A talented team that seemed to have lost its way before getting back on track last season hopes it has taken steps to carry it even closer to its first Stanley Cup.
The Blue Jackets roared back with 32 more points than the previous campaign to finish fourth overall in the league, resulting in the third post-season appearance in franchise history.
Reflecting this, John Tortorella got his second Jack Adams Award for coach of the year, Sergei Bobrovsky received the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender and Columbus captain Nick Foligno earned the Mark Messier Leadership Award and the King Clancy Memorial Trophy, recognizing his leadership on and off the ice.
The awards were presented the same day as Vegas revealed who it had selected in the expansion draft. Columbus, however, didn’t wait for the expansion or entry drafts to dramatically remake its roster.
The Jackets acquired electrifying LW and former rookie of the year Artemi Panarin, LW Tyler Motte and a sixth-round 2017 draft pick from the Chicago Blackhawks for former Columbus LW Brandon Saad, netminder Anton Forsberg and a 2018 fifth-round pick. Motte, a 22-year-old prospect and former fourth-round pick, got into 33 games with the Blackhawks and 43 outings with AHL Rockford last season.
In a much-smaller transaction, the Jackets inked C Alex Broadhurst to a one-year, two-way NHL/AHL extension. Broadhurst, 24, had 11 goals and 14 assists in 52 games with the AHL's Cleveland Monsters.
To protect his blueline group and backup puckstopper Joonas Korpisalo, GM Jarmo Kekalainen brokered a deal whereby the Golden Knights would bring C William Karlsson to the Nevada desert.
It cost Columbus its first-round pick in the 2017 entry draft and a 2019 second-rounder. It did, however, transfer RW David Clarkson’s exorbitant (annual $5.25-million cap hit for the next three seasons) and his chronically problematic back woes to Las Vegas. Karlsson, a 24-year-old Swedish center, had six goals and 19 assists as well as a plus-10 rating in 81 games last season.
Columbus didn’t have a pick until the third round after losing its first-rounder to Vegas and earlier surrendering its second-rounder to Vancouver as compensation for hiring Tortorella. Kekalainen, though, landed the Golden Knights’ 45th-overall pick for prospect Keegan Kolesar.
After a quiet first-round Friday, Kekalainen and Co. went heavy on up-front players as expected, landing five forwards, a defenseman and a goaltender in the second through seventh rounds at the United Center in Chicago. Four of the five forwards play C, RW or both.
The Jackets are happy with their blueline pool and, even after losing Forsberg, they have extremely promising 2014 third-round goaltender Elvis Merzlikins and they diverted intriguing 20-year-old fellow Latvian prospect Matiss Kivlenieks from Minnesota State University-Mankato with an entry-level NHL contract in May. Kivlenieks is the reigning USHL player and goaltender of the year.
Alexandre Texier scores against Denmark in international play:
C Alexandre Texier, 2nd round, 45th overall: The Jean-Pierre Graff Trophy recipient as the French League's best young player (10 goals, nine assists, 69 PIMs in 40 games plus 10 points in 12 playoff games with Grenoble), became the highest-drafted player from that nation, although Kekalainen stated the Blue Jackets would have taken him earlier if they still had their first-round pick. Texier helped France earn bronze in the IIHF D1A U18 tournament and was named the best forward. The youngest player picked in this year’s draft intends to play in Sweden, Finland or Canada in 2017-18. A swift skater and good puckhandler, Texier projects as a top-six center.
G Daniil Tarasov, 3rd round, 86th overall: Columbus felt the young Russian from Bobrovsky’s hometown of Novokuznetsk was the best goalie available in the draft. They were able to snare him in the third round because a leg injury wiped out his entire season. The 6-4, 181-pounder is a long-term project who isn’t expected to reach North America for some time. His goaltending father, Vadim, was drafted 196th overall by Montreal in 1999.
