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Columbus Blue Jackets: 2023-24 Season Preview

Sep 30, 2023; Buffalo, New York, USA; Columbus Blue Jackets center Adam Fantilli (11) on the ice during the second period against the Buffalo Sabres at KeyBank Center. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

One of the league’s most forgettable franchises has also been one of its most chaotic in recent years. The 2022-23 season was a disaster on multiple levels, with over 500 man games lost to injury and a lack of direction behind the bench that cost head coach Brad Larsen his job. The Blue Jackets finished in second to last place with 59 points, also the second-worst finish in franchise history. There’s nowhere to go but up, but how will they get there, and how far away is this team from being a contender?

Key additions/subtractions

Additions: Ivan Provorov, Damon Severson, Adam Fantilli
Subtractions: Mike Babcock

There were no major departures in the off-season, after the veterans Joonas Korpisalo and Vladislav Gavrikov were dealt at the trade deadline. The defense was exposed last season, and just getting healthy would not be enough to fix it. As a result, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen was aggressive in early June, not waiting for the draft or free agency to hit the market. First, a three way trade with Philadelphia and Los Angeles brought Provorov to Columbus with a reduced cap hit. Later that week, a sign-and-trade with New Jersey secured pending free agent Severson with a fresh, eight year contract. Both provide much-needed experience and stability in the top two pairs.

Draft lottery luck did not favor the Jackets, who have yet to earn the number one overall pick (they traded up in 2002 to select Rick Nash). Fortunately, Anaheim’s selection of Leo Carlsson gave Columbus the opportunity to add Fantilli, a prospect many considered to be a top overall selection in a class without Connor Bedard. The franchise has consistently lacked a true first line center. Ryan Johansen, Alexander Wennberg, and Pierre-Luc Dubois each had their moments, but all parted Columbus on bad terms. Fantilli appears poised to finally be the answer we’ve been waiting for, and is ready to contribute at the NHL level from Day One.

Mike Babcock was a controversial hire as head coach, and couldn’t make it to preseason without causing another scandal. Reports of him scrolling through pictures on players’ phones led to a quick resignation mere days before the start of training camp. Pascal Vincent — an assistant to Larsen for the last two seasons — had been retained as associate coach under Babcock, and now takes over with a fresh two-year contract as the full-time replacement.


Strength: Offense

The Blue Jackets are certainly not a good team, but they should be able to score enough to be a fun team. That was the blueprint in 2021-22, and was enough to earn them 81 points. The forward corps features two bonafide stars in Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine, each capable of scoring at a point-per-game pace. Another secretly effective veteran weapon is the captain, Boone Jenner, who you’ll be surprised to learn was scoring at a 30+ goal pace in each of the last two seasons, prior to a nagging back injury cutting each short (59 games in 2021-22 and 68 games in 2022-23). Also featuring in the top six are young guns Kent Johnson, who scored 40 points as a rookie, and Kirill Marchenko, who put up Cy Young-worthy numbers of 21/4/25 in just 59 games in his North American debut season.

For all of the blue line’s struggles in their own end, they feature players who can move the puck and are a threat to score. Zach Werenski is the leader, and led all NHL defensemen in goals in 2019-20, with 20 in just 63 games.

Weakness: Defense/goaltending

The Blue Jackets allowed the most goals in the league last year with 330, 23 more than the next closest team, Montreal. They had the second most shots allowed, and fourth worst save percentage.

A major issue was the defense, with Andrew Peeke and Erik Gudbranson leading the defense in total minutes played. Both were way over their heads. The rest of the players were AHLers forced into NHL duty.

The major elephant in the room is Elvis Merzlikins. The Latvian netminder has four years remaining on his contract, and just put up his worst season ever. He has consistently dealt with injuries, and when healthy he was ineffective. The hope is that an improved scheme (and roster) can make his job easier, and get him back to being at least an average goaltender. 23 year old Russian Daniil Tarasov has been seen as a goalie of the future, but has also dealt with injuries throughout his career and will be unavailable at the start of this season.

Biggest Questions

By MrSwift13

Can the goaltending rebound?

For two straight seasons, the Columbus Blue Jackets have allowed a franchise record number of goals. To rebound and pull themselves out of the bottom of the NHL standings, it starts in goal — can the team that at one time boasted some of the best netminding in the league claw its way back to league average? 

Elvis Merzlikins came to the NHL with much fanfare and earned a 5 year / $27 million contract ahead of the 2022-23 season. In response to his first year under the new deal, Merzlikins turned in a season with a 4.23 GAA and an .876 SV%. That is, quite simply, not remotely close to good enough. The pressure is on Elvis to rebound this year and on the defense for the Blue Jackets to make the goaltenders’ life more simple – former head coach that never coached a game Mike Babcock noted that, often, goaltenders for the club last season were so confused by the defensive structure they didn’t know where shots would be coming from. 

It’s on Pascal Vincent and new goaltending coach Niklas Backstrom to organize the defensive structure and help the goaltenders out. It’s up to the goaltenders to perform under the new structure.

Can the coaching staff hold up?

