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Blue Jackets face lengthy checklist for 2021 offseason

GM Kekalainen will be busy this year, but he has the flexibility to improve Columbus

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

It's fair to say the 2021 season didn't go quite the way the Blue Jackets hoped. 

An early blockbuster trade netted Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic but unsettled a locker room that never quite found its personality all season. Key players - including the defining defensive duo of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski as well as huge trade acquisition Max Domi - struggled to find their game at the start of the season. And just when it appeared the Blue Jackets were finding their stride, a disastrous road trip put the team firmly in the sellers' camp when it came to the trade deadline. 

Add it all up and a team with aspirations of running its playoff streak to five appearances instead finished in last in the Central Division, going 18-26-12 and placing (at best) 27th in the 31-team league. 

But there is no time for wallowing in despair. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen and his staff have a lengthy offseason to-do list to attack as the team attempts to "reload," to use Kekalainen's word, and get back to being a contender in 2021-22. 

There is still plenty of talent on the roster in the form of established forwards Laine, Domi, Roslovic, Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner, and Oliver Bjorkstrand; youngsters like Alexandre Texier, Emil Bemstrom, Liam Foudy and Andrew Peeke, who each could turn potential into production now that they have experience at the highest level; one of the top defensive pairs in the league in Jones and Werenski; and a goaltending tandem featuring Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo that will give he team some flexibility in its roster planning. 

Video: GM Kekalainen Presser (5/10/21)

On top of that, the Jackets enter the offseason with three first-round draft picks, with two acquired from the deadline deals with Toronto and Tampa Bay, and per Cap Friendly, the team has nearly $26 million in open cap scape that should provide flexibility in a flat cap world. 

So what's on the list for the Jackets as they go forward? Here's a look. 

Finding a new coach: With the team and head coach John Tortorella going their separate ways after nearly six seasons, this is the No. 1 priority at the moment for Kekalainen. Tortorella led the Jackets to the most success in franchise history but leaves after a down year, and the new coach will face a significant challenge after Tortorella said he never could quite get a thumb on the team's locker room dynamics this year in an odd pandemic season. 

Kekalainen spoke some Monday about what he's looking for in a new coach, but the No. 1 thing appears to be someone who can help create an accountable culture, just as Tortorella did. Of course, every general manager is looking for that in his coaching search, and as Kekalainen acknowledged Monday, the head coaching hire is one of the most important in any organization.  

It seems obvious, but the Blue Jackets have to hire the right man for the job. Considering roster movement can't truly begin until July, this is a front-burner topic for the moment. 

Answer the goalie question: The good news? Columbus has two goaltenders in Korpisalo and Merzlikins who have proved they can not just handle the workload of a No. 1 goalie but excel in that job. They are also both well-liked by their teammates and love being Blue Jackets. 

But as Merzlikins said Monday, they're also not stupid. With each set to become unrestricted free agents after the upcoming season, now is the time it would make sense for the Blue Jackets to make their choice and explore a trade for the other. The alternative is potentially losing one for nothing at the end of next season, and to be honest, each goalie seems to believe he can be a No. 1, and while they the two netminders enjoy one another's company, neither seemed to love being in a tandem situation this year. 

The goalie market might again be flooded this offseason, so the trade value of each is up for debate, but it feels like the situation is trending toward a big decision in the near future.  

"It's a strength of ours and will give us some good options," Kekalainen said of the position. 

Address the center position: When the Blue Jackets began the season, they felt they had made major improvements at center going into 2021. Alexander Wennberg had been bought out and Jenner moved back to wing, with Domi and offseason signing Mikko Koivu added to a group that included returning No. 1 center Pierre-Luc Dubois and veteran defensive presence Riley Nash. 

Things changed quickly, as Dubois made his dissatisfaction with Columbus clear enough he was dealt for Laine and Roslovic five games into the campaign. Koivu then retired, and Domi's struggles pushed him to the wing as he tried to find his game. To cap things off, Nash ended up injured then traded to Toronto at the deadline, leaving a new-look group by the end of the campaign. 

Kekalinen said both Monday and at midseason that improving the center position will be a focus this offseason. While the internal options did improve as the year went on -- Domi did finish strong and moved back to the pivot, Roslovic had a solid season offensively and Texier showed promise at age 21 -- there are also big-game hunting options out there whether via trade or free agency.  

Jones and Werenski deals: This is the biggest long-term situation facing the Blue Jackets. Jones will be an unrestricted free agent after the upcoming season, while Werenski will be a restricted free agent.  

Both are elite players -- they were each in the NHL's ranking of the top 50 players in the league last offseason -- and the duo has been the engine of the team the last few seasons, with each having the ability to stand out in either zone and play 25 (or more) minutes per game. 

Neither tipped their hand much on Monday when it comes to their futures, but it will be incumbent upon the franchise to talk to both about long-term deals as it begins to plan out what the next few seasons look like. Unlike with such players as Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky in the past, it seems unlikely the Jackets would allow either to play out the string on their deals. 

Kekalainen, meanwhile, had a very quick answer when asked if he quickly hopes to engage the two on contract extensions when the window to do so opens in July.  

"Absolutely," Kekalainen said. 

The NHL draft(s): First, Columbus will go into the July 21 expansion draft sure to lose a player to the Seattle Kraken, as all NHL teams are. The most likely options appear to be defenseman Dean Kukan, goalie Matiss Kivlenieks if the Kraken are in the mood to go that direction, or one forward from the group of Atkinson, Bjorkstrand, Domi, Jenner, Laine, Gus Nyquist, Eric Robinson and Roslovic (all would need to be protected before the draft or be eligible to be chosen by Seattle). 

Columbus feels pretty good about where it stands in regard to that draft, unlike when the team had to do some maneuvering to avoid losing a key piece to Vegas in 2017.  

"I think we're in good shape this time," Kekalainen said. "It's a lot better timing than it was with Vegas coming into the league. We'll have all the ingredients needed to be in good shape." 

Then, over the next two days, the Jackets will enter the NHL draft with nine picks over the seven rounds, including the three first-round picks. 

Kekalainen said his staff has been able to do undertake plenty of scouting despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic. Yet the three first-round picks also give the Blue Jackets potential trade chips as they look to immediately improve the roster. One thing is for sure -- there will be plenty of action around the draft, as there always is. 

Free agency: This starts July 28, and this year, the Blue Jackets could be players. 

First, the Blue Jackets will have to make a decisions on or sign contracts with its free agents-to-be, including UFAs Mikhail Grigorenko, Zac Dalpe, Stefan Matteau, Ryan MacInnis, Michael Del Zotto, Mikko Lehtonen, Adam Clendening and Gavin Bayreuther as well as RFAs Laine, Texier, Kevin Stenlund, Kole Sherwood and Peeke. 

Just doing some back of the napkin math, the $26 or so million currently available to Columbus will be whittled down some by deals for the RFAs, but that would still leave north of $10 million available. That's more than enough to add a player or two, though the long-term aspect must be considered with such names as Jones, Werenski and Domi up after next year. 

It's a balancing act, but there is money available this year to give Kekalainen flexibility to make an impact if he so desires.  

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