The NHL’s 2020-21 schedule is not yet set. Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen may do some more wheeling and dealing. First-line center Pierre-Luc Dubois is still a restricted free agent, as is top-four defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov. None of that has stopped our intrepid Blue Jackets columnists from making their opening night roster predictions.
Yes, it’s perhaps too early for these predictions – or perhaps we’ll get them to you just before a training camp start date is announced. Hey, it’s the year 2020 and nothing is certain. We’re not even sure that the upcoming NHL season will be the “2020-21 season” or the “2021 season.” (Odds of regular season games being played prior to the New Year are quite slim, but remember that the record books call it the “1994-95” season, even though the first game wasn’t played until Jan. 20, 1995.)
Each of our THW Blue Jackets writers worked independently to develop their projected depth charts. This column consolidated them in one place, but you’ll find that each of our Team Blue Jackets writers has posted his own columns that go into greater depth on how they see the roster playing out.
Mark Scheig is our senior Blue Jackets columnist, contributing to The Hockey Writers for over six years with more than 800 columns. He also graciously and tirelessly serves as the Credentials Manager for THW. He is the host of “The Hockey Writers” weekly podcast. (It’s definitely worth subscribing to this wealth of information and insight!) Mark also covers the Cleveland Monsters of the AHL and Ontario Hockey League for THW.
Brian Ginise is a relative newcomer to The Hockey Writers, but this Columbus, Ohio native has experience covering hockey for The Athletic and Daily Fantasy Insider. He’s fluent in the language of hockey analytics and advanced statistics.
Cameron Thompson, another recent addition to The Hockey Writers, has been an avid Blue Jackets fan since age seven. He’s a graduate of Ohio State University and also covers Buckeye hockey for THW. While a student at OSU, he wrote about the university’s hockey team for the award-winning student newspaper The Lantern.
And I’m Pete Bauer, former broadcast sports and news journalist, and current columnist for The Hockey Writers, covering the Blue Jackets, NCAA hockey, and the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish hockey. (And, yes, I’m also that Peter Bauer, author of Photoshop CC for Dummies, as well as more than a dozen other books on Adobe Photoshop, photography, and digital design and imaging.)
Columbus Blue Jackets Projected Forward Lines, Defensive Pairs, and the Goalie Tandem
You’ll find a lot of agreement among our columnists at the top of the rosters. Projections for the fourth forward line and the order in which each writer expects players to get called up in event of injury or slump varies considerably. And we’re not in total agreement about who will be the starting goalie for the Blue Jackets come opening night (whenever that may be). Let the nit-picking begin!
Mark’s Projected Blue Jackets Depth Chart
Mark says: A word of caution before diving into this. The Blue Jackets will go into the new season with several decisions to make up front. And do not discount the Blue Jackets possibly making another move before the season, especially if they can take advantage of another team’s cap situation. They would still love to add a top-six winger should the opportunity present itself.
The Forward Lines
Thanks to the signings of Mikko Koivu and Mikhail Grigorenko and the acquisition of Max Domi, the forward ranks are crowded. As is tradition with every other Blue Jackets’ season, it means the competition for the last few spots will be intense.
Alex Texier–Pierre-Luc Dubois–Oliver Bjorkstrand
Gus Nyquist–Max Domi–Cam Atkinson
Boone Jenner–Mikko Koivu–Nick Foligno
Eric Robinson–Mikhail Grigorenko–Riley Nash
Others: Emil Bemstrom, Liam Foudy, Kevin Stenlund, Kole Sherwood, Ryan MacInnis, Nathan Gerbe, Stefan Matteau, Trey Fix-Wolansky.
The top-nine in some order seems set. Improved center depth is evident while the wings are stronger primarily because Jenner goes back to the left side. That third line could end up being a true shutdown line should they play together.
The reason Bemstrom and Foudy start on the outside is because they are waivers exempt. Unless they make a major statement at camp, they can go to the Cleveland Monsters (AHL) without having to risk another team picking them up off the waiver wire.
