Five keys to the new, weird Blue Jackets season
Will they even call it the 2020-2021 season?
Typically, a National Hockey League season starts in the fall and ends in the spring (late spring, bumping up against early summer). But last season ended when this one would have been starting, and the offseason was when this season would be ramping up.
But it’s January, and anyone who’s a fan of hockey knows it’s been weird and we’ll all take what we can get, as long as it can be done safely. (No one knows for sure whether fans will be allowed in buildings, or how many of them; speaking for myself, I doubt I’ll be in Nationwide this season even if limited attendance is allowed. The one thing that could change that thinking? I won’t say here, but it rhymes with Banley Bup Binals.)
The league and the Jackets are working hard to figure out the financials of how to run a league when you can’t sell tickets, especially one as gate-dependent as the NHL. So we’re going to have to pay more attention than normal to the business side of hockey, which fans do anyway, even though we’d rather just focus on the games.
On the ice, here are five things that will be keys to the 2021-2021 season for the CBJ.
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What’s the plan for Torts?
Head Coach John Tortorella has led the team through its most successful period in franchise history. Sadly, that’s a low bar, but it’s still noteworthy. But his contract ends after this season, and there have been no public statements from the organization or the coach about an extension. So, is the veteran coach considering hanging up his skates? Does he have an agreement with the team to coach this season and give way to a new voice moving forward? Will any of this affect the players?
Just as the organization was announcing it had signed star center Pierre-Luc Dubois to a two-year contract extension(yay!), reports surfaced that PLD had also requested to be traded from the club (wha?). This has since been confirmed by Tortorella, although he said that Dubois hasn’t told anyone why.
Two seasons ago, the Jackets won the club’s first playoff series in its history while coping with the expected departures of longtime starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, dynamic forward Artemi Panarin and trade deadline acquisition Matt Duchene. But this is different. This is a young player trying to force the organization’s hand, not a veteran exercising an earned right. And he asked to be traded, as opposed to waiting for free agency (of course, PLD would still only be a Restricted Free Agent after this contract expires). General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen could hold the player for this season, or he could manage to fetch a significant return for the young star. In either case, it’s yet another thing hanging over the season.
The Jackets have two young, emerging netminders, both capable of being the starter. Last season, the partnership worked, as each of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins played lights-out for stretches, and both were needed during the expanded playoffs. How will Torts manage the workload, keeping both successful, competitive and happy?
Three young forwards, in particular, with relatively high ceilings, will be looked to for significant contributions this season: Emil Bemstrom, Alexandre Texier and Liam Foudy. Each has a unique skill-set. Can Bemstrom find the scoring touch he has displayed as a younger player in Europe? Will Texier display more than flashes of being a dynamic play-driver, and is he being looked at as a potential replacement/placeholder at center if Dubois is traded? And can Foudy build on last season’s playoffs, when his speed caused problems for opposing teams?
The new guy
Kekalainen traded power forward (and fan favorite) Josh Anderson in the offseason to the Canadiens for Max Domi, a sometimes center just a couple seasons removed from a breakout campaign. But last season was littered with travails for Domi, as his coach eventually banished him to playing wing on the team’s fourth line. Jarmo targeted the player specifically as a second line center on the Jackets, finally giving the team two top-six pivots. There was going to be pressure enough, and now we have the PLD “situation.” How will Domi, the mercurial son of noted mercurial NHL-er Tie Domi, handle it all?