2016-17 season preview: Columbus Blue Jackets

Sergei Bobrovsky's 2015-16 campaign was riddled by injuries and subpar stats, but his play during the World Cup of Hockey, where he backstopped the Russians to the semifinals, gives Columbus hope that he has regained his Vezina form. Jamie Sabau/NHLI/Getty Images

Watch, now that everyone has gone cold on the Columbus Blue Jackets after several years of overvaluing them, they'll prove all the detractors wrong and make the playoffs. Or maybe not.

Still, it's hard to get a read on the Blue Jackets, who looked like a team on the rise following their 2014 playoff berth but has had so much go wrong in the two seasons since. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen, given a contract extension this fall, surprised many by eschewing Finnish prospect Jesse Puljujarvi with the third overall pick at the 2016 draft and taking forward Pierre-Luc Dubois instead. I get the thought process behind the decision: Dubois can play center and, having traded franchise center Ryan Johansen to Nashville last January for Seth Jones, Columbus needed to fill that void.

Still, it was a risk for a franchise that has fallen off the map the past couple of years. But it's worth remembering that the Blue Jackets still have offensive depth, a young and mobile blue line, and a former Vezina Trophy winner in goal. How bad can they be?

Biggest new faces

Given Columbus' relatively quiet offseason, at least in terms of adding veteran players, Dubois is likely to be the biggest new face in the lineup -- but he may only be around for a while. As Kekalainen told us in a recent interview, the process of nurturing a young player like Dubois is a marathon, "and we're in the first mile." If Dubois stays with the Blue Jackets beyond nine games this season, he'll play meaningful minutes.

Jones isn't new, although this will be his first full season with the Blue Jackets. He likely will pair up with Ryan Murray as the team's top defensive unit.

Watch for rookie Zach Werenski, who is coming off a monster year with Columbus' championship American Hockey League affiliate, to make an impact as the Blue Jackets try to inject speed and mobility to their blue-line corps.

John Tortorella -- who took over for Todd Richards in Columbus last season after the Blue Jackets' miserable 0-7 start -- is coming off a disappointing turn as head coach of Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey. But the upside was that the United States' early exit allowed him more time at his first training camp with the Blue Jackets.

Biggest unknowns

The Blue Jackets were a mess in their own zone -- and often in goal -- for the first part of last season, and they never crawled out of that hole. They finished 29th in goals allowed, but there should be an asterisk there, as netminder Sergei Bobrovsky once again was dragged down by injury and inconsistent play. He looked like a different player or, more to the point, like the old Bobrovsky of Vezina Trophy fame at the World Cup of Hockey. If he's that player, the Blue Jackets will be right in the mix. It's that simple.

Can the remade blue line, which will rely heavily on Jones, Murray and Werenski, emulate what we saw out of the Pittsburgh Penguins last season, moving the puck quickly and smartly to a group of potentially explosive forwards? Assuming Dubois is the future franchise center, what does the present look like down the middle? Can Boone Jenner, a 30-goal scorer, fill the void as a No. 1 center? Can captain Nick Foligno regain the form that saw him register 31 goals and 73 points two years ago -- only to see those totals crumble last year to 12 goals and 37 points? And can Sam Gagner make a last career stand with the Blue Jackets?

Sure things

Hmm. OK, we're still thinking. Just kidding. The surest thing about Columbus is to expect the unexpected. As Kekalainen pointed out, if the Blue Jackets aren't where they want to be, they can't blame the expectations, which are pretty much nil for this team to start the season.

In terms of personnel, I continue to be so impressed with the evolution of Brandon Saad, who is entering his second season in Columbus after a shocking trade in the summer of 2015. Tortorella is going to ask Saad to do even more, including killing penalties -- which should help refine his two-way game. Saad is a two-time Stanley Cup winner who is coming off a 31-goal campaign and a team-best seven game-winning goals. This is about to become his team, and whether he's wearing a "C" or not, if the Blue Jackets are going to climb out of this rather sizeable pit, it'll be Saad who leads them.


Seriously, it wouldn't shock us all that much if the Blue Jackets become one of those Cinderella, worst-to-first kind of teams vying for a playoff spot next spring. But seeing is believing, especially with this team. Eighth in the Metropolitan Division.