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31 in 31

Three questions facing Columbus Blue Jackets

Korpisalo as viable goalie option, Atkinson production areas of focus

by Craig Merz / NHL.com Independent Correspondent

NHL.com is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 31 teams throughout August. Today, three important questions facing the Columbus Blue Jackets.

 

[Blue Jackets 31 IN 31: Season preview | Top prospects | Fantasy breakdown | Behind the Numbers]

 

1. Who will replace goalie Sergei Bobrovsky?

When Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner voted as the best goalie in the NHL (2013, 2017), agreed to a seven-year contract with the Florida Panthers on July 1, Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen knew there would be concerns about his replacements, Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.

"We feel we have two young goaltenders that have great potential," Kekalainen said that same day.

Korpisalo was 41-31-9 with a 2.89 goals-against average and .907 save percentage as Bobrovsky's backup the past four seasons. It's the 25-year-old's job to lose.

"With the exception of Carey Price and Martin Brodeur and a few others, almost every No. 1 goalie in the National Hockey League started as a No. 2, and when they got the opportunity to be No. 1, they took advantage of it," Kekalainen said.

Merzlikins was named the top goalie in the National League, Swtizerland's top professional league, in 2016 and 2018. The 25-year-old, who plays on the Latvia national team, must adjust to the North American rinks.

Veini Vehvilainen helped Finland win the 2019 IIHF World Championship and has played in his home country throughout his career.

"He's going to be the wild card probably," Kekalainen said of the 22-year-old.

Video: 31 in 31: Columbus Blue Jackets 2019-20 preview

 

2. How will Cam Atkinson do without Artemi Panarin?

Their chemistry grew in two seasons before Panarin signed with the New York Rangers on July 1, but Atkinson did well prior to Panarin's arrival in Columbus too.

Atkinson had 115 points (62 goals, 53 assists) and was plus-5 in 163 games the two seasons before Panarin was traded to the Blue Jackets from the Chicago Blackhawks on June 23, 2017. He had 115 points (65 goals, 50 assists) and was plus-22 in 145 games with Panarin as a teammate.

Panarin took attention away from Atkinson, but if center Pierre-Luc Dubois continues his development and a suitable replacement at left wing -- possibly Gustav Nyquist, who signed with Columbus on July 1 -- can be found, then Atkinson should continue to produce at a high level.

 

3. How will the Blue Jackets retain their top players moving forward?

They are one of seven teams to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past three seasons, a fact Kekalainen said makes them attractive to players and will keep them competitive.

"Why wouldn't you want to play in Columbus for the Columbus Blue Jackets if you care about winning and you can play in a great city and play for a great ownership in great facilities?" he said.

Atkinson said he enjoys playing in Columbus.

"You want guys who want to be here, want to live here, and it's amazing how that can take your team to another level," he said. "Guys really invested in the city and the fans, and they invested in us back. That marriage is what brings you together and bonds you to this team."

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