Columbus Blue Jackets 2022-23 season preview: Playoff possibilities, projected factors, roster rankings

September 21, 2022

Welcome to The Athletic’s 2022-23 version of the workforce season previews. Try all of the previews as they’re launched proper right here.

The shock has worn off, proper? You’re not studying this, remembering that Johnny Gaudreau signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets, and getting gobsmacked over again. You’ll be able to’t be. That occurred a pair months in the past. Recover from it.

(In the event you had been shocked again in July when Gaudreau pulled a last-second, $68.75 million swerve towards Central Ohio, you’re excused. All of us had been — together with, in response to Columbus defenseman Zach Werenski, the workforce’s entrance workplace. All of it occurred without delay. Can’t blame anyone.)

In any case, it’s time to maneuver into the subsequent section of a brand new period in Columbus. The large fish got here to city. Now what occurs? Is Gaudreau sufficient to show them from final season’s pleasantly stunning, finally sub-mediocre group into one thing extra? Is one ultra-elite performer sufficient to make a ahead corps playoff-caliber?

The quick reply isn’t any. The explanations for which can be many. Gaudreau’s arrival carries weight, tangible and in any other case, however because it stands, this stays a roster that wants extra work — and extra time — earlier than it’s doing something greater than punching up within the Metropolitan Division. The vibes surrounding the franchise are completely different, however for now, the outcomes aren’t on monitor to alter.


The projection

The Columbus Blue Jackets completed final season with 81 factors and subsequently landed this 12 months’s largest fish in free company — a participant who completed fourth in Hart Trophy voting final season. Absolutely, they’re a greater workforce than final season, proper? Sure, however that doesn’t essentially imply a greater standings consequence.

A part of the issue is that Columbus was probably a bit lucky to even end with 81 factors final 12 months. Based mostly on the workforce’s purpose differential, the Blue Jackets ought to’ve had 78 factors fairly than 81. On prime of that, that they had the third-worst anticipated objectives charge in all conditions at 44.7 p.c, a mark that was masked barely by incomes 46.2 p.c of the objectives, 1.5 proportion factors increased than anticipated. Columbus’s purpose charge was eleventh worst within the league — the ten groups beneath the Blue Jackets all had a purpose charge that was worse than anticipated.

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Is Columbus the exception to the rule? It’s doable, however what fuelled the Blue Jackets final 12 months was its offense the place the workforce scored on 10.5 p.c of their photographs, good for eighth within the league. Given the offensive expertise on the workforce final 12 months, that feels tough to justify. Within the workforce’s earlier two seasons, Columbus ranked thirtieth, scoring on eight p.c of its photographs. The mannequin is anticipating that the workforce shall be loads nearer to the latter quantity than the previous — a imply reversion that Gaudreau’s presence alone can’t fully offset.

It’s greater than doable that the mannequin is underrating your complete workforce — Columbus did change coaches final season — however final 12 months’s underlying numbers give loads of motive for skepticism. It’s the largest motive why the workforce’s chances throughout the board are removed from rosy. In a really aggressive East, the Blue Jackets have only a three p.c probability of creating the playoffs and are more likely to be a bottom-tier membership this season. There’s solely a 37 p.c probability the workforce finally ends up with 80 or extra factors. Distinction that with their 55 p.c probability of touchdown within the league’s backside 5 and it reveals why it was so perplexing that Columbus was the vacation spot of alternative for Gaudreau.

Outdoors of Gaudreau, that is an sadly barren workforce that appears unlikely to do a lot injury this season.

It’s not a hopeless one although. Something can occur, and even when it doesn’t, a season within the basement may spark a really fast turnaround subsequent 12 months — particularly with a number of the rising expertise the workforce has to supply. The current is bleak, however the future has loads of potential with Gaudreau within the fold. That’ll be the factor to sit up for in what seems to be prone to be a extra irritating season than some followers may anticipate.


