At the end of last season, the Columbus Blue Jackets had the roster of a Stanley Cup Contender. Once free agency opened the roster drastically changed. Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Sergei Bobrovsky were the key players that left. As a result many expect Columbus to take a massive step back this season. However, the step back might not be as far back as some think. In fact, the 2019-20 Columbus Blue Jackets may still be contenders.
The Strengths and Weaknesses
The Blue Jackets have a lot of question marks, but they also have some strengths. The Columbus defense has to be one of the best in the league. Both Seth Jones and Zach Werenski were listed as top twenty defensemen in the league by NHL.com. Jones was sixth on the list while Werenski was 11th. The depth continues with David Savard and Markus Nutivaara on the second pairing last season. The third pairing is where it gets interesting, though. Scott Harrington solidified himself as the number five defenseman, but it was a revolving door with who played beside him. There are four options the Blue Jackets have, the favorite for the job Dean Kukan, Adam Clendening, Gabriel Carlsson, and Vladislav Gavrikov. Overall the defense is the Blue Jackets biggest strength.
Panarin’s elite scoring abilities and his 87 points are not something that can easily be replaced. However, before Panarin came to Columbus, the Blue Jackets still contended for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and were a 100 point team, with virtually the same roster. It also helps soften the blow that Josh Anderson and Pierre-Luc Dubois have both become scoring threats. Gustav Nyquist was also signed in free agency this off-season, adding more fuel to the Columbus offence. Last season, Nyquist scored 60 points in 81 games.
It seems like a tradition now in Columbus to talk about the lack of depth at the center position. The only time this position appeared to be a strength was the brief time Duchene spent here. Currently, Dubois is by far the top center and one of the best young players at his position.
There is a significant drop off from Dubois to the Blue Jackets likely second center, Alexander Wennberg. Wennberg has shown he can have a great offencive game. However, he never uses it in the regular season. Despite one season of 59 points under his belt, Wennberg has looked horrendous over the course of the past two years. He has a combined 10 goals and 60 points. Two of those goals, and 25 of those points, were recorded last year. If he can get back to the 50-point-capable player we saw in 2016-17, he becomes an immediate cornerstone of the Columbus roster. If not, he’s much more of a liability.
After those two, the Blue Jackets have some options. Brandon Dubinsky is a fan favorite but is a shell of the player he was when he arrived in Columbus back in 2012. He has fallen from regularly scoring 40 to 50 points, to combining for a mere 20 over the last two seasons. Another option for the third line centre is Riley Nash, who is going into his second year with the Blue Jackets. Nash struggled last year only getting 12 points when the year prior, with the Boston Bruins, he had 41.
The third of four options is Lukas Sedlak who has seen less and less playing time since making his debut three seasons ago. The emergency option is Boone Jenner, who the Blue Jackets try to keep on the wings. However, he does so well in the faceoff circle he will most likely find himself there a lot.
The goaltending situation is the last question mark on this team, and it is the biggest. Bobrovsky is arguably the greatest player to ever put on the ‘union blue’ sweater. Unfortunately, he is now a member of the Florida Panthers. That leaves the starting job open for grabs for either Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins. Korpisalo has been the Blue Jackets backup for three years now, after starting 30 games in 2015-2016. He is the favorite to win the job and start game one. However, the knock-on him has been his goals-against-average and record. A 2.89 career goals-against-average and a 41-31-9 can pose many questions. If they aren’t enough, his save percentage is also troublesome. He has finished each of the last two seasons with a save percentage of .897, far lower than any ideal starting goalie.
Merzlikins has been a name Blue Jackets fans have heard of for a while. This is a result of him shutting down offenses over in Europe for. Through six seasons in Finland’s top league, Merzlikins has a career save percentage of .920 and a goals-against-average of 2.59. These are great numbers but the shadow of European play still lingers over Merzlikins head. While Finland’s top league poses great competition, the transition to the NHL can be fairly daunting for some goalies. Added on to that is the decrease rink size in North America, which can easily mess with a European goalie’s angles and mindset. Simply put, the unknown is what leaves people questioning Merzlikins’ prowess. Fans simply won’t be able to accurately judge the young goalie until he plays in NHL games.
There were also rumors that the Blue Jackets were looking to trade for a veteran goalie. One that was explicitly named was Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings. While those rumors have died down, they still could be looking for a proven starter. Finding a competent starter is crucial if the 2019-20 Columbus Blue Jackets want to find success. With almost every Eastern Conference team significantly upgrading, the Jackets could be left in the dust if their goalies prove a liability.
The Blue Jackets lost a lot this offseason but still have the parts remaining of a good team. If they can find an answer to their most significant need at goaltender, then they should once again be competitors.