Several Blue Jackets Fighting For Their NHL Future

The Columbus Blue Jackets have lost nine games in a row after their latest defeat, a 4-3 overtime decision at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Victor Hedman scored just 10 seconds into overtime to get a huge second point for them in the race for the Discover Central Division.

While some players are just playing out the string in these last six games, others have a lot on the line. They are trying to convince someone they belong in the NHL either with the Blue Jackets or with another team.

These players are fighting for their NHL future. This is their chance to make an impression on someone in order to earn their next contract. For some players, they might not get another chance. This is truly an opportunity that wouldn’t normally be available in other seasons.

What makes this particularly difficult is that these players are trying to make an impression in the midst of one of the worst losing streaks in Blue Jackets’ franchise history. While the team is still putting forth an effort in these last games, the general mood of the team as you can imagine is quite down given their position in the standings.

Blue Jackets With Their Future in Question

Let me give you a few names to consider on this current Blue Jackets’ roster. What do they all have in common?

These are players that have all seen some games or been on the roster at some point for the Blue Jackets this season. Each of these players do not have a contract once these six games are done.

They are all unrestricted free agents. You’re probably wondering why Grigorenko, Matteau, MacInnis, Lehtonen and Bayreuther are playing in these games instead of some of the youth on the team such as Andrew Peeke and Liam Foudy. While those two should be in this lineup, it is clear the Blue Jackets are in the midst of evaluations. GM Jarmo Kekalainen needs to see what he has.

Jarmo Kekalainen Columbus Blue Jackets
Jarmo Kekäläinen needs to see what he has before tackling the offseason. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Could any of the above names have a future in Columbus? I would certainly think so especially if they can make any sort of an impression. If you stand out now there’s a chance you will be considered for a contract for next season or even beyond.

Questions to Consider

When making a decision on these players, management and staff has to try to evaluate them to see if there is a fit somewhere on the team. That seems easy. But not this season. Not when the world is still dealing with the effects of Covid-19.

Could Grigorenko enjoy more success if there were more capable centers on the team? There’s certainly a chance that’s true. The Blue Jackets will need to decide if there is a role for him. The cost won’t be very high so if they can address other areas, perhaps he can fill a role at a reasonable cost.

Some other questions to consider are: Do the Blue Jackets value what Dalpe brings both on and off the ice? Are Matteau and MacInnis showing enough to possibly earn a bottom-six role in the future?

Zac Dalpe Blue Jackets
Zac Dalpe has been good in a limited role. But is it good enough for a new contract? (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

What about the group of defensemen? Lehonten was acquired to possibly fill in for David Savard this season. Has he showed enough to earn a new contract? The team has wanted to see more offense from him. Will he get a chance to do so?

Del Zotto likes Columbus and would love to stay. Can he find a deal and help this locker room out? Clendening has spent much of his time in the AHL has has been effective. But do the Blue Jackets retain him or turn to younger players?

Bayreuther Knows This is a Golden Opportunity

And then there’s a player like Bayreuther. He came to the Blue Jackets organization on a one-year deal. He got off to a tremendous start in Cleveland before earning a call to the NHL. He knows what’s on the line here. He’s spent much of his career in the AHL. He was able to get into some games with the Dallas Stars but couldn’t stick.

This could very well be Bayreuther’s best and perhaps final opportunity to show someone he deserves a chance with a new contract. Bayreuther spoke to us about this opportunity knowing just how much is on the line.

“Opportunities are hard to come by,” Bayreuther said. “You gotta really earn them. You gotta work hard for them and when they come, you gotta leave it all out there. That’s something that I try and focus on every night. I feel like this opportunity is earned. But I need to earn it every single night. One game at a time is the way I’m approaching this.”

“You have to play like you’re hunting for the playoffs. Every game is so important. You gotta show management and the team and show everyone that you’re capable of playing hard every night…consistency is something I’m focusing on.”

The games ultimately don’t mean anything in the standings except for draft positioning for a team like the Blue Jackets. But for players like Bayreuther and others, these games mean something. They very well could determine what happens to them next. We’re talking about their livelihood. It doesn’t get much more important than that especially when you consider Bayreuther and his wife Erin are expecting a baby in July.

What to Really Watch For

So as we sit back and watch these last six games, we know the likes of Boone Jenner, Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Cam Atkinson and others will be back wanting to do nothing more than to put this season behind them. They’re under contract. But think of those that are hoping to get that next contract. Watch their desperation in every shift. They have to make an impression.

Little plays could make the difference between earning their next contract and wondering if they’ll get another contract. This is why they are fighting for their NHL future. As Bayreuther said, this is like their playoffs.

Saying the games are important is one thing. But proving it on the ice is another. It’s open evaluation season for the Blue Jackets. The lineups will reflect that. We’ll see shortly who stands out when everything is on the line.

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