The Columbus Blue Jackets have officially ended the “reset” as it has been called by general manager Jarmo Kekalainen. The signing of free agent Johnny Gaudreau is a major turning point in the way the organization will be viewed around the league. Furthermore, it shows that management believes that the team is ready to compete. This process certainly went faster than many expected and raises the question of how soon they can return to the playoffs.
Setting up for the Future
The Blue Jackets started the reset process following the mass departure of star players following the 2018-19 season. Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, and trade deadline acquisition Matt Duchene all departed the organization unceremoniously. They were able to bounce back from this quickly though and eliminate the Toronto Maple Leafs during the 2019-20 qualifying series.
Things changed quickly though. The Blue Jackets were unable to make the playoffs during the next two seasons and traded some long-term faces of the franchise including Nick Foligno and Seth Jones among others. Over the course of two years, the organization’s main focus was adding draft picks and young players who can make an impact for the next decade. Names such as Cole Sillinger, Patrik Laine, and most recently Gaudreau have taken the place of the old guard. With names like that headlining the roster, the future is certainly bright in Columbus but the team also seems ready to compete in the upcoming 2022-23 season.
There are also quite a few prospects that haven’t made an impact at the NHL level yet. Former first-round picks David Jiricek, Denton Mateychuk, and Corson Ceulemans are expected to become high-level players on the blue line and up front, Kirill Marchenko and Kent Johnson are both primed to have strong rookie seasons. Meanwhile, players like Trey Fix-Wolansky and Liam Foudy aren’t going to be NHL regulars at this point, but they could get some opportunities this upcoming season.
Time to Compete
Despite having a lot of pieces set up for the future, the Blue Jackets have a roster that is also ready to compete for a playoff berth as early as the 2022-23 season. Jakub Voracek, Boone Jenner, and free agent signing Erik Gudbranson will be important veteran presences who will not only contribute on the ice but also help their younger counterparts develop and reach their full potential. Assuming Laine’s contract extension gets completed, the team has two star wingers; both of whom are under the age of 30 and can lead the organization for the foreseeable future.
Down the middle there’s a bit of a question mark, as the Blue Jackets will need to bank on either Sillinger or Johnson taking a major step forward and filling the first-line center role very soon. Jenner is undoubtedly a solid NHL-caliber center, however, he’s not an ideal option to have on the first line. There’s a lot of promise for this hole to fill itself with internal options though, which would certainly make management’s job much easier.
Defensively, the Blue Jackets have a strong, young core that will only continue to improve. The addition of a veteran stay-at-home defenseman like Gudbranson will certainly help solve the issues that plagued the team last season. There’s also a lot of offensive talent on the blue line with players like Adam Boqvist, Jake Bean, and Vladislav Gavrikov all coming off of breakout seasons. On this front, the team has reached a point where they just need to wait for the players to grow and reach their peak. With that being said, the aforementioned prospects like Jiricek and Mateychuk will be fighting for a roster spot sooner rather than later, which will only improve the defense as well.
Goaltending is one of the biggest risks for the Blue Jackets as Elvis Merzlikins took a major step back from previous seasons. With that being said, Joonas Korpisalo’s fall off was much more monumental. If the Finnish goaltender starts the 2021-22 season with a similar performance, he’s likely going to be replaced fairly quickly when Daniil Tarasov is healthy and ready to go. It will be surprising if Merzlikins doesn’t get back to his previous level, however, the backup spot is certainly going to be worth keeping an eye on.
Overall, the Blue Jackets are ready to compete. There are some question marks, but they’ll solve themselves over the next few years as players continue to develop. They’re not at the point where they’ll be likely to fight for the Stanley Cup just yet, but they should certainly be in contention for a playoff spot in a very difficult Metropolitan Division. Jarmo Kekalainen’s work over the past couple of years has put the team in a position where they have the potential to reach sustainable success for the first time in franchise history.
William Espy is a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus. He has been writing about hockey since 2016 on various platforms. He currently covers the Columbus Blue Jackets but had a previous stint covering the Calgary Flames.