Columbus Blue Jackets, Elvis Merzlikins, Gustav Nyqvist, Jarmo Kekalainen, Long Read, Top Story

Summer State of the Columbus Blue Jackets

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The thing that most fans feared would happen happened. July 1 came. July 1 went. And every Columbus Blue Jacket who was an unrestricted free agent decided to move on. Ouch.

We knew this was a possibility ever since the trade deadline. But to see every player walk with no return still stings no matter how anyone spins it. Even if one of those players decides to re-up with the Blue Jackets, it changes the narrative.

The Blue Jackets were one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup this past season. The pieces were in place. Had they gotten by the Boston Bruins, who knows what happens after. They would have been one of the final four. Instead, it’s one playoff series win and an exodus of talent leaving the organization.

While all that was happening, the Metropolitan Division got insanely better talent wise. New Jersey drafted Jack Hughes as expected but also landed P.K. Subban in a huge trade. The New York Rangers not only drafted Kaapo Kakko, they landed Artemi Panarin too. Score one for John Davidson in his new role.

Kaapo Kakko (New York Rangers) Jack Hughes (New Jersey Devils) Kirby Dach (Chicago Blackhawks)
Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko joining the Metropolitan Division makes life that much tougher. (Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports)

The New York Islanders struck out in free agency, but might not be done if rumors are true. They also have Noah Dobson and Oliver Wahlstrom on deck. Carolina was just in the Eastern Conference Final and Charlotte won the AHL. Martin Necas isn’t far from the NHL. Plus their prospect pool is loaded.

The Pittsburgh Penguins did trade Blue Jacket killer Phil Kessel, but will have a rejuvenated and rested Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Washington Capitals still have their core in tact and some reinforcements coming.

And don’t sleep on the Philadelphia Flyers. They have a new coaching staff. They made some smart moves especially on their blue line. Carter Hart is giving Flyers’ Nation hope in goal. It’s easy to look past them but that is not wise.

While the Blue Jackets are not in a doom and gloom situation, the division is much harder now than it was at the end of the 2018-19 season. The question on the minds of many is where do we do from here?

Welcome to our summer of 2019 State of the Columbus Blue Jackets. In this space, we will quickly recap the offseason to date and will start to look ahead to the 2019-20 season. This season is one of the more fascinating seasons I can remember in a long time. Why? Nobody really knows how the Blue Jackets will fare. Their range of possible outcomes is wide.

We know you have questions on your mind. While we don’t have every answer by any means, we certainly will try to answer some important questions to the best of our ability. If we can’t come up with a complete answer, we’ll at least talk about it and see where it takes us.

Kick back. Relax. Open a cold one (unless you’re under 21 in which case go grab a soda or something.) It’s time to dive into the state of the Blue Jackets.

Nick Foligno, Alexandre Texier, Scott Harrington
Where do the Columbus Blue Jackets go from here? (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Chris O’Meara)

Offseason Moves to Date

We know who left. Sergei Bobrovsky is in Florida. Panarin went to the New York Rangers. Matt Duchene went to Nashville. Keith Kinkaid dashed to Montreal. Adam McQuaid’s health is in question while Ryan Dzingel is still without a team, but he’s not coming back to the Blue Jackets.

So how did the Blue Jackets respond? They landed a top-six winger in Gustav Nyqvist. While he’s not Artemi Panarin, he fills the biggest need the Blue Jackets had up front. They needed a top-six winger preferably on the left side. They landed him for four years and $5.5 million per season. That’s reasonable despite the back end of the deal looking interesting.

Another signing that is not getting nearly enough attention in my mind is Jakob Lilja. He was teammates in Sweden with Emil Bemstrom. Lilja also led the team in scoring with 12-25-37. Bemstrom had 23 goals and 35 points. Lilja is also a left winger. With there being an open competition for the final few roster spots, Lilja is someone I’m very interested in to see how he does in camp.

Outside of Nyqvist and Lilja, the Blue Jackets locked up most of their RFA’s. Ryan Murray is back on a two-year deal. Scott Harrington is back on a three-year deal. Adam Clendening landed a two-year deal. Joonas Korpisalo got a one-year deal and is expected to share the net with Elvis Merzlikins, who also is on a one-year deal.

Markus Hannikainen and Eric Robinson are back as well. The one RFA that is not signed yet is the big one, Zach Werenski. Sonny Milano is also without a deal at this time.

GM Jarmo Kekalainen recently said that he was confident that a deal would get done with Werenski. There’s no question this is an interesting negotiation. Do you go bridge deal or longer term? Does he come out of this making more than Seth Jones for now? And, as we’ll discuss in detail later, do you consider trading him for an elite forward?

Obviously other moves can be made throughout the summer, but it’s certainly possible this is how the Blue Jackets will come to camp, once Werenski signs his deal of course. If this is how they come to camp, how will 2019-20 unfold? Is it doom and gloom or can they make something magical happen? You have questions. Let’s try to get to as many of them as we can.

Columbus Blue Jackets Jarmo Kekalainen
Will Jarmo Kekalainen make another move or go into the season as is? (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Gary Wiepert)

Are Other Moves Coming?

I think this is the biggest question of the moment. Are the Columbus Blue Jackets brewing up something big underneath the surface? You can never rule it out but at this point, I’m not seeing it. I will explain my reasoning.

The Blue Jackets love Zach Werenski. It would take a monumental deal to pry him away at this point. While that could happen, who out there would be a realistic target for the Blue Jackets in this kind of trade? Mitch Marner? Brayden Point? Any of the other RFA’s? The Maple Leafs and Lightning are not looking to trade these players. And elite players aren’t often available in trade.

What about a huge offer sheet? Yes, the Blue Jackets have the cap space and first rounders to pull off the highest level of an offer sheet, but again, I just don’t see it. Kekalainen has said on record that an offer sheet is a tool. But it would take four first round picks and a huge contract to pull it off. Even if an offer sheet is presented, teams are going to be inclined to match it.

Remember, the Blue Jackets do not have the necessary draft picks at the moment to utilize any of the other levels. They can only do the lowest level and highest level.

While Mitch Marner would have a place in Columbus, do you really think management wants to deal out a $12.5 million/season contract while sacrificing all those picks? Nope. What about a Marner/Werenski swap? This isn’t happening either. The Maple Leafs need righty defensemen. They’d want Seth Jones in this kind of deal and the Blue Jackets aren’t trading him anywhere.

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner
Mitch Marner could see an offer sheet, but it would take a ton to pry him away from Toronto. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

Now could other moves happen? Absolutely. Let me list for you the players who either will make the roster or have a chance to make the roster come training camp. Let’s start with the forwards:

  • Cam Atkinson (In)
  • Brandon Dubinsky (In)
  • Gustav Nyqvist (In)
  • Nick Foligno (In)
  • Alexander Wennberg (unless he’s dealt which I’m not seeing, he’s in.)
  • Boone Jenner (In)
  • Riley Nash (In)
  • Oliver Bjorkstrand (Likely In)
  • Josh Anderson (In)
  • Pierre-Luc Dubois (In)
  • Eric Robinson (in the mix, but is waivers exempt.)
  • Markus Hannikainen (Likely In)
  • Emil Bemstrom (in the mix, team very high on him.)
  • Alexandre Texier (Likely In)
  • Liam Foudy (will get every opportunity to make the team.)
  • Jakob Lilja (in the mix, but is waivers exempt.)
  • Sonny Milano (interesting case, but team still high on him.)

There’s 17 names for you for a maximum of 14 spots, maybe 13 if they elect to go with eight defensemen. That doesn’t include others who could fight for a spot like Kole Sherwood, Kevin Stenlund, Calvin Thurkauf and others.

Now let’s look at defensemen. We assume Werenski will get a deal eventually. Look at this depth.

  • Seth Jones
  • Zach Werenski
  • David Savard
  • Ryan Murray
  • Markus Nutivaara
  • Vladislav Gavrikov
  • Scott Harrington
  • Dean Kukan
  • Adam Clendening
  • Andrew Peeke
  • Gabriel Carlsson (remember him?)

Only Gavirkov, Peeke and Carlsson are waivers exempt. So once Werenski signs, that’s eight defensemen under contract who are not waivers exempt. If they elect to keep all eight in the NHL, that’s 13 forward spots making it an even tighter squeeze than it already is.

I can’t sit here and tell you that a move is coming. But what I can tell you is that moves are available if they so choose to utilize them. The elements are just right for a trade to happen based on the above. Some decisions will have to be made especially in training camp.

The takeaway here is that we cannot rule out other moves. If the Blue Jackets see an opportunity that makes their team better, they’ll pounce no matter how big the trade is. But understand they could elect to hold steady and wait for other opportunities later with the cap space they have. You don’t have to use it all now. In fact, I think they will hold steady for now.

As you can see from the above, forward and defense are looking pretty good all things considered. But there are questions that have to be asked. Let’s address those now.

2019-20 Will Ride on Goaltending

Kekalainen has said that he is comfortable if the Blue Jackets open the season with Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins in net. Korpisalo has always been Sergei Bobrovsky’s backup and this will be Merzlikins’ first full season in North America.

The questions are obvious. Can Korpisalo be a number one in the NHL? Can Merzlikins parlay his success on the world stage to the smaller rinks of the NHL? How quickly can he adjust? It is for this reason I’m of the belief that Korpisalo will get the assignment against Toronto on opening night with Merzlikins possibly getting Pittsburgh the following night. But we’ll see.

It is important to note that the Blue Jackets elected for now not to add anyone else in goal. Why? That’s because the team believes in who they have. They will get questions throughout the summer leading up to camp, during camp and during the season. It’s easy to see why. If the Blue Jackets hope to return to the playoffs, their goaltending must answer the bell. That’s a lot of pressure on two youngsters, but we’ll see how they handle it. And never discount the trade deadline. If the Blue Jackets are in it and need a veteran, someone will be available.