The large query

Is Johnny Gaudreau sufficient to make the Blue Jackets a playoff workforce?

It’ll take extra than simply Gaudreau to get there. Plenty of issues need to go proper for the Blue Jackets that Gaudreau alone can’t remedy.

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Gaudreau himself is a unbelievable participant, one of many league’s few true sport breakers and playmakers. Whereas his epic level whole from final 12 months spoke volumes about that, digging deeper exhibits simply how uncommon his talent set is — particularly with the puck on his stick.

Based mostly on information tracked by Corey Sznajder, right here’s the place Gaudreau ranked final season.

  • Third in scoring probability assists
  • Third in high-danger shot assists
  • Fourth in rush offense created
  • Sixth in managed entries
  • Sixth in entries resulting in scoring possibilities

Gaudreau is totally elite in transition and a real power within the offensive zone, one of the vital dynamic gamers within the league. He’s a difference-maker, akin to what Artemi Panarin was for this workforce just a few years in the past. His creativity, imaginative and prescient and evasiveness make him tough to cease when the puck is on his stick. He strikes the puck via the impartial zone higher than virtually anybody and may cross the puck higher than virtually anybody. Offensively, he makes an unlimited influence and it’s why his projected worth for subsequent season is 4.4 wins.

That projected win worth can typically be obfuscated by context and Gaudreau’s is clearly altering right here. Whereas all indications are there that he’s a real driver of offense, that was loads simpler to do on Calgary on a super-powered line. He’s projected to hit 91 factors this season, a protected drop from final 12 months’s profession excessive — however even that may be pushing it on a much less proficient Blue Jackets workforce. Perhaps Gaudreau finds quick chemistry with Patrik Laine, particularly on the facility play, however there isn’t any middle right here that’s near Elias Lindholm’s degree. The supporting solid will make it tough for Gaudreau to realize these heights.

The most important query is how a lot of final 12 months’s defensive enchancment was actual, and the way a lot may be credited to his linemates. By GSVA, Gaudreau acquired a number of credit score for improved two-way play and a part of his inflated projected worth is a results of that. However that’s probably a matter of taking part in in Darryl Sutter’s robust system with two sound defensive gamers, one in every of which earned a Selke nomination. It’ll be onerous to copy right here — particularly taking part in with two gamers who had a number of the worst defensive ends in the league final season — and it’s why Gaudreau will probably have a tough time being a real 4.4-win participant in Columbus as projected.

Including 4.4 wins to Columbus’ whole from final 12 months will get the Blue Jackets near 90 factors, so it’s simple to speak oneself into believing Gaudreau’s presence will get them there. However except for Gaudreau wanting like somebody who probably underperforms his projected worth inside his new context, there are two different components at play. Columbus might be not a real 81-point workforce exterior of Gaudreau (as mentioned above), and it’s even tougher to get to that whole after the workforce dealt arguably its greatest winger in Oliver Bjorkstrand to be able to match Gaudreau below the cap.

Columbus will not be including 4.4 wins in a vacuum as a result of they misplaced roughly two wins in dealing Bjorkstrand. That modifications the mathematics considerably right here, making it tougher for the membership to get inside sniffing distance of the postseason.

Gaudreau is the kind of participant who makes others round him higher. Laine shall be extra harmful this 12 months, as will Boone Jenner if he’s the man between them. Werenski ought to enhance too with one other offensive weapon round. The facility play, which ranked twenty fourth within the league, ought to be loads higher.

However all of that alone isn’t sufficient. There’ll must be tangible enhancements elsewhere throughout the board as a result of what was right here earlier than Gaudreau’s arrival arguably wasn’t sufficient, and that solely lessened after the workforce moved Bjorkstrand.


The wildcard

Can Kent Johnson and/or Cole Sillinger be the answer down the center?

All through the Blue Jackets’ historical past, one frequent thread has been the seek for real depth down the center. Jarmo Kekalainen has made it an apparent precedence in current drafts, together with 2021, when the workforce chosen Johnson at No. 5 and Sillinger at No. 12.


