The Jackets endured a tumultuous offseason in which it hired and parted ways with coach Mike Babcock in less than three months. Babcock agreed to step down in September, days after he was accused of violating players’ privacy by asking to inspect pictures on their phones.
Associate coach Pascal Vincent was promoted, signing a two-year contract. This is Vincent’s first crack at being an NHL head coach, but he has more than 30 years of coaching experience. He takes over a team that finished tied for the second-worst record in the NHL. The Blue Jackets have missed the playoffs three years in a row since mutually parting ways with Tortorella. The Athletic has Columbus pegged to finish with 75 points, last in the Metro Division and with a 1% chance of qualifying for the playoffs.
The Jackets have the third-youngest team in the NHL for a second straight season, with an average age of 25.8.
Returning are seven-year All-Star Johnny Gaudreau, standout right winger Patrik Laine, and two young but talented left wingers in Cole Sillinger and Kirill Marchenko. The offense will look much different to start the season with Laine projected to play center.
“I wouldn’t even be trying it if I thought I could just survive and be average. I really think that I can be a really good center,” Laine said. “I know I can compete with those guys, and that’s why I want to do this in the first place.”
Gaudreau led the team in points (74) and assists (53) last season and could be even better if the Laine experiment works. Laine missed 27 of 82 games, the second season in a row he had played in fewer than 60.
“We had some glimpses together last year,” Gaudreau said. “We’ve done a good job of playing well together in the preseason and he’s doing a great job at center.”
The Blue Jacket who will play on that front line with them remains a mystery. Vincent can choose from Cole Sillinger, the No. 12 pick in 2021, and the 23-year-old Marchenko, which had a successful rookie season. No player in Blue Jackets history scored as many goals in their first season as Marchenko, who only needed 53 games to break Pierre Luc-Dubois’ 20-goal record. The Russian native finished third on the team in goals despite beginning his NHL career in December.
The new season features 2023 No. 3 overall pick Adam Fantilli, who will celebrate his 19th birthday in his NHL debut against Philadelphia. The Michigan center adds needed depth at center for the Blue Jackets, who were extremely thin there last season.
Along with Laine at center, the Blue Jackets have captain Boone Jenner, Fantilli, Dublin native Sean Kuraly, Sillinger, Alexandre Texier and Justin Danforth.
On defense, they acquired free agents Ivan Provorov and Damon Severson to shore up a back line hindered by injury.
Defense needs to step up
Two seasons ago, the Blue Jackets allowed a franchise-record 297 goals. They were even more dismal last season, allowing 329 goals.
It starts with the goaltender. Six goalies made an appearance for the last season. Elvis Merzlikins’ first year under a five-year, $27 million contract was underwhelming. He allowed an NHL-worst 4.23 goals per game for goalies who played at least 25 games, and his save percentage of .876 was the second-worst in the league.
Merzlikins missed more than a dozen games for various reasons: injury, illness and personal matters, but his performance came down to a lack of execution.
In front of him, veteran defenseman Zach Werenski played 13 games after suffering a torn labrum. Werenski is also an offensive presence as he’s scored at least 10 goals in five of his seven seasons. The Jackets are bolstered by the addition of Provorov and Severson, who have 16 seasons of combined NHL experience.
“We have to set the standard higher, and we have to make sure younger guys know [the last two years] isn’t acceptable,” Werenski said.
Also hurting last season, Nick Blankenburg missed two months because of a broken foot and Jake Bean was lost for the season in December for shoulder surgery. Injuries were a trend for the Jackets, who accrued more than 560 man-games lost to injury. At the All-Star break, they had 319 man-games lost. The next closest team was Toronto, with 199.
“We’re not far off,” Gaudreau said. “Even with where we ended up in the standings with the guys that you’re missing for the whole year and half the year and 20 games, 30 games, those are huge players and important players on our team.”