The Columbus Blue Jackets held their annual Media Day at Nationwide Arena on Monday. This year, President of Hockey Operations John Davidson, GM Jarmo Kekalainen and Head Coach Brad Larsen all spoke to the media in advance of a highly anticipated training camp.
Here are our three takeaways from the day. This first one comes as no surprise.
Gaudreau & Laine Will Start Together
After months of wondering if the Blue Jackets’ two offensive superstars Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine would play on a line together, Larsen directly addressed it when asked.
“Yeah, I’m going to try them right away,” Larsen said. “I want to see if there is chemistry between the two. Again it’s not rocket science here. I think everybody thinks that they’re going to do well together including me. I think the more I can use them together early just to see to get to know each other a little bit. They’ve never played together.”
This leads to the next obvious question. If the two wingers get to play together, someone has to play in-between them. Larsen has a hunch on who will start at center there but ultimately hasn’t made any final decisions yet.
“I’m going to try a few guys in the middle. Who’s going to start there? I might try Boone (Jenner) there right away,” Larsen said. “I haven’t decided yet. That would be my choice right out of the gate. (He’s a) veteran guy and I think he could complement them. But again, if you go through Jack (Roslovic), Boone, Silly (Cole Sillinger), Kurls (Sean Kuraly) I like where he is at in his role for our team. Those three guys all bring something a little bit different. And who slots in there at what time, we’ll see.”
You can see the rationale behind Jenner getting the first opportunity. He enjoyed success playing with Laine and is a responsible defender that would complement the line well. But until we see them in action, it’s all in theory.
Don’t be surprised if all of Jenner, Roslovic and Sillinger get a chance to play in the middle on the top line, especially if one of them doesn’t click right away. It’s interesting that Larsen did include Sillinger in that group of three potential centers. For someone who is just 19 and entering their second season in the NHL, it would be quite the story if that happened.
Larsen was also asked how many games he’d like to have his vets play in. He said 3-4 depending on the situation. With that in mind, we should expect to see 3-4 games of Gaudreau and Laine to prepare for the start of the season. The upside is tantalizing. But developing chemistry will be priority one out of the gate.
Significant Questions on Defense
The Blue Jackets said at the end of last season that it was a top priority to reduce their goals against. They made just one change to their defense corps by adding Erik Gudbranson.
The Blue Jackets now enter the new season facing significant questions on their blue line. Who will slot in where? Which players took the most advantage of the summer to be ready for the season? Despite the questions, the team believes in the group of players they have.
“I think that internally, we will get better just from our guys growing and getting better each day,” Kekalainen said. “Like I’ve mentioned, I’ve seen Andrew Peeke down there and he looks bigger and stronger. He I thought had a very strong season last year. We expect him to be better.”
“Erik Gudbranson will bring that size that we needed back on the back end and keeping our net front an uncomfortable place to be and park. I think the coaches have been working on it for a long time now on systems and how we can tweak that to be better defensively. Everybody’s doing their part understanding you can’t win games 5-4 or 6-5 in this league and expect good results…the internal growth of our D-unit is the most important thing and not just adding one individual…”
Larsen says that the defense will get better when they’re drawing attention to it.
“I think first of all it’s drawing attention to it. If you want to be a playoff team, you have to be in the green,” Larsen said. “That’s what the differential says. It’s not rocket science there either. I think there was only one team (Dallas) that made it (last season) in the red. We scored last year. Now we have to swing the pendulum back a little bit.”
“We got fast guys. We got some skilled guys. I don’t ever want to take the stick out of their hands. But they gotta meet us halfway here and make sure that they’re doing the intangibles on the other side and to keep it out.”
As camp opens, it seems just two spots are secured in terms of their place in the lineup. Zach Werenski is their number-one and Vladislav Gavrikov is on the second pair both on the left side. The other spots will be determined in camp. This leads us straight into our third takeaway.
Open Competition for Roster Spots
This training camp for the Blue Jackets will see a lot of competition for very few spots. Of the 20 spots in a lineup, no more than six spots are set in stone. That could even be an exaggeration.
Gaudreau and Laine are playing together. Werenski and Gavrikov are set in their spots on the left side. The two goalies Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo appear to be set. Beyond that, anything can happen.
“I think it will be a real competitive camp,” Kekalainen said. “And I think that’s exciting for us too is that there’s going to be some tough decisions but that’s a great problem to have.”
Among those tough decisions could be with some of the veteran PTO’s the Blue Jackets have in camp. James Neal, Victor Rask and Ben Harpur are all participating. Kekalainen did not rule them out from making an impact or even making the team.
“It will be interesting to see how they do,” Kekalainen said of the PTO’s. “That’s why they’re on a tryout. You have the veteran rule in the exhibition games. That helps too. And we can have the right number of games for all of the veterans that we have under contract that don’t want to necessarily play six or seven games…They’re here for the opportunity. We’ll see once we get started with the training camp and exhibition games how they do.”
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There does seem to be more of a willingness to allow younger players to go to Cleveland if necessary. But as Larsen said, if a player is ready, they’ll stay with the Blue Jackets. The bottom line is the team will have a couple of really hard decisions to make before the final roster is set. Perhaps there is room for a surprise or two we aren’t seeing yet.
The Blue Jackets will officially kick off camp on Wednesday with physicals and testing and then hold their first on-ice sessions on Thursday. You can click here for a full list of the training camp roster and schedule.
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