With the NHL season finally about to start this Tuesday, PHR makes its way towards finishing up our 2016-17 team previews. Next up: the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Last season: 34-40-8 (76 points), 8th in the Metropolitan Division, 15th in the Eastern Conference
Cap Space Remaining: $3.8MM according to Cap Friendly
Key Departures: RW Jared Boll (free agency, Anaheim Ducks), LW Rene Bourque (PTO, Colorado Avalanche), C Michael Chaput (free agency, Vancouver Canucks), D Justin Falk (free agency, Buffalo Sabres), D Michael Paliotta (free agency, New York Rangers), RW Kerby Rychel (trade, Toronto Maple Leafs), D Fedor Tyutin (free agency, Colorado Avalanche)
Player to Watch: Sam Gagner – A once-promising career took an ugly turn after Gagner signed his last contract – a three-year, $14.4MM pact that led to a frustrating end in Edmonton and spanned disappointing stints in Arizona and Philadelphia – and now he looks to right the ship in Columbus with a new contract. The one-year, $650K deal has the makings of an absolute bargain for the Blue Jackets if Gagner can return to his career average of about 40 points. They may need him to do just that too. After trading Ryan Johansen and Artem Anisimov last year, an undeniable void was created at center for the Jackets. While they have high hopes for 2016 first round pick Pierre-Luc Dubois, as well as 2013 first-rounder Alexander Wennberg, Columbus has only Greg Campbell as a veteran option down the middle behind Brandon Dubinsky. Gagner could be asked to center the second or third line this season for the Blue Jackets, and will surely have a top nine role to start the season at least. A career resurgence would be beneficial long and short-term for both sides, but a repeat of his 16-point performance last season will greatly limit what Columbus is able to do on offense this year. Gagner’s contract is low-risk and high-reward, but his role carries far more weight than his contract would indicate. How it all plays out will be key.
Key Storylines: The Blue Jackets are set to begin the season with four former first-rounders on defense. While Jack Johnson has certainly established himself as an NHL star and the leader of the blue line in Columbus, it is the three more recent top picks that will make the difference this year and for years to come. Beginning his first full season with the team is young stud Seth Jones, who signed a six-year extension worth over $30MM this summer and will look to continue his ascent to NHL stardom. His teammate in Columbus and with Team North America is Ryan Murray, Columbus’ 2012 first-round pick. Murray led all Blue Jackets defenseman in points last season, but is still working on developing a complete defensive game. As of now, it looks like 2014 top pick Zach Werenski is set to join the team this season as well, and he too will bring great offensive talent, but will have his fair share of struggles in his own end. If the trio of young defenseman all play to their potential, then the Blue Jackets could have the best young defensive core in the league. However, if they hit a developmental wall, the result would be some major difficulties on the back end this season.
Should the Blue Jackets struggle this season, watch for several big names to potentially hit the trade block. The most predictable deal would obviously be Scott Hartnell, a player that Columbus has been looking to move for a while now. However, with a full re-build in progress, Hartnell is not the only veteran who could bring back some valuable picks and prospects. The aforementioned Johnson is now surrounded by up-and-coming young defensemen and may be seen as expendable for the right price. Cam Atkinson’s name seems to come up at the trade deadline every year, and this could finally be the season that he’s moved. Same goes for Matt Calvert and a potentially-resurgent Sam Gagner. The Blue Jackets are unlikely to be a playoff team this year, so some tough calls await GM Jarmo Kekalainen in 2016-17 about how to move forward with his re-build.