On July 1st, 2019, the best free agent left Columbus. On July 13th, 2022, the best free agent came to Columbus.
Johnny Gaudreau’s signing healed the wound left by the departures of Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, and Artemi Panarin following the Blue Jackets’ unlikely 2019 sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning. For the first time in nearly a decade, a grade-A star in the National Hockey League chose to come to Central Ohio. The retool is almost over. It’s time to compete.
Similar to Gaudreau, Artemi Panarin’s signing with the New York Rangers came slightly before the rest of the team was ready to contend. For that reason alone, I think the 2019 Rangers are a good estimation for Columbus’s timeline. But how close are the Blue Jackets to making the Eastern Conference Final, as New York did this year?
To answer this question, I’m going to compare the 2022-23 Blue Jackets with the 2019-20 New York Rangers in several categories and positions, in order of how important I think those positions are. This should provide a decent analysis of how similar to expect these teams’ trajectories to be.
First off, I think it is worthwhile to compare Johnny Gaudreau and Artemi Panarin directly. Johnny Gaudreau has 210 goals, 399 assists, and 609 points in 602 NHL games, and is two weeks from his 29th birthday. On a per-game basis, you can expect .345 goals, .663 assists, and 1.012 points every sixty minutes from Johnny Hockey, or 26.25 goals, 49.88 assists, and 76.13 points per season. Last year, Gaudreau put up 40 goals, 75 assists, and 115 points in a full season, all career bests. His 115 points means he played a factor in 39.5% of Calgary’s goals last season. Prior to that, his best marks were 36 goals, 63 assists, and 99 points, all set in the 2018-19 season.
As of the 2019 offseason, Artemi Panarin had 116 goals, 204 assists, and 320 points in 322 NHL games, and was a few months shy of his 28th birthday. That works out to an average of .360 goals, .634 assists, and .994 points per game, or around 29 goals, 51 assists, and 80 points in his first four seasons. In 2018-19, the Breadman scored 28 goals, 59 assists, and 87 points, baking 33.9% of Columbus’s goals that year. Before to that season, his career bests were 31 goals (2016-17), 55 assists (2017-18), and 82 points (also 2017-18).
So, Panarin and Gaudreau are practically even on a per-game and per-season basis (remember, Gaudreau’s stats include two pandemic-shortened seasons), though Johnny tends to favor assists more than Artemi.
The Rangers’ top center was and is Mika Zibanejad, who reliably got around 50 points a season for his first six seasons, before jumping up to around 75 per in 2019 and not looking back. He’s a fine player who’s blossomed into a top (but not quite elite) center in the league. The Blue Jackets’ will likely throw sophomore Cole Sillinger next to Johnny Hockey; he earned 16 goals and 31 points in his rookie season last year. It’s hard to guess how the 19-year-old Sillinger will compare to the veteran Zibanejad, but the latter put up 7 goals and 20 points in his lockout-shortened rookie year, which works out to 13.67 goals and 39.05 points in a full season. So Sillinger may be a bit below Zibanejad, but Zibanejad was also a year older in 2013. I wouldn’t go as far to call it even, but it is decently close.
The Rangers used both Jesper Fast and Pavel Buchnevich opposite Panarin, but this category easily goes to the Columbus Blue Jackets and Patrik Laine. The Finnish star is one of the best finishers in the game, and will now be partnered by one of the best set-up players in hockey. Laine averaged .464 goals per game in just 56 appearances last season, but can easily break 40 goals, and will likely push for 50 at least once in the next four years opposite Gaudreau.
In 2021-22, the Blue Jackets went 37-38-7 for 79 points. 26 of those wins came in regulation. They scored 258 goals, but allowed 297, for a -39 goal differential. In 2018-19, the Rangers went 32-36-14 for 78 points. 23 of those wins came in regulation. They scored 221 goals, but allowed 267, for a -46 goal differential. Columbus seems to be a bit more high event, but otherwise the teams seem decently even. I’d give Columbus the slight edge, but keep in mind that adding Gaudreau plays into our existing strengths, not create a new one.
Other key pieces
This is where the 2019-20 Rangers really pull away. While Zach Werenski is roughly comparable to Jacob Trouba, and Gus Nyquist, Jakub Voracek, and Boone Jenner are all nice pieces, they don’t hold a candle to Chris Kreider, Ryan Strome, and whichever of Buchnevich or Fast played on the second line. Plus, the Rangers also featured rookies Adam Fox and Kaapo Kakko, Brady Skjei and Tony DeAngelo on the back end, and Brenden Lemieux as Brenden Lemieux. If you squint, you can maybe see David Jiricek and Adam Boqvist being a new Fox and DeAngelo (hopefully without the racism), and maybe Yegor Chinakhov or Kirill Marchenko can surpass Kakko, plus there’s also Kent Johnson coming, but that’s a lot of maybes. It’s possible that the Jackets could match the Rangers, but to me, it seems unlikely. This is where trading Oliver Bjorkstrand really hurts, as he was performing pretty similar to Chris Kreider until this season, and having a Chris Kreider is a significant step closer to contending.
Igor Shesterkin, Henrik Lundqvist, and Alexander Georgiev versus Elvis Merzlikins, Joonas Korpisalo, and Danill Tarasov. Take a wild guess who’s better.
The Rangers’ main weakness, in my opinion, was their bottom six forwards. Greg McKegg, Filip Chytil, and Phillip di Giuseppe, while awesome hockey names, aren’t as enticing as Eric Robinson, Alexandre Texier (hopefully), Boone Jenner and Chinakhov/Marchenko. Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets have two main weaknesses; center depth and defense. While help is on the way, it isn’t certain, and isn’t here yet. The Rangers, for the most part, already had it covered in 2019-20.
This whole exercise really comes down to a few things. How does the center depth and defense improve? How close are prospects like Johnson, Jiricek, Marchenko, Mateychuk, and Chinakhov to being not only NHL ready, but NHL difference makers? How much did the passing of Matiss Kivlenieks effect Merzlikins last year? And how much can Patrik Laine make up for all those deficiencies?
Could the Blue Jackets win a round or two in the next couple of years? Maybe. The Rangers were the 11-seed in the 2019-20 season, which looks to be about where Columbus may fall this year. New York then followed that up by barely missing the playoffs in 2021, before finishing second in the division last year and making the Eastern Conference Finals. I’d expect a similar timeline for Columbus; miss semi-comfortably this year, in the wildcard race in 2023-24, and push for contention in 2024-25. I could easily see the Jackets being a top-three Metro team that season, especially as the Hurricanes and Islanders get a bit older, similar to where the Capitals and Penguins are now.
But could they win the Cup? That’s a bit harder to predict, especially since the Rangers haven’t taken those steps themselves yet. They’re essentially trailblazing the path the Jackets look to follow, it’s just a matter of if Jarmo can do it, and perhaps, exceed it.