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SvoNotes is a column by BlueJackets.com team reporter Jeff Svoboda.

One year ago, when the season ended, I had a lot to say.

And in homage to the great SportsNet scribe Elliotte Friedman, I decided to one-up the NHL insider, writing 33 Thoughts about the Blue Jackets – one more than Friedman’s popular column and podcast.

What can I say? I’m competitive.

This year, now that the dust has started to clear and the Blue Jackets go into one of the most important offseasons in recent memory, I’ve decided to do it again. This is a big moment for Columbus, with a general manager hire on the way, and a young squad hitting a bit of a crossroads. In other words, there’s a lot to write about (trust me, this column checks in at about 3,500 words.)

There will be a lot to talk about in the coming weeks and months, but in my mind, here's what I'll remember and what I believe about the 2023-24 season.

1. There's no tap-dancing around it – this wasn’t the season Blue Jackets fans certainly hoped for. Finishing last in the Eastern Conference isn’t ideal, and there’s not a ton of sugar coating to be done when it comes to the standings. Having said that, I do think you have to keep in mind this is still an in-process rebuild, and these things always seem to take longer than people think. Just ask Ottawa, Buffalo, and others, and that’s just in the Eastern Conference.

2. I’m not surprised it was a season without playoff hockey for the Blue Jackets; while there are certainly some fine veterans on the squad, it’s still a largely young team learning what it takes to win at the NHL level. I think that was fairly obvious as the season went on, as the squad spent the year continuing to learn about how to handle the momentum swings of games, playing a full 60 minutes, and getting through certain game situations. The third-period struggles early in the season were an example of that, but if you’re looking for growth, look at the way the Blue Jackets improved in that regard as the season went on.

3. As frustrating as this year was, there were areas you can point to where the team DID improve as the season progressed. Columbus was playing its best hockey of the season defensively and in general in late February and early March – beating the Rangers, Golden Knights and Oilers in a two-week span – before the trade deadline and ensuing injury plague left the team with a makeshift roster. Unfortunately, that led to a tough end of the season, erasing a lot of the progress that happened during the year from your mind.

4. Last year in this space, I wrote the Blue Jackets often brought a knife to a gunfight a season ago given how injuries decimated the roster. There were nights in 2022-23 when more than half the roster had fewer than 100 NHL games played, which is no way to win in the world’s toughest league. This year, I thought it was more like bringing a lesser gun to a gunfight on most nights; the Blue Jackets had much better firepower and were in more games, they just couldn’t finish things off quite a bit of the time. The good news? That’s progress.

5. Did Columbus need a season like this? Obviously you would have preferred to win more games, but while last year was an exercise in frustration, I think you could see the ways the Blue Jackets attacked challenges and got better as the season went on. I know everyone is ready for more wins, but you can’t cut corners on the way to being a consistent playoff team. You have to learn the lessons and live through the ups and downs. Just a thought.

6. With that in mind, it leads to obvious questions about head coach Pascal Vincent. I must admit I was surprised by some of the vitriol directed toward him on social media as the season went on; Vincent is a personable, likable guy who I did enjoy being around this year. When it comes to the job he did, I was often struck by his long-term vision for the team; instead of doing everything he could to win now, as many coaches in their first opportunity might do, he spoke quote a bit about building a culture and a base that could be successful down the road. I don’t think he was perfect – he'd probably be the first to admit it – but I think his greatest strength was an understanding of where this team is and what it might take to get it where it wants to go.

7. I feel like one of the biggest complaints among CBJ fans about Vincent was often the ice time – or lack thereof – provided to young players, but my general thought is that particular stat is overrated. Just piling ice time onto a player isn’t always the right track – it's the NHL, where ice has to be earned, and you also have to be sure to keep a player’s confidence level in mind, too. Most NHL coaches, including Vincent, are about picking spots where a young player can build learn and build confidence, a strategy I generally don’t have a problem with. A player like Adam Fantilli, for example, got plenty of experience and ice time as a 19-year-old center, even skating on the top line at times. Cole Sillinger averaged nearly 20 minutes per game the last 10 games at age 20. To me, this was often much ado about nothing, but that's just one man's take.