C/RW Emil Bemström, 4th round, 117th overall: The 5-11, 177-pounder skates well, but must address a troubling habit of slowing dramatically when he gets the puck. Bemström had 21 goals, 12 assists and 35 PIMs in 28 games with Leksands’ SuperElit junior squad as well as getting into five Swedish Hockey League games with the big boys. He added a goal and an assist in seven games at the 2017 IIHF U18 world championship.
LW Kale Howarth, 5th round, 148th overall: Where’s the beef? In the Jackets’ fifth-round selection. Weighing in at 207 pounds, the strapping 6-5 Canadian lad skated the past two campaigns for the Trail Smoke Eaters of the Junior A B.C. Hockey League. Thirty goals and 28 assists in 51 games last season was a huge step forward from 27 points. The late-blooming 20-year-old is committed to the U of Connecticut, which will give him time to grow into his massive frame.
RW Jonathan Davidsson, 6th round, 170th overall: The 5-11, 185-pound winger plays a skill game, although it didn’t show with 12 points in his 44-game debut against men in the Swedish Hockey League with Djurgårdens IF. He added two goals and five assists for Sweden in 10 games of U20 international play.
RW Carson Meyer, 6th round, 179th overall: The first of two late-round Americans taken by Columbus in this draft, the 5-10, 189-pounder recorded a 10-16-26-14 (PIM) line in his collegiate debut with Miami (Ohio) in 32 games. That followed a 32-goal, 19-assist, 51-game USHL campaign for the Tri-City Storm, which won the Clark Cup championship. From nearby Powell, Ohio, Meyer is a fan of the Blue Jackets and was thrilled to be drafted by his favourite team.
D Robbie Stucker, 7th round, 210th overall: The 18-year-old Minnesotan plans to play at Colorado College. The 6-3, 178-pound native of St. Paul is coming off an eight-goal, 32-assist, 25-game campaign with St. Thomas Academy in his home state.
The biggest Columbus news so far involves players leaving rather than arriving.
The Blue Jackets bought out the final two years of LW Scott Hartnell’s contract. The 35-year-old longtime NHL hardrock then signed a one-year deal as a UFA with Nashville, which drafted him sixth overall in 2000.
After RW Sam Gagner had a career-high 50 points, the Jackets let him skate into unrestricted free agency, where he was signed for three years by the Canucks.
G Oscar Dansk signed a one-year contract with Vegas after Columbus didn’t tender a qualifying offer.
First-line center Alexander Wennberg and RW Josh Anderson remain unsigned RFAs. Anderson is a useful, potential top-six forward. Wennberg is essential to any Blue Jackets’ success and is Kekalainen’s top priority. He has almost $13 million in unused cap space.
In several modest UFA signings:
C Jordan Schroeder signed a two-year contract that is a two-way NHL/AHL deal in the coming campaign and a one-way arrangement in 2018-19 that will pay him NHL wages even if he’s in the AHL. The Jackets traded C Dante Salituro to the Minnesota Wild for former first-rounder Schroeder.
D André Benoit signed a one-year, two-way contract after playing for the Malmö Redhawks of the Swedish Hockey League.
D Cameron Gaunce signed a two-year, two-way pact. A career AHLer, he was in Pittsburgh’s organization last season.
Summer development camp
Although the Jackets invited 21 forwards, 12 defensemen and three goalies to their annual camp, all eyes were on one player.
Pierre-Luc Dubois shows what he’s got in these QMJHL highlights:
A beefed-up Pierre-Luc Dubois trained in Columbus for three weeks leading to the camp at the team’s official practice facility at Nationwide Arena, and he’s showing signs of doing all he can to prepare for training camp in September. This time, he knows what to expect.
After not making the Blue Jackets almost a year ago, 2016’s third-overall draft pick returned to the QMJHL, where he began with Cape Breton, compiling six goals and 12 assists in 20 games before a trade to Blainville-Boisbriand. The more-defensive, pro-style system there should help him to prepare for the NHL.
Getting more at ease in the middle will help, too, especially since a vacancy opened when Karlsson was claimed by Vegas in the expansion draft.