Team Additions: Brandon Saad (Blackhawks), Gregory Campbell (Bruins), Alexander Broadhurst (Blackhawks), Defensemen John Ramage (Flames) and Michael Paliotta (Blackhawks).
Departures: Artem Anisimov (Blackhawks), Jeremy Morin (Blackhawks), Marko Dano (Blackhawks), Corey Tropp (Blackhawks), Mark Letestu (Oilers), Luke Adams (Rangers), Sean Collins (Capitals), Brian Gibbons (Rangers).
Other Currently Unsigned FA's That Saw NHL Time This Year: Ryan Craig, Jack Skille, Frederic St. Denis, Dana Tyrell
2015 Draft Picks: Defenseman Zach Werenski (8th overall), Defenseman Gabriel Carlsson (29th overall), Forward Paul Bittner (38th overall), Forward Kevin Stenlund (58th overall), Forward Keegan Kolesar (69th overall), Defenseman Sam Ruopp (129th overall), Defenseman Veeti Vainio (141st overall), Defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov (159th overall), Defenseman Markus Nutivaara (189th overall).
No significant management changes in Columbus
Cap Situation: $3,728,693 in cap space with 23 NHL contracts, per General Fanager. Very comfortable.
Caps Play The Columbus Blue Jackets Four Times
Last year's Columbus Blue Jackets team was far better than their point totals indicated. Why were they on the outside looking in on a playoff spot? Injuries. They had lots and lots of injuries. How many? According to mangameslost.com, the Blue Jackets led the league in total man games lost, with 508. Second highest? The Colorado Avalanche with 495. And third highest? Buffalo with 368.
No team was injured as often as the Blue Jackets, and it quite simply cost them a playoff spot. With career years from both Nick Foligno and Ryan Johansen, the Blue Jackets deserved a far better outcome on their season.
Now, the team looked to make a statement in the offseason, and show that they really were one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference. They showed they weren't messing around with one big acquisition that no one saw coming. But did the Blue Jackets improve their overall team?
No forward may have had a more surprising year in all of the NHL than Foligno. Last season, Foligno was 159th in the league in scoring. This year, he bumped up to 10th in the entire league, smashing his previous career highs. He finished his year with 31 goals and 73 points. His previous high? 47 points. The standout season earned Foligno an All Star appearance, a six-year $33 million contract and the Blue Jackets captaincy.
What caused Foligno's massive jump in offensive production? Initially, anyone would understandably think he was pretty lucky, relying on a high shooting percentage. He did, in fact, have a pretty high shooting percentage, scoring on 17 percent of his total shots (well above his 11.3 career shooting percentage). His PDO this season, a measurement used to determine a players "puck luck," was 102.3 at even strength five on five, the highest rating he's had in his career, and well above the "average" amount of puck luck of 100. In fact, this season marked the third straight year Foligno posted a PDO score over 101.5 at even strength five on five. However, Foligno was a strong possession player this season, finishing with a 4.5 relative Fenwick percentage at even strength five on five. So while Foligno may be considered a "lucky" player, he controls the puck enough where he can still reasonably produce solid numbers.
So why did he have such a large jump in his overall play? It might have been because of a confidence booster from his Blue Jackets coach, Todd Richards. According to Aaron Portzline's article featured in The Hockey News, Richards told Foligno he was more than capable of becoming a 30-goal scorer, something Foligno had never been told at the NHL level. So Foligno started shooting the puck a bit more, setting a career high this season with 182 shots. But now that he has earned that first line money after producing as a top line player, will he begin to regress, or will he continue battling for more?
Foligno won't be the only guy producing goals. In fact, with new arrival Brandon Saad, Foligno may not even be the top point producer on his team next year. Saad, of course, arrived to Columbus from Chicago, after the Blackhawks feared they wouldn't be able to afford their prized young forward if he was to sign an offer sheet. Saad didn't have to be the point-scoring man in Chicago, he had plenty of playmakers all around him to do just that. At just 22, Saad put up 23 goals and 52 points. He will have great playmakers in Columbus, but not quite at the same level as Chicago. Was Saad a product of a strong system? Possibly, but he certainly has the opportunity to become the star of this team, and all signs point to him being able to do so.