8. In the end, though, being a head coach at the NHL level right now is about winning; we’ve all seen the turnover at the position around the game of late. Here, the decision about Vincent's future will likely come down to whoever takes over as general manager, which is only fair. Whoever gets hired will certainly deserve the opportunity to install a staff they’ll feel comfortable with.

9. One thing that I noticed – and I'll be writing more about this next week – is that the veteran players on the team at exit interviews spoke about how the team culture got better this year and they made some strides, but there’s still a lot to be done. There are some players who have been on winning teams before – Johnny Gaudreau, Erik Gudbranson, Sean Kuraly, Damon Severson to name a few – and they have experience on what it takes to get there. They seem to know the Jackets are working through the things they need to work on, but more work is on the way. To me, that’s comforting.

10. I won’t name this specific CBJ player, but one quote that interested me near the midway point of the season was about what was needed to take the next step in the team’s rebuild. The player responded about the need to “trim the fat” on the roster at some point, which I don’t think sounds quite as mean as it sounds. The Blue Jackets have been figuring out what they have the past few seasons – that's what a rebuild affords you – and much of that work should now be done. By now, you should know what you have in a number of spots and can make decisions accordingly. At some point you get out of evaluation phase and turn to winning phase.

11. So are the Blue Jackets there? They should be a lot closer than they were a few years ago, even if there are still some incomplete answers at some spots. Part of me thinks this team isn’t far off; they were in too many games this season not to be. At the same time, see above – most rebuilds seem to take longer than you want them to. This could be a really interesting offseason when it comes to the roster, and I'm very intrigued to see what the finished product is. But we could be reaching the point where the lessons being learned that I keep talking about show up in the standings. It has to happen at some point.

12. When it comes to the GM search, that’s probably the biggest question I get when I’m out and about these days. Don’t expect the Blue Jackets, or president of hockey operations John Davidson, to say too much until the process is completed. When will that be? If you want to talk to an executive whose team is in the Stanley Cup Final, you have to wait until that’s over in June, which is very fair from a competitive standpoint, but certainly does crunch the time line a bit. The Blue Jackets have been clear they’re open to all ideas when it comes to who they’ll hire, but you have to think experience will be a determining factor.

13. I say that because of a line I’ve used a few times here this spring – the Blue Jackets have bought the groceries, but now it’s time to find the right cook to make the meal. With six first-round picks in the last three drafts and one of the top-rated prospect pools in the NHL according to most observers, there’s a lot of young talent on the squad. Jarmo Kekalainen certainly did a good job there, but now it’s time to go from ingredient acquisition to meal prep. And if I’m hiring someone to do so, I want a chef who’s been involved in that previously.

14. Now that the draft lottery is over, we know the Blue Jackets will pick fourth in the upcoming NHL draft, to be held June 28-29 in the Vegas Sphere (pretty cool, eh?). Considering Columbus had a 64-plus percent chance to move down – that's just how the lottery works – I’ll take fourth and run with it. The word on this year’s draft is that while No. 1 seems fairly well settled – San Jose is expected to pick Boston University center Macklin Celebrini – the players after that will be ranked all over the board.

15. There's a little flavor for everyone among those who are expected to go after Celebrini, including capable centers (massive Canadian Cayden Lindstrom, crafty Finnish pivot Konsta Helenius), creative wings (Russian standout Ivan Demidov, Team USA sniper Cole Eiserman), two-way defensemen (Michigan State’s Artyom Levshunov, Denver’s Zeev Buium, as well as Canada’s Zayne Parekh and Sam Dickinson), as well as a massive defenseman in Russian Anton Silayev. It’s never a great idea to draft solely based on positional need – you never know what your roster is going to look like by the time these guys are consistent NHLers – but the Blue Jackets can be a bit choosy here if they think they want to focus on a certain area.

16. Ville Siren is one of the best in the business, and the Blue Jackets director of amateur scouting appears in line to continue to run this draft for the team no matter who ends up being hired as the GM. But if the new guy has some influence, one area I’d like to see the Jackets target is size. They have some in youngsters like Adam Fantilli, Dmitri Voronkov and David Jiricek, but such players in the pipeline as Gavin Brindley, Jordan Dumais, James Malatesta and Luca Pinelli aren’t the biggest guys. The NHL is more favorable than ever to smaller players, but as you get into the playoffs, you can see where size still plays a part. It’s something that’s missing a bit from the upper reaches of the CBJ pipeline.

