The Columbus Blue Jackets have begun a rebuild in earnest for the first time in franchise history. The team is closing the book on the most successful run in franchise history, albeit one that saw the team advance to the conference semifinals just once in their run. Familiar faces have left in the last six months - Pierre- Luc Dubios lasted four games into last season, captain Nick Foligno and veteran David Savard were moved out at the trade deadline, Seth Jones and Cam Atkinson were draft weekend departures. Head coach John Tortorella left at the end of last season.
We are in a new era of Blue Jackets hockey.
With it, the pressure is on General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen to build a true Stanley Cup contender for the first time in franchise history. This is not to say that Jarmo is on the hot seat right now or that the team has to make the playoffs this season or he’s out - but it is to say that, unless he manages to execute a successful rebuild and finally get this team into the conference finals by the end of his contract in 2024-25, he likely will not have an extension.
With the actions of the last six months, though, we are starting to see the start of the plan.
The Old Guard is Gone
It hurt for many Blue Jackets fans to see their favorites shipped out - Atkinson, Foligno, and Savard have been mainstays in the lineup for the better part of a decade. Dubois was a top three pick. Jones was the biggest name in the organization.
All of them are gone.
It became clear last year that the room has grown stale, that the team was in need of a new direction. Fans began to grow restless, obviously noticing what the organization did - it was time to shake things up. Out went the captain and David Savard at the deadline - shock moves to many, but the beginning of turning the franchise over to the next generation of Blue Jackets. Tortorella left at the end of the season. Seth Jones first announced that he would not be re-signing long term, and then was shipped to the Chicago Blackhawks. Cam Atkinson, in another shock move, was moved at the draft.
All of these meant the same thing - this era of Blue Jackets hockey is over. It hurts - for new fans who have never seen a rebuild for this team, it seems dark right now. Long time fans who have seen this movie before are bracing for the worst. But, unlike previous rebuilds, there are some pieces to build around.
The Kids are In Charge
Somone has to be the longest tenured Blue Jacket, and that honor belongs to Boone Jenner. Jakub Voracek, acquired for Cam Atkinson, is 31.
Outside of that? This team belongs to the kids now.
Yegor Chinakhov has come to North America and is just 20 years old. Alexandre Texier signed a two year extension at 21. Jack Roslovic is 24, Oliver Bjorkstrand is 26, Vladislav Gavrikov is 25. Long term #1 defenseman and newly extended Zach Werenski is 24. Patrik Laine is 23. Liam Foudy, Andrew Peeke, Kevin Stenlund, Emil Bemstrom, and Adam Boqvist will all get extended time and opportunity.
Not only are the Blue Jackets going to be a young team, but they will not be blocked by old hat veterans who have the coach’s trust. These players and prospects will have a chance to play big minutes and play through mistakes, which will only help development. The team may not find many wins, but they will find meaningful chances to play.
Building from the Center Position Out
Unlike previous rebuilds, the team has a singular focus - find a bona fide number one center for the roster the likes of which this team has never had. In the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, the Blue Jackets spent the fifth overall pick on Kent Johnson, arguably the most talented player in the draft. His coach at Michigan, the Blue Jackets organization, and the player himself all insist that he is a center. He will get the chance to prove he is just that.
With the first rounder acquired for Seth Jones, the Blue Jackets grabbed another center prospect, Cole Sillinger. Sillinger projects as a bruising center that can also put the puck in the net. Hitting on both these picks would give the Blue Jackets the best one-two punch down the middle they’ve had in franchise history. Sillinger would be an excellent complement to Johnson, a 200 foot center who is not afraid to use his size and frame to help his team.
The best teams win with centers and defensemen - if Johnson and Sillinger pan out, they could pair with Zach Werenski to form a formidable group.
The Blue Jackets have a discernible plan for this rebuild. Fix the center position, build around the blue line, and find adequate goaltending from someone in the system. If the Russians can come over and contribute, and the Blue Jackets hit on the prospects in the next couple drafts, they will have the makings of a special roster.
If not? The team will be looking for a new general manager. But, for now, there is reason for optimism. It’s going to be dark for a season or two, but the night is darkest just before the dawn.