As a part of that Saad trade, the Blue Jackets lost a bit of scoring depth in both Artem Anisimov and Marko Dano, but if there is anything Columbus doesn't lack, it's scoring depth among their forward unit. The Blue Jackets had four different players who scored 20 or more goals: Foligno, Scott Hartnell, who finished with 28, Johansen, who had 26 and Cam Atkinson, who finished with his second straight 20 or more goal season with 22. Boone Jenner, Brandon Dubinsky and Matt Calvert were all well on pace to finish with 20 goals, had they played a full season. Throw in Saad, and that's eight players capable of scoring 20 or more goals. Will all guys be able to score 20 next season? No, certainly not, but offense should be flowing through, at the very least, the top three lines.
Alexander Wennberg had a respectable rookie season, finishing with four goals and 20 points in 68 games. He certainly has the potential to crack the top-six, but Columbus' forwards are just so deep, and Wennberg might serve the team better with a bottom-six role.
Also, don't forget, David Clarkson now plays for the Blue Jackets. He only appeared in three games in a Blue Jackets sweater this season before an oblique tear sidelined him for the rest of the year. Clarkson is not a bad hockey player. He's just a very, very overpaid player. Can he find success on the third line? Of course. He could quite easily succeed on the third line for a team like the Blue Jackets. His only issue is, you know, he's vastly overpaid.
What the Blue Jackets have in their forward unit certainly doesn't translate to their defensemen corps. Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen had stated he was looking to add some defensemen to provide depth.
Kekalainen should have not only looked at adding some depth to the blue line, he should have looked to improve it altogether. (But, hey, it's not too late to do just that...we'll get to that in a little bit).
The Blue Jackets currently lack a true number one defenseman. This season, the Blue Jackets relied on David Savard and Jack Johnson to eat the most minutes, each averaging over 22 minutes a game. Both players excel at moving the puck. Johnson finished the season with 32 assists (good for third on the team) and Savard finished with 25 (good for fifth on the team).
That's excellent, and good teams have good players on the blue line that can generate some offense. But in order for those players to succeed, they absolutely need to be paired with a more defensive-minded defenseman.
Pairing these two together would certainly result in a quick paced, puck moving nightmare for the opposition, but should they puck be in their own defensive zone, Blue Jackets fans should be sweating bullets. Savard is a bit more responsible in his defensive zone than Johnson, but neither guy can be considered a true, bonafide two-way defenseman. Savard certainly has a bit of time to develop into a more defensively-responsible defenseman, and it would serve Columbus well if he matured into a true defenseman.
Fedor Tyutin, the team's highest paid defenseman with a $4.5 million AAV, is the closest thing the Blue Jackets have to a defensive-minded top four defenseman. Pairing Tyutin with Johnson would allow Johnson to jump into the offense with a bit more comfort than if he was to play with Savard.
The other sure-fire defenseman for this team is Ryan Murray, the former second-overall pick in the 2012 draft. Well......maybe "sure-fire" is the wrong word......
Murray was one of those injured guys for the Blue Jackets last year, appearing in only 12 games this year after missing a great deal of time recovering from knee surgery and then had to battle through a high ankle sprain. A couple of seasons ago, he was held out of several Everett Silvertips games in the WHL with a shoulder issue. In his young, promising career, Murray has played in just 78 games. That ranks him behind Hampus Lindholm (156), Morgan Rielly (154), Jacob Trouba (130), Cody Ceci (130) and Olli Maata (98) in games played in defensemen that were selected in the 2012 draft. Murray absolutely needs to stay healthy for the Blue Jackets to succeed this year.
The third pairing would involve some combination of Dalton Prout, Kevin Connauton and Cody Goloubef. All serviceable, none will be game changes.
This blue line unit is average at best, but it is really one legitimate blue liner away from being a pretty good grouping. Who could that one defenseman be?
Ehrhoff's agent has said he'd be willing to sign a one-year offer, and #CBJ seems to make sense. But not much cap room in Cbus right now.— Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline) July 15, 2015
That was in tweeted on July 15, and Christian Ehrhoff still hasn't signed with a team just yet. Last year, Ehrhoff signed a one-year, $4 million contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Why so cheap? The Buffalo Sabres bought him out, and are paying him $857,143 every year until 2028 to not play for the Buffalo Sabres. Could the Blue Jackets squeeze Ehrhoff into their plans with the roughly $3.7 million they have in cap space? It's certainly a possibility.