Cole Sillinger. (Aaron Doster / USA Right this moment)

The early returns on each are promising; Sillinger deserves credit score for sticking within the NHL as an 18-year-old; he additionally managed to place up 31 factors. His underlying numbers are nothing particular, although his anticipated objectives proportion is a tick above break-even among the many remainder of the Blue Jackets … and once more, he was 18, which places him in some spectacular firm (Elias Lindholm, Bo Horvat, Sean Monahan and J.T. Miller are amongst his prime comps). He may wind up on a line with Jake Voracek. Which means numerous setups from the wing, and a chance to construct on a formidable rookie season.

Johnson, then again, returned to Michigan, then had three assists in a nine-game NHL cameo. His talent is exceptional — anybody who has watched his nationwide workforce video games can attest — however at this level, he’s a left winger. A transfer again to the center definitely shall be on the desk, however for this season, Sillinger is nearer to establishing himself as a top-two middle.


The core

Johnny Gaudreau, Jakub Voracek, Patrik Laine, Boone Jenner, Zach Werenski, Vladislav Gavrikov, Elvis Merzlikins

Gaudreau is the most recent core participant for Columbus and instantly offers it some gravity together with his presence. He’s a franchise participant. Even when the winger can’t attain the heights of his MVP-caliber 2021-22 season in Calgary, he nonetheless offers this workforce an elite winger that anybody would need to construct round. The one query, after all, is whether or not Columbus can do this whereas he’s nonetheless taking part in at this degree.

Gaudreau is a constructive affect who can elevate the workforce round him, which may assist gamers outperform their projections. Two names that stand out are Boone Jenner and Patrik Laine.

Laine’s the flashier title. The 2016 No. 2 choose has a deadly shot, however is a flawed participant who struggles away from the puck. His first 12 months in Columbus was terrible; he scored at a career-low charge of 1.6 factors per 60, after struggling within the shot quantity and high quality division. And his five-on-five offensive impacts slipped, as nicely. However Laine rebounded final 12 months, scoring 36 objectives and 64 factors in 73 video games that had been earned at a career-high charge of three.19 factors per 60. The ending expertise was there, despite the fact that his shot creation nonetheless lacked in comparison with earlier seasons. If he had been to play alongside Gaudreau, the most effective passers within the league, it’s doable the shoot-first ahead reaches new heights. Final 12 months, his photographs weren’t at all times preceded by a high-danger cross so pairing up with Gaudreau has the potential to be game-changing. And possibly that duo can out-possess their opponents sufficient that the defensive zone isn’t such a pink flag. Perhaps. There’s a very good probability that the duo’s defensive lack of ability limits their means to generate offense.

The opposite drawback with sticking Laine and Gaudreau on a line, nonetheless, is that this Blue Jackets workforce turns into awfully top-heavy. Jenner’s an choice to play between this duo, because the defensive stability this mixture may use — although his numbers in that regard had been critically missing final season. The ahead isn’t near the elite 1C caliber a contender ought to need, which is what the Blue Jackets are clearly striving to be primarily based on the huge contract they handed out to Gaudreau. Typically, two high-end wingers could make up for a spot down the center. However Jenner tasks nearer to bottom-six territory, whereas Laine’s five-on-five impacts (and terrible 2020-21, which the mannequin options) stunt that line’s ranking. To Laine and Jenner’s credit score, each gamers had been extra helpful final 12 months than depicted right here at 1.5 and 0.9 wins respectively. Matching that worth would give Columbus a much-needed increase, and it’s simple to see it taking place with a participant of Gaudreau’s ilk on the left facet.

