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Which Young Blue Jacket Will Make ‘The Leap’ in 2018-19?

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Somebody’s gotta break out, right?

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

As in past seasons, the Columbus Blue Jackets will enter 2018-19 as one of the youngest teams in the league. While management hopes that betting on youth will continue to pay off, one or two players having a breakout year could make the difference in what will likely be another tight playoff race. So: who’s it gonna be?

Pierre-Luc Dubois

You could argue the 20-year-old Dubois, like another player on this list, has already made the leap. His rookie season saw him ascend to top-line center status and finish third on the team in scoring with 20 goals and 48 points. It’d be easy to see him going only up, but the possible absence of Artemi Panarin could cause chemistry issues as lineups shift and PLD jells with whoever’s on his wing. Plus, it doesn’t always happen. Not that PLD won the Calder, but the last three centers to win the top rookie trophy—Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon and Jeff Skinner—all saw their production dip in their sophomore season, some due to injuries.

Though he doesn’t play the same style as Dubois, Brayden Point may offer a hopeful comparison: After a 68-game, 40-point rookie season in ‘16-17, the Tampa Bay center exploded for 32 goals and 66 points in a full campaign last year. If Dubois improves on his rookie campaign, he’ll end up putting the CBJ on his back in the process.

Zach Werenski

Another “this guy already broke out” case here, but: Werenski played 77 games last year, almost all of them with a shoulder injury that will keep him out until November. Battling a bad arm, the 21-year-old (Happy belated Birthday, by the way) posted 37 points and formed one of the NHL’s best young pairings. After all that, an offseason spent recuperating to return to a next-level season with Seth Jones by his side? The kid’s already a star, but a big year would put him into the upper echelon of NHL defensemen.

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Colorado Avalanche Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Oliver Bjorkstrand

Well, from Pale Dragon:

“BJORKSTRAND finally broke through as a full time NHLer this season, playing in all 82 games and accumulating 40 points. His shooting percentage dropped to 6.7, but if he can get that up - and if he plays second line minutes - I could see him taking another step forward this season and getting over 20 goals.”

This list isn’t about cementing a full-time roster spot, it’s about making “the leap,” and Bjorkstrand can do it. Good possession numbers, good health and the belief of the upper brass gives the 23-year-old Dane a launching pad for the upcoming season. Put him in the top six and let him loose.

Sonny Milano

Milano played three games in 2015-16, four games the following year and 55 last year. It feels like he’s been here forever, but he hasn’t even hit 65 career games in Columbus. If 2017-18 was any indication, a full season healthy with the big club could finally be the 22-year-old’s coming out party. Milano piled up 22 points last year while averaging 11:39 (a career-low) a night, riding a red-hot 20.3 percent shot percentage to go with a 50.7 CF%.

One roadblock: the coach. John Tortorella has taken this program as far as anybody else, but famously (around these parts) played Milano for only 6:45 in three games in last year’s playoffs. If Milano is going to break out, he’ll need to make the most of every second.

Markus Nutivaara

Nutivaara’s older than a few players on this list at 24, but he played only his second NHL season last year. He played in five fewer games than 2016-17 but scored five more goals and tallied 11 more assists while boosting his CF% (53.2 from 48.4) and FF% (54.1 from 48.1) dramatically. Not bad for a guy who started the season in Cleveland and only drew in because of Gabriel Carlsson’s injury.

Nutivaara could pair up with Dean Kukan—who could make a leap of his own—or Scott Harrington, and his partner will have a big impact on his ability to break out as Nutivaara strung together some solid performances with Ryan Murray last year. Kukan (who signed a one-way extension in May) making strides in his first pro season would lift the defensive corps as a whole. Nutivaara’s shown the ability and desire to improve, and he’ll have his shot in 2018-19.

HockeyViz.com

Joonas Korpisalo

Korpisalo, another 24-year-old, sparkled in his 2015-16 CBJ debut season but has seen his numbers slide. Being a backup is no easy job, especially when you’re backing up one of the best goaltenders on the face of the planet. A rebound from his .897 save percentage and 3.32 goals against average would be welcome, but we’ve seen the skill that Korpisalo has. An injury to Sergei Bobrovsky (God forbid) would put a heavy load on Korpisalo’s Finnish shoulders but could also give Korpisalo the game action he used in his rookie season to demonstrate some consistency.

This upcoming season will also be the final year of his contract. He’ll be a restricted free agent, so he’s got some monetary motivation to make the leap as well.

Lukas Sedlak

Like Nutivaara, Sedlak is in his mid-twenties (25) with two seasons of NHL action under his belt. An ankle injury and a head injury (thanks, Seth Jones) hampered his 2017-18 season, only playing 55 games. His numbers slid across the board, and he’s not guaranteed to see the ice every night with the addition of Riley Nash and Anthony Duclair to the bottom six. He played a little on the third line last season but and loves the front of the net where he can cash in, so his best chance will come if he can capitalize on his ice time and create a consistent role. Sedlak is also in the final year of his contract, so he too may feel the squeeze of impending negotiations.