And then there were just two games left.
That’s all that separates the Columbus Blue Jackets from the start of the 2021-22 regular season. Between now and next Thursday night, the team faces some very difficult decisions as to who will make the opening night roster. As it stands, several players sit on the bubble hoping to hear good news from management and the coaching staff.
Where do things stand now? Good question. Let’s explore the bubble and how things could shake out over the next couple of days. Friday night’s game in St. Louis is expected to be the last chance to show what the fringe players have before the final cuts come. It is expected that Saturday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins will serve as the final tune up with what’s expected to be the opening night roster or at least close to it.
A reminder in case you are new to hockey and how rosters work. Teams must get down to a cap compliant roster of no more than 23 players while holding at least 20 players including two goaltenders. With that in mind, the Blue Jackets will have some interesting decisions to make to get down to 23.
Goaltending Is Easy
At least this season, the Blue Jackets are in a good spot with their goaltending depth. Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo will be the 1-2 punch. Daniil Tarasov still in camp will eventually head to the Cleveland Monsters. There’s no hard decisions here.
Here’s what things start to get challenging. The Blue Jackets have nine defensemen still in camp competing for 7-8 spots. This is flexible depending on how many forwards they elect to keep. Typically teams elect a 13-8-2 setup or a 14-7-2 setup. Would you rather have extra forwards or defensemen? It really depends on what options you have available.
Another thing to keep in mind here is waivers status. A bubble player has a better chance to go to the AHL if they do not need waivers to get there. Otherwise the team risks the chance of losing a player for nothing. That could ultimately decide who makes the cut.
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At this point, we believe the top-four defensemen of Zach Werenski, Adam Boqvist, Vladislav Gavrikov and Jake Bean are in. That leaves five defensemen fighting for 3-4 spots.
- Andrew Peeke: Besides the fact he’s the only other righty on the team outside of Boqvist, Peeke has been noticeable this preseason especially in the physicality department. He’s finishing checks and playing a more in your face kind of game. He’s appeared in several of these games because the team is trying to get a good sense of where he is at. He’s still on the bubble. But he does not need waivers for Cleveland. So keep that in mind. That could end up being a big factor especially if he hasn’t separated himself enough.
- Mikko Lehtonen: He was better on Wednesday but has been just ok otherwise in my sight. If they elect to keep four of these defensemen I think he gets in. But he sits squarely on the bubble with the game Friday night a big opportunity to make a final statement.
- Dean Kukan: I have him as in for now. He can play on any of the pairs in a pinch and hasn’t done anything to hurt himself. He’s a likely candidate to jump in and out of the lineup based on how others do.
- Scott Harrington: I’ve long said Harrington is the perfect “seventh defenseman.” He can enter the lineup if needed and has proven he can play well even if he sits for a long period of time.
- Gabriel Carlsson: The ultimate bubble player here. He now needs waivers to go to the AHL. I think Friday will go a long way in determining his status in the near term. He’s been ok this preseason but not overwhelming.
If you thought the defense was challenging, wait until you see this battle with the forwards. Let’s start with the locks and work our way from there.
Oliver Bjorkstrand, Boone Jenner, Sean Kuraly, Patrik Laine, Gustav Nyquist, Eric Robinson, Jack Roslovic, Alex Texier, Jakub Voracek.
- Emil Bemstrom: The Blue Jackets need more from him. Head coach Brad Larsen has said as much. Bemstrom was good Monday night in Buffalo but has been inconsistent otherwise. I have him as in but it’s not nearly settled.
- Yegor Chinakhov: He seems ready. We expect him to make this opening night roster. Larsen said that Chinakhov thinks the game really well. Now consider who he’s been skating with at camp and you see that he’s in a really good place as of this writing.
- Cole Sillinger: The same can be said about Sillinger. He’s been good and has earned the opportunities he’s getting. The question of course is will he be ready at age 18 to handle the rigors of an NHL season. Based on where he’s at in camp, he is in prime position to lock down a spot. But it’s not official as of yet.
- Justin Danforth: I had Danforth as a dark horse candidate to make this team. But with a logjam of players and the fact he does not need waivers for the AHL, I have him in Cleveland to start.
- Liam Foudy: This one is tough. The speed is evident. But he needs to show the rest of his game. The fact that both Chinakhov and Sillinger have passed him on the depth chart should worry you some. As it stands, I think Foudy starts in Cleveland. He does not need waivers to get there. Friday could be big for him.
- Gregory Hofmann: I have Hofmann as the last one in for now. Tough call. But there’s a lot to like about his game. He can skate and has a great shot. While I think the bottom-6 will be a rotation, Hofmann has some intriguing tools and has played just a touch better than his competition that I think he’s in.
- Kevin Stenlund: You love the size and the potential, but Stenlund just hasn’t found consistency the way the team wants to see it. Keep in mind he would need waivers for the AHL but I do have him on the outside at this point.
- Max Domi: We’re going to throw Domi into the bubble for a different reason. He’s pushing to possibly play on opening night. That would be way ahead of schedule after shoulder surgery. If he plays, that pushes someone else out.
My Opening Night Roster
I am going to assume they take it easy on Domi and not play him on opening night. With that said, here is my projected 23-man opening night roster for the Blue Jackets. I reserve the right to change this based on Friday night’s game. I do have Peeke going to Cleveland due to his waiver status.
- Forwards: Bemstrom, Bjorkstrand, Chinakhov, Hofmann, Jenner, Kuraly, Laine, Nyquist, Robinson, Roslovic, Sillinger, Texier, Voracek (13 forwards.)
- Defense: Bean, Boqvist, Carlsson, Gavrikov, Harrington, Kukan, Lehtonen, Werenski (8 defensemen.)
- Goalies: Korpisalo, Merzlikins (2 goalies.)
I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2021-22 season will mark eight seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager.