30 Blue Jackets Takeaways From End of Season Player Availability

The Columbus Blue Jackets ended their 2021-22 season on Friday night with a 5-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. They finished their season with an overall record of 37-38-7, good for sixth place in the Metropolitan Division.

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The Blue Jackets didn’t wait long to start conducting their exit interviews with the players. Meetings started on Saturday and will continue Sunday as the team puts a final bow on the season and starts to look ahead to 2022-23.

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

Several players held their final media availability of the season on Saturday at Nationwide Arena. In all, 13 players spoke about the completed season and what’s to come.

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Here are our 30 takeaways from the player’s end of season media availability. This will also include some notes from the Cleveland Monsters who finished their season Saturday night with a 5-2 loss against the Grand Rapids Griffins.

30 Takeaways

1. Merzlikins & the Cannon

Elvis Merzlikins had an unimaginable summer. The tragic death of Matiss Kivlenieks was still resonating with him and the team months after it happened. One of the questions coming into the season was how would he and the team move past that and focus on the season at hand.

On Saturday, Merzlikins opened up about the early part of the season and the struggle he was dealing with. With the trauma fresh in his mind, both fireworks and the Blue Jackets’ cannon turned out to be a sign of distress. Let him explain.

“About Matiss, yes. It’s not an excuse. I tried to not go in that excuse,” Merzlikins said. “But the before Christmas period, I wasn’t here. I wasn’t here mentally because I felt that Christmas was coming closer and Matiss was always with us on Christmas and the New Year. Then I heard the fireworks. I remember we played on the first and I asked Lars. I couldn’t even talk. I knew in my head that I couldn’t play that game, because there was gonna be fireworks and if I heard them, it’s gonna be a problem.”

Elvis Merzlikins Columbus Blue Jackets
Elvis Merzlikins struggled with both fireworks and the cannon early in the season. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

“I remember I walked to Manny and just started crying. I couldn’t even express myself. Manny brought me to Lars and Lars, as well. Lars was the first guy who was there the next morning. Lars understands it. I got close to Lars as well. Not as close like with Manny, I can’t tell him to (expletive) off. But yeah, they understand. That period, that week, that couple weeks. It’s just something that I couldn’t control. The 24th was just coming closer and the new year. The pain or scaredness, I don’t even know how to express myself. It’s just inside. You feel something. It was getting heavier and heavier and heavier. There is hockey and you have to win the games.”

“I’m gonna be honest, there was a couple games I was just going out there and I didn’t care, because I wasn’t there. I was playing hockey. The guys are coming on me and I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, last year he was here with me and this year, there’s gonna be an empty seat at my table.’ It was hard. But they helped me to go through it. Manny helped me a lot to go through that. It’s always nice when you have somebody with who you can cry together. That hug. That hug is helping you. I think this is really nice and important thing for me, to have such a good friend as Manny.”

“I’m gonna be honest, for the opening night, I didn’t have time. But yeah, when I heard the cannon — we all know what happened to him. When I heard the cannon, my heart — I felt my heart. I never heard in my life my heart beating that alive. That was a really weird feeling, what I had. I’m gonna be honest, the next three or four games when I heard the cannon, even when we scored goals, I was always closing my eyes and getting myself ready. I think that’s just the trauma, but it went away. Obviously, now when I hear the cannon, I’m happy. But that was the feeling I had in the start of the season.”

Merzlikins’ story is a reminder of what he had to overcome this season. With the help of the team and his goaltending coach Manny Legace, he was able to navigate the different challenges he faced. At no point did Merzlikins, Legace or anyone else make a suggestion to stop the cannon due to the situation.

2. Merzlikins & Legace’s Relationship

Not only did Merzlikins say that it was a nice and really important thing for him to have a friend like Legace, he went as far as giving Legace credit for his contract that kicks in this upcoming season. It’s clear Legace has done wonders for Merzlikins both professionally and personally.

I think without his help and teaching lessons, even outside of hockey, in the life, I think I would not get to the nice contract I’m having now. That’s thanks to him,” Merzlikins said of Legace. “When I came here, I remember the first time when I met him, I called my old goalie coach in Switzerland. I said, ‘I don’t want to listen to this guy. He wants me to change a lot.’ I was working really hard in Switzerland to get ready for the NHL and then there’s this guy who’s showing up and I had to change completely almost everything.”

“And then the good part of Manny, he understood that I am really impulsive. That you don’t have to listen to me right away. You have to give me a little time. I realized that, not that he won a Stanley Cup, but he still has a lot of experience. He played a lot of hockey games. He knows how this league works. He knows what I need to get better. I think he did a really good job in changing my technique and all that stuff.”

“That’s what brought me here, to the big contract and the next five years. I’m here. This is again thanks to him. I’m pretty sure this one of the reasons why I wanted to sign here. Columbus drafted me. They believed in me. I’ve never had different teams. I was just in Lugano in Switzerland and here in America with Columbus. I really like the idea to be here at home. This is my new home. Knowing that Manny is gonna be here, I really believe that I’m gonna progress a lot with him.”

Hearing this from Merzlikins puts his season in a much different perspective. He finished 2021-22 with a career high 59 appearances including 55 starts. His record was 27-23-7 with a .907 save percentage. While on paper the numbers don’t look good, it takes on new meaning when you understand the battle he fought. Legace also had to overcome a lot this season. Through it all, they’ve endured together and have developed a stronger relationship both on and off the ice.

3. Laine Wants to Stay in Columbus Long Term

One of the big offseason items on the Blue Jackets’ to-do list is to secure Patrik Laine to his next contract. The good news is both the team and the player have a mutual interest in making it happen.

Despite some rumors early in the season that the Blue Jackets might pursue a trade, it’s clear both sides want to get a deal done.

“I don’t think it should be an issue, you know?” Laine said. “They have expressed they want me here, I’ve said the same thing. So you know, the feeling is mutual. Just figure out the term and the money and all that and I think we should be fine.”

Patrik Laine Columbus Blue Jackets
Patrik Laine has made it clear he loves it in Columbus and would like to stay. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Laine is just one year from being an unrestricted free agent and having a choice of destination. Why does he want to stay in Columbus? It’s comes down to three simple things. The team, the fans and the city. They’re all desirable.

“I think it’s just the group we have. We have a great group of guys, guys I got to be really close with and excited about the youth we have and the opportunities we’re going to have in a couple of years. I definitely want to be a part of it and playing here, playing in front of these great fans. I love the city. I love everything about being here. It’s that simple.”

The only question remaining here is term and dollars as Laine said. He certainly will get a raise from the $7.5 million he got last season playing on his qualifying offer. Double digits is certainly a possibility. If Laine were to get an AAV of $10 million or more, he would become the first player in franchise history to reach that mark. Getting this deal done is at the top of the list for the Blue Jackets. If the rumors weren’t dead before, they are now.

4. Laine Admits Having More Offensive Freedom

One of the biggest questions coming into the new season for the Blue Jackets was not only could Laine have a bounce back season, but also what impact would a new coach have on him? Larsen was in, John Tortorella was out.

Many thought Tortorella was holding Laine back from being himself. He was asked how Larsen has helped his game this season. His answer comes as no surprise.

“Yeah, I think so. I think it was kind of a combination of not getting free hands but like maybe it’s just a little bit of freedom offensively,” Laine said. “But at the same time you still have to work hard, still have to track back, still have to play defensively, but he would give a little bit more freedom to those offensive guys who can create and create goals and create offense. It was kind of a mix of those two, and it was good. It was good for me, I really liked it. I really liked how he handled the whole team. As a team, we couldn’t get the job done, but I felt like he handled every player, not the same way but kind of differently, but yeah I was really happy playing for Lars and hopefully play for him in the future too.”

Hearing this from a player like Laine is high praise for a first year coach in Larsen. As it turned out, Laine was not the only one heaping praise on Larsen for the job he did this season.

5. Players Like Larsen’s Approach

Another big question coming into the 2021-22 season was the new coaching staff with coaches being in their position for the first time. Larsen was an NHL head coach for the first time. Pascal Vincent and Steve McCarthy were also in new positions with Vincent coming over from the Winnipeg Jets as an associate coach.

Would the team respond well to Larsen? As it turns out, they did. Here is what a few players said about Larsen.

  • Oliver Bjorkstrand: “I think they did a really good job starting with Lars. It’s always easy when you’re winning for a coach. But when things went south and we weren’t playing as well, I think he handled it well. I think he managed our systems well and how we had to get back on track and just pushing guys in the right way if it’s in practice or during games or talking about things we have to straighten up on. I’ve been very happy about how they’ve handled everything this season.”
  • Gus Nyquist: “That’s been great. Obviously with an entirely new coaching staff, they’ve all done a great job. We have full trust in them and they got us to play really hard throughout the end. We’re really happy to have those guys behind us.”
  • Boone Jenner: “Absolutely. They did a tremendous job for us. I knew him for years and years now. To have him as a head coach, I was not surprised, you could always see it in Lars. He just excelled in that role. Him and the rest of the coaching staff, all being in their first years as well.  It kind of goes back to the idea that guys bought in right away. Guys were excited. Guys wanted to play for each other. We’re all in it together. Coaches, management, I think that’s important. He did a great job for us.”
  • Jack Roslovic: “If you look around our team, if I do this with my own eyes, I’ve watched every person on the team grow. I don’t think I saw one guy take a step back this year, which is great. That’s a testament to our coaching staff, our coach, and the players around us. There’s no flipping the switch. That was a smack in the face. It was time to build from there (Calgary turnover.) The way that happened and the way that we built from there was a big reason why I could have success in your guys’ eyes at the end of the year. I thought the growth was always there. I try to get better every year. To have that little bit of success at the end is something that’s encouraging for me.”
Brad Larsen Columbus Blue Jackets
The players have praised the work of Brad Larsen in his first season. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Recall Larsen was quick to respond when the news of Kivlenieks came down. He drove to Michigan as soon as he found out so he could be there. It’s clear Larsen has the respect of the team from management to players. It was a good first season from him. The next step is building from that now.

Best of the Rest

6. Here’s Sean Kuraly on 18-year old Cole Sillinger’s season: “Nothing short of incredible really. It’s so impressive, how he handles himself how mature he is. The type of player he is what you guys see and that’s impressive. Columbus is
lucky to have him. There’s going to be a lot a lot more coming from him. He’s just mature beyond his years. You can see that and young kid and he comes in and he’s scored his whole life and he ended up scoring a lot here, too, but it’s tough to realize okay, I gotta play on the D side of the puck and just really incredible. I saw something tweeted out that guys that scored a certain amount of goals when they’re 18 and that’s pretty good list. We all know those. That’s what’s so impressive about him is that’s not that’s not in his mind that somebody’s striving for and someone like me has been around I learned from him this year at times. So impressive and happy to be his teammate for foreseeable future.”

7. Kent Johnson already has a fan and friend in Sillinger. “Obviously, his skillset is tremendous,” Sillinger said of Johnson. You saw some of the plays he made. The one that stands out to me is that pass to Voracek, just the poise he had. Faked it, faked it, faked it and then just slid it over to Jake and Jake had a wide-open net. Just plays like that. Everyone’s seen his college hockey highlights. He’s a great player, great person. We’re really good friends already. That’s something that’s important to me, the off-ice, and he’ll be a really good player.”

8. The Blue Jackets brought in Cole’s brother Owen Sillinger who has been with the Monsters. Here’s Owen’s scouting report from Cole himself: “200-foot player. A guy you can look at being responsible all over the ice. He’ll make a couple plays. He’ll stand out. He’s a good player. Good in the faceoff circle, too.” Don’t discount the importance of moves like this. Cole took notice. “I think that’s a great signing by them. If you look at Owen’s path, he’s earned everything that has been given to him. He’s a guy that didn’t play his first year of junior until he was 18. A little bit of a late developer. Didn’t play his first year in college until he was 21. And then every year in college, he got better and better. He’s a very complete player and very responsible player. Every team he’s bene on, he’s been a leader. A captain. That’s what stands out to me and I think one day he’s gonna work himself up to the National Hockey League.”

9. The Blue Jackets’ culture appears to be in a good place. Here’s Werenski on where he thinks that stands. “I think our locker room was of the best we’ve had since I’ve been here, and we’ve had some really good locker rooms. Last year is a weird year with COVID and everything. We were we were losing and coming to the rink just wasn’t fun. It wasn’t enjoyable. And this year, even when we were going through losing streaks and rough patches in our season, every day, I had fun coming to the rink, and I enjoyed it. I think that says a lot about our room. It says a lot about our coaches handled things this year. It felt like we’re all in it together. It’s big moving forward. Our culture’s right where it needs to be. We can always add to it and grow in that aspect. We had a new leadership group this year; we accomplished what we want to do.”

Zach Werenski Columbus Blue Jackets
Zach Werenski says the Blue Jackets’ culture has not been better since he’s been in Columbus. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

10. Werenski said he doesn’t think he’ll play for Team USA at the World Championships. He is recovering from a broken nose suffered late in the season. And one thing Werenski hopes for moving forward? “I’m excited to stop getting hit in the head. I’ve got too many of those lately. I’m excited to take no more pucks to the face and elbows and whatnot.”

11. Jenner opened up about the status of his back injury: “It was tough. Obviously, I wanted to keep playing. Just couldn’t do it the way I wanted to, and I had to try to get healthy. For right now I feel great. Going into the summer, going back into my summer training, and skating pretty quickly here. I’m lucky and I’m happy to be feeling good again.”

12. Jenner said that he does NOT need surgery on his back. He seems on track to be ready for training camp in the fall.

13. Jenner on Rick Nash’s role in the front office: “He’s been awesome since joining us as staff. He’s brought a lot of different ideas and different things to us. He’s just growing in that role.” (Author’s note: Just as Jenner was speaking on this, the theme to Rocky begins playing in the background.) Don’t underestimate the power of having Nash in this role. He’s a huge Columbus advocate and a big help for recruiting. Nick Blankenburg admitted this was something that stuck with him.

14. Perhaps one of the funniest quotes of the day. Roslovic on measuring success and if it’s measured differently than (the media) would measure it: “I’m not going to take away any of your guys’ hockey knowledge. There’s some clickbait maybe sometimes that’s favorable for you guys, but not the way that we look at it. You guys … I say you guys, but you know … people who want to talk about production and all these other things. There are a lot more intangibles that people don’t see. To have that as a player and to have that to hang your hat on , that can go a long way.”

15. Roslovic admitted he’ll be the first to advocate for Columbus if called upon, especially for Laine: “I definitely will be an advocate anytime that I get called upon to be a spokesman for the city. I’ll never mince words about it. I’ll tell them what I believe, and I believe that this is a great city and a team that can have some success in the next coming seasons. As far as Patty, you’ll have to talk to him. But he’s a pretty simple guy. He likes anywhere, but I think it loves it here. I’m excited to have him back, hopefully. We’ll see and time will tell.”

16. What will Johnson’s focus be on this summer? “I think definitely getting more explosive in my first few steps and getting stronger, just being able to protect the puck even better would be really good.” Despite not scoring his first NHL goal yet, he says he’s more confident now than when he debuted.

17. Johnson said he’ll be at development camp although he is not sure about Traverse City yet. He will spend a lot of time at home in British Columbia training. His friend Jake Christiansen will be there training with him.

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18. Caught up with Christiansen Saturday night after the Monsters’ finale. He said it was nice to be honored as a second-team AHL All-Star. His scoring line of 13-32-45 led the Monsters in scoring by a lot. He’s also a defenseman. He hopes to make a bigger contribution with the Blue Jackets next season. What does he need to work on? “My gaps and some other things in the d-zone.” Christiansen said. He is certainly a player to watch given his AHL success.

19. Bjorkstrand is one of the “vets” on the Blue Jackets given the youth on the team. He wore a letter for the first time this season. As a result, several players would look up to him. Here’s Bjorkstrand on being a leader and setting the example: “I mean we have a young team. Maybe on other teams, I wouldn’t be as much of a vet as I am on this team. But it’s been fun. I’ve learned a lot from it. I think I can improve in some areas. I think I try to lead on the ice that’s what I want to do where I definitely think I have better and more to add there. I think where I can take a step is maybe be a little more vocal. It’s something I got to build on and just get better at. I think when you have a letter, of course young guys they look at you and how you go about things. So if you’re playing bad hockey, you gotta make sure your body language and all the small things are in order. If you’re not playing good as a team, the most important thing you can do is compete. I think that’s where Boone stands out a lot of times regardless if he’s playing his best hockey or not, his compete level is there. That’s the easiest part to do. You have no excuses there.”

20. Here’s Nyquist on why he wants to stay in Columbus. Can we finally put that old narrative to rest, please? “I just think the way I’ve been treated by this organization. I think the community, the city of Columbus, it’s a great city, a great place to live. My wife loves it here. We have two young kids, and it’s a great place to raise a family. So there’s a lot of things to like about this place and yeah, it’s a great place to play.”

21. Vladislav Gavrikov likes where the team is going especially the young D-core. “We as a group made a major step. I think how we played, how we can handle it because we had a bunch of different stuff like injuries and COVID, the guy just came in and stepped in right away. I loved to see how we could handle it, and how the guys start playing right away. It’s most important for the young guys to feel the confidence in the in the room when you showed up and you feel that confidence from the guys and we just try to help them as much as we can. I’m glad to see how they can improve themselves.”