Texier is also waivers exempt, but we cannot stress his importance enough. To date, the Blue Jackets haven’t signed anyone to fill the 1LW position. That would seem to indicate he would get the first shot. But if he struggles, the Blue Jackets have options such as putting Nyquist up there. Regardless, Texier will be someone to watch closely once camp begins.
The remaining players have things to prove if they want to make a run for a roster spot. But assuming health, the Monsters could be very fun this season. Many of them will have NHL experience because of all the injuries the team suffered through in 2019-20.
The Defensive Pairs
On defense, the top-four remains intact even after the departures of Markus Nutivaara and Ryan Murray. While the overall depth did take a hit, the defensive depth does remain a strength.
Zach Werenski–Seth Jones
Vladislav Gavrikov–David Savard
Dean Kukan–Andrew Peeke
Others: Scott Harrington, Adam Clendening, Gabriel Carlsson, Gavin Bayreuther.
Kukan and Peeke seem to have the inside track at the 5-6 spots. But should one of them struggle, the group behind them can each step in.
The goalie depth remains the same for now. The question will be which of Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins emerge as the opening night starter. Although there were reports the Blue Jackets were trying to trade one of them, it looks more and more like both will be there to start the new season.
Others: Matiss Kivlenieks, Veini Vehvilainen
They will make for one of the best young duos in the league. Kivlenieks looks like he’ll be the starter in Cleveland. He’ll also be exposed to Seattle most likely to satisfy the expansion draft requirement.
Brian’s Projected Blue Jackets Depth Chart
Pete says: Brian’s analysis and projections rely to a large degree on advanced statistics. For a basic look at the advanced statistic “Corsi” take a look at this article.
The Forward Lines
Others: Grigorenko, Stenlund, Foudy, Fix-Wolansky, Sherwood, Gerbe, Matteau
Texier-Dubois-Bjorkstrand had 55% Corsi For% and 63.60 expected Goals For% in the playoffs. Bjorkstrand led the team last season in goals per 60 minutes (G/60) of play with 1.43, which is the same as Colorado superstars Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. He has 40-goal potential if he can put together a full, consistent season, and he’s an excellent defensive player quietly as well.
Dubois led the team last year in primary assists per 60 (aside from Devin Shore’s small six-game sample size) with .86, so those two should remain stapled to each other. If the playoffs this fall were any hint, we could be in for a Dubois breakout. Texier should finally be healthy this year and, as we saw in the playoffs last season, seems to fit well alongside Dubois. I expect these three to be the top line.
Last season, Domi’s .99 primary assists per 60 not only led Montreal, but also would have been tops in Columbus as well, which makes him a perfect fit in my opinion to be the center for Atkinson. Atkinson had a bit of a resurgence in the playoffs last year, but injuries and the loss of Artemi Panarin on his opposite wing clearly had a negative impact, understandably, where he fell from 1.59 G/60 in 2018-19 to .92.
While Domi isn’t the player Panarin is, he is very adept at transitioning the puck through the neutral zone into the offensive zone, excellent at scoring five-on-five and on the power play, and feeding his linemates shot assists, which is what Atkinson needs. Domi’s struggles defensively will both be addressed by coach John Tortorella, in my opinion, but also will be masked by Atkinson who is a surprisingly strong defensive forward. Nyquist is quietly also a bona fide above-average passer and someone who can feed both Domi and Atkinson. I expect him to stay on the wing on the second line and finish with a routinely quiet 50-ish points.
Line three may never get scored on. Foligno, as we’ve seen, can move up and down the lineup with his versatility, but the fact of the matter is he’s not one of the best six offensive options this club has anymore. Regardless of his lack of offensive output, he remains one of the most elite checking forwards in the league. He played at a Selke-caliber level last year defensively, allowing under two expected goals against/60 against other teams’ top offensive lines.
This third line will also will be a fantastic forechecking group, with Foligno on one wing, Jenner on another and one of the best defensive centers of the last decade in the newly signed Mikko Koivu. Koivu doesn’t bring much offensively, but he won’t be asked to with two elite forecheckers in Foligno and the freed-up Boone Jenner, who can return to creating havoc on the boards as a winger.
