The highly anticipated on-ice pairing of wingers Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine will have to wait a few more weeks. The duo played roughly a period and a half together against the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday before Laine left with an upper-body injury, which was later classified as an elbow sprain.
The Finnish forward is expected to spend at least three-to-four weeks on injured reserve. This disappointing circumstance comes after Laine scored the Blue Jackets’ first and only goal of the 2022 season in a 4–1 loss to the Hurricanes.
While Laine begins his rehabilitation process, Columbus has a huge hole to fill. Supplying Gaudreau with a quality scorer will be vital in maximizing the offseason acquisition’s ability, and a strong start is absolutely necessary in a very competitive Metropolitan Division.
Head coach Brad Larsen will likely give a few players an opportunity to fill Laine’s role, but finding the best fit as quickly as possible will give the team more flexibility down the road when the inevitable injury bug strikes again. The roster has many players who could make their case to play with Gaudreau, but four players specifically look like they have the most potential to keep production rolling.
The Czech veteran was the first player called upon after Laine’s injury, and rightfully so. He scored 62 points last season, has a track record of success, and causes the least amount of roster shakeup.
Voracek could slot in next to Boone Jenner and Gaudreau, much like he did for the second half of opening night and provide adequate point production in Laine’s absence. The issue is with his scoring ability. Voracek has never eclipsed the 30-goal threshold in his 15-year career and has never scored 20 goals in a Blue Jackets sweater.
His strong point production can hide his scoring deficiencies pretty well, but that does not mean it isn’t concerning. Gaudreau is a proven goal scorer, but his best attribute is his playmaking ability. Having a co-star who can put the puck in the net is the ideal situation, and Voracek doesn’t quite fit the bill. Still, he is one of the best players on the team and is a solid option for now.
Jenner is another option since he’s already playing on the line. The Blue Jackets captain has shown flashes of goal-scoring ability in the past, notably a 30-goal season in 2015-16, but has been inconsistent in his career.
Jenner went pointless in his first game of the season but had five shots on goal, which is promising for an uptick in production this season. He was also on pace for a career-high in goals and points in 2021-22 before an injury ended his season prematurely; the addition of a player like Gaudreau should help improve his totals.
What hurts Jenner’s case is the injury. He did not play in preseason scrimmages due to his rehabilitation, so a slow start could be on the docket for him. This makes him a trickier option for filling in for Laine, but his potential and past performance still make him a worthy contender.
This is an option if Voracek is brought up full-time to the first line and shows off his elite playmaking abilities. Jenner could be the beneficiary of two pass-first wingers. This is definitely something to watch for.
Choosing between Sillinger and Jack Roslovic here was difficult, but keeping Roslovic on the second line to continue to build chemistry with Yegor Chinakhov feels like the best option. This would be a swap for Jenner, which makes this scenario somewhat unlikely, but throwing Sillinger onto the first line would give us an opportunity to see if he can fit in that role in the future.
Sillinger had a solid rookie season, scoring 16 goals and 32 points in 79 games, and the hope is that he will increase his totals across the board in his sophomore campaign. He is slated to play on a third line to provide depth scoring, but moving up two lines and playing with Gaudreau and likely Voracek would give him the chance to play with the best playmakers of his short career.
It is also notable that Sillinger slotted into Laine’s spot on the power play after the latter left with an injury and replaced Jenner in the third period alongside Gaudreau and Chinakhov. If that is the route the team takes, Sillinger could take a step in his scoring development and push for a permanent position on the first line.
This is clearly an unlikely fun option, considering the rookie was sent down before the team’s opening game. Still, he was recalled after the game and is set to make his season debut soon. He played in nine games at the end of 2021-22 and notched three assists, so he appears to be ready for NHL duty.
He should start in a less prominent role, but throwing him to the wolves early could be a worthy experiment to test his readiness. He has not shown his elite scoring ability in the British Columbia Hockey League with the Trail Smoke Eaters as he did in college, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone.
A surplus of left-handed players in the top six, including Gaudreau, Jenner and Voracek, could hurt his chances, but it is safe to say that Johnson could provide a spark to the team and give the fanbase someone to cheer for in the early stages.
Overall, the Blue Jackets will miss Laine’s production and will be relieved when he returns. Having a few players make up for his production is likely, and Gaudreau may have to be the main goal-scorer during this time. Still, this could provide an opportunity for players to make their case for top-line duty, and it will be interesting to see who grabs that chance.