Jenner particularly ought to outperform that 0.3 GSVA, however the query is to what diploma. He may be trusted in any scenario and Jennerates secondary scoring for his workforce; he’s coming off a career-high scoring charge of two.19 factors per 60. The ahead’s shot high quality trended up from the previous couple of seasons at five-on-five and high-danger passes helped set a few of these photographs up. With Gaudreau, that probably would kick as much as the subsequent degree, so long as he can sustain together with his linemates. His versatility up to now in his profession signifies that’s doable, however there’s a distinction between being a stabilizing defensive power that helps push the tempo of play and one who finally ends up dragging a mix down.

Rounding out the Blue Jackets’ ahead core is Jakub Voracek. Seeing as he’s extra of a playmaker, it could make extra sense to maintain him away from Gaudreau to maintain a passer in one other top-six mixture. His scoring did dip from the previous couple of years, and a few of that stems from a career-low 0.26 objectives per 60 which was undoubtedly affected by a shallow shot charge. Voracek made up for it together with his passing; at five-on-five, he had one of many highest charges of high-danger shot assists within the league.

However Voracek’s means to drive play has turn into extra one-dimensional over the previous couple of years with little protection to talk of. Now, that offense is basically all passing too, additional limiting his toolkit. Not solely can that turn into predictable, but it surely’s solely so useful with out an efficient purpose scorer alongside him. A quantity shooter can be helpful right here, and that is the place the lack of Bjorkstrand is felt particularly.

For years, the Columbus core defenders had been Werenski and Seth Jones. The roving duo thrived on a pair collectively, and when the latter was traded to Chicago, there have been questions on how Werenski would handle with out his mainstay accomplice. Whereas his GSVA took a dip from the place he stood final 12 months — simply on the cusp of being a real No. 1 — the autumn isn’t fully stunning contemplating the workforce round him.

It’s doable the mannequin underrates Werenski, who was stronger beneath the floor than his poor 40 p.c objectives charge would point out. Relative to his teammates, he had one of the vital constructive influences on the Blue Jackets. The purpose scoring simply wasn’t there to again it up. That places extra strain on him to reside as much as the function this 12 months. The 25-year-old ought to produce on the facility play with a loaded prime unit and sustain his high-end puck-moving at five-on-five. He’s the most effective defensemen within the league at exiting the zone and becoming a member of the frenzy, however nonetheless has some room to develop to turn into a real bonafide No. 1 caliber defender for this workforce — whereas he’s in his prime.

Columbus doesn’t have one other true core defender, so for now Vladislav Gavrikov match the invoice — and together with his contract expiring he has a 12 months to show he’s a part of the answer right here. Gavrikov may be trusted to defend the blue line and maintain opponents from producing possibilities in opposition to off the frenzy, however has slipped from the place he stood at the moment final 12 months. Earlier than the final season he was valued as a No. 3 defender because of his defensive means, however his means to suppress possibilities actually slipped final 12 months.

Lastly, there’s the Blue Jackets’ beginning goalie in Elvis Merzlikins. Columbus leaned on him greater than ever final 12 months with 59 video games performed, which is nearly double his prior excessive on the NHL degree of 32. Merzlikins was examined by his workforce. He confronted a number of the worst defensive play of his NHL profession at five-on-five and didn’t at all times reply nicely to his difficult workload, permitting 6.5 objectives above anticipated. Based mostly on his profession up to now, it’s believable that he bounces again and due to his historical past he grades out slightly below a mean starter (2.1 wins).

Clearly it will assist to have extra purpose help and defensive enhancements, however the latter in all probability shouldn’t be anticipated. That places the onus on Merzlikins to step up and be the Blue Jackets’ spine, even when the workforce round him doesn’t.


Elvis Merzlikins. (Brett Holmes / Icon Sportswire by way of Getty Photos)

The help

By far probably the most intriguing items of Columbus’ supporting solid are Kent Johnson and Cole Sillinger, drafted fifth and twelfth respectively in 2021. An instantaneous influence from both would drastically change the fortunes of Columbus this season. If only one explodes unexpectedly, the Blue Jackets are in a significantly better place.

