The 2019-20 NHL regular season has come to a close. With the regular season wrapped up and a play-in round matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs looming, it’s time to evaluate the Columbus Blue Jackets on their performance this season. The defense, offense, goaltending, and coaching all have been given a letter grade based on performance, statistics, and observations from this season. After receiving a letter grade, it was determined which positions need to improve this offseason and what moves realistically could be made.
Blue Jackets Defense Shined: A
First up is the Blue Jackets defense. They played at a solid level all season. They were ranked third in the league in goals allowed at 183 and gave up just 2.53 goals a game, which was fifth. They were also decent shorthanded, killing 81.7 percent of penalties, which was good for 13th in the NHL. They also racked up an impressive 616 blocked shots and 453 hits, both led by David Savard with 163 blocks and 129 hits respectively (these totals only reflect defensemen). They also added an offensive boost to the team with three defensemen scoring five or more goals, led by Zach Werenski with 20, the most goals for any defenseman in the NHL.
With great depth, skill, and ability, the blue line does not require any moves. The exceptional depth of the defensemen makes that position an asset for the franchise. It would be a good place for Jarmo Kekalainen to look for a trade to bring in more offense, which is desperately needed.
Jackets’ Offensive Struggles Were Front and Center: C-
The offense struggled this season and the best word to describe it was abysmal. They scored just 180 goals during the regular season, which was tied for 27th in the league with the San Jose Sharks. They also only averaged 2.6 goals a game, which was tied for 26th with the Anaheim Ducks and the Sharks. The lack of goals was not from any lack of effort — they were sixth in the league in shots on goal with 2,272.
The lack of offense became more apparent with skater stats for the Blue Jackets. They had no 30-goal scorers and only had two players score 20 goals, Oliver Bjorkstrand led with 21. There were also only three players with 40 points, led by Pierre-Luc Dubois with 49. The power play also struggled offensively, converting just on 16.4 percent of opportunities.
With the offensive struggles, you can bet Kekalainen will be looking for solutions. The Blue Jackets do have many young players and prospects that have promising offensive ability, and many offensive weapons were injured throughout the season. However, it seems inevitable they will look to add a goal scorer. That’s easier said than done considering they will have under $7 million in cap space to spend for the 2020-21 season.
One option is the free-agent market, where they could bring in a player with a lower price tag, who has goal scoring and play-making ability. Considering Dubois is an RFA this offseason and the money constraints, it is most likely the addition of a goal scorer will come from a trade. As mentioned earlier, the defense would be an asset to trade because of their depth.
Young Goaltenders With a Future: B+
Coming into the season the biggest question mark for the Blue Jackets was their goaltending. After the departure of now-Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, it was left to Joonas Korpisalo and incoming rookie Elvis Merzlikins. The season started shaky for both goaltenders. Korpisalo had a save percentage (SV%) under .900 and gave up seven goals in his first two starts. Merzlikins struggled as well, losing his first seven starts, including a performance where he gave up seven goals to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
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After the shaky start, things got back on track. Korpisalo started to play well and was selected as an All-Star before he sustained a knee injury on Dec. 29. Korpisalo did return and finished the regular season with a .911 SV%, a record of 19-12-5, and allowing just 2.60 goals against average (GAA). Merzlikins also caught fire. After recording his first win on Dec. 31, he went on to become one of the best goaltenders in the league, tied for second in the NHL in shutouts with five. He finished the regular season with a .923 SV%, a record of 13-9-8, and a 2.35 GAA.
Even though the grade was lowered due to the struggles at the beginning of the season, the goaltending was successful. They both have shown promise and the organization has noticed that. Both Korpisalo and Merzlikins have been extended by the team, and it seems that there will be no moves made in the foreseeable future.
The Best Coach in Blue Jackets History Continues to Perform: A+
John Tortorella’s coaching style is not for everyone — that can be seen with players like Anthony Duclair who is now with the Ottawa Senators. For players who are perfect for his system, Columbus is a great place to succeed. He is the winningest coach in Blue Jackets history with 209 wins and the only playoff series win for the team. This season was no exception.
He worked with what he had this season, which wasn’t much. They lost Matt Duchene, Bobrovsky, and Artemi Panarin in the offseason, and led the league in man-games lost with 352 (not including Brandon Dubinsky). They were missing 10 starters at times and featured a roster with inexperienced, AHL-caliber talent. Tortorella had them fighting for a playoff spot when the league suspended play. They are now in the postseason in the NHL’s plan to return to play.
What Tortorella and his coaching staff did is nothing short of amazing. He will be a front runner for the Jack Adams Award and will give the Jackets a boost against Toronto. The Blue Jackets most likely will not be making coaching changes anytime soon.
Blue Jackets’ Overall Grade: A-
The Blue Jackets may have struggled offensively, but all other aspects of their team were solid. They did what they had to make the postseason and got there. Considering what they lost in the offseason and during the season this year, they overall get an A-.