In my opinion, the fourth line will be Nash and whatever wingers Tortorella feels are going at the present time. I think it would be advantageous to start with Robinson on one wing, as his speed is something Tortorella loves and is a threat at all times. Nash, similarly to Koivu, is fantastic defensively. While he also doesn’t bring much offensively, he would free up forwards like Robinson, Bemstrom or perhaps Foudy should they play next to him.
The newly signed Grigorenko will likely see some time here too – a pretty average, replacement-level forward for much of his NHL career, his best season came in 2015-16 when he had six goals and 21 assists for 27 points for the Colorado Avalanche, ranking about plus-three individual standing points above replacement per Evolving Hockey. I think it’s likely he gets the first crack on the fourth line, but since I don’t see him supplanting Nash at center, I like the other options more. As Tortorella frequently puts his lines in a blender, I have Robinson and Bemstrom listed instead.
The Defensive Pairs
With the trading away of Murray and Nutivaara this offseason, the defensive pairs are really simplified.
Others: Harrington, Carlsson, Tim Berni, Clendening.
The top pair will remain as it has for the past few seasons, one of the best in the league with Zach Werenski and Seth Jones. We don’t need to discuss them, we know they’re elite. Similarly, the second shutdown pair will be the same as last year with Gavrikov and Savard.
The third pair, in my opinion, will be Kukan and Peeke. Kukan is an impressive puck mover and can skate out of the zone and get the play moving up ice, while Peeke – albeit in a small sample size last year – showed he is well on his way to quietly becoming one of the best defensive defensemen in the entire NHL. (I have an in-depth look at Kukan here.) They should complement each other well and I look forward to seeing Peek get more minutes.
Both of last season’s Blue Jackets goalies had strong years. I project Merzlikins getting the call to start the season as the number one goalie.
Cameron’s Projected Blue Jackets Depth Chart
Cameron says: Barring a late free agency addition or trade that requires multiple players for one talented player, this may be the group of players that Kekalainen and Tortorella will work with this coming season.
The Forward Lines
When looking at the forwards, you instantly notice an emerging strength down the middle with the additions of Domi and Koivu. It’s a strength not felt for the Blue Jackets at center since the days of Ryan Johansen, Brandon Dubinsky, and Artem Anisimov (2013-14). This allows Jenner to become that aggressive forechecking forward that he is known to excel at on the wing.
Others: Robinson, Stenlund, Foudy.
While strength is seen at center, the Blue Jackets have different skillsets on both wings with playmaking as well as finishing ability. Bjorkstrand and Atkinson are your finishers in the top-six, where Texier and Nyquist can create along with the centers to get the shooters the pucks. The competition on the fourth line will be fierce all season long, but the only lock remains to be Nash.
Grigorenko will have a leg up on most forwards in large part to his impressive production in the KHL as well as his flexibility to move center if injuries arise. Bemstrom will probably get the other wing due to his massive shot on the power play, although Robinson and Foudy will push for a spot with their speed.
The Defensive Pairs
Before discussing the defensemen, the top-four group is solidified and strong as one of the best groups in the NHL. Werenski and Jones are the engine of the Blue Jackets being able to excel in all three zones while playing 25-plus minutes a night. Gavrikov and Savard are a great pair with a defensive mindset – blocking shots, active sticks, and a force on the penalty kill while not allowing quality shots.
Others: Tim Berni, Clendening, Harrington, Carlsson.
The real competition starts with who will take the reins on the bottom pair because there are quite a number of bodies. Kukan and Peeke look to have the inside track as two puck-moving defensemen with solid size, instincts, and vision.
One dark horse to make the team for me is Swiss defenseman, Berni. As the team captain for Switzerland on a number of occasions, he brings character and leadership as well as great vision and attention to detail. Although he’s a little undersized and needs to adjus to the smaller ice, I see Berni being one of the last cuts in preseason training camp. Clendening, Harrington, and Carlsson round out the group of players pushing for a seventh defenseman spot in Columbus or top minutes in AHL Cleveland.
