The Columbus Blue Jackets were not without their expectations going into the 2015 season and rightfully so. Their number one goalie just came off a Vezina Trophy season, they have some budding young superstars and they belong in the Eastern Conference, which can swing about any way at any given time.
For the Jackets, despite an All-Star Game season and some All-Star performances this season on their roster, the Jackets fell short of a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference race and are left with a few question marks, but I think they are not too far off where they need to be at this point and missing the playoffs is only a speed bump in their progression.
The core of the Blue Jackets roster isn't very old, nor are they leaning on very many aged veterans on their squad, so if there are bodies to replace, it will be more of a case that they didn't fit the scheme going forward and the transition may be somewhat easier than what some other teams are going through. Going into this offseason, the oldest player signed on to a deal is 33 years old, which is right in the thick of their prime.
The Jackets were a little less popular than the Flyers, who's Outlook dropped yesterday, having 13 players on their NHL roster, which were either on an active pool roster or dropped at some point during the season. It would take some digging, but I would wager that those numbers would be close to a record for them in this pool over the years. Unlike the Flyers, only three of those players were dropped, so they did have some staying power in the year, for sure.
We all knew who Nick Foligno was at the beginning of the season... the son of a former NHL'er, went through the Ottawa system under the shadow of his recognizable father and one that had really yet to pop in his own NHL career. In the 2015 season, Foligno popped, made his own name in Columbus, went to the All-Star Game and had a pretty good year. Overall, he finished 23rd in pool scoring, scoring 31 goals and 73 points in 79 games played and in this year's hockey pool draft, he was picked up in the Waiver Draft, helping Wes climb the ranks into 3rd place and his first money finish. That's a pretty good finish.
Ryan Johansen was a restricted free agent holdout through training camp, signing not long before the season started and that didn't seem to matter, as he wasn't far behind Foligno for team scoring, picking up 26 goals and 71 points for the Jackets, which was good enough for 28th overall in pool scoring. The Jackets had a couple more pool worthy forwards in 2015, Scott Hartnell had an up and down year, 60 points in 77 games, while Cam Atkinson quietly picked up 40 points in 78 games.
On defense, scoring wasn't too much of an issue, as they had two definite pool players and acquired one that could have been, if he played the way he did all year for the Jackets. Jack Johnson had a great year, ranking 26th among blueliners with 40 points in 79 games, while David Savard emerged as a pool option, with 36 points in all 82 games. Kevin Connauton, acquired from Dallas early in the year, sparingly played eight games with the Stars before being traded, then exploding for 19 points in the back half of the year, barely missing the cut of pool worthy defensemen, sitting in 95th in the position.
Last year, you didn't mention the Blue Jackets without mentioning Sergei Bobrovsky and thanks to his injury problems this year, it is kind of the same, but you connect the team missing the playoffs with their number one goalie missing time. A big minute goalie like Bobrovsky in 2014 only ranked 21st in goalie minutes in 2015, but he still managed 30 wins and 66 points this year, good enough for 16th in goalie scoring. Still a good year, but it wasn't Vezina numbers in the year.
2016 Pool Outlook
If you were playing wait-and-see with the Blue Jackets in 2015, you probably saw enough for some bigger expectations in 2016 and the only thing in their way is some more bad/dumb luck. With the Blue Jackets this year, there isn't a great deal of mystery with this club, which I think will breed far more familiarity, which is good for us poolies. We've seen the names, we've seen the results, now we know what we can expect, right?
Barely hanging on to rookie status for the Blue Jackets is William Karlsson, who they acquired from Anaheim in the James Wisniewski deal at the deadline, he chipped in with 5 points this season and likely earned some consideration, as a 23-year old next season. Don't forget Oliver Bjorkstrand, the Danish sensation coming out of the WHL next season, This kid showed some real flair at the World Juniors and has some North American numbers to back it up. How about Kerby Rychel? The 2013 1st round pick spent this past season in the AHL, appearing in five NHL games, picking up 3 assists. He'll get a long look too.
Free Agency and the Salary Cap
Restricted free agency is where the concern lies for the Jackets, as their unrestricted free agents were not impact players, as a whole.
The RFA crop in Columbus doesn't have the upside, like it did last Summer, but forward Matt Calvert is nothing to sneeze at, neither is defenseman Cody Goloubef or forward Jeremy Morin, each getting their fair share of NHL experience in the year. These players won't be out to break the bank, but we all know how important team depth is and that's where these guys will definitely start next season.
Goalie Curtis McElhinney highlights the crop of players hitting the free market, but with four goalies already on NHL contracts going into the Summer, he would have needed to make a lasting impact for a return, even for the small amount he makes. Forwards Mark Letestu, Jack Skille and Brian Gibbons were likely looked towards for more, but fell down the depth chart and are likely replaceable.
The Jackets are in great shape against the salary cap, as they have 31 players signed on with cap hits published and they are just a shade under $3 million to the good, under the projected cap ceiling of $71.1 million. Take a couple goalies away, you can drop eight forwards... boom! Tons of room. They could be a fun team to watch this Summer.
Needs at the 2015 Entry Draft
This team is stocked up with quality forwards, even the ones waiting in the wings. With the 8th overall pick, I think they go with a defenseman, mostly because the depth in goal in this draft, isn't quite as good as the skaters. I don't see them being in a big rush for a defenseman to join the ranks, so possibly a kid like NCAA product Zach Werenski fits the bill, a University of Michigan product, has some good size and ranks well among the other prospects. Maybe he gets a boost, out of positional drafting.
What I Said Last Year, At This Time...
I'm not going to go out of my way to predict that the Blue Jackets will make any astronomical improvements in their team or their game, but not making the playoffs next year wouldn't be the end of the world for the team. This team, at its core, is still really young and could use the adversity to grow as a team. The Blue Jackets will make some savvy moves in the off-season, they'll fill some gaps and they'll compete again in the Eastern Conference. Will they make the playoffs next year? I might lean to no, just because there are some teams that will improve a little bit more, but it will be awfully close... all things being equal.
I will definitely consider that one a win, as the Jackets didn't make any astronomical improvements, even though some of their players did. The adversity is something that they can use going forward and something that definitely will help them grow. They didn't make the playoffs, teams in the East did improve more than them, as they did fall off a bit. Yes, I think that's about right from me last year.
The real heel of this team is on the blueline, maybe not so much from an offensive standpoint, even though it may not be as solid as some teams, it just may be as a whole. If the Jackets can shore up their blueline over the Summer, I think there is a real chance that they can push for that wild card spot in the East. It will be tough and a pretty tough go in the East, but I think their core has what it takes to be a real contender for at least a playoff spot and all they need is to get into the show to be effective.