Well, folks, we’ve finally made it. The 2021-22 NHL season finally begins this week. Here’s what you need to know about the upcoming Columbus Blue Jackets campaign:
Storylines to watch
Clearing the “Lars Bar”
After a mutual parting of ways with John Tortorella after six seasons as head coach, the Blue Jackets conducted an exhaustive search for his successor ... only to end up staying in-house and promoting longtime assistant Brad Larsen. Given that the Torts era produced four straight playoff appearances, it’s not surprising that the team valued continuity. The hope is that Larsen can continue the best practices of those teams, but perhaps show a lighter touch than the confrontational Torts, and be more open to innovation.
Can new assistant Pascal Vincent fix the power play, which Larsen himself failed to do when it was his responsibility? Will players continue to be benched for mistakes, or will they get a chance to play through it?
A young team — again
The Blue Jackets have been among the youngest rosters in the league for several years, and this year is no exception. As the team rebuilds (or “resets” in their preferred parlance), there’s now an even greater emphasis on moving out the aging core (Nick Foligno, David Savard, and Cam Atkinson) and giving opportunities to younger players. Just two players on the 23 man roster are over the age of 30: Jakub Voracek and Gustav Nyquist, both 32 years old. Meanwhile, there are three players who were born in the year 2000 or later: Adam Boqvist, Yegor Chinakhov, and Cole Sillinger.
The latter two are the most intriguing, making the opening night roster as rookies. Chinakhov was a surprise first round selection in 2020, but lived up to expectations by earning rookie of the year honors in the KHL, and helping his team win a championship. Sillinger was the second of three first round selections in 2021, and will be the first to reach the NHL. Even more impressive, he will do so as a center. Having learned from his father, longtime NHL vet and former Blue Jacket Mike Sillinger, Cole has displayed a physicality and hockey IQ well beyond his age.
A new way to watch
Since the 2004-05 lockout, the exclusive national broadcaster of the NHL in the US was NBC Sports. This year, the NHL begins a seven year partnership with two new partners, ESPN and Turner Sports. Both networks will carry games during the regular season, and will split the first three playoff rounds evenly. ESPN/ABC will broadcast four of the next seven Cup Finals, while TNT will get the other three.
In addition to those over-the-air broadcasts, all out-of-market games on regional sports networks can be found on ESPN+. I already subscribe to that service as part of the Disney bundle, so I’m excited to have a chance to watch a lot more action around the league, and not just the 20 Flyers/Blackhawks games that NBC loved to show.
The Blue Jackets will not get a national cable broadcast this season (some things don’t change, I guess), but they are appearing six times in games broadcast exclusively on ESPN+ and Hulu:
January 13 at Carolina
January 18 at NY Islanders
February 24 at Florida
March 1 vs. New Jersey
March 7 vs. Toronto
March 31 at NY Islanders
Player to Watch: Patrik Laine
Laine, a former #2 overall pick, was supposed to be the centerpiece of last season’s blockbuster trade of disgruntled center Pierre-Luc Dubois. Instead, he had the most disappointing season of his career. He had averaged 34.5 goals per season in his first four seasons in Winnipeg, but scored just 10 goals in 45 games in Columbus (the equivalent of 18 over an 82 game season). He went through the longest goal-scoring droughts of his career and clashed with Tortorella.
Laine is playing on a one year contract after accepting his $7.5M qualifying offer. He will be a restricted free agent again next summer, and a UFA in 2023. Still just 23 years old, he could be a part of the long term core of this team if he returns to form. If he does that but doesn’t want to stay here, then he could fetch a healthy return at the deadline or at the draft next year.
If he continues to struggle? That will be a major setback to both the player and to the Blue Jackets.
Voracek was acquired in large part to be a complentary winger for Laine. The early results in preseason are promising, with Voracek leading the team in preseason scoring (2G, 5A) and Laine scoring two goals and three assists of his own.
A couple of predictions
The cannon will fire more frequently
Last season, the Blue Jackets averaged just 2.39 goals per game, tied with Buffalo for third worst in the league. In 2019-20, they averaged 2.57 goals per game, tied with San Jose for fourth worst.
This year? I think they will finish in the top half of the league. The aforementioned power play looked much sharper in preseason, in part thanks to the additions of Voracek, Chinakhov, Sillinger, and Boqvist. There could be scoring threats on every line, with a player like Emil Bemstrom (four goals in preseason) slated for a bottom six role.
...but the opposition will score a lot, too
In 2019-20, the Blue Jackets looked to help out goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins by playing a style that limited the amoung of high danger chances in the defensive zone. This resulted in 2.61 goals against per game, third best in the league. This ballooned to 3.29 last season, just 25th best. The offseason moves added scoring talent, and players who could move the puck, not much in the way of shutdown talent.
In preseason, the Blue Jackets scored four or more goals in four games, but also allowed at least four goals in four games. It’s going to be that kind of season. They’re not going to be good, but they can at least be entertaining.
The week that was
Cap-compliant rosters are due by 5 p.m. today, but the Jackets made their moves on Sunday to get down to a 23 man roster:
#CBJ have assigned D Gavin Bayreuther, F Justin Danforth, F Liam Foudy, G Daniil Tarasov to Cleveland.— Jeff Svoboda (@JacketsInsider) October 10, 2021
In addition, the club has placed the following players on waivers for the purpose of assignment to Cleveland: D Gabriel Carlsson, D Mikko Lehtonen and F Kevin Stenlund
Here’s the #CBJ 23:— Jeff Svoboda (@JacketsInsider) October 10, 2021
Bemstrom, Bjorkstrand, Chinakhov, Domi, Hofmann, Jenner, Kuraly, Laine, Nyquist, Robinson, Roslovic, Sillinger, Texier, Voracek
Bean, Boqvist, Gavrikov, Harrington, Kukan, Peeke, Werenski
Pretty much what we expected based on the preseason. Good to see Bemstrom end up on the right side of the bubble after how he played. The biggest surprise, relative to pre-camp expectations, is Max Domi being recovered from shoulder surgery ahead of schedule. He played in the preseason finale on Saturday night and scored a goal.
Will spoke to The Hockey Writers’ Mark Scheig on the Cutting 2 the Chase podcast, where they talked about Mark’s path to becoming a writer, his interactions with John Tortorella, and how big stories break while he’s in the car. They also preview the Blue Jackets’ season.
Zach Werenski: good at hockey, good at golf
Torts has a new gig on ESPN, and got to eat chicken parm on air in the debut episode of The Point:
Thursday vs. Arizona
Saturday vs. Seattle
The season kicks off with two home games against Western Conference opponents. Arizona is supposed to be bad, and intentionally so. Seattle is predicted by many to be good, though I think those projections are overly optimistic.
Play me out
The Blue Jackets sure did have to swallow some Humble Pie last year.
See what I did there? Eh, give me a break, it’s late as I’m writing this and I’m tired.