COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Hockey season is back as the Blue Jackets begin their 22nd season Wednesday night at the Carolina Hurricanes.

It could be the season the Jackets return to the Stanley Cup playoffs after missing out the past two seasons. Excitement is high after the front office added one of the top forwards in the NHL and re-signed some key contributors.

“We all have expectations of playoffs,” said Brad Larsen, who is entering his second season. “The biggest thing for me is our standard. It has got to raise. As a group, the city is excited and they should be excited.”

How Johnny Gaudreau slots in

“It was somewhere I had circled on my list for a while now.”

That is what six-time NHL all-star forward Johnny Gaudreau said at his introductory news conference in July about Columbus.

The former Calgary Flames star decided to join the Blue Jackets and became their biggest free-agent signing, agreeing to a seven-year, $68.25 million deal. The 29-year-old from Salem, New Jersey, nicknamed “Johnny Hockey,” established himself as one of the NHL’s best scorers in his eight seasons in Calgary.

Gaudreau is fresh off his most productive season, with 115 points (40 goals, 75 assists) after playing every regular season game. His addition to the Jackets’ top forward line can have a huge impact and give the team a memorable offense. Gaudreau will likely line up with center Boone Jenner and winger Patrik Laine, with Laine re-signing after a 56-point season.

Despite trading longtime winger and last season’s top goalscorer, Oliver Bjorkstrand, to the Seattle Kraken, with Gaudreau joining Laine, Jenner, Jack Roslovic, and company, don’t sleep on the potential of the Jackets offense.

Another thing to keep an eye on is the second seasons of 19-year-olds Cole Sillinger and Kent Johnson. Sillinger played 79 games and scored 16 goals as a rookie for his hometown team, and Johnson is fresh off a successful showing at the world junior championships for Canada, scoring the title-winning goal in overtime against Finland.

What about the defense?

Things didn’t go well for the Blue Jackets last season. They set a record by allowing 297 goals, fifth-most in the NHL, and they allowed shots at a high clip, conceding 35.2 a game, second-most behind the Arizona Coyotes by 0.3.

“We have such a skilled forward group that we’re going to put pucks in the net, so yeah, for me, it kind of sucks, obviously, when you give up that many goals,” defenseman Zach Werenski said. “It’s just learning from it and trying to be better.”

The defense does have a key addition, also from Calgary, with the signing of Erik Gudbranson. The 30-year-old signed a free-agent contract for four years and $16 million to join his fifth team in the last four seasons.

Gudbranson could pair with Zach Werenski on the first line with a crop of young defensemen behind them, a group that includes Adam Boqvist, 22, Nick Blankenburg, 24, and Jake Bean, 24.

“I’m gonna mix it up,” Larsen said. “We’re gonna try some different combos back there.”

In goal, Elvis Merzlikins returns and is expected to get the most starts. The 28-year-old earned 56 starts in 2021-22, allowing a little over three goals per game.

Challenging first month

After Wednesday’s opener, the Blue Jackets will have their home opener Friday against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Nationwide Arena. This is the start of a grueling first month of the season.

Of the team’s first 14 games, eight of them are against playoff teams. After the Lightning, the Blue Jackets will play St. Louis, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Boston, and two games against the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche. Those two games will be played in Finland on Nov. 4 and 5.

Statistical website FiveThiryEight is projecting the Blue Jackets as having a 28% chance of making the playoffs, projecting a goal differential of minus-20. To beat those projections, they will have to prove themselves as playoff contenders early against some of the best teams in the league.