The Columbus Blue Jackets hedged their bets on playoff success in 2018-2019, leaving several critical free agents on the table. And while the Blue Jackets did shockingly sweep the Tampa Bay Lightning out of the first round, they ran into the Boston Bruins in the second and lost the series in six games.
Without a doubt, the Blue Jackets have put together some quality hockey. They are one of just seven teams to have made the post-season in each of the past three seasons. But those rosters were stacked with the likes of Panarin and Bobrovsky, so what does Columbus have left? And can the club still put together the wins to return to the playoffs?
“That’s part of the business, right?” forward Cam Atkinson said. “Ultimately, those guys get to make their own decisions, but we know what we have in this room. We have a winning team and a winning culture. The core is the most important part. You can add and mix pieces in. That allows us to be that competitive team every year, so I’m really happy there’s a lot of years left with that core.”
Atkinson is coming off a breakout season and seems set to represent the new version of the Blue Jackets. He had 41 goals, tying him for sixth overall, and also set career-highs in shots on goal and total points. He’s become a reliable forward, scoring at least 50 points in three of his last four seasons. The Blue Jackets like him with Pierre-Luc Dubois.
Dubois will be the top line centre for Columbus. That’s not a bad thing, as Dubois has experience with Atkinson. The two of them played with Panarin, although the argument could be made that Dubois struggled a bit when he fell down the depth chart after the acquisition of Duchene. Regardless, Dubois scored 61 points last season – including 27 goals.
It seems likely that Gustav Nyquist will close out the top line. He had a career-high 60 points last season with the Sharks and Red Wings, plus he put together 11 points in 20 playoff games with San Jose. He’ll be coming in hungry, which could see him return to his prime potential. In 62 games in Hockeytown last season, he had 49 points.
Josh Anderson is a potent firecracker of a forward. He’s one of just three players to have at least 200 shots on goal and 200 hits last season. The others are Alex Ovechkin and New Jersey’s Blake Coleman. That stat illustrates how Anderson plays the game, which in turn should kick Columbus into a higher gear when he’s on the ice. Anderson had 47 points in 82 games last season.
The Blue Jackets will still get an awful lot of offensive production from their blueliners, which in turn could leave them ripe for the picking in their own end. And with Bobrovsky no longer between the pipes to hold the fort, what will become of Columbus?
Seth Jones is going to have shoulder the offensive load for the Jackets. He had 46 points last season, a drop-off in his numbers, but he’s still well inside the NHL’s top 15 defenders. Jones dug in for 10 points on the power play and can put up the ice time. He skated nearly 40 minutes against Boston on April 27, for example, and the Blue Jackets are hoping he’ll anchor the D.
Zach Werenski is another offensive threat. He joined Jones in making Columbus one of just six teams with two defencemen clearing at least 40 points. Werenski had 44 last season, three shy of his career-high rookie campaign in 2016-2017, and he popped in 15 points on the power play. Only Panarin had more power play points last season.
Much will be made of life without Bobrovsky for Columbus – and rightly so. As much as the Blue Jackets want to tout the players they have left, there are questions in goal. The squad will turn to Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins in 2019-2020. Korpisalo is known to most as Bobrovsky’s backup for the last four seasons.
The 25-year-old has amassed 81 NHL starts across four seasons in Columbus. In his rookie year, he was good for 30 starts before dropping to 13 in his sophomore campaign. Last season, Korpisalo racked up 21 starts while the Blue Jackets squeezed every ounce of mileage out of Bobrovsky. Korpisalo responded with a 2.95 goals against average and a .897 save percentage.
The Blue Jackets want to prove they’re still a capable hockey team, but that may be a tough sell. The stake for playoff success only moderately paid off and what remains is a team in need of identity. Guys like Nyquist will help, but goaltending is a big issue and team defence may not make life easy. This could be a tough year.
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