As NHL teams are eliminated from Stanley Cup contention, theScore NHL freelance writer Katie Brown looks back at the highs and lows of their seasons, along with the biggest questions ahead of 2018-19. The 22nd edition focuses on the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Panarin, Dubois, and Atkinson. Artemi Panarin scored a franchise-record and career-high 82 points in his first season with the club. He also reached a career-high 55 assists playing alongside 2016 third overall draft pick Pierre-Luc Dubois, a big skilled center who scored 48 points in his rookie NHL season. Cam Atkinson was held back by several injuries early in the year and missed a month of action with a foot fracture but found his groove in the later part of the season. He scored 18 goals and 15 assists in 33 games, mostly while playing with Dubois and Panarin.
Trade deadline acquisitions. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen worked some magic at the trade deadline and acquired three players that fit almost perfectly with the existing roster: Mark Letestu, Thomas Vanek, and Ian Cole. Letestu meshed well on the fourth line in a shutdown type role, Vanek meshed well with linemate Boone Jenner, and Cole found instant chemistry with defensive partner David Savard; the two bearded men were even dubbed the "Lumberjackets" by Blue Jackets fans.
Jones and Werenski. Seth Jones, 23, and Zach Werenski, 20, make up one of the best young defense pairs in the NHL; they've played more than 2,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey alongside one another. The two set franchise records for goals by defensemen (16), a milestone Jones reached first. Jones had the best season of his career and recorded 57 points. Werenski's 37 points were 10 fewer than his highest, but his 16 goals were a career best.
Top players disappeared. As good as Panarin, Atkinson, and Dubois were during the regular season, they struggled in the postseason. Panarin scored the overtime winner in Game 1 and recorded seven points in the first three games of the first-round series against the Washington Capitals. He had no points in the last three games, however. Atkinson followed a similar trajectory - two goals and four points in the first three games, then nothing in the last three. Dubois scored in Game 3 and was silent until a late goal in Game 6.
Losing Wennberg. Injured by a hit from Washington forward Tom Wilson in Game 1 of the first round, No. 2 center Alexander Wennberg missed three games. His absence impacted the Blue Jackets hard, who were forced to make lineup adjustments - Nick Foligno was moved up to the second line, Dubinsky taken off the wing and moved to the third line, and Letestu centering the fourth line. With Wennberg, Columbus could normally roll three scoring lines, but without him, no one could seem to get anything going. He was also missed on the power play, which dried up after Game 2. He returned in Game 6, but by then, it was too late. Washington won four straight games and won the series in six after going down 0-2.
Special teams. Going into the series it was easy to see the Blue Jackets were a little outmatched by the Capitals in special teams, especially on the power play. Washington had 27 power plays in the first round (the most of any team) and scored nine goals with an extra man. Columbus went 4-for-24 on the power play but all four of those goals were scored in the first two games of the series. After that they were 0-for-16 the rest of the series. The Blue Jackets not only gave the Capitals too many opportunities on the man advantage, but they failed to convert on their own power play when given the chance.
Which UFAs to re-sign? Cole was acquired as a rental, but there's a possibility he could be offered a contract as an upcoming UFA. With Jack Johnson almost certainly not coming back, there will be room to make that happen. Letestu could also be brought back on a one-year deal. Jenner, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Ryan Murray will likely re-sign, while the futures of Matt Calvert and Vanek are a little more up in the air. Of the two, Vanek seems the most likely candidate to end up on the market.
Will Panarin or Bobrovsky sign an extension? The expiring contract was undoubtedly a factor in the Chicago Blackhawks' decision to move Panarin, and now it's going to be something Columbus has to deal with. Panarin says he's happy in Columbus and is setting franchise records as its top player. It's hard to think of reasons why he wouldn't remain in Columbus on a big-time long-term deal. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is entering the last year of his contract as well and Kekalainen will have to decide if he's better than anyone available in free agency. Bobrovsky has won two Vezinas and is still in his prime, but will Kekalainen want to give him a long-term contract?
Where are upgrades needed? If there's any lesson to be learned by the hardship of losing Wennberg for most of the first round, it might be that it would be wise to go after a center in free agency or through a trade. You can never have too many centers, they say, but Kekalainen could opt to stand pat. It might be more likely that Dubinsky will be expected to have a better season next year, and the continued development and improvement of Wennberg and Dubois will be counted on as well.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)