November 29, 2023

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SvoNotes: The state of the union (blue) address

The cautious optimism of the preseason has been replaced by the reality that the Jackets are 15-32-4 through 51 games, a mark of 34 points and a .333 points percentage that are both last in the league.  

Let’s be honest — it’s been a bitter disappointment for everyone involved, the type of season that leads to a lot of soul searching. Yet I’ve maintained that in the long run, the Blue Jackets remain in a good place, with waves of young talent in the system that will likely be growing into productive NHL players still within the best years of some of the top veterans on the squad. 

This year showed that the process sometimes takes longer than people want it to, and I know not everyone wants to hear sunshine and lollipops after the way this season has gone. But the fact is I remain pretty bullish in the big picture of where things are going.  

So for this week’s column, with the team heading back to Columbus for practice tomorrow at the end of its winter break, I figured I’d look at three reasons to be positive about the Blue Jackets, plus three questions the team does need to address to get back to competing for playoff spots sooner rather than later. 

Things To Like 

Johnny Be Good: Much of the excitement heading into the season was centered around the addition of Johnny Gaudreau, as not only did the Blue Jackets land the biggest fish in the free agent pond last summer, they added the most impactful signing in team history. 

Through 51 games, Gaudreau has not disappointed. The team’s All-Star representative has posted a 14-35-49 line and has been one of the top assist men in the NHL for the past three months, all while playing on a team that has struggled in the win column. One also gets the sense there is more that can be unlocked in Gaudreau, as he’s had a shuffle of linemates throughout the season, while the team’s power play is yet to truly find its groove.  

Still just 29, Gaudreau remains one of the game’s top scorers, a consistent point-per-game player since he stepped on NHL ice. There’s a lot of subtlety and danger to his game, and he seems like the kind of player who will age well in today’s NHL that is younger and faster than ever. 

The Kids Are All Right: There’s just one team with two players in the top 10 in goals scored among rookies in the NHL. 

You probably figured out that’s the Blue Jackets, with Kirill Marchenko tied for second among rookie goal scorers with 13, while Kent Johnson isn’t far behind with 10 to tie for fifth.  

In all, CBJ rookies have posted a 30-31-61 line, good for first in the NHL in goals and second in points among first-year players.  

Now, rookie scoring is often about opportunity, and there has been a lot more of that in Columbus than, say, Tampa Bay or Boston. But at the same time, if you’re a CBJ fan, why wouldn’t you see the play of such youngsters as Marchenko and Johnson as a bright spot? 

Johnson is showing the playmaking instincts that made him the No. 5 pick in the draft, and it’s not hard to see how his vision and creativity will only lead to increased production the more the 20-year-old plays NHL games. Marchenko, meanwhile, has taken the league by storm, and while he’s probably not going to keep shooting at 25.0 percent forever, his direct game, offensive instincts and tricky shot are likely going to make him a productive NHLer for a long time. 

Such youngsters as Cole Sillinger and Adam Boqvist have gone through tough second seasons in CBJ colors, but they retain high ceilings. And much more is on the way, as The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler lists the Blue Jackets’ prospect pool as the third best in the NHL.  

David Jiricek, Denton Mateychuk, Jordan Dumais, Corson Ceulemans, Stanislav Svozil, Luca Del Bel Belluz all project to be NHLers, some sooner rather than later. And another top draft, perhaps a generational talent, is likely on the way in the 2023 draft given how this season has played out. 

It Can’t Get Worse: OK, there’s no science behind this, but let’s be honest — the Blue Jackets aren’t likely to go through another season like this again in the near future, right? 

I know the 3-9 start, when the team was largely healthy, showed there were still growing pains to be had. But let’s also be honest — the season-ending injuries that soon occurred to the team’s leading returning scorer (Jakub Voracek), it’s top defenseman (Zach Werenski), a do-it-all Swiss Army knife up front (Justin Danforth) and one of the team’s promising young defensemen (Jake Bean) short-circuited any real chance the Jackets had at rescuing the season. 

NHL Injury Viz lists the Jackets at 319 man games lost in-season, with no other team in the league above 200 at the All-Star break. Such players as Patrik Laine, Boone Jenner, Yegor Chinakhov, Nick Blankenburg, Boqvist, and all three goalies have missed time at some point. Simply put, no team could withstand so many absences, and it’s not likely to happen again. 

The biggest impact of those injuries has been pushing untested players into positions they weren’t quite ready for, head coach Brad Larsen has said, and it’s been evident in the team’s play. The Blue Jackets have struggled to handle the ebbs and flows of games, which is the kind of thing a veteran team has learned over the years. 

The lessons this year have been harsh. But they have been lessons. If the Blue Jackets learn from them, there’s a lot to be excited about for what’s to come. 

