Updated: Jul 11, 2019
In the 2018-2019 NHL season, the Columbus Blue Jackets experienced unparalleled heights as an organization, and tasted postseason success for the first time in their 18 seasons of play. The journey was long and painful, filled with disappointing draft picks, a rapidfire coaching carousel, enough injuries to fill a small hospital, and putrid on ice results. The team took until 2014 to win its first playoff game, but kept building from there, until everything finally came together in the spring of 2019. Jarmo Kekalainen, the team's GM, came out guns blazing at the 2019 trade deadline, acquiring Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid for a healthy dose of 2019 and 2020 draft picks to supplement the Jackets' consummate roster with even more talent. His methods were controversial, as the team's star winger, Artemi Panarin, and star goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky, were set to become unrestricted free agents on July 1st, and now Duchene and Dzingel were set to join them. The move became even more controversial when the team struggled to gel together, and while they qualified for the playoffs, it was for the second wild card spot in the East. This meant that the team only team in the NHL to never win a playoff series had a first round date with the 62-win, Cup favorite, offensive powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning. Experts anticipated a quick series, generally feeling kind enough to think the Jackets could snag a win or two, but expected little else from them. It looked as though Kekalainen had acquired costly deadline rentals for no reason, and the team was going to lose much of its top end talent with nothing to show for it but an unfair fight with a hockey giant.
And everything went exactly as expected for about twenty minutes of playoff hockey. The Lightning jumped to a 3-0 lead in front of a raucous crowd, and seemed on their way to a game one victory. But instead of rolling over, the Blue Jackets seized momentum, slowly but surely, and overcame the deficit in time to take the lead on the power play with less than six minutes left to play in the game. The second and third period of game one changed the entire complexion of the series. Matt Duchene notched four points as the Jackets dismantled the Lightning again in game two, causing the presumed series and cup favorites to start to panic. Tampa was suddenly afflicted with suspect goaltending, an injured defense, and undisciplined play from star forward Nikita Kucherov, and on the road. A raucous Nationwide arena welcomed home the presumed underdogs, who managed to take early leads in both games three and four and then fend off torrid Lightning attacks enough to win the series. Columbus won their first ever playoff round in just about the most dramatic way they could muster, and presumably made a few bettors rich in the process. In an instant, the deadline trades seemed worth it, all the heartbreak seemed worth it, as everything had finally fallen into place. There was metaphorical new horizon in the state capital of Ohio.
And then the Jackets ran into a metaphorical horizon-killer named Tuukka Rask, who doesn't care about your "feel-good stories" or "underdog spunk". Columbus went down to the Boston Bruins in the 2nd round thanks to stellar goaltending by Rask, particularly in the series finale, game six, a frustrating 3-0 shutout for the Blue Jackets on home ice. With their season over, Columbus could now only hold on tight and brace for the offseason, an offseason where a lot of the team's top end talent appeared set to test the free agent market and take attractive offers that the Jackets could not match. Columbus had the money, but insiders believed that big cities and sandy beaches would prove to be too persuasive. And sure enough, July 1st came, and despite a last minute high-priced offer from the organization, Panarin got paid in the Big Apple, signing with Metropolitan Division rivals in the New York Rangers. Bobrovsky signed a mega contract for seven (7!) years at ten (10!) million dollars per year and took his talents to South Beach, joining the Florida Panthers (who must intentionally be trying to screw up first round pick Spencer Knight's development, because seven (7!) years is a long time). Duchene signed with the Nashville Predators, a move that was a long time coming since his original trade from the Avalanche. As of the writing of this article, Dzingel remains unsigned but is expected also to depart to a new team after struggling with the team. Perhaps most importantly, former team executive and one of the key overseers to the team's modern construction, John Davidson, also left for New York to orchestrate a new rebuild, this time for the Rangers.
Kekalainen's deadline aggression by the team brought about some of the greatest moments in Blue Jackets history that will not be forgotten for a long time by the fans or by the players. But the horizon that seemed incredibly bright only a month and a half ago is starting to cloud up. The last thing the organization wants to do is take a step back, especially after finally taking new steps in the right direction after years of building, but that may be necessary in order to better capitalize on the core that the Kekalainen has assembled over the past half-decade. Though more success might not be immediate, the Columbus Blue Jackets can overcome their offseason losses and lack of draft capital by using their resources well to address positional issues and by clinging to the identity they have already developed for themselves.
