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31 in 31

Inside look at Columbus Blue Jackets

Atkinson, returning core maintain optimism despite key offseason departures

by Craig Merz / NHL.com Independent Correspondent

31 in 31: Columbus Blue Jackets

31 in 31: Columbus Blue Jackets 2019-20 preview

NHL.com's Dan Rosen and NHL Network's Mike Johnson discuss the biggest questions facing the Columbus Blue Jackets for the 2019-20 season

  • 06:20 •

NHL.com is providing in-depth roster, prospect and fantasy analysis for each of its 31 teams throughout August. Today, the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Columbus Blue Jackets remain optimistic that they can make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a fourth straight season despite losing several key players as free agents.

"The core we have in the room, I think there's something special, not just the leaders but the young guys, the way they're developing to be great players," defenseman Seth Jones said.

 

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The Blue Jackets are one of seven NHL teams to qualify for the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, including advancing to the second round for the first time in their history last season by sweeping the Presidents' Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference First Round. The Blue Jackets were defeated by the Boston Bruins in six games in the second round.

Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (Florida Panthers) and forwards Artemi Panarin (New York Rangers), Matt Duchene (Nashville Predators) and Ryan Dzingel (Carolina Hurricanes) were among the players who left as unrestricted free agents.

"That's part of the business, right?" forward Cam Atkinson said. "Ultimately, those guys get to make their own decisions, but we know what we have in this room. We have a winning team and a winning culture.

"The core is the most important part. You can add and mix pieces in. That allows us to be that competitive team every year, so I'm really happy there's a lot of years left with that core."

Atkinson, who scored an NHL career-high 41 goals last season, returns along with forwards Nick Foligno, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Josh Anderson, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Boone Jenner, and defensemen Jones, Ryan Murray and David Savard. Defenseman Zach Werenski remains unsigned as a restricted free agent.

There is a mix of youth and veteran experience in the projected lineup. The Blue Jackets could go even younger by adding forward prospects Alexandre Texier, who turns 20 on Sept. 13, and Emil Bemstrom, 20.

Video: Top five plays of 2018-19: Atkinson

"We have a pretty young team, and I think [last season] we took a huge step forward as a team in terms of experience and how we have to play," Werenski said.

They also learned how to have success while dealing with adversity, like the season-long speculation surrounding the futures of Bobrovsky and Panarin, who set a Columbus record with 87 points (28 goals, 59 assists) in 2018-19.

"If you can have less drama, great, right?" Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "But sometimes it's good for the team to go through some adversity, maybe some type of conflict and air things out and move forward to be a tighter group because of it."

One thing missing is an experienced goalie. Bobrovsky spent the past seven seasons as the No. 1 in Columbus and twice was voted the Vezina Trophy winner as the best goalie in the NHL (2013, 2017). He'll be replaced by Joonas Korpisalo, 25, and rookie Elvis Merzlikins, 25. Korpisalo has started 81 NHL games, none in the playoffs, and Merzlikins has not made his NHL debut.

Set to establish himself as a top-six forward with the Blue Jackets is Gustav Nyquist, who signed a four-year contract July 1 after he had an NHL career-high 60 points (22 goals, 38 assists) for the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks last season. He has quickly bought into the Blue Jackets' theme of proving doubters wrong.

"I'm sure the media will talk about [the players who left], but we want to prove that there are some other guys here," Nyquist said. "I'm one of the guys who will try to come in and fill those holes. I'm sure everybody will be excited to keep on building on what they've done in the last few years."

Columbus has won 142 games since the start of the 2016-17 season, fourth in the NHL behind Tampa Bay (158), the Washington Capitals (152) and Boston (143). There are positions to fill and questions to answer, but the Blue Jackets do not plan on taking steps backward this season. They are almost defiant in that regard.

"I don't believe in one individual or two individuals, whether they're coming or going, that are going to be the only difference makers in how a team does," Kekalainen said. "I believe in the team, I really do."

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