The Columbus Blue Jackets open the 2022-23 season Wednesday night in Raleigh against the powerhouse Carolina Hurricanes. With that, we will start getting answers to burning questions.
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Training camp has come and gone. Many players stood out in a good way. As a result, tough roster decisions were made. But now it’s time to play the games for real.
Related: Blue Jackets’ Chinakhov Biggest Standout of Training Camp
In order to help you get ready for the new season, Nick Arnold and myself have come together to answer seven big questions. The answers to these questions will go a long way in deciding how the season will play out. We dive right in by talking about the biggest thing to happen to Columbus, well almost ever.
1. What are your realistic expectations of Johnny Gaudreau in his first season with the Blue Jackets?
Nick: Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here. Last year Gaudreau broke out for a production that’s really only been approached once before in his career. In a new system with new players – I’d say he settles in at around a point per game. My prediction is 75-86 points. He’ll be a huge addition, but he won’t single handedly make them a playoff team.
Mark: Realistically, I expect an early adjustment period for Gaudreau. He has new teammates, new coaches and a new system to get used to. I expect him to be the same dynamic player eventually but not before he goes through a little bit of a learning curve. His 115-point season in 2021-22 feels like an outlier. He should finish at over a point per game over 82 games assuming his health. Artemi Panarin has the two best individual point seasons in Blue Jackets’ history with 87 and 82 points. I ultimately think Gaudreau becomes the first Blue Jacket to hit 90 points. Low key: Patrik Laine is almost as good a passer as Gaudreau is. Gaudreau will get his fair share of goals this season. 30-60-90 is my prediction.
2. Patrik Laine is now locked in for the next four years. What is his true upside?
Nick: Laine’s true upside may be a mystery. My concern for him is consistency over a long period of time. Signing Gaudreau will be a boost for him early on, but will we see the same level of effort out of him on some Tuesday night game in January against the Sabres in years two or three of this deal that we will in October of this year? Best case he becomes Ovechkin-lite, worst case he becomes Alexander Semin.
Mark: As I stated above, Laine doesn’t get enough credit for different aspects of his game. His passing is off the charts good when he wants it to be. He’s shown some improvement away from the puck also. This has to be the season that he starts to show the hockey world that 40-50 goals is his standard moving forward. We see the hype. We see the upside. We now need to see it happen. With Gaudreau on his line, 50 goals is within reach. Maybe then the rest of the national media will see him as an elite player.
3. What one thing right now is the biggest concern for the Blue Jackets?
Nick: Defense. Without a question.
Mark: The Blue Jackets gave up a franchise record number of goals in 2021-22 and are almost running back the same players on the blue line. Their addition was Erik Gudbranson. I am concerned they didn’t do enough there to limit the goals against. The Gaudreau signing could help in the aspect of more puck possession. They made it way too easy for opponents to gain their zone and operate. Can they raise the level of their play and their physicality to dramatically reduce scoring chances and shots against? I have to see it to believe it at this point.
4. Which player isn’t getting nearly enough attention on this team that could have a major impact on how the season goes and why?
Nick: We don’t think about him enough, but Jakub Voracek will be a huge piece in the top-6 this year, and could see an increased performance now that he won’t be defended as the top playmaker on the roster. He ensures that the Jackets have two dangerous forward lines.
Mark: For me, this is Jack Roslovic. Gaudreau, Laine, the defense, Elvis Merzlikins will get the attention. But if Roslovic can get to another level as the second-line center and present another line who is a legitimate scoring threat, teams will have issues defending the Blue Jackets. They must have depth scoring beyond the top line. With questions on defense, Roslovic’s continued emergence will prove to be a huge key to this season.
5. Why do you think so many pundits are down on the Blue Jackets? Can this be a playoff team now?
Nick: Many pundits haven’t taken a good enough look at the Blue Jackets to see how different of a team they are. Many people are tainted by the very unimpressive playoff history of this team, and the team’s lack of high end skill. This is a very unprecedented time for this team and while I don’t think they are a playoff team this year, they are closer to being a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup.
Mark: Another year, another barrage of takes indicating the Blue Jackets have no chance. They have a chance but they have to answer important questions. Pundits are down because they don’t seem to believe in Merzlikins being a number-one and don’t believe their defense is good enough. This can be a playoff team if Merzlikins reaches new heights and the defense performs better than expected. A lot has to go right but it’s wrong to write them off even in a tough Eastern Conference.
6. What is your confidence level overall on the goaltending and why?
Nick: Mild confidence. Goaltending wasn’t the main problem from my opinion – it was the players in front of them. With better team defense, Merzlikins and Tarasov (or Korpisalo) are a more than capable duo. With Torts era defense in front of them, Merzlikins would be a Vezina candidate.
Mark: If we base this on the preseason, it’s a 9/10. But Merzlikins let in that one stinky goal in Washington that reminded us of how often that happened in 2021-22. He has to show he’s taken the next steps especially mentally. I am giving him a pass for last season given the way the offseason started. So I am cautiously optimistic he will have a bounce-back season. If his defense continues to allow shots at the rate they did, then my confidence is down at a two or three tops. On opening night, it’s at a seven. He has the potential. Now he must reach it.
7. What is the biggest storyline of the early season for you?
Nick: How Johnny Gaudreau will impact the Blue Jackets organization in meaningful hockey games.
Mark: Outside of the obvious of defense and goaltending, it will be the chemistry on all lines. How will Gaudreau and Laine do at the start? Will Boone Jenner’s health be a concern later in the season? On paper, the Blue Jackets have four good lines. Will it play out that way the ice? When Cole Sillinger and Sean Kuraly are your bottom-six centers, it’s in a good place. Each have the ability to add depth scoring. With Kent Johnson and others waiting in the wings to show what they have, how the lines develop early is the story I am watching.
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No matter how it shakes out, the Blue Jackets’ season should be fascinating to watch. A true star is in town for the foreseeable future. But they have several other questions to answer as well.
Congrats Blue Jackets’ fans. You made it through the offseason. An unforgettable season is about to unfold. Enjoy the show.