Blue Jackets Enter Offseason With Higher Expectations

The 2021-22 Columbus Blue Jackets entered the new season as one of the NHL’s biggest mysteries. Who were they? What were they capable of? How could they compete in a very tough division and Eastern Conference? Given so many unknowns, it made for a fascinating season.

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These Blue Jackets did not disappoint in that aspect. From beginning to end, they were one of the most fascinating teams to watch this season. Whether you look at their 12-6-0 start, their nose dive soon after or their final outcome, this team experienced high high’s and very low low’s.

But in the end however? The Blue Jackets were fun. And while being entertaining certainly has its place especially amongst the fans, it shows they have a lot of work to do to get to where they want to go.

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The Blue Jackets met and exceeded perceived expectations for this season. But now it’s time to go to work. If they hope to meet their goal of becoming an annual playoff contender and eventually a Stanley Cup winner, they must address several issues.

Related: Blue Jackets Exceeded Expert’s Expectations, Yet Again

Because they’re capable of addressing those issues, the Blue Jackets will face higher expectations moving forward. Their play this season dictated that.

Taking the Next Steps

Sean Kuraly said it best during the player’s end of season media availability. He said the Blue Jackets need to find 10 more wins somehow. They finished 19 points out of the second wildcard spot. So how do they do it? What steps need to be taken in order to achieve this?

It’s actually very simple. Everyone in the organization must be better, top to bottom.

Winning 37 games as one of the youngest teams in the NHL is a good step. Many players rose to the occasion and proved they belong. Defeating teams like the Avalanche, Hurricanes and Panthers show the potential in the group.

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While it shows the potential, it also shows how wide the gap actually is. It is hard to make up ground in the NHL. It’s especially hard when you have to make up 19 points somehow. If you compare where the Blue Jackets are compared to the teams still playing, it puts the gap in proper perspective.

The first and perhaps most important step is to address the goals against. Both GM Jarmo Kekalainen and head coach Brad Larsen acknowledged that this is an area of concern and something they must address. Larsen proclaimed on Monday that they will be better in this regard moving forward. The question that lingers though is how will they address this and be better?

Brad Larsen Columbus Blue Jackets
Brad Larsen vows that the Blue Jackets will be better defensively next season. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Blue Jackets have one of two paths they can use to address this. They can either change their scheme or they can look for outside help personnel wise.

Size Still Matters

The question the Blue Jackets face is this. Do they currently have the players on the roster capable of enough improvement that they don’t need to look for outside help?

The one glaring thing about these Blue Jackets is the lack of size overall on the blue line. While they can play a physical style, bigger teams were able to push them around. That shouldn’t sit well with management.

Let’s do a quick comparison so you see the difference. Here were who the Blue Jackets’ used primarily in the top-six at the end of the season and their height/weight:

  • Zach Werenski: 6-foot-2, 213 pounds.
  • Andrew Peeke: 6-foot-3, 196 pounds.
  • Vladislav Gavrikov: 6-foot-3, 213 pounds.
  • Jake Bean: 6-foot-1, 176 pounds.
  • Adam Boqvist: 6-foot, 189 pounds.
  • Nick Blankenburg, 5-foot-9, 175 pounds.

Put another way, on the entire roster, the only two defensemen who weigh over 200 pounds are Werenski and Gavrikov. Now let’s look at a team like the Tampa Bay Lightning and you’ll see the difference immediately.

  • Victor Hedman: 6-foot-6, 241 pounds.
  • Ryan McDonagh: 6-foot-1, 215 pounds.
  • Mikhail Sergachev: 6-foot-3, 216 pounds.
  • Erik Cernak: 6-foot-3, 230 pounds.
  • Zach Bogosian: 6-foot-2, 200 pounds.
  • Cal Foote: 6-foot-4, 227 pounds.
  • Jan Rutta: 6-foot-3, 204 pounds.

You see the difference. Every member of the Lightning defense has size. While you can argue the Blue Jackets’ defensemen each have something to give, it’s clear what’s missing. Why were they linked to Jakob Chychrun? He’s brings size and can do a lot of what the current roster can do from an offensive standpoint.

Make no mistake. If the Blue Jackets are doing to take the next step, either current roster players are going to have to get stronger or the team is going to have to look for outside help. No matter what they decide, something’s going to change here. The team vowed to get better. Therefore we should expect them to get better. They have to be able to hang in physically with teams if they hope to see improvement in goals against. It simply cannot continue like it did.

But it’s not all on the defense. They need to get stronger and perhaps tweak their system a little. Goaltending needs to improve also.

Need Better in Net Too

Elvis Merzlikins went through his first full season being the Blue Jackets’ number-one goalie. While he enjoyed a career high in wins and appearances, he has a lot of room for improvement.

While it is fair to argue the defense in front of Merzlikins was part of the reason (gave up a lot of shots per game and allowed a lot of passes to go through), there were several instances where he should have made the save. His 3.22 goals-against average and .907 save percentage were both below league average.

In his defense, he overcame the tragic loss of his good friend Matiss Kivlenieks and admitted early struggles trying to overcome everything involved. For Merzlikins to be able to complete the season like he did given the circumstances is commendable.

In the end, the NHL is a results driven business. Merzlikins will be the first to say he must be better. We should expect him to be better. The Blue Jackets chose him to get the longer-term extension. Now he needs to show that the team made the correct decision.

Elvis Merzlikins Columbus Blue Jackets
Elvis Merzlikins knows he has to be better moving forward. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Blue Jackets will also need to decide the backup situation. Will Joonas Korpisalo return? Is Daniil Tarasov ready for the full-time backup role? Will they bring in someone from the outside? Larsen admitted Friday in Pittsburgh that goalies are getting around 60 appearances per season and that Merzlikins will be counted on to provide something similar to that. In the other games though, the backup must be able to perform when called upon.

Overall, the goaltending must take the next step in protecting their net. A 3.22 moving forward is simply not good enough.

Getting Better as a Group

The forwards also need to get better. Management needs to get better too. Consider this for a moment.

The 2022-23 season will mark 10 years that Kekalainen has been the general manager of the Blue Jackets. He was hired on Feb 13, 2013. While it is clear the team has never been in a better position since he became general manager, the fact remains the team has won just one playoff series in his tenure.

Kekalainen and the rest of his staff have to be better moving forward. Whether it’s determining which free agents to target or which players to draft coming up, everyone involved must take the next step in helping the Blue Jackets reach their goals. We should expect them to get better too.

The narrative around the Blue Jackets this season has been they’re in a reset. They are taking steps to ensure that they get back to the playoffs. But starting now and moving forward, there are higher expectations around them. The talk of a bright future is just talk. It’s warranted, but it’s talk. The only way a bright future becomes a reality is if everyone in the organization gets better.

This offseason is all about getting better. The Blue Jackets will be measured by results when all the dust settles. Did they get better? Did they take the next step in their process?

Talk is Cheap

Blue Jackets’ fans are one of the most loyal fanbases in the NHL. With that said, they demand accountability and effort. They also demand that everyone continues to improve. Not meeting this threshold is completely unacceptable.

The 2021-22 season for the Blue Jackets had many good moments. It was also fun. But they’re still way short of where they want to go. The season showed that they are ready to have higher expectations around them. With higher expectations comes a higher demand for results.

The time for feel good is over. Falling short is no longer good enough for this team. The Blue Jackets must get to work if they want to meet the higher expectations around them.

They’ve said they’ll be better. Now it’s up to them to walk the walk. The time for talk has come and gone.