Whatever he wants to call it, the Blue Jackets already look different after the trade deadline. The offseason could bring even more big changes.
When a March swoon made it likely that the string of four straight playoff appearances under coach John Tortorella would end, the Blue Jackets traded a core of popular veterans with expiring contracts for future draft picks.
The biggest name was 33-year-old Nick Foligno, the beloved Blue Jackets captain and a cornerstone of a team that was turned around under Tortorella. He was dealt to Toronto the day after 30-year-old defenseman David Savard, another of the team’s longest-tenured players, was moved to Tampa Bay.
Injured center Riley Nash, in his third season with the Blue Jackets, was traded to Toronto on Friday.
In all, the Blue Jackets ended up with two first-round draft picks in the 2021 draft, and second-, fourth- and seventh-round picks in 2022. That means they’ll have three first-round picks – and nine overall – in the draft this July, a rare situation made possible partly by a flat salary cap that hampered blockbuster trades and forced teams to get creative at the deadline to load up for the playoffs.
Columbus was in the unfamiliar position of being a seller. But Kekalainen, who called the losing season “an anomaly of some kind,” insisted the team can return as a contender in 2021-22.
“I think the return was good,” Kekalianen said. “We’re happy with it. I think it gives us an opportunity to reload, is what we call it, and it gives us plenty of different opportunities to do it. There are going to be some interesting decisions this offseason with the expansion draft coming and the flat salary cap.”
Earlier in the season, star center Pierre-Luc Dubois, who clashed with Tortorella and grew unhappy playing in Columbus in his first four seasons in the league, was traded to Winnipeg for Patrik Laine, who had two goals in Monday night’s 4-3 overtime loss to Chicago. Jack Roslovic, who also came as part of that trade, has played well and may also end up being part of the team’s new, younger foundation.
“Not to get nostalgic — I’m not going to do that — but it is kind of a little bit like the breaking up of the band because we went through a lot together as we tried to build this,” Tortorella said.
“It’s part of what our world is here in Columbus now,” he said. “We’ve got to start looking towards what we’re going to be again.”
Tortorella’s future is another question. After replacing the fired Todd Richards seven games into the 2015 season, Tortorella steered Columbus to four straight playoffs and won his second Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top coach in 2016-17. He was a finalist for the honor last season.
With his two-year contract expiring at the end of this season, he and the team have said little about his future.
“We’ll make all those decisions in due time,” Kekalainen said.
One of Columbus’ excellent goaltenders also could be somewhere else by next fall. Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins could bring some badly needed offensive help if the team decided to deal one of them.
“We built this culture, it took a long time to get us where we are, and I’m sure as hell not going to let this thing slide,” said the 31-year-old Atkinson, who is signed through 2024-25. “We have an obligation to ourselves, and to this organization especially, to steer this in the right direction.”
Foligno’s family is staying in Columbus, and he has let the team know he would be open to signing with the Blue Jackets as a free agent after trying to win a Stanley Cup with the playoff-bound Maple Leafs.
“We’ve gone through a lot here in Columbus,” said Foligno. who came via a 2012 trade with Ottawa. “We’ve grown this thing to a point where we had a great little run.”