COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The Columbus Blue Jackets played through a rash of injuries to put together another respectable season and earn a franchise-record fourth straight playoff appearance.
But they’re going to need some help — specifically, some goal-scoring help - and likely will have to go shopping on the trade market for some important pieces to the puzzle.
Columbus had some difficulty getting pucks in the net this season, ranking 28th out of 31 teams in goals scored in 70 regular season games before the coronavirus break. The Blue Jackets were slowed by injuries to some top players but also weren’t the same team without Artemi Panarin, who signed with the New York Rangers as a free agent, recorded 95 points and became a finalist for league MVP.
General manager Jarmo Kekalainen is expected to go hunting for another top-six forward, a goal-scorer who can complement veterans like No. 1 center Pierre-Luc Dubois and the cadre of emerging rookies. One of the Blue Jackets’ two proven goalies - Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins - could be of interest to other teams looking to make a trade.
Kekalainen wouldn’t talk specifics Friday but said the roster will be evaluated up and and down.
“You know it’s easy to be the armchair GM or whatever they call it and say ‘trade this guy for that guy,’” he said. “There’s 30 other teams in this league and they’re all pretty smart people and they don’t just give away their players. It’s a little harder to make a trade than a lot of people imagine. But we’re going to have all those conversations.”
The season was messy for the Blue Jackets, with more than 400 man-games lost to injuries, but it also may have been one of the most masterful coaching jobs in the long career of John Tortorella, who by the halfway point was plugging in rookies to help keep Columbus in the hunt and cajoling everybody to step up the effort.
“We’ve got a good group of guys, and there is a belief in that locker room,” said Tortorella, a finalist for NHL coach of the year. “It didn’t start in the bubble (in the playoffs), it started when the season started. I’ll put this team up against anybody as far as how hard they worked. And I really thought they bought into the mental part of the game as far as playing as a team, as far as being selfless and giving for the team.”
The Blue Jackets managed to work themselves into the second wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference when the season was paused in March with a dozen games left. With most of the lineup healthy again, they entered the playoff bubble in Toronto and took down the Maple Leafs in a best-of-five qualifying series but were eliminated in the best-of-seven first round by the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games.
In Game 5 on Wednesday, they rallied from a 2-0 deficit to take a 4-2 third-period lead but surrendered it in the last eight minutes of the game and then lost in overtime.
“We did so many good things in that series,” Kekalainen said. “It’s a bitter pill to swallow.”
Columbus will have a proven everyday goalie next year in either Korpisalo or Merzlikins. Rookies who made an impact this season, including Emil Bemstrom, Eric Robinson, Alexandre Texier and Liam Foudy, are likely to be a big part of the team’s immediate future.
Captain Nick Foligno said chemistry had a lot to do with it. Columbus was all but counted out after losing Panarin and star goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to free agency during the summer of 2019.
“I’ve said that since day one, the amount of trust and belief we have in each other, I think it far outweighs anything else going on in the league,” Foligno said. “We care about each other, so it’s about finding that next level to become a championship team.”
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