For the Columbus Blue Jackets, the 2021-22 season is an opportunity to shed their stagnating regular season performances, compete seriously for a cup, and maybe (just maybe) achieve the success the team has been building for. With a head coaching change from John Tortorella to former assistant coach Brad Larsen, the Blue Jackets are saying all the right things about how they’re ready to be competitive with their new look behind the bench. The Blue Jackets are at a crossroads with their on-ice identity — and they’ll have two opportunities during the regular season to show what they’re made of against the San Jose Sharks.
Where they left off
The last three years saw both a glimmer of hope for extended postseason success, paired with a backslide in team standings. The 2018-19 season was the Jackets' best in that three-year span, finishing with a record of 47-31-4 (98 points) which placed them fifth-overall in the Metropolitan Division. Ultimately, the team lost in the second round of the playoffs against the Boston Bruins. Despite the loss, the future was looking bright for the Blue Jackets, and both the team and the fans were hungry for more.
However, the 2019-20 season proved to be a turning point. John Tortorella seemed to be losing his touch and, at times, the team seemed pedestrian. In the postseason bubble, the Blue Jackets exited in the first round against the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning, which is a respectable defeat. Despite their marginal slide in the standings (33-22-15, 81 points), the Jackets were showing cracks in their exterior that only widened in the 2020-21 season.
Last season, the Blue Jackets struggled to remain consistent and energized on the ice, ending with a record of 18-26-12 (48 points), which left the team seventh in the Central Division and a far cry from where the team expected to be at this point, looking back three years ago.
2021 Entry Draft
General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen came prepared for the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, ready to revitalize the blue line and find a spark plug to re-energize the team’s identity.
The Columbus Blue Jackets’ selections were as follows:
Round 1: (5th) Kent Johnson
Round 1: (12th) Cole Sillinger
Round 1: (25th) Corson Ceulemans
Round 3: (69th) Stanislav Svozil
Round 4: (101st) Guillaume Richard
Round 5: (132nd) Nikolai Makarov
Round 5: (133rd) James Malatesta
Round 6: (165th) Ben Boyd
Round 7: (197th) Martin Rysavy
Kent Johnson and Cole Sillinger are particularly exciting because they bring potential goal-scoring that the Jackets have been lacking, especially down the middle. Johnson’s dynamic play-making instincts and Sillinger’s dependable (and impressive) shot are reliable choices for the Jackets.
Corson Ceulemans has the potential to be NHL-ready earlier than expected, with an offensively-minded defensive skill set that the Jackets will be hoping can replace the void of Seth Jones.
Columbus has had some notable departures from their lineup, John Tortorella not included. Seth Jones left the team in a landmark deal that sent him to the Chicago Blackhawks (along with a 32nd overall pick in the 2021 Entry Draft, and a 2022 sixth-round pick) in exchange for Adam Boqvist, the first-round pick that pulled Cole Sillinger, and two other picks. The trade was expected since Jones was approaching free agency, but the hole it left in the Jackets' blue line was unmistakable.
Boqvist will be expected to help fill that void, along with Jake Bean. Acquired in a deal with the Carolina Hurricanes that sent a second-round pick to the Canes in exchange for the young defender, Boqvist and Bean are an influx of young talent that the Jackets are hoping will shake up the team.
Jake Bean spent all of last season at the NHL level with the Canes, culminating in 1 goal, 11 assists, 10 penalty minutes and a -2 over 42 games. Adam Boqvist followed the same path as Bean did for Chicago, spending 35 games with the Hawks for 2 goals, 14 assists, 14 penalty minutes and a -7 rating. Both Bean and Boqvist can excel in special teams scenarios, and balance an offensive push with their defensive roles, upsides that the Blue Jackets are counting on.
Another loss was right-winger Cam Atkinson, who was sent to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Jakub Voracek on July 24th of this year. Atkinson was low-energy at times during the season and struggled to score consistently. While Voracek is older, he ideally will bring his veteran presence to replace Atkinson’s leadership role on the team, provide a new look on the wing, and stabilize the younger centers.
In Philadelphia, Voracek played 53 games for a total of 9 goals, 34 assists, 18 penalty minutes and a -12 rating. While he hasn’t played for the Jackets since 2010 and in general has the same upsides (and downsides) as Atkinson, the Jackets were looking for the new ‘perfect’ formula to finally move past their middle-of-the-road standings, and they think Voracek might be part of it.
The elephant in the room is, of course, Patrik Laine. Drafted second overall in 2016 by the Winnipeg Jets, he was acquired, along with Jack Roslovic, in a trade that sent Pierre-Luc Dubois (who had struggled both on and off the ice in Columbus for unknown reasons) to Winnipeg.
Jack Roslovic was the saving grace in a trade that seemed to be just one problem swapped for another. While his numbers weren’t fantastic (-11), the promise he showed on the ice for the Blue Jackets was. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for Patrik Laine.
Last season Laine played 45 games with Columbus, with a total of 10 goals, 11 assists, 21 penalty minutes, ending with a -29. For a superstar young talent of his suspected caliber, 21 points isn’t enough, for either him or for the team. It’s difficult to say that he’ll turn his performance around 100 percent next season, since he’s an unpredictable and seemingly stubborn player. However, with a refresh around the edges of the team and a new head coach, Laine has to show his worth, to prove that he can be an asset to this next phase of the Blue Jackets lineup.
What can we expect in 2021-22?
For the team dynamics, the additions to the roster are less about finding ‘better’ players and more about finding different players — the team has yet to have a true superpower in their lineup (as long Laine continues to underperform), and it’s clear from Kekalainen’s moves that the team isn’t interested in trading for one either. Instead, the team is searching to find balance, multi-functionality and depth with their players.
For the Blue Jackets, special teams are going to be an object of concern. Last season’s power play and penalty kill were both decidedly average. The power play was ranked 27th overall with an efficiency rate of 15.4 percent, and their penalty kill was 21st overall, at 79.0 percent.
Offensive power will also be a concern in a 5-on-5 setting. The 2020-21 season left them with 134 Goals For (29th in the NHL), and 184 Goals Against (25th), with a goals differential of -50.
The biggest problem for the Columbus Blue Jackets is that the team seemingly has no spark — while their overall statistics are generally average, average performances won’t earn a team the Stanley Cup.
The Blue Jackets will first face the Sharks on December 5, at Nationwide in Columbus, Ohio at 3 p.m. PT. The Jackets and the Sharks will have their second game of the season on April 19, 2021, at SAP Center in San Jose at 7:30 p.m. PT.
The Matiss Kivlenieks Memorial Fund can be found here, established to honor Matiss Kivlenieks' memory by supporting youth hockey initiatives in Columbus and Latvia.