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Young guns: CBJ's core blossomed this season

Blue Jackets have strong future behind players whose best years are ahead of them

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

In an NHL that gets younger and faster seemingly every day, being the youngest team in the league isn't the handicap it likely once was. 

Just ask the youngest team in the league. 

The Columbus Blue Jackets entered the 2018-19 season as the youngest in the NHL with an average age of 25 years, 24 days old, and ended up making the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time. 

And one of the major reasons was that the youngest Blue Jackets players performed like veterans. Such names as Pierre-Luc Dubois, Zach Werenski, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Alexander Wennberg, Markus Nutivaara, Seth Jones and Josh Anderson were key parts of the roster while spending the season at 24 years of age or younger. 

That's one reason why general manager Jarmo Kekalainen doesn't seem tremendously worried about what will happen in this upcoming offseason despite the fact a number of key cogs to the team are set to enter free agency. 

"We have a very strong core in place that are all going to be here for a long time," Kekalainen said. "There are a lot of exciting things going on." 

Up front, two players who had to excite the Blue Jackets and their fans with their play down the stretch were Anderson and Bjorkstrand. Head coach John Tortorella called Anderson the team's best forward late in the season as he had a two-month stretch where he had an 11-11-22 line in a 26-game span. Bjorkstrand was simply on fire down the stretch with nine goals in the last 10 games, including a six-game streak with a goal in each game.  

A unique power forward with speed, size and skill, Anderson finished with a career highs of 27 goals and 47 points at age 24, prompting Kekalainen to say, "What a beast," at his season-ending press conference. 

"I've been in this league now for three years," Anderson said. "Definitely got a bit of confidence and I know what type of player I am and what I can be. I still think I have more to give and so It's going to come in the summer, work hard, get back at it and have a great year next year."

Bjorkstrand, meanwhile, looked like a totally different player down the stretch after notching just three goals in the first 30 games and even being a healthy scratch at times. By the end of the season, he had 23 goals and was earning first-line minutes at times.  

As he's blessed with one of the quickest releases and most dangerous shots in the NHL, it's not hard to project Bjorkstrand, now 24, as a potential consistent 30-goal scorer.  

Video: TBL@CBJ, Gm3: Bjorkstrand wires home power-play goal

"I'm glad he's scoring, but this all started two, two and a half months ago as far as his work habits," Tortorella said of Bjorkstrand late in the season. "He's so much stronger on the puck. I think he's willing to be in the battles. I just think his work habits are more consistent and the puck follows him. He's a dangerous shooter, we know that, but he's done the other things to get more opportunity." 

Then there's Dubois and Alexandre Texier, two players who couldn't legally drink a beer this past season but look like foundational pieces for years to come. Dubois, in fact, has already proved that, as at 20 years old this past season he put up a 27-34-61 line to make him the second-highest scorer in the NHL this year at age 20 or younger behind just Elias Pettersson. 

Texier, meanwhile, burst onto the scene late in the season after the 19-year-old was the leading scorer for his KalPa team in Finland. The 19-year-old joined AHL Cleveland late in the season and had five goals in seven games, then scored twice in the Game 4 win over Tampa Bay that clinched the first-round win for the Jackets. 

On the back end, Werenski and Jones each had seasons of growth before coming together to form a No. 1 defensive pairing that Tortorella depended on throughout the postseason to match against top lines. 

For Jones, the fight for the three-time All-Star at age 24 was consistency, which he found down the stretch while making observers around the league take notice that he should be in the Norris Trophy discussion for years to come.  

Video: CBJ@TBL, Gm1: Jones' PPG puts Blue Jackets ahead

Werenski, meanwhile, spent his age-21 season battling to find more of his defensive game. Always an elite offensive talent along the blue line, Werenski entered his third season tasked with getting better in his own zone by the coaching staff. It was a rocky road at first as the Michigan native fought to find it, but once he did he was able to pair with Jones on that stalwart pairing.  

"They're just good players," Tortorella said when asked about their standout play in the postseason. "It's a big stage and they're just trying to take responsibility and play the best they can." 

There could be an even younger flair to the team a year from now. Kekalainen has repeatedly spoken highly of 19-year-olds Emil Bemström, who led the SHL in goals, and Liam Foudy, last year's first-round pick, and they could prove to be ready.  

Such other youngsters as Eric Robinson (23), Kole Sherwood (22) and Kevin Stenlund (22) got their feet wet with the Jackets this season, and the goaltending tandem next year could very well be a pair of 25-year-olds in Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.  

"With our core that's here and I know is going to be here, I'm really confident in our group," Werenski said. "We have a pretty young team and I think this year we took a huge step forward as a team in terms of experience and how we have to play. I'm really confident looking forward and looking forward to the future." 

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