Knowing Thy Enemy: Columbus Blue Jackets S.W.O.T. Analysis

Next up is the Jarmo Kekalainen-led Columbus Blue Jackets. Sens Nation doesn’t often worry about what's going on in the battleground state of Ohio. However, with some of the moves that were made in the off-season, it's clear that Kekalainen views his team as a playoff NOW squad.


Off-Season Moves:

  1. Signed F Jack Roslovic to a two-year $8 million contract extension

  2. Signed F Johnny Gaudreau to a seven-year $68.25 million UFA deal

  3. Signed F Patrik Laine to a four-year $34.8 million contract extension

  4. Signed D Erik Gudbranson to a four-year $16 million contract extension

  5. Signed F Oliver Bjorkstrand to a five-year $27 million contract extension

  6. Traded Oliver Bjorkstrand to Seattle for third and fourth round picks in 2023 draft

Remaining cap space: $1,466,667.00


Johnny Gaudreau accepts his new Blue Jackets' jersey from head coach Brad Larsen

Here's the roster for the Blue Jackets, heading into training camp.


Left Wing Center Right Wing

Johnny Gaudreau Gustav Nyquist Patrik Laine

Sean Kuraly Boone Jenner (inj.) Jakub Voracek

Eric Robinson Jack Roslovic Yegor Chinakhov

Kent Johnson Cole Sillinger Justin Danforth

Emil Bemstrom


Left Defense Right Defense

Zach Werenski Adam Boqvist

Vladislav Gavrikov Erik Gudbranson

Jake Bean Andrew Peeke

Gavin Bayreuther Nick Blankenburg


Goaltending

Elvis Merzlikins

Joonas Korpisalo


General Manager, Jarmo Kekalainen, made the biggest splash in free agency by locking up former Calgary Flame, Johnny Gaudreau, to a seven-year deal worth lower than what most expected was to be fair market value. He then locked up the enigmatic but proven sniper Patrik Laine to a four-year extension. He followed that up with a Marian Hossa sign and trade with Oliver Bjorkstrand being signed to a five-year extension before being shipped to Seattle for draft picks in an effort to become cap compliant.


Despite losing Bjorkstrand for nothing that could help him now, Kekalainen has assembled a solid roster that no one in Sens Nation should sleep on. The Blue Jackets were in the hunt for a playoff spot last year until they got decimated by injuries to Boone Jenner, Patrik Laine and Adam Boqvist in March.


Here is the S.W.O.T. analysis for the Blue Jackets.


Strengths


The Blue Jackets have an impressive defense core that no one is really talking about.


Zach Werenski is to the Blue Jackets what Thomas Chabot is to the Senators.


They have additional scoring punch from the back end with Adam Boqvist and Vladislav Gavrikov. All three are 26 or younger.


Former Sens Nation whipping boy, Erik Gudbranson, resurrected his career nicely in Calgary last season and took his act to Columbus on a four-year UFA deal.


Jake Bean was a steal out of Carolina which rounds out a pretty impressive top five. The Senators haven’t yet identified a clear top four.


They have a solid one/two punch in the crease with Merzlikins and Korpisalo and the starter could go either way. All that is known for sure is they are both capable of stealing a game and a heavy workload. Sound familiar?


Weaknesses


The Blue Jackets are deep down the middle with center icemen who can play and be effective at the NHL level. They don’t have anyone I would classify as a pure #1.


The ones they do have are more experienced than the Senators middle of Stutzle, Norris, Pinto and Kastelic/Gambrell, with the noted exception of Cole Sillinger, who appears to have been a steal at #11 in the 2021 draft. Senators’ fans will remind Pierre Dorion of this if #10 selection Tyler Boucher doesn’t pan out.


Despite the lack of a clear #1 center, it appears that they believe salvation lies within. Hard to blame them with Sillinger and Kent Johnson developing in-house.