What's the most recent development on this situation? We'll again refer to Mr. Portzline.
Told that Ehrhoff talks with another #NHL club have heated up in the last 24 hours. No agreement in place, but progress in that direction.— Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline) July 24, 2015
Hey, the Blue Jackets aren't out of that race just yet.
Doesn't matter what Johansen or Dubinsky tweet....this team could have really used Mike Reilly.
Statistically, Sergei Bobrovsky had his worst season as a Blue Jacket.
Fortunately, Bobrovsky's worst is still not all that bad.
Bobrovsky posted the second-lowest even-strength five on five save percentage of his career with a .924 save percentage. That put him just behind Marc-Andre Fleury among starting NHL goaltenders, who recorded a .926 save percentage.
Bobrovsky is still, quite easily, a franchise goaltender. He may never win a Vezina Trophy ever again, but the Blue Jackets should feel more than confident each time he is between the pipes.
Was his season that was below-Bobrovsky standards a sign of things to come? Probably not. Just because it was a down year doesn't mean it was a bad year. At his worst, he was still comparable to Fleury.
On the flip side of Columbus goaltending, Curtis McElhinney had one of the best years of his career. He finished his season with a career-high 32 games, and a .913 save percentage at even-strength five on five. McElhinney proved that he can be relied on as a backup, and was even capable of occasionally stealing a win or two.
Goaltending is not an issue for the Blue Jackets at all. And if that defensemen unit improves, just imagine how much better the goaltending would be.
Within the past several drafts, the Columbus Blue Jackets have been absolutely loading their prospect pool. And they aren't just snagging talent from the first round in each draft, they are striking gold on some later-round gems as well.
The most promising and most impressive prospect may in fact be forward Oliver Bjorkstrand. A third-round pick in 2013, Bjorkstrand has absolutely exploded as one of the WHL's top players, if not the top player, over the past couple of seasons. Bjorkstrand led the entire WHL with 63 goals and 118 points in just 59 games this season. And Bjorkstrand was equally impressive in the World Junior Championship for Denmark. Denmark didn't win a single game in the tournament (Correction: Denmark did actually win a game in the shootout), but both Bjorkstrand and Winnipeg Jets prospect Nikolaj Ehlers stood out as two of the best players in the tournament. Bjorkstrand finished the tournament with four goals and five points in five games. The right-handed winger will more than likely start out with the AHL's Lake Erie Monsters (the new AHL affiliation for the Blue Jackets, who were formally the Springfield Falcons) this season, but if the Blue Jackets run into the injury bug again, Bjorkstrand could get a call up.
Kerby Rychel saw five games of NHL time this season, but there may not be any room for him on the NHL roster this year as a consistent player. Rychel is a tough, power forward type that isn't afraid to throw his weight around. He's the son of Warren Rychel, the former NHL tough guy and current Windsor Spitfires franchise owner and GM. Thankfully for the Blue Jackets, Kerby Rychel has a bit more offensive flair than his father. Rychel finished with 12 goals and 33 points in 51 games in his first AHL season. It's hard to tell if that point production will translate to the NHL level, but, at the very least, the Blue Jackets can expect Rychel to be a feisty power-forward type that's not afraid to get under his opponents skin. He could more than likely serve as, at the very least, a tough fourth liner that can chip in a goal here or there, and he could even probably succeed at doing just that next season, should he get the opportunity.
If Rychel's power-forward game doesn't make a lasting impression on the Blue Jackets, there's always a chance 2015 second-round pick Paul Bittner will. Bittner is a big body, standing at 6'4", 203 lbs. He had a big season in the WHL with 71 points in 66 games. Another late-round bloomer Columbus may have gotten lucky with its Nick Moutrey selection, who quietly put up 62 points in 62 games for the Saginaw Spirit and the North Bay Battalion in the OHL. Much like Bittner, Moutrey is big, at 6'3", 220 lbs. William Karlsson, brought over from the Anaheim Ducks in the James Wisniewski trade, has a legitimate shot at cracking the full-time NHL roster this year.
