Columbus Blue Jackets, 50-24-8, lost in first round, $8 million in cap space
Biggest changes: Looking for offensive punch after scoring just eight goals in their four losses to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of last season's playoffs, the Blue Jackets acquired dynamic left winger Artemi Panarin from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for popular center Brandon Saad. Although Saad was third on the Jackets in goals (24) and points (53), and was a monster at even strength, where he netted 50 of his 53 points, Panarin has scored 61 goals in his first two NHL seasons (17 of them on the power play), and gives Columbus a legitimate sniper from the left side. Panarin will go from playing alongside Patrick Kane to being set up by pass-happy center Alexander Wennberg, who recorded a career-high 46 assists last season. The Blue Jackets also picked up depth forward Tyler Motte in the deal, giving them a plucky left winger who can slide between the AHL and NHL. The Jackets also bought out veteran winger Scott Hartnell, who failed to score in the final 33 games of the regular season and four playoff games. His departure opens the door for left winger Sonny Milano, who put up 47 points in the AHL last season but has not yet lived up to his 16th overall selection in the 2014 draft. Jordan Schroeder, acquired from the Minnesota Wild for center Dante Salituro, could provide energy to the bottom six after splitting the past two seasons between the NHL and AHL, but is not guaranteed a roster spot.
Case for: Something special happened when the Blue Jackets ran off 16 straight wins last season: They became believers in themselves and head coach John Tortorella. Those good vibes were doused in a five-game loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champions, but if forwards Cam Atkinson (career-high 35 goals) and Wennberg (career-high 59 points), and defense partners Zach Werenski (11 goals, 36 assists) and Seth Jones (career-high 12 goals, 30 assists) can build off breakout seasons, the Jackets will be back challenging the Penguins for the top seed in the East. It will be interesting to see if Tortorella loads up his top line with Panarin, Wennberg and Atkinson, or drops Atkinson to a second line with Nick Foligno and Brandon Dubinsky, and moves Oliver Bjorkstrand into the top left wing slot. Bjorkstrand scored 63 goals with Portland of the Western League three seasons ago but has yet to prove he can score consistently in the NHL. If he can, and Sergei Bobrovsky returns to the form he showed last season, the Blue Jackets will win their first playoff series in team history.
Case against: The Jackets' top two lines can match up with most opponents', but their bottom-six forwards are a group of nondescript foot soldiers who rely on effort and sound positioning. Complicating matters is training-camp holdout Josh Anderson, a restricted free agent who put up 17 goals and 29 points in 78 games last season but has been unable to come to contract terms. On the back end, Tortorella might need to rely too heavily on Jones, 22, who averaged 23:24 of ice time last season, and Werenski, 20, who logged just under 21 minutes. If either defenseman takes a step back, the quartet of Jack Johnson, David Savard, Ryan Murray and Markus Nutivaara will be hard-pressed to pick up the slack. Murray, the second-overall pick in 2012 behind Nail Yakupov, has been in and out of the lineup in his first four seasons, missing 108 games to injury, including 22 last season.
Trade bait: If the Jackets can't satisfy Anderson's salary demands -- he earned $700,000 last season and is likely seeking more than $2 million per year on a new deal -- they might be forced to part ways with the promising 23-year-old winger, who would draw strong interest around the league. Murray and Boone Jenner will be restricted free agents after this season and could also be on the block, but only if the Blue Jackets fall far short of expectations.
Goalie situation rating: 9. Many wondered if Bobrovsky could rebound from an abominable 2015-16 season (15-19-1, 2.75 goals-against average, .908 save percentage). He did in a big way last season, leading all starters in goals-against average (2.06) and save percentage (.931) and finishing third with 41 wins, one fewer than Braden Holtby and Cam Talbot. Tortorella would like to keep Bobrovsky in the 60-game range, allowing 23-year-old backup Joonas Korpisalo enough ice time to continue his development in his third NHL season.
Scout's take: "They're an extremely hard-working team that is definitely difficult to play against. With the addition of Panarin, and Werenski continuing to get better, I think they're going to be right there with the top few teams in the Metro, battling it out with Pittsburgh."
Prediction: 1st in Metropolitan