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An early look at what's next for the Blue Jackets

Much of Columbus' core set to return after first playoff series victory

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

When the Columbus Blue Jackets take to the ice some time in October to begin the 2019-20 season, they will be a much different team.  

Of course, every team is from season to season, but this figures to be a particularly interesting offseason for the Blue Jackets, who have a number of free agents-to-be on the roster from a team that advanced to the Stanley Cup Playoffs second round for the first time ever. 

That certainly injected some momentum into the franchise and some excitement into the fan base, and Columbus figures to continue to have a strong team no matter what happens with the team's free agents. 

"We have our core in place," general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said at the trade deadline. "It's going to be in place no matter what happens with the (unrestricted free agents). We have a lot of good players. We're going to have a good team next year no matter what happens with the UFAs." 

Even though we're five months away from the next time the Blue Jackets will take the ice for regular-season hockey, that doesn't mean there's not plenty to already say about the upcoming campaign. 

Here's an early look at what's next for the Blue Jackets. 

Free agency coming

One of the enduring storylines of the 2018-19 season was the pending free agency of leading scorer Artemi Panarin and top goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Then, at the deadline, Kekalainen added four more UFAs-to-be in center Matt Duchene, winger Ryan Dzingel, defenseman Adam McQuaid and goaltender Keith Kinkaid. 

Those six players are all set to hit the market this offseason along with Mark Letestu, while the Blue Jackets have nine players who suited up this year in Union Blue who will be restricted free agents: forwards Eric Robinson, Lukas Sedlak, Markus Hannikainen and Sonny Milano; defensemen Ryan Murray, Zach Werenski, Scott Harrington and Adam Clendening; and goaltender Joonas Korpisalo. In addition, goalie Elvis Merzlikins is a restricted free agent. 

So there's a lot to do right there and currently about $30 million in cap space to use according to the website  

Much has been written about Panarin and Bobrovsky this season, but both were noncommittal about their futures in the wake of the team's Game 6 loss to Boston on Tuesday night. 

"It's too early to say," Bobrovsky said. "I don't think about my future right now. … It's too early to discuss." 

Meanwhile, Russian reporter Anton Poltyrev served as an interpreter for questions to Panarin during postgame interviews, with the Russian standout saying multiple times he appreciated the fan base and the opportunit given by the organization. "He feels empty right now. He can't think of that," Poltyrev said. "They just lost the game and that's all he's thinking about." 

Meanwhile, Duchene has spoken many times about how much he's enjoyed his time in Columbus since arriving from Ottawa at the deadline, but he will likely explore his options as well. 

"Contract stuff should be the furthest thing from all of our minds right now because this is such a great opportunity for us," he said in the midst of the Boston series. "I couldn't give a hell about what is going to happen in the summer right now for me." 

Who's back

At the same time, a good chunk of the team's core is locked into place. 

Leading goal scorer Cam Atkinson has six more years on his deal, so he's not going anywhere, and Seth Jones figures to be a Norris Trophy contender next season and is inked through 2021-22.  

Many of the team's exciting young forwards -- from the 20-and-under crowd of Pierre-Luc Dubois and Alexandre Texier to burgeoning standouts Oliver Bjorkstrand and Josh Anderson -- are signed as well for next year. 

Captain Nick Foligno has two more years on his deal, while Brandon Dubinsky, Alexander Wennberg, Boone Jenner, Riley Nash, David Savard, Markus Nutivaara, Vladislav Gavrikov and Dean Kukan are all under contract.  

That's 10 forwards and five defensemen who were major or playoff contributors who are already in the fold, while Andrew Peeke is also signed after inking a late deal at the end of his Notre Dame season. 

Peeke is among a group of young prospects who could make the jump to the NHL level next season, a list that includes Milano, Liam Foudy, Kevin Stenlund, Emil Bemström and Kole Sherwood. 

Potential strengths 

Goal scoring: Columbus set a franchise record for goals this season and should be able to keep putting the puck in the net next season. Of the team's top 13 goal scorers this past season, 10 are under contract for next season and Werenski is a restricted free agent likely to return. That leaves Panarin and Anthony Duclair, who was traded to Ottawa at the deadline after scoring 11 goals for the Blue Jackets. 

Defensive depth: The injuries sustained by the Blue Jackets late in the season and into the playoffs on the blue line were unfortunate, but it did allow the team's depth to grow as such players as Kukan, Clendening and Harrington had to step up and gain valuable playoff experience. Add in Gavrikov, who didn't look out of place at all in his two-game playoff cameo, and the Jackets should have depth at the NHL level.  

Questions to answer 

Goaltending: At the moment, the Blue Jackets organization has two goaltenders under contract: Matiss Kivlenieks, who had a tough, injury-plagued campaign in Cleveland, and Daniil Tarasov, a 19-year-old Russian who just signed a three-year deal. Obviously this will need to get figured out, as neither appears ready for the NHL level in 2019-20. 

Power play: Columbus finished 28th in the NHL in power-play percentage this season, and the team's man advantage has been more down than up over the past three seasons except for the start of the 2016-17 campaign. This is one spot the Blue Jackets need to get better, and things did improve after the addition of Martin St. Louis as a consultant.  

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