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Blue Jackets have options while putting together roster this offseason

One of the youngest teams in the NHL wants to take the next step

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Earlier this week, we wrote about the new challenges facing the Blue Jackets after a 2021-22 season that went better than most outside expectations. 

Today, we'll look a little closer at the specific things the Jackets might look to do when it comes to getting a roster ready for a 2022-23 campaign in which a return to the playoffs could be in sight. 

Columbus is coming off a 37-38-7 record that earned 81 points and placed the team sixth in the Metropolitan Division, 10th in the Eastern Conference and 19 points adrift of the last Stanley Cup Playoffs spot in the Eastern Conference. 

The Blue Jackets boast one of the youngest teams in the NHL -- if not the youngest -- and expect to see growth over the coming seasons, but the team is also in a spot where it needs to make up significant ground to contend for a postseason spot. 

The good news? That youth leads the way, with Cole Sillinger, Kent Johnson, Yegor Chinakhov, Adam Boqvist, Alexandre Texier, Jake Christiansen, Emil Bemstrom, Andrew Peeke, Patrik Laine, Nick Blankenburg and Jake Bean all playing NHL minutes this season at age 23 or younger for the majority of the campaign. 

Columbus also is in a good spot with the salary cap, at least for the 2022-23 season. Per Cap Friendly, the Jackets have more than $28 million available at the moment, and while RFA deals will cut into that significantly, there is money and flexibility available. 

So, who is signed and who needs to be inked? Here's a list (players who did not play an NHL game this year have an asterisk). 

Forwards 

Signed: Jakub Voracek, Gustav Nyquist, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Boone Jenner, Sean Kuraly, Eric Robinson, Alexandre Texier, Cole Sillinger, Yegor Chinakhov, Kent Johnson, Justin Danforth, Kirill Marchenko*, Tyler Angle*, Mikael Pyyhtia* 

Restricted free agents: Patrik Laine, Jack Roslovic, Emil Bemstrom, Carson Meyer, Liam Foudy, Trey Fix-Wolanksy, Kevin Stenlund, Joshua Dunne* 

Unrestricted free agents: Brendan Gaunce, Nathan Gerbe*, Zac Rinaldo*, Tyler Sikura* 

Defensemen 

Signed: Zach Werenski, Vladislav Gavrikov, Jake Bean, Andrew Peeke, Gavin Bayreuther, Jake Christiansen, Tim Berni*, Samuel Knazko*, Stanislav Svozil*, Ole Julian Bjorgvik-Holm*, Billy Sweezey* 

Restricted free agents: Nick Blankenburg, Adam Boqvist, Gabriel Carlsson 

Unrestricted free agents: Dean Kukan, Scott Harrington 

Goaltenders 

Signed: Elvis Merzlikins, Jet Greaves* 

Restricted free agents: Daniil Tarasov 

Unrestricted free agents: Joonas Korpisalo, Jean-Francois Berube, Cam Johnson 

The Blue Jackets have plenty of numbers on board -- that's 18 forwards, nine defensemen and two goalies who are signed or RFAs who played NHL minutes last year -- and in fact might have some surplus at some spots.  

Johnson and Blankenburg debuted with nine games to go and looked like NHL-caliber players, while 2018 draft pick Marchenko is expected to make the squad after two solid seasons in the KHL and Christiansen might be ready for an expanded role after being one of the top-scoring defensemen in the AHL this year. Add those players to the core of regulars and you've already got something close to a full roster. 

Identifying Needs 

Next up, we'll take a look at three areas where the Blue Jackets likely will want to improve next season. 

Limiting goals against: The good news? The 257 goals scored by Columbus this year were the most in franchise history. The bad? The 293 allowed was also a franchise record, and the Jackets placed 28th in the NHL in team defense this year. 

"I think one of the things that we're probably going to talk about a lot this summer and do what we need to do to keep the puck out of our net better," general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "We got scored on too much. Even though we scored more than we ever have, you don't want to get into those type of games where you have to win 5-4." 

There were a lot of factors at play that went into that. Younger teams tend to struggle the most at the defensive side of the game, and Columbus was particularly green on the blue line; there were multiple times this season when the combined number of NHL games played by all six CBJ defensemen was surpassed by the career games played by one blueliner on the other team. 

Head coach Brad Larsen also opened things up a bit systems-wise from past seasons under John Tortorella, in part because he had a roster where the strength and experience was on the offensive side. But whether it improves because of personnel, style or experience, the reality is the Blue Jackets have to be a better defensive team to make a serious playoff run next season. 

Adding size/toughness: Jakub Voracek has been in the NHL a long time, and the CBJ winger thoroughly enjoyed his return to Columbus this season. 

But if there's one thing Voracek wasn't afraid to say, it's that he wants to see a little more bite on the Jackets' roster as the team matures over the next couple of seasons. It's something that came up multiple times in the second half of the season, including after a scrum against Edmonton the last week of the season. 

"We don't handle that situation very well, because we don't have anyone who really can fight (Zack) Kassian and those guys," Voracek said. "It's important to stick together and get the scrum going there because you don't want anybody to fight one on one against him." 

It's a different NHL than it was 20 years ago, and having a true "enforcer" on the roster feels antiquated (the league leader in fighting majors was Nashville's Tanner Jeannot with 14, and he was no one-trick-pony with 24 goals on the season). But there were times where the Blue Jackets just didn't have anyone who could tell other teams "the buck stops here" with physical play. It is a spot where the Jackets likely feel they have to improve next season. 

Adding experience? OK, so we've talked a lot about the team's youth, but Columbus did enter the season with the lowest average age in the NHL (25.7 years old) and only seemed to get younger as the year went on. 

Make no mistake -- the core the Jackets are building revolves around the youngsters we mentioned above. Columbus isn't about to deviate from that plan, but at some point, contention might require adding a well-placed veteran in a spot or two. 

What Comes Next 

As we noted at the start of this, Columbus has nearly $30 million in cap space as it enters the offseason, though contracts for RFAs like Laine, Roslovic and the rest will eat up a certain percentage of that. Still, the Jackets are in good shape when it comes to resources, and while there's no move the team would make to compromise the rebuilding process, there is flexibility at play. 

So when it comes to addressing some of the spots above, how might the Jackets do it? 

Trade market: Given the number of teams who might be up against the cap this offseason, the fact Columbus has two first-round draft picks (after three a year ago) and the composition of the roster, it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see Columbus go this route. 

We're speculating of course, but having had so many chances to draft high-end young talent in the last two drafts (with Chinakhov, Sillinger and Johnson already in the NHL) could free up Kekalainen to be willing to move a first-round pick this year if the right deal comes along. 

The surplus of wingers and young left-shot defensemen also might come into play on the trade market. In recent years, the Jackets have been compiling good players at those spots, which could add some trade opportunities. And as Kekalainen showed last year when he dealt longtime Blue Jacket and alternate captain Cam Atkinson at the draft, this CBJ front office is not afraid to make a bold move if it presents itself.  

Free agency: The Blue Jackets have dipped into the market at times under Kekalainen with varied success -- the two most recent major adds, Gus Nyquist and Sean Kuraly, have worked out -- but the general manager has described the squad as a "draft and develop" franchise in the past. 

That's generally pretty smart given how many teams come to rue massive free agent signings, but Kekalainen has proved he will add a player or two if the fit is right.  

From this spot, adding an experienced defenseman with size might be the wheelhouse for the Jackets right now in free agency, and there is no dearth of names out there that would fit that bill, and many of them might not be that expensive. 

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