bjorkstrand isn’t the strongest player, but he does have a nose for the net that could turn up some points.
The Path Ahead
The Blue Jackets are banking on young talent, so this year should be fun to watch. They’re not a playoff-bound club, but there’s a lot to like about how the roster is shaping up and Columbus will be a daunting hockey team in the years to come. There are some questions in goal, but Korpisalo could have some of the answers.