Columbus Blue Jackets star forward Patrik Laine got off to a strong start this year after a poor showing in his first campaign in Ohio. The forward made his way to the scoresheet in seven of his first nine games, but was sidelined due to an oblique strain. The timetable for his return was four to six weeks, which at the time of this writing was about four weeks ago. His return to the lineup is imminent.
In his stead, Columbus filled his role admirably. For a team that many wrote off to start the season, upon further inspection there is actually a logjam of NHL talent at each position, with little differentiation among the fringe players. With Laine set to return in the coming weeks and their roster at max capacity, who are the best bets to be taken out of the lineup and sent to Cleveland in the American Hockey League (AHL) once he is back?
The hype behind the signing of Gregory Hofmann was real. His rights had been owned by the Carolina Hurricanes since they drafted him in the fourth round in 2011. Afterwards he spent a decade racking up a rather distinguished list of accolades in the top-league in his native Switzerland. Among that list is leading the league in goal scoring, a championship clinching goal, and another championship to boot.
Then he was traded to the Blue Jackets in February for a measly seventh-round pick, and signed once his season in Switzerland was over. When many saw the signing, their minds went straight to Chicago Blackhawks forward Dominik Kubalik as a best case scenario. Kubalik came to North America after a dominating season in the Swiss league – with numbers similar to Hofmann’s in his last season – and scored 30 goals on a Blackhawks team that was looking for some scoring. Many thought Hofmann could be a similar situation.
It hasn’t worked out that way as of yet. Hofmann has shown flashes of that, but has also gone cold for stretches and has recently found himself as a healthy scratch. He scored three points through his first six games, but then fell into an eight game scoring drought, while averaging around 10-minutes per night. Some of that could be due to his first season in North America. The acclimatization process hasn’t been as easy as for a Kubalik or a Pius Suter, who were both younger and spent some time in Canadian Major Junior before heading back to Switzerland.
Now the question has to be asked, after being held out of the lineup recently, does the 29-year-old Hofmann deserve the benefit of the doubt, or does Blue Jackets brass risk alienating him like Mikko Lehtonen by sending him down for some seasoning in the AHL?
Similar in situation to Hofmann, Justin Danforth had a long international and domestic career before finally cracking an NHL roster at 28 years old. His last three seasons saw a point-per-game pace in the top Finnish and Russian leagues, which is not an easy feat to accomplish. He wasn’t expected to be the leading scorer, but bringing his energy and speediness to the bottom-six was hoped for with the occasional appearance on the scoresheet.
He’s only scored one goal through his first four appearances playing 9:41 seconds over that time. The forward has brought a bit of grit and speed as expected to the bottom six. Aside from his goal, he has slightly disappointed on the offense front. This seems like the easy decision, but could be changing with Danforth getting put in the lineup in favour of Hofmann. Starting the season, he spent time in Cleveland, missing a spot to Hofmann. He could find himself the odd man out again.
Will Hofmann’s recent slump be enough to push Danforth into a longer term role in the big leagues. Or is Danforth’s recent spot in the lineup a last audition before Laine returns to give him a shot to prove he belongs?
This could come as a bit of a hot take, so before you shoot the messenger just let me explain.
Yegor Chinakhov is going to be a big piece of the future for the Columbus Blue Jackets, there is no disputing that. However, how he is developed in his first year playing in North America is something that could be disputed.
When Laine was taken out, Chinakhov was the first choice to fill his role on what was the Blue Jackets’ top line with Cole Sillinger and Jakub Voracek. He was chosen as a similar type player to Laine, a wicked shot and an underrated playmaking ability. Early on he saw some strong returns with that line, including a two assist performance and his first NHL goal.
However in recent games he has drifted on and off of that line. Whether that’s because the coaching staff doesn’t think he’s running on all cylinders or if they were trying to jumpstart others by sliding them into that slot isn’t really evident. One thing that is relatively certain is that he won’t be on that line once Laine returns. That would relegate him to a bottom-six role.
The question here is: Do the Blue Jackets think a bottom-six role in the NHL would suit Chinakhov’s development more than a top-six role in the AHL?
My Best Bet
The decision will depend on the development path chosen for Yegor Chinakhov. While Hofmann has cooled slightly I would presume he’s safe from relegation due to his pedigree. So then it’s broken down to Danforth and Chinakhov. Chinakhov has proven in recent games to be an NHL player, regardless if it showed up on the scoresheet or not.
For my money, I’d say Danforth is the one who makes a return to Northern Ohio, barring a miraculous next few games before Laine returns.
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Writer covering the Columbus Blue Jackets for THW since August 2021.
Co-host of the Blue Jackets’ focused “Union Junction Podcast” on The Hockey Writers’ podcast network.
Also, a radio personality and reporter currently based on Vancouver Island.