NHL Hot Seat Radar: Columbus Blue Jackets
This is the newest file for The THN Hot Seat, an ongoing series of THN.com columns where we identify one member of each NHL team who’ll face massive pressure in the 2022-23 season. The Hot Seat person may be an NHL player, GM, coach, or team owner. In today’s file, we’re looking at the Columbus Blue Jackets.
BLUE JACKETS HOT SEAT: JOHNNY GAUDREAU, LEFT WINGER
WHY: Aft first glance, you might tend to believe the Blue Jackets’ defense corps and goaltenders should collectively be on the hot seat this coming season, as Columbus allowed a whopping 300 goals-against in the 2021-22 campaign; only New Jersey (307), Detroit (312), Arizona (313), and Montreal (319) allowed more goals in the entire NHL, and that’s not a great group of teams to be associated with at the moment.
And indeed, it needs to be said that the Blue Jackets do indeed need much better performances from goalies Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo and from a defense corps that is relatively young and inexperienced now includes journeyman blueliner Erik Gudbranson. However, sometimes money drives the spotlight, which will be the case in Ohio this coming season. Nobody expected the Blue Jackets would be able to sign superstar winger Johnny Gaudreau; indeed, there was a fear bubbling in the media and fan base that Columbus would have a tough time convincing sniper forward Patrik Laine to commit to the franchise long-term, let alone compete for the best unrestricted free agent on the market this summer.
Instead, Laine did re-sign a long-term (four years, $34.8 million) deal with the Jackets, and Gaudreau shocked the hockey industry by choosing Columbus and a seven-year, $68.25-million contract that makes him the team’s highest-paid player at $9.75-million per year. Suddenly, a Columbus offense that wasn’t half-bad – they finished 12th in the league in goals for (averaging 3.15 goals-for per game) – got a huge jolt in capability and expectations this season.
That will be the thing for Gaudreau for the next seven seasons: he’s now the centerpiece of the Blue Jackets’ offense and overall play. By choosing Columbus, he has endorsed GM Jarmo Kekalainen’s blueprint for Stanley Cup success, and now there is every belief this team is ready to challenge for a playoff berth in the highly-competitive Metropolitan Division. Sure, he’s coming off a phenomenal season, one in which he generated 40 goals and 115 points, but Gaudreau wasn’t the sole guy in the spotlight in Calgary. He shared it with fellow former Flame Matthew Tkachuk. In Columbus, he’ll share it to a degree with No. 1 defenseman Zach Werenski (who makes only $166,667 less than Gaudreau will this year and for the next six years), but right now, Gaudreau is the shiny new toy everyone will have their eyes on.
It’s not likely the Blue Jackets’ defense will steal a lot of games from opponents this year, and consequently, Columbus’ offense is going to have to drive the bus for the team and score well over three goals per game to ensure victories and propel them up the Metro standings. Gaudreau gives them a top-six lineup that’s a legitimate threat, and a mixture of young talent (first-liner Laine and second-line center Jack Roslovic) and proven quality veterans (second-liners Jakub Voracek and Gustav Nyqvist, and first-line center Boone Jenner). Now they’ve to go out and prove this new group can do some damage, and Gaudreau’s the guy being paid to lead the way.
If Gaudreau experiences a drought on offense, the way he did in Calgary in 2019-20, when he posted *only* 40 assists and 58 points, there will be considerable disappointment in Columbus. He is now locked in as the Blue Jackets’ most important player, and there’s a lot riding on his shoulders this season. The way he responds could well be the difference between them making the playoffs for the first time in three years, and another year of letdowns.