The Columbus Blue Jackets made the playoffs for the second time in franchise history last season and took the Metropolitan Division champion Pittsburgh Penguins to six games before being eliminated in Round 1.
It was a season of growth and experience for a young Blue Jackets team full of talented young players at each position.
With the division wide open and several of the Blue Jackets’ brightest stars — such as center Ryan Johansen, defenseman Jack Johnson and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky — expected to improve, expectations in Columbus are higher than they’ve ever been.
Let’s preview the 2014-15 Columbus Blue Jackets.
Key arrivals: Scott Hartnell
Key departures: R.J. Umberger, Nikita Nikitin, Nick Schultz
Player to Watch
Ryan Johansen was Columbus’ best player last season with team highs in goals (33) and points (63). He became the No. 1 center the Blue Jackets envisioned when they drafted him fourth overall in 2010. Johansen’s breakout campaign put him in line for a nice raise, and he’s currently unsigned as a restricted free agent and hasn’t reported to training camp.
The negotiations, so far, have not gone well. The Blue Jackets seem to be the most frustrated side, and they even revealed their offers extended to Johansen, which we rarely see from teams. According to The Associated Press, the Blue Jackets made “offers of $6 million for two years, $32 million for six and $46 million over eight years were refused by the restricted free agent center.”
Johansen is tremendous talent, but he has just one good year on his NHL resume and isn’t deserving of a rich, long-term contract yet. It should be noted that Johansen is eligible to sign an offer sheet from a rival team if he chooses to go that route.
The Blue Jackets are not easy to play against, and that’s one of the best compliments an NHL team can receive. Columbus has a gritty, hard-working group of forwards and defensemen who fight hard for puck possession in all three zones, play a physical game, consistently block shots and kill penalties well.
The Jackets lack elite talent, especially on the wing, but they makes for it by creating scoring chances with an aggressive forecheck and a strong commitment to win each 50-50 puck battle.
Most Glaring Weakness
The lack of a top-tier goal-scoring winger is a concern for CBJ. Cam Atkinson led all Columbus wingers with 40 points (21 goals, 19 assists) last season, which is not the level of scoring production expected of a top-six forward. Only three Blue Jackets wingers finished the 2013-14 campaign with more than 24 points.
Nathan Horton — who signed a seven-year, $37.1 million contract in July of 2013 — missed 46 games and the Round 1 playoff series against Pittsburgh because of injuries. The veteran winger currently is out indefinitely with a back injury, leaving Columbus with little scoring depth on the wings. When healthy, Horton is a potential 30-goal scorer with a powerful shot and a power-forward skill set.
If Johansen misses regular-season games while negotiating a new deal, the Blue Jackets will struggle to score. That would put a lot of pressure on former Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky to start the season in fine form.
Expectations In 2014-15
The Blue Jackets could win the wide open Metropolitan Division or they could miss the playoffs entirely. It’s difficult to predict where in the standings they will finish without knowing Johansen’s future. If he plays a full season, expect Columbus to earn another wild-card berth and give one of the division winners a tough Round 1 matchup.