COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP)The Columbus Blue Jackets wrapped up their season earlier than they may have hoped, but the team is going into the offseason with a feeling that it has many of the pieces needed to move toward a more successful future.
Columbus finished with a record of 37-38-7, missing the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
The theme from coach and players alike, however, was of a team that experienced significant growth during a season where most experts picked it to finish last in the division. Instead, the Blue Jackets battled for a playoff spot until March and ended up sixth with first-year coach Brad Larsen leading the youngest team in the NHL with an average age of 25.71.
Its goal now is to refine the roster, building off a core of players and a philosophy of unity.
”Obviously, you can’t be happy not making the playoffs, but we felt that we were competitive and we were going to be close,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. ”In that sense, thinking that going into the season, we can be fairly satisfied that we took the right steps from a year ago to where we are now.
”I think that we’re going to take the next steps here fairly quickly, as well, because there’s going to be a lot of internal growth with the guys that we have, the age structure that we have with our young, very talented players.”
The Blue Jackets started the season being viewed as a team that needed a reset after losing key veterans, including captain Nick Foligno, now with Boston, Seth Jones to Chicago, and Cam Atkinson, who spent 10 seasons in Columbus before being dealt to Philadelphia for Jacub Voracek.
Instead, the team used a combination of veteran experience and youthful enthusiasm to set a franchise record with 262 goals, led by Oliver Bjorkstrand with 28 and Patrik Laine with 26.
Voracek led the team in points with 62 off six goals and 56 assists, becoming the first player in NHL history to contribute more than 60 points despite scoring so infrequently.
”We won some big games, we played in a lot of good games,” Voracek said. ”Sometimes we ended up losing but . we were in those games pretty much all season. That’s what you want from a young group, and a lot of guys got better throughout the year.”
Columbus’ grit was evident as it came from behind in 23 of its 37 wins, a single-season franchise record and sixth-most in the NHL.
The team also set a more dubious record, giving up 297 goals, the most in franchise history and fifth most in the NHL this season.
Among the questions to be answered this offseason is the status of restricted free agents like Laine, who had 26 goals and 30 assists in 56 games, and Jack Roslovic, who had a career year with 22 goals and 23 assists.
Backup goalie Joonas Korpisalo, fresh off surgery to his right hip, is an unrestricted free agent with an uncertain future with the club.
”You look at the teams that are in (the playoffs) this year – we have to get better,” Larsen said. ”That might mean losing some of these real key core guys. I don’t have a crystal ball. I’m not going to play GM. I’m going to coach the team that they give me. They ask questions, I’m going to give my honest opinion, and we’ll see where that ends up.”
Unlike some recent superstars who have rented space in Ohio’s capital city, Laine continues to state his support for staying with the Blue Jackets.
”They have expressed they want me here,” Laine said. ”I’ve said the same thing. So you know, the feeling is mutual. Just figure out the term and the money and all that and I think we should be fine.”
WELCOME TO THE NHL
The Blue Jackets signed winger Kirill Marchenko to a two-year, entry-level contract. The forward was selected in the second round in the 2018 NHL draft. Marchenko, 21, has registered 34 goals and 30 assists with 33 penalty minutes, seven power play goals, five-game-winning goals in 114 career games with Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk and SKA St. Petersburg since making his debut in the Kontinental Hockey League in 2017-18.