Previous coaching staffs have struggled with this club in oft-repeated areas — deployment, defensive structures, player utilization and optimization. Can Pascal Vincent buck that trend?

In years past, young players with promising talent have been handicapped. Last year, among defensemen who ended the season active, Erik Gudbranson ended the season with the highest average ice time despite performing as objectively the worst defensive player on the roster. In the game on October 4, effectively a dress rehearsal for opening night, Gudbranson led all skaters in 5v5 TOI by nearly 40 seconds. Can Vincent avoid the pratfalls of former head coaches (namely playing worse players than those with talent)? If the preseason is any indication, it’s an open question for the new staff.

Similarly, previous coaching staffs have hindered high draftees – Kirill Marchenko averaged just 16:11 last year despite prodigious goal scoring talent, while Kent Johnson averaged a paltry 14:31 despite posting 16-24-40. The Blue Jackets, in addition to those talents, have the single best prospect in franchise history in the pipeline now in Adam Fantilli. Will he be afforded the chance to play big minutes and flourish? Or will he, like others before him, languish in a minutes restriction beneath his talent level. 

Playing your best players in the biggest moments and putting them in the best position to succeed, but it’s not always easy — ask Ohio State head football coach Ryan Day, who insists on running third down plays that don’t involve stars Emeka Egbuka or Marvin Harrison Jr. Can Pascal Vincent avoid the trappings that ail other Columbus head coaches? It remains to be seen, but it may be his biggest challenge. Hampering the young talent in favor of veteran players on larger contracts were pratfalls Brad Larsen fell into time and again – if Vincent is going to succeed as the Columbus head coach, he cannot fall victim to the same scenarios that swallowed his predecessor.

Star Players

Johnny Gaudreau

Johnny Hockey shocked the league by signing with Columbus in 2022, but it was worth it for him to be playing in an Eastern US market, closer to his family and in a good market for raising a family. His stats dropped off from his outstanding final season in Calgary, but 21/53/74 in 80 games is still solid, and enough to lead the team. With constant linemates and a better offensive scheme, I expect him to build on those numbers this season.

Patrik Laine

The Finnish sniper struggled when traded to Columbus in the COVID season, but has been very productive over the last two years…when healthy. He played 56 and 55 games in 2021-22 and 2022-23, respectively, but put up 56 and 52 points. He enters this season taking a big leadership role in the locker room, and now seems poised to take on a new position on the ice, too. He experimented at center for two games last season before getting hurt, and in preseason seems quite comfortable as the top line center between Gaudreau and Marchenko.

Zach Werenski

Z was limited to just 13 games last season before a shoulder injury in November cut it short. He has rust to shake off, and his minutes may be reduced with Provorov and Severson able to share the load. He’ll still be the power play quarterback, and with the likes of Gaudreau, Laine, and Fantilli on that unit, he should lack up some more easy points.

Under the Radar


The player who’s been flying under the radar — at least for folks outside of Ohio — that could have the biggest impact would have to be Alexandre Texier. One of the main reasons he’s been under the radar is because a lot of people had simply written him off as ever being back in the Blue Jackets lineup. Personally, I thought he’d stay in Europe to remain closer to his family after the tragedy and heartbreak that befell him and I wouldn’t have blamed him one bit

Prior to his injury and subsequent departure from the team in 2021-22, Texier was playing some of the best hockey of his young career. His game was really rounding out, becoming a more complete 200-foot player. At the time of his injury, he had 11 goals and 9 assists in 36 games, and was the team’s most consistent forward while playing in the bottom six.  It was safe to wonder what kind of impact a year away from the NHL would have on his development. 

Management and fans alike are thrilled for Texier’s return, and are eager to see the next steps in his career. He’s the type of player who can play anywhere in the lineup and excel. I’d expect to see him somewhere in the middle-six on the wing, while getting a healthy dose of penalty kill minutes and perhaps a spot on the second power play unit. That just goes to show his broad skillset. So far in the preseason, he’s passed the eye test, flying around the ice putting pressure on defenseman, back checking and scoring at a point-per-game pace.

A happy and healthy Alexandre Texier is going to help the Blue Jackets in so many ways, and he’s been largely forgotten by much of the NHL.

Key Rookie

By Dalerrific

In the 23 year existence of the Columbus Blue Jackets, never have they had a bona fide number one center with superstar potential. Adam Fantilli, the highly talented and competitive center from the University of Michigan, is just that. Expectations for his rookie year were mild up until fans saw him for the first time in Traverse City and then in training camp. It’s become clear that his skating, vision, and hands at 18 (he turns 19 on opening night) are already some of the best on the team. On top of that, he’s already winning over fans with his infectious smile and upbeat attitude.

It appears that Fantilli will open his NHL career at center, possibly next to fellow Wolverine Kent Johnson. If the experiment of Laine playing center sticks, the need for Fantilli to start as the team’s first line center isn’t as great. What he does give immediately is desperately needed depth and skill at a position the team struggled to fill last season. Few will be shocked if he immediately puts up points in the NHL — the bigger question may be how long it takes before he cements himself as the franchise center.

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