The Capitals enter the 2019-20 season looking for their fifth consecutive Metropolitan Division title.
But this could be the most challenging year yet. The bottom of the division has improved dramatically with offseason moves and the top of the division still has quality teams. It’s hard to figure who will crater and finish last. The winning team might not top 100 points.
For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will take a look at each Metro team and where they stand with training camps opening in less than a month. Today: The Columbus Blue Jackets.
A Blue Jackets team that had never won a playoff series in its history was faced last summer with the proposition of seeing its two best players, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, walk at the end of their contracts. Instead of trading them both for what he could get and starting over, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen kept the core together for one more run.
The phrase “one more run” suggests that Columbus was close to competing before, but again, the team had never won a playoff series. As the season wore on, there was a significant chance they may not even make the playoffs. Kekalainen doubled down and traded for Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid and Keith Kinkaid at the trade deadline. The result was the best season in franchise history, a second-round playoff exit instead of the usual first-round flop.
But now it is time to pay the piper.
Kekalainen’s gamble did not result in a Stanley Cup. To be fair, it did result in a stunning upset over the Tampa Bay Lightning, but in the end that is all Columbus has to show for going all-in last season.
Gone now are Panarin and Bobrovsky, as expected, as well as all of their trade deadline acquisitions. To replace them, the team added...Gustav Nyquist. That’s it.
Nyquist is a solid top-six forward who is coming off his best season statistically, but he alone will not make up for the loss of so many key players.
Let’s be clear, despite all the losses the cupboard is not totally bare in Columbus. Pierre-Luc Dubois scored 27 goals and 61 points in just his second NHL season and could be poised for a breakout third year. Cam Atkinson scored 41 goals last season. Josh Anderson saw his production jump with career-highs in goals, assists and points.
Plus, on the blue line, the Blue Jackets still have Seth Jones. Zach Werenski remains unsigned, but Kekalainen believes he will be under contract by training camp. Werenski-Jones is one of the best defensive pairs in the league.
The loss of so many players means freeing up cap space and Columbus suddenly has a lot of money to work with. The Blue Jackets currently have over $15 million in cap space and will still have a great deal of flexibility once Werenski signs. There is a lot this team can do with that space down the line.
When Kekalainen pushed all his chips to the center of the table, there were plenty who applauded his boldness. Perhaps because of that, there was pushback against the assumption that Columbus would bottom out after this season. Certainly, there is enough talent there to ensure this team does not completely fall apart. To think that a team that barely squeezed into the playoffs and has won one playoff series in its history somehow got better or will be just as good next season, however, is laughable and you need only look at the goalie situation to realize it.
The Blue Jackets will enter the season with a goalie tandem of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. Korpisalo has never played in more than 31 games in a single campaign and is coming off a season in which he managed a 2.95 GAA and .897 save percentage. Congratulations, Columbus, that is your No. 1 goalie heading into the fall. Merzlikins has no NHL experience and he has spent his entire professional career playing in Switzerland. There is potential there as he has put up solid numbers in Switzerland, but this season is going to be a bit of trial by fire for him.
Even if Columbus is not terrible next season, they will still struggle to stay out of the basement of the Metropolitan Division because of how competitive the division is. Almost every team got better this offseason, some significantly so. The Blue Jackets, who made the playoffs by two points, got worse. Plus, they have a head coach in John Tortorella who tends to have a short shelf life as he begins to wear on his players. How hard is this team going to be fighting for him in the dog days of January when the team sitting seven points out of a playoff spot with three teams ahead of them in the standings for the last wild card?
This is not a case of addition by subtraction. Columbus lost a lot of good players and it seems very unlikely that they will somehow emerge a better team this season as a result.
The Blue Jackets will be lucky to make the playoffs this year, but more likely they will get lost in the competitive Metro Division and see themselves fall well outside of the postseason race.
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