Uncertainty on the Horizon in Columbus
Columbus has the talent to be a playoff team, but the future is hazy right now. With its two best players, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, in a contract year and without any certainty that either will be back, what Jarmo Kekäläinen decides to do with his superstars will shape the franchise for years.
Defensively, and in goal, the Blue Jackets earned ‘B’s’ for their efforts last season. However, offensively the team wasn’t able to crack the top-15 in goals or expected goals for. Not a bad report card but not good enough to run with the big boys in the Eastern Conference.
What went right:
Columbus showed well at even-strength last season, finishing 11th in goals for and 9th in goals against at 5v5. The Blue Jackets offense was spearheaded by Artemi Panarin, who scored just over a point-per-game and finished top-5 league-wide in offensive zone puck possession time and scoring chances generating plays and ranked 6th in OZ pass attempts. Pierre-Luc Dubois also had a very promising rookie season for the team, finishing 3rd on the team in points with 48, essentially taking the first line center role from Alex Wennberg, who battled injuries most of the season. Seth Jones also had a great year, finishing 4th in Norris Trophy voting.
What Went Wrong:
Speaking of Wennberg, he disappointed in the first year of his new deal after a breakout 2016-17 season. His point total dropped from 59 to only 35, not what you want to see from your expected number one center. He struggled to enter the offensive zone, with his controlled entries falling from 2.92 a game to 2.2. He also had trouble hitting the net at even strength, as his slot shot accuracy fell from 66.2% down to 60.7% on fewer attempts. However, Wennberg dealt with injuries for a majority of the season. If he can stay healthy, expect a return to form as Wennberg is a dynamic playmaker, capable of much more than what we saw last year.
The Blue Jackets were also plagued by poor special teams play. Their power play ranked 25th in the league. Columbus failed to get the puck to the middle during the man advantage, ranking 27th in passes to the slot and shots from the slot. The penalty kill wasn’t any better, finishing 27th in the NHL.
Key Additions: Anthony Duclair, Riley Nash
Key Departures: Ian Cole, Jack Johnson, Thomas Vanek, Mark Letestu
Other Key moves: Re-signed Ryan Murray, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Boone Jenner
Both Anthony Duclair and Riley Nash could prove to be solid additions by the Blue Jackets. Duclair ranked 25th in inner slot shots per-20 at even strength. He seems to have a knack for getting in close and, for a one-year, minimum salary, it’s a low-risk signing for the team on a player who is running out of chances to prove himself at the NHL level. Nash had a fantastic season at both ends of the ice for the Bruins. He led all forwards in blocked passes per-20, tied with teammate and perennial Selke candidate Patrice Bergeron. He played mostly 3rd line minutes, but he filled Bergeron’s role on the first line when he went down with injuries, holding his own and eventually putting up 41 points, a career-high. He’s essentially the perfect fit as 3rd line center, able to play well defensively and fill in for injuries in the top 6. Nash will provide an upgrade over the departed Letestu.
Losing Ian Cole hurts. He is a great penalty killer, but the Jackets are loaded on the blueline with Jones, Zach Werenski, David Savard, Ryan Murray and younger players gunning for the bottom pair in Markus Nutivaara and Gabriel Carlsson. Thomas Vanek, meanwhile, turned out to be purely a deadline rental, which is fine.
Next season preview
What could go right?
If Wennberg gets back to form and Dubois builds on his success, the Jackets will boast one of the league’s most promising 1-2 punches down the middle. They are also set on the blueline, with Werenski and Jones anchoring a very strong 1st pair. Werenski led all defensemen with 90 even-strength scoring chances, 12 more than Norris winner Victor Hedman, who was second. He was still solid defending the blueline, ranking 20th in zone-entry denial rate. Jones, meanwhile, will be a frontrunner to crack the top-three in Norris voting this year. Sergei Bobrovsky is still a perennial Vezina candidate, good enough to win his team games on any given night.
What could go wrong?
Both Panarin and Bobrovsky are on the last year of their deals, but the Panarin situation is especially concerning, as he appears reluctant to sign a long-term contract with Columbus. Will he be traded before the season starts? At the trade deadline? Or will Jarmo Kekäläinen roll the dice and keep him through the season? Whatever happens with him will have a huge impact on the Jackets, as Panarin is their best forward and is one of the best in the NHL. Losing him would hurt their already struggling powerplay and sap even more firepower from an offense that, while nearly top-ten at even-strength, was dragged down to 17th by the powerplay.