With the start of the NHL 2020-21 regular season imminent, it’s time to go out on a limb and make five bold predictions about the Columbus Blue Jackets. To see how precarious these “Bold Predictions” can be, take a walk down memory lane with my colleague Andrew Forbes: “Columbus Blue Jackets: 2017-18 Bold Predictions.” (Hint: No, the Blue Jackets did not make it to the Stanley Cup Final.)
Actually, all predictions, “bold” or not, are subject to the whims of clubs, coaches, and injuries. When our THW Blue Jackets writing team compiled our projected lines for the 2020-21 season in November, we boldly proclaimed that Gus Nyquist would anchor the second line on the left wing. Just hours after the story went live, Nyquist underwent surgery that will sideline him for months. (See the rest of our predicted lines here: Blue Jackets 2020-21 Roster: Our Writers Debate the Options.)
Here, then, are my bold predictions, from A to Z, for the 2020-21 Blue Jackets
In 2019-20, Cam Atkinson had one of his worst seasons, statistically and health-wise, since he became a Blue Jackets regular in 2013-14. A high ankle sprain limited him to 44 (of 70) games. Atkinson says the ankle still bothers him, but, as he told Aaron Portzline of The Athletic, “My ankle feels great on the ice.” (from ‘It really fuels my fire’: Blue Jackets’ Cam Atkinson can’t wait to start ’20-21, The Athletic, Dec. 28, 2020.) Still, his .27 goals per game and .59 points per game were not horrible. Can we expect another 40-plus goal season from him? Not in 56 games. But a pro-rated 28 goals might be within reach.
However, I expect Oliver Bjorkstrand to lead the team in goals. In his 49 games in 2019-20, he netted 21 goals (.43 goals per game). I predict that he’ll get more ice time, stay healthy, and work some magic with his stick. Thirty goals in 56 games? Very possible. And he recently signed a five-year extension with an annual cap hit of $5.4 million that kicks in next year.
Pierre-Luc Dubois wants out of Columbus. His desired to be traded, however, will not become a distraction for him or the team. I predict that coach John Tortorella and the on-ice leadership won’t let that become a problem. Tortorella has handled situations like this recently (see Bobrovsky, Sergei and Panarin, Artemi).
Dubois may very well be with the team through the entire season — and possibly even most or all of next season. (He’ll be a restricted free agent at the end of the 2021-22 season.) However, he’ll behave like a professional and do his best on the ice, game-in and game-out. Of course, that’s in his best interest. The better he plays, the more desirable he is to other teams. The more that other teams want him, the better the package they’ll offer in trade. The better the offer, the more likely Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen is to make the trade that sends Dubois on his way.
Sometime during the season, rookie Liam Foudy will earn a spot on one of the top two lines, and that’s where he’ll finish the season. That’s my prediction. However, his first goal is to earn a roster spot.
Foudy’s speed and movement with the puck make him an offensive force for the future. But many don’t realize that the same speed enables him to contribute defensively, too. There are even reports that Tortorella may use Foudy on the penalty kill.
The Blue Jackets start the 2020-21 season with two excellent goalies: Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. There was speculation during the offseason that one or the other might be traded for scoring help. That didn’t happen. It’s still possible that a goalie may be traded during the season, but I doubt it.
My bold prediction is that, barring injury, we’ll see stretches when Korpisalo and/or Merzlikins is on a hot streak and holds the goal for several straight games, but neither will become a dominant No. 1 goalie, relegating the other to a backup role.
Zach Werenski and Seth Jones have been an excellent defensive pair for a couple of years now. Since January 2016, when Jones arrived from Nashville in the blockbuster one-for-one trade that sent Ryan Johansen to the Predators, he’s been considered the Blue Jackets’ top defenseman. In fact, prior to the 2019-20 season, Jones was considered a top contender for the James Norris Trophy (best defenseman). However, an ankle injury limited him to 56 games last season.
My bold prediction here is that Jones will indeed have a great season in 2020-21, but his defensive partner Werenski will out-play him. Offensively, there’s not much doubt — Werenski led all NHL defensemen in goals last year with 20 in 63 games. (The next highest goal total by a defenseman was 16, scored by Norris Trophy winner Roman Josi in 69 games and former St. Louis Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo in 70 games.)
It will, however, take more than great offense to push Werenski into the Norris discussion (where I think he’ll be this year). It will take continued improvement in the defensive aspects of his game. And some already see it:
An unheralded note is how much more defensive Werenski was than both his team and the league and he actually improved in suppressing opponents’ offense as a shift went along.
Last June, my THW colleague Domenic Lunardo picked Werenski as second only to Dubois as a player around whom to build a franchise. Of course, that was back when we all thought that Dubois would be a Blue Jacket for his entire career. He didn’t write “Pierre-Luc Dubois or Seth Jones,” he wrote “Pierre-Luc Dubois or Zach Werenski.”
I credit both the coaching staff and Jones for Werenski’s continued improvement at both ends of the ice. And I think that this might be the season that the 23-year-old Werenski overtakes his 26-year-old partner. (Wow! They’re still both so young! What a pleasant thought for the future of the Blue Jackets. Assuming, ahem, that both desire to stay in Columbus and not pull a Dubois when it comes to contract negotiations after the 2021-22 season.)
I won’t be disappointed if all of my predictions don’t come true. If Atkinson leads the Blue Jackets in goals and Bjorkstrand is right behind, great! If Foudy can’t make it into the top six forwards not because he’s having a bad year, but because six others are outplaying him, super! If Jones wins the Norris and Werenski still scores 20 goals, magnificent! If Dubois becomes a distraction and/or one of the goalie tandem stinks up the place, well, not so good.
Check back at the end of the 2020-21 regular season. I may be crowing from the top of the flagpole, or I may be eating crow. Only time will tell. In the meantime, let’s enjoy Blue Jackets hockey!