Columbus Blue Jackets' Joonas Korpisalo
Columbus Blue Jackets’ Joonas Korpisalo has a chance to be a number one. Will he take advantage? (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

Where Will the Goals Come From?

The forward group is loaded, but it is still fair to ask where the goals will come from? We know Cam Atkinson can fill the net as he scored 41 (!) last season. But with Panarin gone, can he and his linemates handle more defensive pressure since they don’t have to account for Panarin anymore. I expect Atkinson to have a nice season, but I’m not sure about 40 again. He can prove me wrong though.

Remember what Kekalainen said before acquiring Panarin? The Blue Jackets were lacking that “difference maker”. Well that difference maker is gone. Who will step up and make up for that loss of production? Is it Bemstrom? Texier? Maybe Bjorkstrand or Anderson go to higher levels. Maybe Dubois takes one step closer to becoming a true top-line center. While there are many avenues available, they still have to prove it and it is extremely hard to replace a guy like Panarin. Why do you think they made that last-ditch offer to him? Exactly.

Can the Defense Live Up to the Hype?

Kekalainen believes he has one of the best defense cores in the league. That is hard to argue. But can they live up to the hype they’re being given? If the Blue Jackets want success, they have to.

As great as Seth Jones was, he struggled at times. He needs to play like the Norris contender he can be. Werenski finally showed semblance of a two-way defensive game late in the season and into the playoffs. He needs to show this consistently. But he too is ready to break out.

Can Ryan Murray stay healthy? Can David Savard continue to be steady? Can Markus Nutivaara get back to the game he is capable of playing? Will Vladislav Gavrikov play like he did in the postseason? Can another defensemen kill it in camp to play in the top six?

This is the bread and butter of the Blue Jackets on paper. But they have to show how good they can be on the ice. With goals harder to come by and goaltending a question, this defense has to be the backbone of the team. If they struggle, it will be a long season in Columbus.

Seth Jones Columbus Blue Jackets Brad Marchand Boston Bruins
Seth Jones and the rest of the defense must live up to the hype in order for the Blue Jackets to succeed. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

Final Questions & Bold Predictions

Let’s end this by attacking some quick one-off questions and then give you my bold predictions for the season.

One-Off Questions

  • Should the Blue Jackets pursue Nikita Gusev? I can see both sides of this. He dominated the KHL. Vegas can’t seem to agree on a contract. The talent seems like it’s there, but it is still an unknown based on how he’d do here. Do you give $4 million to an unknown commodity for two seasons while maybe having to take on the David Clarkson contract again? Many teams should be in on Gusev because of the upside, but I don’t see Columbus being in this chase. You did see the depth above, right?
  • Should the Blue Jackets present any offer sheet? No. But I will say if they were a true contender in this spot, I’d look very hard at one. I just don’t think they’re in position to execute one at this time.
  • Should the Blue Jackets trade Wennberg, Milano or both? I know what many of you are thinking. Yes, yes, do whatever it takes. But that’s bad business you see. Why trade a dollar bill for pennies? Each player can play much better. I think the Blue Jackets only had one choice in this matter. While I think they considered trades, the better option was to hope they’ll rebound. They will each get their chance. Stay tuned below for my Wennberg bold prediction. You’ll laugh at me.
  • What else should we know about next season? There’s a lot, but take note of the two big RFA’s Dubois and Anderson. With their next contract on the line, expect monster seasons from both. I think both can get to 30 goals.

Other Bold Predictions

  • Emil Bemstrom will finish in the top-five of the Calder voting with a realistic chance of being a finalist. If you’re in fantasy hockey, lock this kid up.
  • I think the Blue Jackets eventually put the Swedes together. Low key part of the reason to get Nyqvist was to get someone to help Wennberg rebound. Add Bemstrom to this duo and you have a very Swede line. I am not sorry. Oh and Wennberg gets 10-40-50 minimum this season.
  • I do think Columbus sneaks into the playoffs. There’s something about Merzlikins that’s hard to explain, but he has that it factor. He’s confident. He’s a character. He’s the kind of player you want around. I think he answers the call in a big way.
  • I think Seth Jones is a Norris finalist. He’s on the verge, but finally takes the leap to recognition in that regard.
  • Last for now, I think the Blue Jackets power play gets to 20%. That’s bold, hence why it’s here you see. Bemstrom is a perfect fit for this team and should infuse much needed life into the man advantage. Texier will help. Anderson, Atkinson, Bjorkstrand and others will chip in. This team was embarrassed by the power play last season and will want to do whatever it takes to not be that bad again. They showed signs of life late. I think they’re finally ready to burst.

And that’s it. The state of the Columbus Blue Jackets is decent given their losses and they have their eyes set on much bigger and better from here. Thank you to all who came along on the ride. It was bumpy to say the least but it was also unforgettable too.

It’s time to move on though. Don’t look back. A new season will be here before you know it. Hope you all have a great summer. We’ll chime in if news breaks. Otherwise see you in September.

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