Vladislav Gavrikov Columbus Blue Jackets
Vladislav Gavrikov knows there is a lot of work ahead to reduce goals against. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

22. How do the Blue Jackets reduce the goals against? Gavrikov: “It’s a lot of work ahead because we changed our system of the game a little bit and it’s always take the time to adjust things. We will look obviously the whole summer, watch the video. We’ll figure it out because it’s not perfect right now. We had lot of chances but for some reason we started forcing plays stock force in place and couldn’t score the goals. After that  we just gave up probably two or three. It broke up our game a little bit and sometimes you can feel that change in emotions, swing in emotions, stuff like that. It’s no big secret. Every detail matters. We’ve got to work on that pretty much everywhere.”

23. Jake Voracek says the thing he loves about the Blue Jackets is how everyone from top-to-bottom “is on the same page” in terms of what the goals are.

24. Joonas Korpisalo said he is doing well recovering from hip surgery. His focus is on recovery and then what the future might hold. “First of all, I’m gonna get my hip 100%. That’s my first thought. But (expletive), I’m open as well. I haven’t thought anything too much yet. Just been focusing on my hip and getting that done. We’ll see. Excited about the summer and next year.”

25. We will reserve the last set of thoughts for retiring Monsters’ head coach Mike Eaves. Saturday night was his last game behind the bench. Due to health, he had been on press row during games with Trent Vogelhuber and Mark Letestu running the bench. On Saturday, the team asked him to be on the bench for the third period and he happily obliged. That was a cool moment.

26. Eaves has been the head coach of the Monsters since June 2019. What is next on his agenda now that he is retiring from coaching? “I’m honestly not sure yet.” But he did admit that he would like to stay within the Blue Jackets’ organization should the right opportunity be available.

27. What stood out for Eaves on his last game? “I stood on the bench for the third period which Vogsy (Vogelhuber) had actually come to me to say how about coming down for the third period? I said that’d be awesome. I’m standing there. What came to mind was my first coaching gig which was at a Division III school in Eau Claire, WI. I lost that game too, the opening game and then lose my last one being around the game. But that’s not what it’s all about ultimately. Having a moment in there with those guys, shaking hands and hugging their sweaty sweaters. That’s what it’s all about is the relationships ultimately. It’s fun to win championships. But you don’t win very often. They’re hard to come by. And so you have to make it about something more than just championships and the relationships that you build as you go along in your journey.”

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28. What does Eaves hope the players remember about him? “I hope they know that our staff cared. Guys don’t care what you know until they know you care. And if they know that, they’ll go through the wall for you. I think building relationships and then being prepared and having a plan and being consistent in that plan with them are something that they’ll know if you’re not for real very quickly. So I think all those things come together in making a good relationship because it’s a partnership with us and the players in terms of us trying to achieve championships.

29. Here’s Christiansen with a neat story on Eaves: “I’m kind of a hockey nerd, so I’m hockey all the time. He called me into his office and I thought it was maybe something to do with one of the names on the board. Sometimes you’re like ‘oh what did I do?’ He pulled me in and he taught me how to, he told me how to juggle and he taught me how to get my mind away from things away from the rink. I think that’s gone a long way for me so I’m thankful for that.”

30. Here’s Eaves with his final words: “I think the greatest compliment that we can give the fans here is the fact that we’re playing in a game that doesn’t mean anything at the end of the year. We have over 12,000 people that give this building energy and our players want to play in front of that. So for all the fans, thank you. Keep coming. It’s a great environment here if you’ve got a family. It’s probably the best environment in the city (of Cleveland) for a family outing. So to all you fans, thank you.”

What’s Next

The Blue Jackets are scheduled to have both Larsen and GM Jarmo Kekalainen speak to the media at 11 A.M. on Monday morning for their final thoughts heading into the offseason. After that, the NHL Draft Lottery will take place on May 10. The NHL Combine is set for Buffalo the last week of May into June. Then the NHL Draft will take place July 7-8 at the Bell Centre in Montreal.

This Blue Jackets’ season started with tragedy. It ended with a glimpse of the future and the hope that comes with it. In the middle, the team had fun and developed the culture into a good place.

This season might be over. But their story is only starting to be written.

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