Can the Columbus Blue Jackets recover from brutal offseason?

The Columbus Blue Jackets suffered through the worst offseason in club history and possibly in the annals of the NHL this summer as they lost all the top free agents they possibly could. Perhaps they have nobody to blame but themselves though since they could have easily shipped some of the players out at last season’s trade deadline. They hung onto them however even though they knew at least two of their biggest stars were likely to leave. When all was said and done, netminder Sergei Bobrovsky left the nest along with high-scoring forwards Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Artemi Panarin.

And to rub salt into the wounds, John Davidson left his post as the Blue Jackets’ president and took the same job in the Big Apple with the New York Rangers. The Montreal Canadiens also lured away free agent backup goalie Keith Kincaid. This could certainly come back to haunt Columbus since all those who took flight other than Duchene have hooked up with fellow Eastern Conference teams. Panarin also joined the Rangers while Dzingel signed with the Carolina Hurricanes and two-time Vezina Trophy winner Bobrovsky decided to try his luck with the Florida Panthers.

As for Duchene, he inked a deal with the Western Conference’s Nashville Predators. There was plenty of interest in Bobrovsky, Duchene, Panarin and Dzingel at last year’s trade deadline as teams were anxious to add some stars to their squads for the upcoming playoff run. Bobrovsky and Panarin had more or less let Columbus know they weren’t interested in signing new deals with them but general manager Jarmo Kekalainen decided to keep everybody on board as he felt Columbus had a legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup.

Kekalainen could have traded the upcoming unrestricted free agents for draft picks, prospects and established NHL players, but he arguably gambled away the franchise’s immediate future and came out with the short end of the stick. The risk didn’t appear too bad at first as Columbus ousted Stanley Cup favourites and President Trophy winners the Tampa Bay Lightning in four straight games in the opening playoff round. It was the first postseason series win in team history but Columbus went out in six to the Boston Bruins in the second round.

In reality, Columbus lost all of their free agent stars with nothing to show for them and also missed their chance to stock up for the future at the trade deadline. If there is a bright side, Kekalainen was able to sign Gustav Nyquist of the San Jose Sharks and gave the 30-year-old free agent a $22 million, four year deal. There’s no doubt Columbus is a lot weaker than last season while divisional rivals the New Jersey Devils and Rangers have improved.

The Rangers signed Panarin, acquired defenceman Jacob Trouba from the Winnipeg Jets in a trade and landed highly-rated prospect Kaapo Kakko in the NHL Draft with the second overall pick. New Jersey took Jack Hughes first overall and landed PK Subban, a former Norris Trophy-winner, from Nashville in a trade. Nikita Gusev and Wayne Simmonds were acquired in trades and former Hart Trophy-winner Taylor Hall is back to full health.

It’s going to be hard for head coach John Tortorella to lead the Blue Jackets back to the playoffs but there are still some fine players on the roster such as Nyquist, Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Josh Anderson and Pierre-Luc Dubois. They also have solid prospects in Emil Bemstrom, Alexandre Texier, Elvis Merzlikins and Veini Vehvilainen. However, talented rearguard Werenski is an unrestricted free agent and could miss training camp if he isn’t signed soon. With or without Werenski in the lineup, the Blue Jackets have a lot to prove to their critics this season though.

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