Three Big Questions 

Defense, Defense, Defense: Offense can sell tickets. Offense can win games. But if you’re going to compete consistently at any level of hockey, you have to be able to play solid defense. 

And let’s be honest: The Blue Jackets have left a lot to be desired in that realm of the game. 

Numbers can lie, but the 3.86 goals allowed per game by Columbus, good for 30th in the league, is not a mirage. You can rationalize it all you want, especially as injuries gutted the defensive corps, but the reality is the Jackets were ceding too many goals even when everyone was healthy.  

And with Columbus placing 28th in team defense a year ago, it’s fair to say this is a recurring problem that needs to be addressed. There are a lot of factors, to be sure, including youth and injuries. But putting together a roster that can keep more goals out of the net will be at the forefront of general manager Jarmo Kekalainen’s to-do list this offseason. 

Goaltending Path Going Forward: While we’re on the subject of goals going in the net, the Blue Jackets are in an interesting situation when it comes to the men wearing the pads. 

Joonas Korpisalo has been the most effective CBJ netminder this year, but the longest-tenured goalie in team history is nearing the end of a one-year contract. The return to health and much improved play from a year ago is a feel-good story for one of the most popular players in the room, and it’s not hard to imagine the team wanting to keep him around, but there’s also the reality of the position. 

The Blue Jackets are in the first year of Elvis Merzlikins‘ five-year contract, and while this year has been forgettable for the netminder so far, his deal means he remains a big part of the CBJ future. (Here, we will also point out that he’s looked significantly better of late, and Korpisalo is proof positive that a difficult season can be followed by a bounce-back campaign at a position that is often defined by randomness and confidence than anything else.) 

Then there’s Daniil Tarasov, who has still played precious few games on North American ice at the pro level but has shown in his NHL outings that he’s good enough to compete against the game’s best. He’s skated in just 40 games still between the AHL and NHL levels the past two seasons, but his .914 save percentage in 17 NHL contests — as well as his cool, collected demeanor — shows a goalie who might not need a ton of extra seasoning to be ready for a big role at the highest level.  

However you slice it, there are question marks for how the Jackets handle the personnel at the position — Is there a spot for Korpisalo? Can Merzlikins rebound? Is Tarasov ready? — but there are just as likely answers. 

How Much Do You Tinker? Not everything will go according to plan, but if you’re the Blue Jackets, you have to think you have the bones in place. You have veterans like Gaudreau, Laine, Werenski, Boone Jenner, Sean Kuraly and Erik Gudbranson signed for the next couple of seasons, and the youngsters on the way will soon comprise a significant portion of the roster. 

The only UFAs-to-be in the organization are Korpisalo, Vladislav Gavrikov, Gus Nyquist and Gavin Bayreuther, so the bulk of the roster is set for the upcoming season.  

But after such a tough campaign, do the Blue Jackets go bold and try to trade some mainstays? With some cap room available and young players coming along to fill holes, can they make another splash on the free agent market? And will the results of the draft lottery be the key to everything? 

Columbus didn’t come into this season intending to struggle the way it has, so falling short of expectations may have its own set of ramifications. Was this season in itself a learning experience for this group, or do the results mean something big has to change? 

That’s what Kekalainen gets paid the big bucks to figure out. 

Congrats, Jake! 

We wrapped up Johnny Gaudreau’s showing at the NHL All-Star Weekend earlier this week, and while the format has been tweaked over the years, it is worth noting Gaudreau became just the third CBJ player to notch three goals in an event following Rick Nash (2008) and Cam Atkinson (2017 and ’19).  

We’ll also give a shout out on the AHL side to Christiansen, who represented Cleveland in that league’s All-Star Game after David Jiricek fell ill, Monsters play-by-play man Tony Brown reported. The 19-year-old Jiricek was set to represent the Jackets’ top farm team and be the second youngest player in the modern era to make the AHL event, but Christiansen deservedly filled in. 

He notched an assist in the North Division’s shootout loss in the 3-on-3 semifinal, with the helper coming on former CBJ training camp invitee Egor Sokolov’s goal. Sokolov has become a consistent producer in the AHL, posting 90 points over 108 games the past two seasons with Belleville in the Ottawa organization. 

Meanwhile, another familiar face was on the other side, as Riley Nash suited up for the Atlantic Division. Nash spent three seasons with the Jackets before being dealt at the 2021 trade deadline, and he’s become a big veteran presence for Charlotte of the AHL.  

When it comes to other familiar names at the AHL All-Star festivities, former CBJ player T.J. Tynan skated for the Pacific Division, where he was joined by Jean-Luc Foudy, the brother of CBJ forward Liam Foudy. Former Ohio State players Max McCormick (Pacific) and David Gust (Central) also took part. 

The Monsters are back at home this weekend, hosting Belleville on Friday and Saturday nights before a Tuesday night home clash vs. Rochester.