Blue Jackets Facing Tough Final Roster Decisions

The Columbus Blue Jackets were able to squeak out a 2-1 win over the Washington Capitals on Saturday night at Nationwide Arena. But in the process, there still remains many unanswered questions when it comes to who will make the final 23-man opening night roster.

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Elvis Merzlikins was the star of the night, stopping 33 of 34 shots to help preserve the win. Two players squarely on the bubble in Carson Meyer and Yegor Chinakhov scored the goals. But as for the rest of the team, there was a lack of energy especially in the first 40 minutes.

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This is the part of training camp that gets hard for everyone involved. For the players, the glamour of reporting to camp has worn off. It’s now a daily grind. For coaches and management, they still have several hard decisions to make over this upcoming week.

With over 10 players sitting on the bubble with a chance to make the Blue Jackets, not only will there be hard decisions made. There will be unpopular decisions made.

Our focus today is the current state of the Blue Jackets’ bubble. They have up to three more games to make their final decisions. One of the games will act as a final dress rehearsal with who is most likely safely on the roster. Don’t be surprised if all of the bubble players dress for Monday’s game in Carolina. That roster should be telling about where many guys stand.

No one knows yet how things will break on the final roster. But by sharing who is on the bubble, it should paint a picture of how hard these decisions are. Do the Blue Jackets go with 13 or 14 forwards? Do they carry an eighth defenseman instead? How will any potential injuries factor into all this? What about waivers status? That could come into play more so than usual this season.

Blue Jackets’ Bubble Forwards

  • Yegor Chinakhov: Chinakhov has three goals this preseason and looks more comfortable in training camp. He has a strong case to make the final roster.
  • Emil Bemstrom: Bemstrom has been noticeable at times. However there are times where you have to look hard to find him. The fact remains the team still really believes in him and what he could become. He’s been given top-six chances throughout the preseason and has been just ok overall. This could come down to the very end. He would need waivers for Cleveland.
Emil Bemstrom Blue Jackets
Emil Bemstrom has gotten a long look on the top-six but is on the bubble. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)
  • Brendan Gaunce: Gaunce is one of several players trying to earn a bottom-six spot. He’s been fine but with so much competition for those spots, he hasn’t been overwhelming enough to definitively say he makes the final roster. Still expect him to be one of the first callups to fill that role when needed. He would also need waivers for Cleveland.
  • Mathieu Olivier: The Blue Jackets traded for him to fill a specific role as a bottom-six winger with size. He’s been ok but nothing special. Still the fact they acquired him for a role could eventually play in his favor when decision time comes.
  • James Neal: For a PTO to earn a contract, they would need to be noticeable throughout. Neal has been noticeable when he’s played. But I’m not sure he’s outright won a position so far. If he were to make the team, that would knock someone else out.
  • Victor Rask: Like Neal, Rask came to camp on a PTO. However he’s been just ok. We don’t expect a contract to come in this situation.
  • Kirill Marchenko: This one is tougher than you might think. Marchenko has stood out at times. You can tell he’s played against men. But he is adjusting to the smaller ice. Since he wouldn’t need waivers for Cleveland, there’s a chance he ends up with the Monsters. In that case, he could play top-line minutes right away. Bottom-six in Columbus or first line in Cleveland? That is the question.
Kirill Marchenko Columbus Blue Jackets
Kirill Marchenko has played well but still finds himself on the bubble. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
  • Liam Foudy: Tough situation for Foudy as he’s recovering from an injury and hasn’t appeared in the preseason. Reports are he’s added a lot of muscle. He’s still an intriguing player when healthy. He would need waivers for the AHL now. Curious to see how this situation plays out.
  • Joona Luoto: Luoto is trying to resurrect an NHL career. We think he starts in Cleveland since he hasn’t been noticeably better than the competition. He does not need waivers to get to the Monsters.
  • Trey Fix-Wolansky: Fix-Wolansky is another one trying to find a bottom-six role. Despite needing waivers for the AHL, he hasn’t done enough in our site to tip the scales. Though he would be in line as one of the first callups.
  • Carson Meyer: Meyer has done everything in his power to stand out in this preseason and has been one of the most noticeable throughout. While he’s not a lock, he’s in the tier just below that just making the cut if a decision needed to be made today.

Our locks: Johnny Gaudreau, Patrik Laine, Boone Jenner, Jake Voracek, Gus Nyquist, Jack Roslovic, Sean Kuraly, Eric Robinson, Cole Sillinger, Kent Johnson, Justin Danforth (11).

Blue Jackets’ Bubble Defensemen

  • Jake Bean: His contract likely dictates Bean to make the roster, but he’s been underwhelming in our viewings. We haven’t seen noticeable improvement from last season early on. He could make the roster but start as a healthy scratch. At least with fans, the overwhelming majority believe Bean would be the odd-man out.
  • Nick Blankenburg: It’s Blankenburg’s energy and effort that is warranting a discussion surrounding who the sixth defenseman will be come opening night. He’s making good decisions with the puck and you’re always noticing him on the ice. Of note, it was Blankenburg who played with Gavrikov to defend a late 2-1 lead Saturday night. He also led the Blue Jackets in TOI. He has one of the strongest bubble cases to make the roster.
  • Gavin Bayreuther: Bayreuther has been fine but is caught up in a number’s game with so much competition. His path to making the team would be if the Blue Jackets elect to keep eight defensemen. Even if he makes the roster, we don’t suspect he would play opening night. Waivers would be needed here.
  • David Jiricek: There’s no question the Blue Jackets are giving Jiricek a long look since he has more options. You can see the flashes of his talent. It’s a matter of adjusting to the league. Since waivers would not be needed, having him in Cleveland as their number-one defenseman playing top minutes is a good idea at the start. Once he’s had games, then bring him up. However we cannot rule him out of making the team yet. Jiricek, Marchenko and Tarasov potentially in Cleveland together? That would be fun.
  • Jake Christiansen: Christiansen played in the game Saturday night. He was fine but it seems clear that he’s behind in the race. We do expect to see him with the Blue Jackets at different points throughout the season though. Waivers are not needed here.

Our locks: Zach Werenski, Vladislav Gavrikov, Adam Boqvist, Erik Gudbranson, Andrew Peeke (5).

Analysis

If we assume our 16 locks to be true, that leaves five players that will make the cut along with the two goaltenders. Not only are the forwards competing with each other, they’re also competing with the defensemen too.

Related: Blue Jackets’ Peeke Extension Will Force Tough Defense Decisions

The thing that seems to stick out here is effort and compete. With so many similar players trying to make the cut, they have to do something to stand out. The obvious thing for them to do is be noticeable each and every shift they take the ice. That shift could be the difference between starting on the Blue Jackets or missing the cut.

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We also think waivers status could come into play. Players can be waived now so watch when the list is released at 2 P.M. eastern. This will provide additional hints as to what could be coming.

This week’s games carry an extra level of importance. It might be the last chance to make their case.

At the end of the day, expect a surprise or two. With only 23 spots available, deserving players will not hear their name called. That’s why making this season’s opening night roster will be tough for the Blue Jackets.


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