The Columbus Blue Jackets find themselves in a different position than usual as they enter the 2022-23 season. They come into the season with more than enough players that could make the opening night roster.
Since only 23 players can make the roster, players that normally would be a shoe-in to make the team will suddenly find themselves on the outside looking in. Compared to past seasons in their franchise history, this is a good problem for the Blue Jackets to have.
In those past seasons, depth was always an issue. When a good young player came to the team for the first time, there was a need to play them right away. This caused those players to be rushed to the NHL before they were truly ready. You can imagine this would have an effect on their career if they didn’t get proper development early on.
But times are different now for these Blue Jackets. Thanks to the current state of the team coupled with some individual situations, they can now afford to send younger players to Cleveland to get much needed development time.
There is no more perfect example of this than the current situation with Kent Johnson.
Setting the Scene
Johnson has done it all early in his career. From being a standout in college at Michigan to scoring the golden goal for Team Canada at the last World Junior Championships to playing at both the World Championships and Olympics, the logical next step seems to be the NHL.
Many expected Johnson to be a lock for the roster when training camp began. But with just one game left in their preseason Saturday night against the Washington Capitals, Johnson’s roster spot is not secured. He is playing in the game Saturday in a final effort to state his case.
But here’s the question we need to consider. Does he have to make the Blue Jackets right away here? On the surface, the answer seems to be yes given the skill set he brings. However we need to consider several factors in this situation.
Contract Status & Role a Huge Factor
First, we need to consider waivers status of those players on the bubble. Johnson does not need waivers to get to AHL Cleveland. Many of the other bubble contenders do need waivers. Liam Foudy, Mathieu Olivier and Emil Bemstrom would need waivers in order to reach the Monsters. Joona Luoto would not require waivers.
Defensively, both Nick Blankenburg and David Jiricek would not need waivers for the Monsters either. The Blue Jackets would need to decide if they elect to go with a 13F/8D look or a 14F/7D look. These waiver and contract statuses will play a key role.
Second, we need to consider the role of the player in question. The Blue Jackets view Johnson as a center in the long term. If he makes the Blue Jackets now, it would be on the wing and potentially in the bottom-six. Gus Nyquist is injured and not playing Saturday night but indications point to him being ready for Wednesday’s season opener in Carolina.
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In past years, the Blue Jackets out of necessity would have needed Johnson to play for them right away because they didn’t have enough depth otherwise. Now though, they have a legit top-six who could become one of the better offenses in the NHL. They finished near the top-10 without Johnny Gaudreau last season. That was without Johnson for most of the season.
Here’s the bottom line. The Blue Jackets do not need to rush Johnson at this time and can afford patience in his development. While his skill is obvious, he needs work and development to get to a point where he’s ready to become an NHL center.
The Ultimate Decision
So let’s pose the question like this. Given the current state of the Blue Jackets up front coupled with what they think Johnson will be eventually, would you have him make the team as a bottom-six winger or have him sent to the Monsters to play as their number-one center while developing even further?
Here’s the other thing to consider. If Nyquist is ready for opening night and they elect to keep Johnson as well, not all of those other bubble players can make the team. Can they risk waiving Foudy, Olivier or Bemstrom in order to keep Johnson at this time? Given the starved depth on certain teams (I’m looking at you Montreal, Chicago and Arizona), exposing these players comes with high risk.
Why not be patient here with their top prospect? It would make sense for him as he would get much needed reps in games against good competition while developing at center. It would make sense for the Blue Jackets as they have more than enough top-six talent to carry the load early.
Seeing Johnson go to Cleveland might cause some outrage among fans if it were to happen. But given all the circumstances in play, it makes the most sense. There is no need to rush him to play as a bottom-six winger. None. If he wasn’t projected to be a top center eventually, we are having a different conversation right now.
Take Advantage of Development Opportunities
For that matter, the Blue Jackets would be wise to send Jiricek to Cleveland as well for development purposes. He needs to play and continue to get used to the small ice game. The Monsters in that scenario could have their future 1C in Johnson, 1D in Jiricek and 1W in Kirill Marchenko all playing and developing together right up the road from Columbus.
The Blue Jackets can finally be patient about their young players. There’s no better time than now to make that decision. In this case, being sent to the AHL might sting for the player at first, but if they understand the purpose behind it, they would in time come back to the Blue Jackets even more prepared to make important contributions.
Assuming no unexpected injuries or setbacks, the Blue Jackets should take advantage of the situation and send Johnson to Cleveland. It will do more good than bad in the long run.