Barring a trade, the Blue Jackets should start 2020-21 with the same pair that started 2019-20.
Pete’s Projected Blue Jackets Depth Chart
Pete says: I go into greater depth on the Blue Jackets possible 2020-21 lineup in another recent article, “Columbus Blue Jackets Roster Now Heavy Down the Center,” but here’s a summary of my take on the subject. (I wrote that article before seeing my colleagues’ comments presented above.)
The Forward Lines
No real surprises in my projected lines for the Blue Jackets in 2020-21, especially not in the top nine.
Others: Bemstrom, Foudy, Robinson, Gerbe.
Alexander Wennberg and Josh Anderson are out; Domi, Koivu, and Grigorenko are in. The latter, a former first-round draft pick (2012, 12th overall, Buffalo Sabres) has something to prove. After three years in the KHL, he wants to show that he belongs in the best league in the world. I think he’ll get his chance early, but on the wing rather than at center as he re-acclimates to the smaller North American rink. He’ll either make the most of the minutes that Tortorella gives him, or he’ll watch from the press box.
Of the 12 projected and four possible starting forwards, seven are 25 or younger, and four of those are between 20 and 22 years old. Other than Koivu, the “graybeards” among the forwards still have a few miles on them by NHL standards. Gerbe is 33, Foligno is 32, Atkinson, Nyquist, and Nash are 31, and as hard as it is to believe, Jenner is still only 27.
There is one other point I’d like to make about the Blue Jackets’ centers entering 2020-21: For the most part, they stink on faceoffs. Their 2019-20 stats: Dubois 44.6%, Domi 48.8%, Nash 47.9%. Koivu is a bright spot at 53.1%, but Jenner was the only regular faceoff man who won over half of his draws last season (55.1%), though he’ll start the season on the wing (likely on a line with Koivu).
The Defensive Pairs
The top four on defense remain the same heading into the new season, with Norris Trophy candidate Jones paired with goal-scoring machine Werenski, followed by the rugged Savy-Gavy pairing (Savard and Gavrikov). The third pair offers coach Tortorella several possibilities. I expect to see Kukan and Peeke begin the season as the third pairing, but Tortorella has options.
Others: Harrington, Carlsson, Clendening, Bayreuther.
The Columbus defensive corps is not as deep as last season’s group, but they should be able to weather an occasional injury – or even two at the same time (as long as they’re not named “Jones” and “Werenski”).
Pending any major trade, goaltending looks set for years to come. The 2019-20 season saw an all-star first half from Korpisalo and an incredible second half from Merzlikins. Korpisalo and Merzlikins are a formidable “1A and 1B” goalie tandem.
Others: Kivlenieks, Daniil Tarasov, Vehvilainen.
I went on record as saying that I expected Merzlikins to start the 2019-20 postseason in goal for Columbus. I was wrong. Tortorella elected to start the postseason with his regular season starter, Korpisalo. I see no reason why he won’t continue to give him first crack at the net.
Tarasov is on a two-way contract, but is currently on loan to Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the KHL. We’ll see if he comes to North American when the AHL resumes play.
The Columbus Columnists’ Consolidated Consensus
After assigning numeric values and running complex algorithms to find the most-likely Blue Jackets’ depth chart based on the projections above, I found myself over-caffeinated and confused. So, I tossed all of that into the recycling bin and found that a simple “majority rules” approach works just fine. Here’s what we as a group project for the Columbus depth chart:
Remember that we’ve compiled these projections at the beginning of November, before a start date for the coming NHL season has been announced. And perhaps before general manager Kekäläinen makes a trade or signs a free agent that substantially impacts the top of the roster. Of course, there’s also the “Tortorella Factor” – I’ve yet to meet anyone who even claims to be able to read the mind of the Blue Jackets head coach.
Would it surprise me if Tortorella decided his opening night second line center will be Grigorenko? Yes, of course it would. But, hey, that’s not what we, the Columbus Blue Jackets team for The Hockey Writers, are projecting.