COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
COACH: Pascal Vincent (first-time NHL head coach), hired Sept. 17 after the forced resignation of Mike Babcock amid allegations of violating the privacy of players by asking to see their cell phone photos.
SEASON OPENER: Oct. 12 vs. Philadelphia.
DEPARTURES: D Gavin Bayreuther, C Lane Pederson, G Michael Hutchinson, F Joona Luoto.
ADDITIONS: D Damon Severson, D Ivan Provorov, C Adam Fantilli (third pick in the 2023 NHL draft).
GOALIES: Elvis Merzlikins (7-18-2, 4.23 goals-against average, .876 save percentage), Daniil Tarasov (4-11-1, 3.91 GAA, .892 save percentage).
LAST SEASON: It couldn’t have gone much worse for second-year coach Brad Larsen, who was let go after the season. Injuries to key players plagued the Blue Jackets, including top-line forward Patrik Laine and defenseman Zach Werenski. Columbus lost a franchise-record 563 man-games to injuries. The Blue Jackets limped to the finish with a record of 25-48-9, last place in the Metropolitan Division.
STRENGTHS: With everyone healthy again, Columbus will try to build around top-line forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Laine, along with Werenski and some new players brought in to bolster the defense. Expectations are high for Fantilli, who turns 19 on opening night after his standout college career at Michigan. He became only the third freshman to win college hockey’s Hobey Baker player of the year award, joining Jack Eichel (2015) and Hall of Famer Paul Kariya (1993).
WEAKNESSES: The Blue Jackets gave up a lot of goals last season, second worst in the NHL in goals allowed per game (4.01) and shots against (35.4) and tied for 30th in 5-on-5 save percentage (.901). Merzlikins, a fan favorite when he debuted with Columbus in 2019, took a dive from 27-23-7 in 2021-22 to 7-18-2 — with a league-worst .876 save percentage — last season. A healthy Werenski and the addition of veteran defenders Provorov and Severson could help.
WHAT TO EXPECT: If the Blue Jackets can get past all the drama involving Babcock just before camp and stay healthy, they should be better. How much better depends on how Fantilli fits in among the veteran forwards and whether the lines can play together enough without injury to gel. Columbus will need to play more minutes out its own end. That starts with the rebuilt defense and Merzlikins, who will need to have a significantly better season.
PLAYER TO WATCH: The excitement around the drafting of Fantilli is palpable in Columbus. The belief is that his skills give him the potential to be one of the best players in franchise history. He’s drawn rave reviews in camp skating alongside Laine and Alexandre Texier. First-year coach Vincent, who has been on the coaching staff since 2021 after years with the Winnipeg organization, will have to figure out how to the manage expectations around the gifted teenager.
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