A tie-breaker is all that stood between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the second playoff berth in franchise history and they have a new GM calling the shots.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what Jarmo Kekalainen may do in his first offseason.
What is imperative, in evaluating the status of the franchise, is not to have inflated expectations based on goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky's 2013 phenomenal season.
The Blue Jackets' puck possession metrics were among the worst in the league, but their top five save percentage, paced by Bobrovsky, made them a more competitive team.
Since that is the case, the Blue Jackets still need to be thinking about long-range planning. As a new general manager, Kekalainen has some leeway, time to build the team the right way, and it's not like he's building from scratch. Presuming that the Blue Jackets get Bobrovsky under contract, their goaltending and defence are both relative strengths.
They could use more high-end talent up front, and last year's acquisition of Marian Gaborik was an initial attempt to address that need, but if the Blue Jackets are going to improve possession, they need players that can handle that responsibility.
With three first-round picks this year, the Blue Jackets have a good opportunity to re-stock their prospect pool, or make moves for immediate help. Sticking with the idea that the Blue Jackets might not really be as good as they appeared last season, improving the organization's depth of talent is likely the prudent course of action. Given his scouting background, it would also make sense for Kekalainen to take that approach.
This doesn't mean that the Blue Jackets can't be a contender next season, it's just a suggestion to keep expectations in check when making decisions about this team.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013 regular season ratings with a 93.65.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
Jarmo Kekalainen/Todd Richards
Blue Jackets Forwards Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com
Mark Letestu had the best season of his career, tying a career-high with 27 points and setting a new career-best with a plus-7 rating, while playing a career-high 16:31, in 46 games. If nothing else, that's established him as a regular NHLer for the first time in his career, one that can provide complementary offence; it would be asking a lot for him to be a primary offensive performer on a quality team.
Undersized scoring winger Cam Atkinson was injured in the third game of the season and missed a month, but he finished the season well, scoring six goals and 11 points in his last 15 games. He had strong possession numbers too, so Atkinson should be relied on as a scoring winger going forward.
For a player that has scored 12 goals and 54 points in 106 games over the last two seasons, Brandon Dubinsky is remarkably valuable. He's capable of taking on tough assignments, playing a defensive role yet still faring well on possession metrics.
Last season was the least productive Marian Gaborik had in the NHL. His per-game numbers were ever-so-slightly better than his rookie season, 2000-2001 when he was 18, but he also played 2:39 per game more, easily negating the small per-game scoring advantage. However, he still had 3.21 shots per game, so the biggest cause for his decline was bad luck, both his own (career-low 7.8 shooting percentage) and those on the ice with him at even strength. A three-time 40-goal scorer, Gaborik is the kind of game-breaking scorer that the Blue Jackets need. Now they just have to find the right players to bring out his best production.
A solid two-way winger, Nick Foligno didn't score (or agitate) as much in his first season with the Blue Jackets, compared to his time in Ottawa, but he played a career-high 16:31 per game and was a reliable checker.
Veteran R.J. Umberger has played more than 18 minutes per game in each of his five seasons in Columbus, but he struggled to generate chances the way he had in previous seasons and scored a career-low 0.17 goals per game (8 in 48 games). He's a trusted veteran but, with four years left on his deal, he needs to produce more if he's going to provide value.
For a guy who can provide some secondary scoring, Matt Calvert generates very few shots on goal (1.21 per game in 97 career games), but he's been a high-percentage (17.1%) finisher. In an odd twist, Calvert had strong possession stats in 2013, yet was a minus player, due in part to a poor save percentage when he was on the ice; this on a team with Sergei Bobrovsky tending goal.
The fourth overall pick in 2010, Ryan Johansen has tantalized just a little through his first two seasons, managing a modest 33 points in 107 games. There have been trips to the minors, even a playoff benching in the AHL, and a feeling that Johansen needs to be prodded to provide consistent effort. However, the 20-year-old has gone through stretches during which he has played well in a two-way role, including in the later stages of 2013 with Umberger and Foligno on his wings.
Checking centre Derek MacKenzie is plus-19 over the last three seasons, best on the Blue Jackets, even though he was chewed up in the possession game over the last couple seasons. He's fine in a depth role, logging about 10 minutes a night.
Enforcer Jared Boll has 125 fights over the last six seasons, ranking third in the league in penalty minutes over that time with 963. There have been times when his possession numbers have been adequate, but last season was not one of those times.
Skilled forward Artem Anisimov played a career-high 16:25 per game and provided a career-best 0.31 goals per game (11 in 35 games). With other ex-Rangers Dubinsky and Gaborik on board, there are several combinations for Anisimov to play with a familiar face.
A first-round pick in 2007, Colton Gillies has six goals and 18 points in 154 career games. It's not out of the realm of possiblity that he is let go if the new regime simply wants to give another young player the opportunity to bang and crash on the fourth line.
In an ideal situation, the Blue Jackets would be able to add another proven scorer to improve their offensive balance, but if they can't lure the likes of Patrik Elias, Mike Ribeiro, Nathan Horton, Ryane Clowe or Michael Ryder, then Columbus could press forward with the lineup they have, tweaking a little to add a forward prospect like Boone Jenner and then depth additions through free agency.
Free Agent Defence
||'12-'13 Cap Hit
Blue Jackets Defence Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com
He may be too well compensated for what he does, but James Wisniewski can play big minutes, handles the puck well enough to work the power play and plays with an edge to his game. Wisniewski can also play tough opposition, but as the Blue Jackets' defensive depth improves, it allows them more flexibility in how they choose to deploy him.