17. Speaking of the draft, here’s the No. 4 overall picks going back a few years: Cale Makar (2017), Brady Tkachuk (2018), Bowen Byram (2019), Lucas Raymond (2020), Luke Hughes (2021), Shane Wright (2022) and Will Smith (2023). That’s a pretty good group, with some legit superstars in there.

18. Two areas that clearly stand out to me where the Blue Jackets must improve are defensively and on the power play. Let’s start with the former. I know scoring is up in the NHL the past few years, but it’s also reality that the Jackets’ three worst defensive seasons in team history have been the last three years. Columbus gave up 300 goals this season, tied with 2021-22 for the second-worst defensive performance in franchise history. That must improve for the Blue Jackets to be a contender. Help is on the way in the form of prospects David Jiricek, Denton Mateychuk and Stanislav Svozil, as well as the continued maturation of the team. But simply put, this has to be an area of focus this offseason.

19. Then there’s the power play, the continual bane of the existence for the Blue Jackets. Columbus finished 31st in the league this year at 15.1 percent and has had just one season in the 23-year history of the club where the power play clicked above 20 percent – a stunning stat considering 21 of the league’s 32 teams cleared that mark this year. Vincent said he would spend a significant portion of the offseason studying how to make it better, but I feel like everything should be on the table. The Blue Jackets use the same 1-3-1 setup most squads in the league utilize; is it time to try something different just to shake it up, or are the pieces there and the execution just needs to be significantly better? Somehow, someway, there has to be an answer.

20. The next section of this will be about some of the young players on the team and the improvement I saw from them throughout the season. For the Blue Jackets right now, nothing is more important than this, as when you commit to a rebuild, you have to see the young players get better. Down the line, I saw that in most of the players the CBJ think will be part of the core for years to come.

21. I wrote about this a while back, but isn’t it a shame that Adam Fantilli got hurt when he did? He showed a significant amount of skill for a 19-year-old in the NHL in the 49 games he did play, but I can’t help but feel like we got cheated out of the last 33 games now that he was starting to pick up the nuances of the game. The biggest adjustment, he said, was transitioning to playing three or four games a week after two per weekend in college. There’s so much for young players in the league to learn, and the schedule is certainly one of them. My guess, though, is he’s a quick learner and puts up a significant increase in production in year two.

22. Call me crazy, but is Yegor Chinakhov this close to being a 30- or 40-goal scorer in the NHL? I told a group of season ticket holders before the season that he was my breakout player who could very well score 30 this past season, and with 15 in 53 games, he was on pace for 25 if he could have stayed healthy. And I think there’s more where that came from, as this was the first season Chinakhov truly looked comfortable on North American ice. He’s one of the fastest players in the game and has one of the hardest shots, and I love the way he thinks the game too. Of all the Jackets’ young prospects with the exception of Fantilli, Chinakhov might have the highest ceiling.

23. It was a truly fascinating season for Kirill Marchenko, who improved on all his numbers from his rookie season – 23-19-42 is nothing to sneeze at for a second-year NHLer – yet it was clear as he did his exit interview that he considered his season to be a sophomore slump. If that’s a sophomore slump, I can’t wait for year three. Marchenko has proved to be a bit streaky so far as the NHL level, but the hot streaks are pretty darn good. If he can find a little more consistency, it’s hard to not imagine him being a year-in, year-out 30-goal scorer at this level.

24. I mentioned Cole Sillinger’s massive jump in ice time late in the season, but that was a clear indication the player had earned the trust of the coaching staff. And why not, as Sillinger clearly got better as the year went on. I’m very curious what his offensive ceiling is – he has reached double digits in goals twice in three seasons, pretty impressive for a player whose peers at age 20 are generally still playing junior or minor league hockey right now – but he clearly has the chops to be a stalwart defensive center. I think there’s more goal scoring in there, too, as he led the team in scoring chances at 5-on-5 per Natural Stat Trick. After a disastrous season last year – the old sophomore slump again – he really got back on track this year and looks like a key piece going forward.

