Well Blue Jackets fans, you’ve made it. Your team is now just hours away from their opening night puck drop. After a pretty eventful offseason, training camp and preseason, it’s time for the real stuff.
Before their season kicks off though, I’d like to present a handful of Jackets players to keep a close eye on in the early goings. Obviously, every player that laces up has an important role on the team. But based on the offseason moves and the overall state of the team, I believe there are five or six Blue Jackets that will be under the microscope through the first few games.
Dubois was in the spotlight all the way through training camp and it probably won’t go away anytime soon. The former third overall pick in 2016 has made the roster and will look to ride an impressive preseason into the regular season.
Because he was picked right behind Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine in last summer’s NHL Entry Draft, he has been held to high expectations. A lot of people, myself included, were skeptical whether or not he would ever reach the potential the Jackets were looking for when they selected him. But he’s here now and he’s looking to make a name for himself in his rookie season.
Even though he was drafted as a centerman, he will play on the wing. It has been a consistent experiment through the preseason to see what he can do at the position and he looked pretty darn good which is why the Jackets will roll with it at least to begin the season. He has proven so far that he belongs but we’ll see how ready he is for full NHL action in game one.
Of course, the captain is under the microscope. He always is. But I’ll tell you why he will be a focal point from the beginning of the season. He’s going to play at center. Foligno, who has spent the majority of his career as a left or right winger, will open the year as a centerman. This is the result of Dubois’ switch to the wing and the lack of depth at centre the Jackets have at the moment.
Foligno was actually drafted by the Ottawa Senators as a center and has played the position with the Blue Jackets on occasion. To me, he isn’t best fitted to play in the middle but as the heart and soul of the team, he’ll do anything to help. I’m sure he will hold his own as a center but I’m wondering whether or not this is just a temporary move before they find extra help.
Finally, the extension holdout fiasco has come to a close. After missing camp, Anderson ultimately signed a three-year, $5.55M extension on Tuesday. It was a long staring contest between the front office and the Anderson party but now that an agreement has been made, it’s time for everybody to move past it and look forward to what Anderson can do this season.
He won’t start the year in Columbus as it was announced on Thursday that the Blue Jackets sent him down along with defenseman Markus Nutivaara to their minor league affiliate Cleveland Monsters on a conditioning assignment. This is a telling sign that the Jackets don’t feel Anderson is in the physical shape he needs to be in to play at the NHL level.
Because he held out, he hasn’t been practicing or skating with the team. Over the last few weeks, he’s been skating overseas in Switzerland but he didn’t participate in the John Tortorella training camp in Columbus, which is a big thing to miss. As of right now, his skating legs are likely not meeting Torts’ standards.
This isn’t a huge deal. He isn’t quite ready for NHL action and the Jackets will give him the opportunity to work himself into game shape down in the minors. He will miss Friday night’s game and most likely won’t suit up in Chicago on Saturday night. It’s possible that Anderson will make his season debut on Tuesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Hopefully, any tension from contact negotiations or any physical rust will be worn off by the time his season starts. The Jackets are hoping to get a similar, if not better, Anderson from last season. The 23-year-old tallied 17 goals in his rookie season and will seek to prove that total was no fluke.
The 31-year-old veteran is coming off offseason wrist surgery that held him from most of the preseason. For a while, Dubinsky was questionable to be ready for opening night but he suited up in the final preaseason game in Pittsburgh last Saturday.
In that game, he was flying around, throwing the body all over the place like he usually does. Maybe that’s just because it was the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team he loves to play against but either way, it’s good news to see him ahead of schedule out on the ice in actual gameplay.
I’ll be giving him an extra look early on to see if he is truly fully recovered from surgery. He’s also coming off a down year as far as point totals go. He played in all but two of the Jackets’ 82 regular season games last season and only notched a line of 12-29-41.
Dubinsky isn’t a guy that should be expected to fill the net. As an assistant captain, he’s a phenomenal leader and will do anything to help the team win, whether that is being physical or blocking shots. However, 12 goals marks his lowest total as a Blue Jacket since the 2012-13 lockout shortened season.
I don’t expect to see any major indications that Dubinsky isn’t fully healthy or ready to begin the season but he is slated to be the third center behind Foligno and Alexander Wennberg. Is this because the Jackets are lacking center depth and need Dubinsky for opening night even if he isn’t 100%? That’s just a theory I’m throwing out there.
I think Dubinsky as the third line center gives the Jackets great balance throughout the forward group. Hopefully, he can provide some scoring to that third line on top of the grit that pours out of him from game to game.
Ryan Murray and Gabriel Carlsson
Because the two are projected to be a defensive pairing, I’ll place them on my watch list as a package deal. Murray’s presence on the Blue Jackets has been discussed across the hockey world. Is he a key member of the team? Why is he not living up to the expectations of a former second overall pick? Is he going to be traded? All of these questions have swirled around him for some time now and even though I can’t speak for the player, it has to be difficult to avoid all that talk.
He now has a chance to swat all these discussions down with a solid performance to start the season. But how is it possible for him to live up to former second overall pick expectations when he’s playing on the bottom pairing? We’ll see what the future holds for Murray in Columbus. Perhaps his early play will have an impact on that future.
As for Gabriel Carlsson, this will be his first season start with the Blue Jackets. He came in basically out of thin air at the very end of last season and played solid minutes in the playoffs. His performance might not have blown anybody away but it was impressive for a guy who had no NHL experience to compete like he did.
After a strong showing in training camp, he forced management to give him a spot on the 23-man roster. It’s pretty clear that his potential is very high and he has done well to squeeze himself into an already sturdy defensive group. He has a chance right away to showcase why it was a good move for the Jackets to trade up for a first round pick to select him in the 2016 Draft.
To clarify, I’m not putting on blinders to the rest of the team. I will follow all players as close as I possibly can. This is just a short list of players that, to me, deserve an extra spotlight because of where they’re positioned on the squad right now.
Jackets newcomer Artemi Panarin should be an honorable mention on this list. It will be interesting to see if all the hype is too big for him. I’m not at all worried about him. He has already shown that he is as dynamic as advertised and will provide the Jackets with the scoring help they need.
Like I said before, every player for the Jackets has his own level of importance. As a team, they can do some incredible things. Last year was the best year in franchise history. Can the team build on that historic season and make a push for the playoffs? That’s the big question that they’ll attempt to tackle later on. Right now, it’s all about winning game one.