The Columbus Blue Jackets have nowhere to go but up.
Despite inking winger Johnny Gaudreau to a seven-year contract last offseason, the 2022-23 season was a disaster. A last place finish in the Metro Division had the Blue Jackets in contention for the No. 1 overall pick — a windfall that the team ultimately lost out on.
Still, Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen has placed a strong emphasis on the draft in recent years, adding forwards like Kent Johnson, Kirill Marchenko and Cole Sillinger who are starting to fill roles in the NHL. Alongside Patrik Laine, Columbus has plenty of opportunities to surprise in the coming season.
After the Blue Jackets broke it down at the trade deadline — shipping off defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov, goalie Joonas Korpisalo and winger Gustav Nyquist — there wasn’t much for the team to lose this offseason. Six players signed elsewhere in free agency, but none of which saw substantial playing time in Columbus last season.
The return of Zach Werenski, who missed 69 games with a shoulder injury last season, is just the tip of the iceberg that is the Blue Jackets defense. Joining him on the Columbus blue line are Ivan Provorov and Damon Severson — arguably the top two defensive options made available this offseason. Both can contribute a bit offensively, but their biggest impact will come in improving the unit that allowed the second-most goals in the NHL last season.
Having gone third overall in June’s draft, reigning Hobey Baker Award winner Adam Fantilli adds much-needed talent to the Blue Jackets’ center core. His impact may be limited as a rookie, but his overwhelming potential could be a blessing for Columbus in years to come.
Behind the bench, Mike Babcock replaces Brad Larsen after two poor seasons. Babcock has won at the highest levels (2008 Stanley Cup with Detroit, 2010 Winter Olympics Gold Medal with Canada), but concerns remain about his conduct in the locker room.
How Do The Capitals Beat Them?
With the Blue Jackets’ dramatic defensive upgrades, it won’t be as easy to score on them as it was a season ago. A nearly identical Capitals team outscored them 18-11 in four games, but even with Alex Ovechkin in pursuit of the goals-scored record Washington will face a much tougher challenge.
Outside of the addition of Fantilli however, the Blue Jackets have neglected to make substantial changes within their forward core — a problem on paper after the team scored the third-fewest goals in the league last season. Gaudreau could always blossom again after a 115-point season in 2021-22, but that’s anything but the norm.
With the Blue Jackets’ offensive firepower lacking, it’s ultimately up to the Capitals to limit their own defensive breakdowns and force Columbus to earn scoring opportunities.
The Capitals and Blue Jackets will meet twice during the preseason: Oct. 5 in Columbus and Oct. 7 in Washington.
In the regular season, the teams will first meet in Washington on Nov. 4. The Capitals host again on Nov. 18 before the Blue Jackets host the third and final meeting on Dec. 21.