Fedor Tyutin is underrated considering that he has played more than 24 minutes per game over the last couple seasons in Columbus, facing tough matchups. In 2013, he was a career-best plus-9 and scored a career-high 0.46 points per game (22 points in 48 games).
While Jack Johnson is a physical presence who ends up playing big minutes and often in difficult matchups, he's struggled throughout his career to handle that level of play. Among active defencemen, only Eric Brewer is worse than Johnson's career minus-90 rating. Much like Wisniewski, Johnson should have a more manageable workload, yet he did play a career-high 25:58 per game last season.
A sixth-round pick in 2010, Dalton Prout had a standout plus-15 rating in only 28 games as a rookie, but that number was misleading in terms of how effective he actually was. Prout was bailed out by an extraordinarily high (.974) on-ice save percentage, which made up for his negative shot differentials. Nonetheless, he has good size and earned more responsibility as the season went along.
Though he still played more than 21 minutes per game, Nikita Nikitin took a step back after his breakthrough 2011-2012 season. He is a capable puck mover who has the size to handle physical matchups as well.
Acquired as part of the Rick Nash trade, Tim Erixon had a reputation as a safe and steady blueliner and it held true, though the Blue Jackets played him fewer than 16 minutes per game, so he wasn't tested too much. The 22-year-old should get more responsibility next season.
Expected to earn a spot on the Columbus blue line last season, Ryan Murray suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in junior hockey. He figures to have a good shot at making the team next year, but the Blue Jackets may have enough depth that they can afford to let Murray spend some time in the AHL, especially considering his 2012-2013 season was cut short.
Free Agent Goaltenders
||'12-'13 Cap Hit
The Blue Jackets are in a difficult spot with Sergei Bobrovsky. He was brought in to upgrade their goaltending and he delivered an outstanding season, with a league-leading .932 save percentage. Now, as a restricted free agent, he's due for a big raise. There are reports that the KHL has a huge offer for him and if Bobrovsky reaches the free agent market, that could force the Blue Jackets' hand to match any offer he receives. The trouble with all this is that, while Bobrovsky was obviously great, it's incredibly difficult to duplicate that kind of season.
Some how, some way, the Blue Jackets need to get Bobrovsky signed and, once they do, they still need a viable backup. Free agents like Mathieu Garon, Dan Ellis or Jason LaBarbera are reliable veteran free agents that could fill the void.
If the Blue Jackets can't get Bobrovsky inked to a new deal, free agent goaltenders like Niklas Backstrom, Evgeni Nabokov, Mike Smith or Ray Emery may be worthy of attention.
||2-15-17, even, 23 GP
||45-37-82, +23, 56 GP
||5-26-31, +12, 60 GP
||13-19-32, -2, 73 GP
||21-46-67, +20, 74 GP
||3-11-14, +1, 37 GP
||11-23-6, 4.11 GAA, .888 SV%
||Notre Dame (CCHA)
||10-18-28, -1, 41 GP
||5-8-13, +9, 38 GP
||HIFK Helsinki (SML)
||7-11-18, +2, 50 GP
Safe and steady, Ryan Murray may be ready for his chance in the NHL. He may have been ready two years ago and while there is some question about whether he can provide offence as a pro, there is little doubt that Murray can make smart decisions and play a lot.
A burgeoning power forward, Boone Jenner had a terrific junior season and saw some late-season action with Springfield (5 G, 4 A in 13 regular season + playoff GP). Jenner could play for the Blue Jackets in a depth role, for sure, but he may have a little offensive upside to explore too.
A sturdy defenceman who can move the puck but lacks speed, David Savard has 10 points in 35 career NHL games and has three years of AHL training. He's been passed by younger options, making it hard for him to stick without changes to the depth chart above.
While Michael Chaput didn't put up big numbers in his first pro season, it was a respectable showing, something to indicate that, with further development, he could be part of the Blue Jackets' future forward plans.
Diminutive winger Jonathan Audy-Marchessault has 131 points in two AHL seasons, proving that he can score at that level. The question will be whether he's quick enough and tough enough to create those chances in the NHL.
Mike Reilly is a terrific skating defenceman who is on the small side and the fourth-round pick from the 2011 draft can use a few more years of development in college before he's ready to handle pro hockey.
A second-round pick out of Sweden last summer, Oscar Dansk struggled in his first OHL season, but has the size and tools to become a top-rate goaltender. He's only 19, so he has several years to get used to the North American game and put up better numbers than he did in 2012-2013.
Drafted in the third round in 2011, undersized forward T.J. Tynan had 95 points in 83 games through his first two college seasons before his production dipped as a junior last year.
A stay-at-home defenceman, Cody Goloubef fared well in an 11-game stint with Columbus last season but, like Savard, he's getting passed by younger options on the blueline, making it tough to get ahead.
A 24-year-old who is 6-foot-3, 227 pounds, Ilari Melart has played professionally in Finland for five seasons and played for Finland at the World Championships. Given new GM Jarmo Kekalainen's Finnish ties, he should know Melart very well.
14th - Nikita Zadorov, Alexander Wennberg, Valentin Zykov
19th - Josh Morrissey, Anthony Mantha, Zach Fucale
27th - Nicolas Petan, Robert Hagg, J.T. Compher
According to www.capgeek.com, the Blue Jackets have approximately $46.0M committed to the 2013-2014 salary cap for 16 players.
Check out my possible Blue Jackets lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.
Needs: One top six forward, one defenceman.
What I said the Blue Jackets needed last year: Four top nine forwards, starting goaltender.
They added: Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon, Sergei Bobrovsky.
Prospects, multiple first-round picks.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.