That was the Blue Jackets’ best year yet. Vaulting from their previous 34-40-8 campaign and just 76 points (fourth-worst in the league), they earned the NHL’s fourth-highest point total with 108 and a 50-24-8 record landing their first playoff berth since 2013-14, tasting the postseason for only the third time in their 17-year history. Unfortunately the results mirrored those of three years ago with another first round elimination at the hands of eventual champs Pittsburgh, but there is much momentum and excitement on the ice in Ohio’s capital. Sergei Bobrovsky’s Vezina-winning 41-17-5, 2.06, .931 effort, John Tortorella Adams-worthy coaching, Nick Foligno taking Clancy and Messier honors, Cam Atkinson’s 35 goals highlighting a 62-point campaign, Seth Jones joining Atkinson and Bobrovsky as an All Star selection, and Zach Werenski mentioned as a Norris candidate have all shifted the Jackets into the NHL spotlight as 2017-18 approaches.
They face a few, mostly forward defections as power play specialist Sam Gagner skated west to Vancouver, Scott Hartnell returned to Nashville, William Karlsson got snapped up by Vegas in the expansion draft, and Brandon Saad along with goalie prospect Anton Forsberg were exchanged for dangerous winger Artemi Panarin and promising Tyler Motte. Kyle Quincey also took his forward depth to Minnesota, while Columbus inked former Wild depth pivot Jordan Schroeder.
This shifting scene on the front lines presents opportunity for the Jackets’ deepening prospect pool that, despite lacking a first round pick this June and 45th overall selection Alexandre Texier agreeing to center KalPa of the Finnish Liiga the next two years, offers promise. Here’s a look:
Zach Werenski – Still technically qualifying as a prospect, Werenski proved a true NHLer in 2016-17 having what many consider the best rookie campaign in Blue Jacket history. As a first pairing next to Seth Jones some included him in the Norris conversation. He looks like an honest candidate in the near future. After the 23rd highest point total in NHL rookie blueliner history (11 goals, 36 assists) he was an extremely poised force as a 19-year-old. His 22 points on that brutally dangerous Columbus power play unit was ninth-best among defensemen. A franchise cornerstone.
Oliver Bjorkstrand – Currently their best true prospect and a breakout candidate, bank on 22-year-old Bjorkstrand landing at least a bottom-six NHL role when camp concludes and ascending the Blue Jacket food chain before long. In limited duty with Columbus over the last two campaigns he’s registered 11 goals and 10 assists in 38 contests, all at even strength, and a plus-ten and shown flashes of offensive brilliance. With Sam Gagner, William Karlsson, and Scott Hartnell moving on, eyes and expectations will be on this Danish sniper to pick up the slack.
Pierre-Luc Dubois – Last year’s third overall Entry Draft selection didn’t have the success expected in perhaps his final QMJHL campaign, registering 55 points in 48 contests between Cape Breton and Blainville-Boisbriand. One year removed from his 42 goal, 57 assist draft year with Cape Breton, Columbus may keep the uber-talented 19-year-old Dubois on their NHL roster which lacks proven pivot depth. If not, the 6-03, 209-pound, two-way power forward will return to juniors in Quebec.
Sonny Milano – Milano has a royal opportunity to bring his crafty, quick game to the NHL in 2017-18. After a solid 18-29-47 offensive campaign with AHL Cleveland, and only 21-years-old, this looks an important year for the Massapequa, NY native with other prospects positioned to pass him at left wing on the org chart if he doesn’t prove he’s ready for an NHL leap. Milano’s become a bit more physical and addressed some concerns about his defense in minor league action, but would benefit from further improvement in both arenas.
Tyler Motte – Motte moves not only from the Blackhawks’ organization, but likely graduates from the AHL to full-time left wing/center duty with Columbus, his chances improved with the Blue Jackets’ thinned NHL-tested forward ranks. Motte performed reasonably well while fighting off injury in 33 NHL Chicago contests early last year (four goals, three assists in 11:23 average minutes per game