How did the Blue Jackets do it. Johnny Gaudreau was the best free agent available in years, and he chose Columbus?! No offense to the fans, but the franchise has built up a reputation for letting stars go. Now, they were able to lure in the player with the second-most points last season, behind only Connor McDavid. However, it doesn’t turn them into a great team. The Blue Jackets were average at best in 2021-22. They added a top winger, but holes remain.
Offseason additions: F Johnny Gaudreau, D Erik Gudbranson, F Mathieu Olivier, F James Neal (PTO).
Offseason subtractions: F Oliver Bjorkstrand, D Dean Kukan, D Gabriel Carlsson, D Scott Harrington.
After years of superstardom, Gaudreau’s big year was 2021-22. He scored 40 goals with 75 assists for 115 points. Gaudreau led the league with a ridiculous plus-64 rating, and was nominated for both the Lady Byng and Selke Trophy, while finishing 4th in Hart voting. Following amazing production in an injured season, Patrik Laine was rewarded with an extension carrying an $8.7 million cap hit. In 56 games, he scored 26 goals with 30 assists, for a career-high points per game. While Laine produces, he is never one for great underlying numbers. He had a 39.4 xGF% last year, the worst on the team. Captain Boone Jenner scored 23 goals with 44 points, both the most since his 2015-16 season. In 2021-22, it was done in just 59 games. With Nick Foligno, David Savard, and Cam Atkinson leaving in recent seasons, Jenner is the longest-tenured player on the team.
He missed the entire 2020-21 season, but Gustav Nyquist returned with his third-best season in points. Nyquist scored 18 goals with 35 assists for 53 points. While bad goaltending luck played a role in it, Nyquist had a concerning 4.23 GA/60. The fire looked like it was running out on Jack Roslovic after a terrible start, as he had just 16 points in his first 39 games. He had 15 in his last 19 games, ending the season with 22 goals and 45 points. He is the only player returning to the Blue Jackets with a GF% over fifty. The cap repercussions of signing Gaudreau hurt the second line badly when Oliver Bjorkstrand had to be dumped off to Seattle. That allowed both Nyquist and Jakub Voracek to stay. Voracek led the team in points with 62 last season, with 56 of them being assists. He played in his 1,000th career game in 2021-22 and finished the year with exactly 800 points. The fact that over 72% of them have been assists is astonishing for a winger, but on brand for Voracek.
If Head Coach Brad Larsen allows it, Columbus could have a sick kid line headlined by Kent Johnson. Drafted fifth overall in 2021, Johnson played in both the Olympics and the World Juniors in this calendar year, and succeeded in both. He scored the golden goal in this year’s World Juniors, and had nine points in seven tournament games. After dominating at the University of Michigan, he had three assists in nine NHL games. While Johnson spent his season at Michigan and Beijing, the guy drafted seven picks after him, Cole Sillinger, had a full rookie season. While he didn’t receive any Calder votes, Sillinger scored 16 goals with 15 assists as an 18-year-old. The team thinks highly of 2018 second-rounder Krill Marchenko, who will come over from the KHL juggernaut that is SKA St. Petersburg. He scored 12 goals with eight assists in 39 games last year. The arrivals of Marchenko and Johnson would knock Yegor Chinakhov out of the lineup. A first-rounder in 2020, Chinakhov struggled during his rookie season, with 14 points in 62 games. He had a 40.1 xGF% and a feeble 32.07 GF%.
At least for 2021-22, the Blue Jackets found something in Justin Danforth. A former ECHL star, Danforth was nearly a point per game player in the KHL before making his NHL debut at age 28. In 45 games, Danforth netted 10 goals, with his 49.15 xGF% and 2.5 xGA/60 were both the best on the team. After setting a career-high in points, Eric Robinson received credit for getting Gaudreau to Columbus. Equipped with great speed, Robinson had 95 hits and 27 points in 67 games. The only forward with more short-handed ice time than Robinson was Sean Kuraly, the local kid who raised his single-season record of eight goals up to 14 last year, along with 16 assists. A fourth-round pick was sent to Nashville this offseason for Mathieu Olivier, who has 102 hits and seven points in 48 career games. Olivier played in just ten NHL games in 2021-22, but had 11 points in 46 AHL games with 76 penalty minutes. Emil Bemstrom played in exactly half of the games last year, with 11 points. He had a solid 49 xGF% and a 2.47 xGA/60.
After Seth Jones was traded, Zach Werenski became the number-one defender on Columbus, then set a new career-high with 48 points. In six career seasons, Werenski has not reached double-digit goals only once, when he had seven in 35 games in 2020-21. The strange choice to be his main partner is Andrew Peeke, who spent considerable time next to Werenski last year. Peeke is only 24, but he has the skillset of a bottom-four defender. In 82 games, he had 15 points with just 72 shots on net. Peeke blocked 169 shots with 191 hits in his first full NHL season with a 2.67 xGA/60, the best among regular Columbus defenders.
The most underrated player on a team that often has players labeled as underrated (the small market has a lot to do with that) is Vladislav Gavrikov, who was a legitimate top-four, two-way defender last year. He had 33 points in 80 games, with 138 blocked shots and 124 hits. Most of Columbus’ defenders had similar xGF/60 numbers, with Gavrikov being no different. The lead is held by both Werenski and Adam Boqvist at 2.41. Acquired from Chicago for Jones, Boqvist had 22 points in 52 games in a sheltered role, averaging roughly 17 minutes of ice time. While he scored 11 goals, Boqvist had a 17.2 shooting percentage. Not only would that be amazing for a forward, it is out of this world for a defender.
After never really getting a chance to play consistently in Carolina, Jake Bean had a solid first season with the Blue Jackets, and played a decent amount on the top pair with Werenski. In 67 games, Bean blocked 71 shots with 25 points. Part of the reason why the team had to trade Bjorkstrand was not just Gaudreau, but the interesting decision to give Erik Gudbranson $16 million over four seasons. He was a depth defender in 2020-21 for Ottawa and Nashville, but was a regular for Calgary last year. Gudbranson had 17 points in 78 games, with 92 blocks and 145 hits. Gavin Bayreuther played in more than half of the team’s games in 2021-22, but averaging just over 13 minutes of ice time, signifying that the trust was never really there.
The defense had its struggles last year, but the goaltending was far and away the number one reason why Columbus struggled last year. Despite that, they will be running it back with the same duo in net. They had to keep starter Elvis Merzlikins, who has five years left at a cap hit of $5.4 million. He was fine overall, with a .907 save percentage and a 3.22 GAA in 59 games. His goals saved above expected was negative 6.5. While that is obviously bad, it was better than some established goalies like Jack Campbell, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Jordan Binnington. Backup Joonas Korpisalo was the big issue, as he finished with a 4.15 GAA. Korpisalo had a -14.87 GSAx, the fifth worst in the league. The four goalies worse than him had at least 10 more games played.
Johnny Gaudreau – Boone Jenner – Patrik Laine
Gustav Nyquist – Jack Roslovic – Jakub Voracek
Kent Johnson – Cole Sillinger – Kirill Marchenko
Eric Robinson – Sean Kuraly – Justin Danforth
Scratched: Mathieu Olivier, Emil Bemstrom
Zach Werenski – Andrew Peeke
Vladislav Gavrikov – Adam Boqvist
Jake Bean – Erik Gudbranson
Scratched: Gavin Bayreuther