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Columbus to face a much different offseason this time around

A reset of where things stand as the Blue Jackets try to improve for next season

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

There's no doubt the upcoming offseason for the Blue Jackets will be very different than the last one, and not just because we're still in a global pandemic and the season ended in August, not May. 

A year ago, the entire narrative about the summer months for Columbus as it turned an eye toward the upcoming season was about a group of high-profile unrestricted free agents and what their fate would be. 

Of course, Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene and others chose to leave, while Columbus brought in Gus Nyquist to add to the team's forward depth, a move that helped the team make a return to the playoffs for a fourth straight season. 

This year, there will be little talk about unrestricted free agents because, well, the team doesn't have any. That's right. Of all the 36 players who suited up for the team this year, exactly zero are unrestricted free agents, meaning this offseason won't be as much about who's not coming back but who will. 

Rosters always change, though, so things won't exactly be the same when the team suits up come the targeted December date -- or whenever that may be. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen and the rest of the front office will look at how to improve the squad after its round-of-16 playoff loss to Tampa Bay, and some notable restricted free agents must be re-signed. 

Here's an early look at what to expect from the 2020-21 Blue Jackets with a whirlwind offseason set to begin in October with the scheduled Oct. 9-10 draft, with free agency, training camps and more to follow. 

Roster reset 

As we said earlier, the team has zero unrestricted free agents, and a full 23 players who saw time on the team this year are under contract. Here's the list of all players, including prospects and minor leaguers, who are signed for at least next season. 

Forwards: Cam Anderson, Gus Nyquist, Nick Foligno, Alexander Wennberg, Riley Nash, Boone Jenner, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Emil Bemstrom, Alexandre Texier, Eric Robinson, Stefan Matteau, Nathan Gerbe, Mikhail Grigorenko, Brandon Dubinsky, Liam Foudy, Trey Fix-Wolansky, Zac Dalpe 

Defensemen: Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Ryan Murray, David Savard, Markus Nutivaara, Scott Harrington, Andrew Peeke, Dean Kukan, Adam Clendening, Jacob Christiansen, Tim Berni 

Goaltenders: Elvis Merzlikins, Joonas Korpisalo, Daniiel Tarasov, Veini Vehvilainen 

While there are no unrestricted free agents who suited up for the Blue Jackets this year, there are a number of restricted free agents the team must sign. Here is a list of those, again including team prospects and minor leaguers. 

Forwards: Pierre-Luc Dubois, Josh Anderson, Ryan MacInnis, Kevin Stenlund, Jakob Lilja, Marko Dano, Maxime Fortier, Paul Bittner, Calvin Thurkauf, Justin Scott, Kole Sherwood 

Defensemen: Vladislav Gavrikov, Gabriel Carlsson, Ryan Collins, Michael Prapavessis 

Goaltenders: Matiss Kivlenieks 

Also of note: Lilja has already signed a contract to play in the KHL this upcoming season with Barys Nur-Sultan, while the team does have two unrestricted free agents who spent the entire season in the minors in defensemen Doyle Somerby and Dillon Simpson. 

According to CapFriendly.com, the Blue Jackets currently have $5.2 million of cap space available for next year to sign those who need to be signed, with Dubois, Anderson and Gavrikov the biggest names who have to come to terms. 

That will require a bit of a squeeze, as Dubois is likely due a hefty raise and the deals signed by the others will add up. Anderson, who scored 27 goals in 2018-19 but just one in an injury-plagued 2019-20 season, will be one of the most intriguing pieces for the team to address this offseason. 

What will also be interesting is how many teams across the league have to make moves as the salary cap stays flat at $81.5 million thanks to the impact of the pandemic. A number of teams will be tight up against the cap, including Metro Division rivals Pittsburgh and the New York Islanders and Eastern Conference contenders Tampa Bay and Toronto, and something in some places will have to give, perhaps opening up the trade market unlike ever before. 

On paper, the biggest concern for the Blue Jackets will be finding scoring help, as the team placed 28th in the league in scoring with 2.57 goals per game and also struggled to find the net in the playoffs, tallying 24 goals in 10 games. 

Grigorenko has been signed from Russia, where the 2012 first-round pick had 19 goals and 41 points in 47 games last year with CSKA Moskva, while other notable UFAs on the market at forward include Taylor Hall, Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov and Tyler Toffoli. 

Potential Strengths 

Goaltending: Having Merzlikins and Korpisalo locked into two-year contracts gives the Blue Jackets two starter-level netminders -- or intriguing trade chips for a team that looking for an upgrade at the position. But assuming both neither gets dealt after re-signing this spring, Columbus should have one of the best tandems in the league. 

Depth: One of the biggest things the injury-filled 2019-20 campaign did for the Blue Jackets was give the front office and coaching staff a chance to see just how many NHL-caliber players are in the system. That's true both up front and on defense, which should also give the team some flexibility to make moves should they come up this offseason. 

Questions to Answer 

Where will they find scoring? As noted, placing 28th in the league in goal scoring is not what the Blue Jackets wanted. Injuries played a big part, as such names as Anderson, Atkinson and Bjorkstrand -- all 20-goal scorers in 2018-19 -- missed big portions of the season, going from a combined 91 goals last year to 34 this season. Still, this is a team that needs to find some more firepower to become a true Stanley Cup contender. 

Who steps up next? A number of young players got their feet wet this season and earned time. Which of those players make the next step and up their production will be important for the continued development of the franchise. 

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