When the Columbus Blue Jackets watched an exodus of talent walk out the door in the 2019 off-season, the only top free agent that they were able to bring in to help make up for the losses was Gustav Nyquist. Nyquist signed a four-year, $22MM contract that placed him among the most well-compensated UFA’s that summer. A four-time 20-goal scorer coming off a career-high 60-point season, Nyquist was expected to step into the Columbus lineup and bring that same level of production. For the most part he did just that last season, meeting the high expectations. The long-time Detroit Red Wing showed no issues adjusting to his new team, recording 15 goals and 42 points in a shortened 70-game season, good enough for second on the team in scoring. However, the veteran had also quietly been dealing with a nagging injury in his left shoulder that turned out to be a torn labrum. He underwent surgery in early November and was given a 5-to-6 month recovery timeline. The Jackets realized that they would be missing the two-way, top-six forward for much of the season, but expected him back for the stretch run and hoped he would be joining a playoff push as well.
Well, five months have already passed with the six-month mark coming up shortly and there has been little word on Nyquist. That is, until today. Blue Jackets beat writer Jeff Svoboda relays word from head coach John Tortorella that Nyquist will not return to the Columbus lineup this season. Tortorella did not expand on this statement, leaving it ambiguous as to whether there has been a setback in his recovery that is truly preventing his return or whether the club has decided that there is no use bringing him back given their status this season. As for the latter, the Blue Jackets were toying with playoff contention for a short period of time, but have cooled off immensely in recent weeks. In fact, their 2-7-1 record in their past ten games is the second-worst mark in the league in that span. These struggles, pushing Columbus to seventh in the Central Division and ten points back of a playoff spot, coupled with the deadline departures of key contributors Nick Foligno and David Savard, have made a postseason push close to impossible and likely made it an easier decision for the team to shut Nyquist down.
The Blue Jackets certainly could have used Nyquist this season though. The play-making winger logged major minutes for Columbus last season and contributed to both special teams units. Due in no small part to Nyquist’s absence, the team has failed to improve in scoring this season, both even strength and on the power play, and have taken a step back on the penalty kill. And while team defense may seem to rely on the blue line and goaltending more than the forwards, missing Nyquist’s stable two-way presence for 18+ minutes per night has contributed to some degree in the Blue Jacket’s massive slide from the league’s third-best goal against average last season to 26th this year.
With all that said, Nyquist’s inability to return this season does raise some questions about his security this off-season. If the team is simply being cautious by not activating him this season, that would seem to imply that they have his future interests in mind and see him continuing to play a part with their club. However, if the soon-to-be 32-year-old has instead been recovering slowly and is still physically unable to return, that is a whole other issue. Facing financial pressure and facing an impending cap crunch, with Patrik Laine in need of a new deal this summer and Seth Jones and Zach Werenski in the same boat the next summer, a $5.5MM cap hit for an aging player who has not seen action in a year may not be appealing to the Blue Jackets. If they are unsure that Nyquist can return to being a dependable top-six forward in the final two years of his contract, they could opt to expose him in the Expansion Draft or trade him away, letting another team take that chance. Even if just for peace of mind heading into the off-season, it would have been nice for Columbus to see Nyquist return before the end of the season. Instead, they will have to prepare for an important off-season with an expensive question mark on the roster.