Kirill Marchenko seems to be to be flanking that duo on the third line and he’s additionally intriguing. He solely scored 20 factors in 39 video games final 12 months within the KHL, however that was whereas averaging below 12 minutes per night time. The success of Columbus’ “child line” will dictate simply how excessive this workforce can go.

For a profitable season, they desperately want it to occur — the workforce’s supporting solid is fairly barren in any other case. Columbus is barely anticipated to realize 0.3 wins of worth from gamers exterior its core group, second final to solely Arizona. A median playoff workforce is nearer to 7.5 wins — a 15-point swing that may put Columbus within the playoff race.

Outdoors of hoping for Johnson and Sillinger to carry out from the get-go, a extra balanced season from Gustav Nyquist would assist drastically. He scored 53 factors final 12 months, however there have been points defensively that harm his worth, like Jenner and Laine. That is the place the addition of Gaudreau helps: it pushes Nyquist all the way down to a extra appropriate function within the center six. Nyquist was as soon as a wonderful play-drive. Whereas it’s asking loads for him to maintain that up at age 33, a shift down the lineup may assist.

Jack Roslovic stands out as the workforce’s greatest middle and that’s an issue. Neither he nor Jenner are true top-six choices, although Roslovic isn’t far off. He will get outchanced similar to everybody in Columbus, however relative to teammates he’s a plus. Since becoming a member of the Blue Jackets he’s scored 2.1 factors per 60 at five-on-five, a top-line charge. He’s an honest passer and is among the workforce’s higher choices at shifting the puck up ice. Establishing himself as a legit second-line middle would assist Columbus’ fortunes a good bit.

The protection is nothing to write down residence about, particularly after Werenski. Adam Boqvist flashed potential in Chicago, however was one of many league’s worst puck-movers final 12 months and was terrible defending the frenzy. He’s first rate within the offensive zone, however had one of many lowest anticipated goals-against charges on the workforce for a motive. Jake Bean, one other highly-touted younger defender, isn’t any higher.

Andrew Peeke is available in nicely beneath alternative degree as a one-dimensional defender who was requested to do approach an excessive amount of final 12 months. A lesser function may assist him earn stronger outcomes, however the lack of succesful help might hinder that. Erik Gudbranson is an ideal instance. After being miscast for years in a top-four function, he thrived final season on Calgary’s third pair. It’s unlikely that success continues right here in Columbus if he’s moved again to the highest 4.


One of the best case

Gaudreau turns in one other MVP-caliber season, Laine rounds out his sport subsequent to him, the workforce’s younger weapons — Sillinger and Johnson — turn into immediate difference-makers, and Merzlikins is a prime 10 goalie. Add Werenski exploding into an elite defender and it’s sufficient for the Blue Jackets to make the playoffs.

The worst case

This forecast, which requires 4 fewer factors than final season, being correct. Outdoors the playoffs and the underside 5 is precisely the place this workforce can’t be.


The underside line 

The Blue Jackets shook up the offseason by signing Gaudreau. Whereas this addition offers the workforce a core piece they had been lacking — one which will get them nearer to rivalry — it in all probability isn’t sufficient to parachute Columbus up the division standings.

Nonetheless, the Gaudreau Impact could also be sufficient to raise the remainder of this squad to make some noise within the Metropolitan Division, even when they finally don’t attain the postseason. It might be what pushes Laine to succeed in his draft pedigree extra persistently and get Werenski to bonafide No. 1 defenseman standing. The workforce simply has a distinct really feel now that Columbus landed the largest free agent of the summer time. There’s much more hope and intrigue surrounding this franchise, even when the one participant that introduced a lot of it isn’t sufficient to push them into the playoff image simply but.

References

How these projections work

How these projections carried out final season

Understanding projection uncertainty 

Assets

Evolving Hockey

Pure Stat Trick

Hockey Reference

NHL

All Three Zones Monitoring by Corey Sznajder

Learn the opposite 2022-23 season previews right here.

(Prime picture of Patrik Laine: Russell LaBounty / USA Right this moment)