Opportunities


The Senators have more cap flexibility than the Blue Jackets. It’s unclear how or if they intend to use that opportunity to better themselves or save to allocate for signings of players like Zub to extensions for next season. However, Kekalainen has some room to make something happen if his team is in a position to make a run.


The Senators also have more upside potential in their lineup with players like Tkachuk, Stutzle, Norris, Batherson, Pinto and Sanderson still in the development phase of their careers. If we are talking about this year, the Blue Jackets are more of a known commodity with the exception of how Gaudreau will mesh with his new teammates.


Not to be overlooked is stud #5 overall 2021 draft pick Kent Johnson who dazzled Canadians during the World Junior Championship in August culminating with the Golden Goal. Having also performed admirably in the Beijing Olympics amongst older men, he is clearly ready for prime time. It’s only a question of how much he can handle at 19. He is listed as a center. However, with what they have down the middle as it stands, he may need to take Tim Stutzle’s development path and break in as a winger before transitioning to the middle.


Threats


Boone Jenner was having a career season until March when his back gave out on him, and he had to shut it down for the year. He is slated to be ready to go for this season. However, this is not Jenner’s first back injury, but rather his third. He plays a hard brand of hockey, and something might give. There is depth within the organization, but he would be hard to replace.


No one knows how Johnny Gaudreau will mesh with his new teammates. Sens Nation faces similar concerns about the likes of DeBrincat and Giroux. All signs point to none of this being an issue. However, if the first ten games become a feeling out process, it wouldn’t be the first time that has happened, and a slow start is the last thing either team can stand to have happen.


Pure firepower is one thing the Senators seem to have the edge in.


Last year, the Blue Jackets didn’t have a 30-goal scorer. The Senators had two. Granted, Johnny Gaudreau had 40 last year and Laine missed 26 games, or he would have surpassed 30 and possibly 40.


Then again, Drake Batherson missed 36 games and would likely have eclipsed 30 and Josh Norris missed 16 or he would have likely eclipsed 40.


Oh, and lest we forget that Alex DeBrincat got 41 last year. I could go on.


Much like the Islanders, I think the Blue Jackets pose a real threat to the Senators in securing a wildcard position. Clearly, they aren’t hoping to make the playoffs. They expect to make the playoffs and I can understand why Gaudreau took his act to Columbus. The pieces are there, and the pieces are fairly young.


As teams like Pittsburgh and Washington start to age out of their prime years, the Blue Jackets could be setting up something special here for the foreseeable future.


They are more of a threat offensively from the defensive position than the Senators which could supplement their forward depth scoring which isn’t expected to be what the Senators should have.


I haven’t mentioned it in previous analyses as much as I probably should have, but the outcome between bubble wildcard teams like the Senators, Islanders and Blue Jackets could come down to the men behind the bench as much as the men sitting on it.


All three of those teams have unproven NHL head coaches and, believe it or not, DJ Smith is the senior man in terms of experience as an NHL bench boss. Now that he has the toys to play with, it will be on him to use them effectively.


As for this season, I see the Blue Jackets as being legitimate wildcard contenders if they stay healthy. They have fewer unknowns than the Senators in terms of personnel and this scares me a bit if I am being honest.


Sometimes a bird in the hand is worth more than two in the bush. This is particularly true when you are talking about only one season.


For this coming season, that hole in the defense core of the Senators is becoming more and more obvious the more closely I look at what the other Eastern Conference teams have.


I am glad that Pierre Dorion didn’t pay a King’s ransom for Jake Chychrun and I understand that available options are limited. However, as scary as it seems, the fate of this season still seems to lie in how quickly Jake Sanderson can get comfortable in the NHL and if Travis Hamonic can play above his pay grade.


The Islanders and Blue Jackets are also not trying to bury a contract/player like Nikita Zaitsev who did nothing to assuage the angst of Sens Nation in that first exhibition game against the Buds.


It’s early and there are a lot of moving parts, but I am getting a little concerned that the Senators could end up without a chair when the music stops if that gap on defense isn’t addressed.


By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey