Who will the Columbus Blue Jackets’ first-line center be? That’s a question that has been a mainstay throughout the franchise’s short history. Many have tried to take that top spot, and many have failed to maintain a long-term hold on it.
Only twice in history has there been a player who has looked like they had a legitimate claim to the throne. But the Blue Jackets traded away both Ryan Johansen and Pierre-Luc Dubois before realizing that potential.
Since Dubois’ departure last January, the slot is once again up for grabs, and many are vying for it. Those who flame out will not be able to claim a lack of talent on the wings as an excuse. Their linemates will be supreme sniper Patrik Laine, who already looks a step ahead of last season, and playmaking extraordinaire Jakub Voracek, who seems invigorated for the challenge ahead of him in his return to Ohio.
Today we’ll be looking at candidates with a shot to claim that top spot this season and who should ultimately fill that spot.
Cole Sillinger – The Fresh Face
The question of if Cole Sillinger, 18, would be on the opening night roster seems to be all but officially settled. Most people in the know with the Blue Jackets are saying he will be in the lineup against Arizona on Oct. 14. The question now is, where will he be in the lineup?
Sillinger saw one preseason game in that top spot after spending much of training camp there. He looked good, but not exceptional, which saw him bumped for other talents in the latter half of preseason. He’s close, but not there yet. Will he be an option to duke it out with the highly skilled Kent Johnson for the throne long-term?
Alexandre Texier – The Former Heir Apparent
Alexandre Texier, 22, had as much fanfare as any prospect when he made his way over to North America in 2018-19. He proved he was ready for a roster spot on the most offensively loaded team in Blue Jackets history, scoring two goals in the series-clinching game against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning.
His performance in those playoffs stoked the fire of hype, which led to talk about him as someone who could fill the top center slot. Since then, Texier has shown the occasional flash of brilliance but has disappointed overall. The Frenchman came from the Finnish league (SM-Liiga) as a center, but has shifted to the wing and is now back in the middle again. Texier has seen some pre-season action on that top line and has stuck there so far. What is up for debate is the possibility of him being there throughout the season.
Texier has the skill; there’s no question about it. But consistency and injuries have been issues for him so far. He has the makings of a Jonathan Toews-type player; two-way minded, tenacious on the puck with an abundance of skill.
Whether this No. 42 will provide the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything in Columbus is unknown, but this could be his last season to prove he’s an impact player, with a slew of young forward prospects knocking on the door.
Boone Jenner – The Reliable Workhorse
The leader of the future in Columbus, Boone Jenner is a consummate professional. He’s been described as the personification of the Blue Jackets. He’s hard working, defensively responsible, and goes about his business in a way that can rally the troops.
An area that Jenner bests his peers is faceoff percentage. His career mark is 54 percent, and his last two years were above 55 percent. Starting a shift with possession through a faceoff win would immeasurably help a top-line whose success will rely on their having the puck.
Not bereft of skill, the former 30-goal scorer has proven the ability to chip in offensively from time to time, seemingly finding himself a home on the power play this preseason. He has created a reputation of reliability and versatility as a glue guy, which has made him indispensable to the core of the team over the course of his eight-year career.
Max Domi – The Wildcard
Max Domi, 26, is the only player on the list that hasn’t been seen filling in that top line yet, but he has just as much of a chance to take the role as anyone else. He brings a unique blend of skill and grit that attracted the team to trade for him.
Domi has bounced around, spending time at each forward position, but his most successful season came as a centerman with the Montreal Canadiens. He put up 72 points through 82 games of play as a pivot, which outpaces the Blue Jackets’ all-time record for a center.
The forward disappointed in his first campaign in Columbus, which even led to being exposed in the Seattle expansion draft, but he has a lot going for him. He is still on the right side of 30, with over 400 games of NHL experience. Throughout those games, he’s held a .641 point-per-game average, which equates to an average of 52 points through a full 82 game season. That mark is high above his first season of production in Ohio — .444 points per game, 36 points through an 82 game proration.
He is a strong bounce-back candidate. A fresh shoulder, a new coach, an expiring contract — there is a lot of incentive for Domi to be the player that the Blue Jackets brass had hoped for when they traded Josh Anderson for him at the draft in 2020.
Who Should It Be and Who Will It Be?
Looking through the greatest lines in NHL history, what most have in common is balance. A line that I look at as a model for what could be seen in Columbus is the Anaheim Ducks powerhouse line of the late 1990s.
Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne flanked the line; as two of the world’s top talents, they didn’t need much down the middle to support them and let them do what they did best. Steve Rucchin was the perfect “middle-man” between two Hall of Fame talents. A strong two-way talent who could score, if needed, but he mainly filled in the gaps left from the two offense-first forces.
Boone Jenner should be the perfect candidate to fit that benchmark. He can win some faceoffs, dig the puck out of the corners, and be strong on the backcheck, allowing Laine and Voracek to focus on doing what they do best.
But while Jenner would provide the most balance for my money, it seems like Larsen and co. are leaning towards Texier up the middle of that line. If ‘Tex’ starts there, this could be a make or break for the Frenchman. With other strong prospects nipping at his heels, this could be his last shot to prove that he deserves to be a long-term top-six option.
Writer covering the Columbus Blue Jackets for THW since August 2021.
Co-host of the Blue Jackets’ focused “Union Junction Podcast” on The Hockey Writers’ podcast network.
Also, a radio personality and reporter currently based on Vancouver Island.