Blue Jackets miss playoffs; center issues, defensive play among reasons

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The Columbus Blue Jackets failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2015-16.

Columbus (15-25-9) was eliminated from contention when it lost 3-1 at the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday. The Blue Jackets can finish no higher than fifth in the eight-team Discover Central Division. The top four teams qualify for the playoffs.

The Blue Jackets had qualified for the playoffs in four straight seasons after making the postseason twice in their first 15.

Here is a look at what happened in the 2020-21 season for the Blue Jackets and why things could be better next season:

 
The skinny

Potential unrestricted free agents: Zac Dalpe, F; Mikhail Grigorenko, F; Ryan MacInnis, F; Stefan Matteau, F; Gavin Bayreuther, D; Adam Clendening, D; Michael Del Zotto, D; Mikko Lehtonen, D

Potential restricted free agents: Patrik Laine, F; Kole Sherwood, F; Kevin Stenlund, F; Alexandre Texier, F; Andrew Peeke, D

Potential 2021 Draft picks: 9

 

What went wrong

Center trouble: Pierre-Luc Dubois‘ trade to the Winnipeg Jets on Jan. 23 left the Blue Jackets without a true first-line center. They acquired forwards Patrik Laine (10 goals, eight assists in 39 games since trade) and Jack Roslovic (10 goals, 20 assists in 41 games) in the deal, but each has had ups and downs. In addition, acquiring forward Max Domi (seven goals, 12 assists in 47 games) in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens for forward Josh Anderson on Oct. 6 and the signing of forward Mikko Koivu on Oct. 10 (retired Feb. 9) didn’t pan out as hoped.

Defensive drop-off: Columbus went from allowing 2.61 goals per game last season (tied for third fewest in NHL) to 3.33 goals per game this season (26th). The Blue Jackets also dropped to 28th in the NHLby scoring 2.37 goals per game after they tied for 27th last season with 2.57 per game.

Late-season letdown: Since climbing into a tie with the Chicago Blackhawks for fourth in the division with 33 points (13-12-7) with a 3-2 shootout win against the Carolina Hurricanes on March 20, Columbus is 2-13-2. Season-ending injuries to defenseman Zach Werenski (sports hernia) and forward Boone Jenner (fractured finger) followed by the trades of defenseman David Savard (Tampa Bay Lightning) and forward Nick Foligno (Toronto Maple Leafs) accelerated the decline.

 
Reasons for optimism

Solid foundation: The Blue Jackets have a strong core to reload around which could help them rebound quickly, including Werenski, Laine, defenseman Seth Jones, and forwards Texier, Cam Atkinson and Oliver Bjorkstrand. Whether coach John Tortorella will be part of the reload is unknown, though. He is in the final season of his contract.

Laine rebound: A three-time 30-goal scorer, Laine should be more settled next season after his tumultuous 2020-21. The 23-year-old can become a restricted free agent after the season, so Columbus needs to re-sign him first.

First-round picks: Columbus has three first-round picks in the 2021 NHL Draft after acquiring Tampa Bay’s in the trade for Savard and Toronto’s in the trade for Foligno. Those picks can be used to select prospects or traded for players who can provide immediate help.

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