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NHL.com Inside Look: Columbus Blue Jackets

by Craig Merz / Columbus Blue Jackets


NHL.com is providing in-depth roster, prospect and fantasy analysis for each of its 30 teams throughout August. Today, the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Even though the Columbus Blue Jackets missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a second straight season, the expected roster overhaul never materialized.

Aside from trading minor league forward Kerby Rychel and parting with a few familiar faces, the Blue Jackets return the core that finished 27th in the NHL (34-40-8) last season.

Two notable moves were keeping restricted free agent defenseman Seth Jones by signing him to a six-year, $32.4 million contract on June 29 and signing unrestricted free agent center Sam Gagner to a one-year, $650,000 contract on Aug. 1.

Gagner, selected by the Edmonton Oilers with the No. 6 pick in the 2007 NHL Draft, had eight goals and eight assists in 53 games for the Philadelphia Flyers last season. He has 124 goals and 352 points in 615 NHL games and will turn 27 on Wednesday.

Gagner could play on the second line if forwards Alexander Wennberg (eight goals) and William Karlsson (nine) aren't more productive. That could allow Boone Jenner (30 goals) to move from center to left wing and make Brandon Dubinsky the top center.

Two other offseason additions are on the coaching staff. Brad Shaw, who was with the St. Louis Blues for the past 10 seasons, will be an assistant, and former Blues strength and conditioning coach Nelson Ayotte will hold the newly created position of high performance director.

Shaw replaces retired Craig Hartsburg and will coach the defense and penalty kill. Ayotte is expected to work on reducing injuries, including the reoccurring groin problems for goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.

There were no big offseason moves to match trades for forward Brandon Saad on June 30, 2015, and forward Scott Hartnell on June 23, 2014. Yet the Blue Jackets believe this season will be better than 2015-16, when an 0-7-0 start cost coach Todd Richards his job.

John Tortorella was hired Oct. 21 and lost his first game before Columbus went a respectable 34-32-8 over its final 74 games.

"When you're finished April 9 and you're not playing in the real stuff (playoffs), I would think there would be some disappointment," Tortorella said. "I feel like I've let the organization down. I don't feel like I've done enough to get this straightened out."

Columbus bases its optimism on two ideas: Those who underachieved, most notably Bobrovsky (15-19-1, 2.75 goals-against average, .908 save percentage) and forward Nick Foligno (12 goals, 37 points in 72 games), will rebound, and a crop of prospects who helped Lake Erie of the American Hockey League win the Calder Cup will make a difference.

Defenseman Zach Werenski, forwards Oliver Bjorkstrand, Josh Anderson, Sonny Milano and Lukas Sedlak, and goaltenders Anton Forsberg and Joonas Korpisalo each will be given a serious look to make the Blue Jackets out of training camp.

Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said Lake Erie's success can translate to the NHL level.

"We were hoping they would go all the way because I don't think you get a better experience as far as growing into a professional hockey player, growing into an NHL player," he said. "You could see how the young guys were growing throughout the playoffs.

"Those guys took huge steps. That gives them the type of experience they need to compete for an NHL spot and to make an impact on our team."

To make room on the roster and fit under the $73 million NHL salary cap, the Blue Jackets bought out the contract of defenseman Fedor Tyutin and forward Jared Boll. Rychel, the No. 19 pick of the 2013 draft, was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs for 23-year-old defenseman Scott Harrington and a conditional draft pick.

The Blue Jackets did not address their need for a true No. 1 center after Ryan Johansen was traded to the Nashville Predators for Jones on Jan. 6, but they used the No. 3 pick in the 2016 draft on Pierre Luc-Dubois, the wing-turned-center from Cape Breton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Dubois had 42 goals and 57 assists in 62 games and is probably a year away from making the Blue Jackets. But if confidence is a factor, his arrival may be expedited.

"I'm open to playing any position this year," Dubois said. "I'm not nervous at all. Wherever this team needs me, I'll be there."

If the Blue Jackets are to improve, they'll have to do it with many of the same players who stumbled out of the gate last season and never recovered.

"We had a terrible season," Kekalainen said. "We're going to get better because of it."

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