25. The one player who caught the most eyes at the end of the season was James Malatesta. Already known as “Jimmy” among his peers, he had an impressive start, not showing any fear when he arrived in the NHL and playing a physical game with some speed and skill. A fifth-round pick who’s still just 20 years old, Malatesta had the skill to be one of the top players in junior hockey last year, but he’ll make it in the NHL based on his energy game. It wouldn’t surprise me if he ends up on one of those player lists of most annoying opponents in the game at some point. He’s a fun watch.

26. One of the best developments for the Blue Jackets in the second half of the season was the improved play of goaltenders Daniil Tarasov and Jet Greaves. Both put in extended stretches where they looked like capable NHL goalies and may have gone a long way in showing they are players to build around going forward. Tarasov is now age 25, about the age you want a goalie to reach potential No. 1 status, and his .935 save percentage over a 12-game stretch from February to April shows just how much talent and poise he has. I know he’s played only 45 NHL games – consistent health continues to be an issue – but he could be due for a full-season breakout.

27. Greaves, meanwhile, might have been the most improved player in the organization on the season. From the start of camp, he was the most consistent goaltender in the organization throughout the season, with his preparation and work evident in everything he does. Greaves hasn’t looked out of place at the NHL level in his cameos the past two seasons, and I see him as a consistent NHLer at some point. Maybe not next year – he'll still be just 23 most of the season, and there aren’t a ton of great NHL goalies at age 23 – but he’s on the right track. You can just tell how much players enjoy skating in front of him.

28. I think sometimes we don’t realize what we have in Zach Werenski. I wrote this feature story yesterday on his season, but it was a truly impressive campaign given he spent the first few months of the season coming back from a serious injury (and also barely dodged another in the season opener). I know he’s not perfect defensively – very few are – but he breaks up a lot more plays than people realize before they even happen, and offensively, he’s continued to show he’s one of the elite blueliners in the game. As the season went on, you saw he wasn’t afraid to be more vocal when the team needed it as well. Plus he’s one of the good guys in the game, a two-time winner now of the team’s Community MVP Award. I want to see this dude get rewarded with wins for what he’s brought to the table.

29. If there’s one player who gained my respect throughout the season, it was Mathieu Olivier. He got off to a tough start as he had to continue to rehab an injury from late last season into camp and the early throes of the campaign, but Olivier stuck it out and became not just a regular but a contributor as the year went on. He does work on his skill set, and what he brings to the table as far as work ethic, toughness and doing things the right way is impressive on a daily basis.

30. Last year in this space I wrote about the top prospects for the team who stood out during the season, and this year, there’s a clear and obvious choice for praise – Denton Mateychuk. The WHL Defenseman of the Year had as many games this season with zero points – eight – as he did with three-plus, and he’s led Moose Jaw to the championship series. Add in his term leading Canada at the World Juniors and he’s checked off every box at the junior level. This kid can play, and while he might need some time int he minors – what young defenseman doesn’t? - it seems like Mateychuk is going to be a big building block for years to come. The first-round pick is an exciting player to watch.

31. I had the chance to watch the Cleveland Monsters on Wednesday night, and it was great to see such a turnout for the squad with more than 12,000 fans in attendance. I grew up going to games in Cleveland and remember playoff games being largely empty affairs, as people mostly got the schedule at the start of the season, took their kids to a weekend game or two and then stopped paying attention when the postseason came around. That's not the case anymore. The Monsters have built a huge following in Cleveland, and the crowd was into the game the entire time Wednesday night. I’d expect the same tonight for Game 4. This is a hockey state.

32. As for the Monsters, it’ll be interesting to see how far this team can go. One thing that stands out about the team is how much they like each other – Trent Vogelhuber’s squad has built a brotherhood where the players clearly root for one another. They need that, too, as the squad is a bit shorthanded going into the postseason thanks to injuries. Yet, they play a gutty game and seem to thrive in tight situations. There wasn’t much separating the teams in the AHL North this season before the Monsters swept the final weekend to take the division title, so it won’t be easy, but Cleveland has a chance to make a deep run here.

33. Lastly, a final thanks to everyone out there who read my work this season, and honestly thanks if you read this piece this far. One of the best things about having this opportunity is interacting with Blue Jackets fans, and the 5th Line proves itself time and time again with some of the best support in the NHL. One day, I know this fanbase and city will be rewarded for its unflagging dedication to getting behind the Blue Jackets.

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