Plan of Attack for the Columbus Blue Jackets
It would be reasonable to assume that a team that finally became a contender and then found themselves staring down the potential of losing it all might suddenly become desperate to maintain the status quo. Sign a few overpriced free agents, trade away young talent for more established pieces, become fixated on the present at the cost of the future (See: the Edmonton Oilers and their criminal waste of Connor McDavid's early career). One could argue that this is how the team reached their current critical juncture in the first place, with, you know, trading away essentially an entire draft class to construct a roster that stayed together for approximately three months, but that was a gamble Kekalainen was willing to take because of the stakes presented to him at the time. The three months of that roster may be over, but those players were able to accomplish something no other roster in franchise history had. Kekalainen knew the potential consequences and should not be surprised now that he has to face them. The Jackets' GM has already taken action, as the team signed talented free agent forward Gustav Nyquist to a very reasonable four year, $5.5 million AAV contract that helps the team now without the potential for the contract to be a burden in the future. The team also resigned Ryan Murray to a new deal, and if he can stay healthy, he supplements what is still a formidable D-corp. The Jackets lost Bobrovsky, but have a commendable goalie pipeline with a freshly resigned Joonas Korpisalo alongside intriguing prospects Elvis Merzilikins and Veini Vehviläinen (say those names five times fast). But there is a lot of work left to be done, particularly at center and left wing. The roster, after July 1st, consists of:
As it stands, the Jackets looks like they have a lot more question marks in positions than they did to end the season. Pierre Luc-Dubois is coming off a 61-point season and budding into a 1st line player, but having a middling Boone Jenner and aging Brandon Dubinsky next on the depth chart isn't a great look, especially with Alexander Wennberg struggling since his breakout season two years ago. Nyquist is a good piece to add to the roster, but the wing position is still convoluted at best. Nick Foligno, at this stage of his career, cannot be a team's top left wing, especially when the only guy behind him on the depth chart is Eric Robinson, who has yet to make an impression on an NHL level after receiving a chance last season. The team would benefit from Ryan Dzingel sticking around, and should consider that even though he had a tough stretch in his time with organization, he still managed a 26-goal season and has improved every year of his career, even playing a majority of it on a putrid Ottawa Senators team. The Jackets still have $17 million in cap space remaining after July 1st, and Dzingel might still be a necessary investment. Michael Ferland is another versatile winger still on the market, and would be a good pickup at the right price, as he is a coveted player that adds a lot of value on the wing while playing alongside teams' top players.
Columbus must use their monetary resources well to get more talent for their forward core, but they must also use their draft resources wisely. The team did not a have a pick in the first three rounds in the 2019 draft, and has only one pick in the top three rounds of the 2020 draft. This means it is more important than ever to develop the prospects they have well, much more important than making wise free agency decisions. A team's identity is shaped around their drafting, and Columbus has succeeded in this department since Kekalainen took over as the GM. Success stories can be found in Josh Anderson (111 pts in 241 gp), Oliver Bjorkstrand (97 pts in 197 gp), Joonas Korpisalo (.907 sv pct., 2.89 GAA), Markus Nutivaara (51 pts in 207 gp as a defenseman, and a 7th rounder, no less), with Alexandre Texier and the aforementioned Veini Vehviläinen showing potential to helping the club going forward. All of these picks were outside the first round, and the scouting department will have to continue to find hidden gems in the later rounds with the lack of top-of-the-board prospects coming into the system from the 2019 and 2020 drafts. One of the best ways for a small market teams, like Columbus and Carolina, who don't attract free agents like, uh, pretty much all of the Metropolitan teams, to succeed is by smart drafting. Carolina and Columbus had the most postseason success out of their division last year because they built and developed a core of players and an identity through the draft, and then used free agency and trades to supplement the foundation that was already constructed. The best way for the Blue Jackets to continue their success is to continue to draft well, which means they might have to lose some talent in order to get some picks back that they lost in the deadline heist.
There is most definitely the possibility that losses start rolling in for Columbus come the start of next season, especially with teams like New Jersey and New York vastly improving. Washington and Pittsburgh will make the playoffs until the heat death of the universe, and Carolina and the Islanders will look to build off last season's successes while not experiencing as many losses in the offseason as the Jackets did. Philadelphia is an enigma, as always, but with solid goaltending, has a roster solid enough to compete for the playoffs. Columbus could find themselves as the odd ones out as the season proceeds, but that might be a necessary step in taking a larger step forward. Trading away some older pieces, like a Boone Jenner or a Nick Foligno, for picks will increase the prospect pool again, especially since the organization has the cap space to retain part of the salary on those contracts to make teams more interested and sweeten a potential deal. A team that could very quickly become stuck in the mud needs to be ready to move on from older leaders in exchange for potential new leaders, in order to keep up with an ever-changing NHL landscape.
The Blue Jackets are positioned for long term success, with more playoff victories in sight. A defense centered around Seth Jones and Zach Werenski is a building block to use for years, while Dubois, along with Anderson, Bjorkstrand, Jenner, Wennberg, Nyquist, and the criminally underrated Cam Atkinson, all create a good starting point for being a competitive forward core. We've seen it only takes a few pieces to greatly improve the Blue Jackets attack, and those pieces can be regained through good deals and good drafts. The young goalies in the system give promise that at least one of them will be able to stand out and out and make a career for himself. The team's core is young and talented, but needs more building before it can become an annual contender. Kekalainen is capable of putting the right pieces together, and after getting just a taste of glory last spring, the GM is no doubt ready earn even more. Columbus can and should make it make to the postseason very soon, even if they have to take a necessary step back in order to take two steps forward. The Jackets made franchise history in the 2018-2019 season, and before long, they can be enjoying so much more. All they can do for now is keep marching forward.
Sources: CapFriendly, CBS Sports, Hockey DB, HockeyViz, ChartingHockey, Fox Sports, 1st Ohio Battery, The Cannon