*Deep breath* We haven't even gotten to the defensemen yet!
The biggest prize of the bunch is obviously Zach Werenski, Columbus' first-round pick in this year's draft. Werenski was a stud for the National Team Development Program, and went on to not only become the University of Michigan's top defenseman as a freshman, but also became one of the top defensemen in all of NCAA hockey. He'll likely bake for another year at Michigan, though the two defensemen selected before him in the draft, Noah Hanifin of the Carolina Hurricanes and Ivan Provorov of the Philadelphia have already signed entry-level deals. Werenski is a smoothe-skating defenseman that is capable of generating offense by moving the puck quickly and intelligently.
What do some of the other top Blue Jacket defensemen prospects have in common? Size. Lots of size. The other first-round pick this year, Gabriel Carlsson is 6'4" and plays a strictly defensive game. Dillon Heatherington appeared in three AHL games this season for the Springfield Falcons, but he did most of his damage in the WHL with the Swift Current Broncos. The 6'4" Heatherington also played a significant role for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship, winning the gold medal. Ryan Collins performed well in his first year with the Minnesota Gophers, recording 8 assists and 9 points in 32 games. When the 6'5" defenseman was drafted in the second round of last year's draft, the Blue Jackets knew he was going to be a project defenseman. He's not the greatest skater in the world, but he is slowly learning how to use his size to his advantage. He is still several years away from even having a crack at NHL time, but the Blue Jackets would certainly love to put a sweater on him.
The two primary goaltenders of the future are Anton Forsberg and Oscar Dansk. Forsberg appeared in five games for the Blue Jackets, surrendering 20 total goals. Yeah...he's not quite ready yet. But, what's encouraging for Forsberg is that he will be the primary goaltender for the Lake Erie Monsters. In his 30 games this season with the Falcons, Forsberg recorded a .927 save percentage and a 2.01 goals against average. Where does Dansk fit in? After an underwhelming AHL/ECHL debut this season, Dansk was loaned to Rogel-BK, a first division team in the Swedish hockey league. Dansk will have the opportunity to clear his head a bit and gain a little bit of confidence after it was clearly rocked in America (.880 save percentage in 21 games with the Falcons, .889 in 11 games for the ECHL's Kalamazoo Wings).
Player to Watch
Ryan Murray. A lot of the Blue Jackets' worries on the blue line can simply go away if Murray can stay healthy for a full season. He's a former second-overall pick that dominated at the junior level with an elite-level two-way game.
How important is Murray's health to this teams' success? Kekalainen had this to say:
Of course it would. If Murray can reach his full potential this season, the Blue Jackets will essentially add a consistent top-four, and possibly a top-two defenseman, right to their lineup.
If I was Richards, and I knew at the beginning of the season I would have a healthy Murray to work with, I would pencil him right in as a part of the top defensive pair. I'd put him against the oppositions top forwards each and every night. I not only think Murray needs to see top competition to jumpstart his growth as an elite defenseman, I think he can handle it.
Murray can do it. Murray needs to prove that he can do it. After this season, Murray becomes a restricted free agent. Wouldn't he love to head into the offseason knowing he just finished up his year as a top-two defenseman instead of sitting out for 80 percent of the year?
If the Blue Jackets are going to succeed this year, Murray needs to succeed this year. This is Murray's year.
This is a very good team, and it is most certainly a playoff-bound team (if they can, of course, all stay healthy). The Metropolitan is a gauntlet of teams filled with scoring forwards top to bottom, and the Blue Jackets certainly have just that. They are one of the few teams that can have three lines that could potential hold a 20-plus goal scorer. But what is making this team a "good" team and not a "great" team is its blue line. They are really one piece away from being that "great" team within this division. If Murray steps up and becomes a bonafide, stalwart defenseman, they are really close to becoming a "great" team. If that happens and they add a guy like Ehrhoff to the lineup, they become that "great" team within this division. That's far easier said than done. And, hey, there's no rush. The Blue Jackets could potentially find that blue liner they need at the trade deadline. Will this team make the playoffs? Yes. Can they win it with the team they have now? Probably not. Can they win it if they add a piece or two here and there? Sure, why not?