The National Hockey League is days away from attempting to complete its 2019-20 season with a 24-team playoff tournament to decide a Stanley Cup Champion.
The Columbus Blue Jackets, among the other 23 teams, brought a roster of 31 players into the “secure zones” or “bubbles” located in the hub cities of Toronto, Ontario, and Edmonton, Alberta, as the playoffs begin Aug. 1.
While much of the Blue Jackets’ 31-player roster contains battle-tested veterans like Nick Foligno, Cam Atkinson, and Seth Jones, 38% of the players aren’t just green in age, but in NHL experience as well.
These players aren’t all your typical NHL rookies by definition, but rather all 12 players have just under 77 games of total NHL experience. In other words, they have experience in other leagues outside the NHL such as the AHL, KHL, etc., but don’t have enough games under their belts to be considered NHL regulars just yet.
Here are all the skaters that fit that definition and that look to have an impact and produce some magic for the Blue Jackets in order to get past the play-in round against the Toronto Maple Leafs and beyond:
When looking at the Blue Jackets’ forward group, there is a good mix of a veteran presence with youthful exuberance on each and every line giving the opportunity for some difference-making performances. The projected bottom-six forwards personify that exact sentiment.
Young forwards like Alexandre Texier and Emil Bemstrom have shown incredible promise over the course of the season. Texier played up and down the lineup displaying smooth, play-making ability, and Bemstrom showcased his quick release and devastating one-time shot beating goaltenders on the power play.
Throughout camp, Texier and Bemstrom have moved around different lines, but both have since settled on a projected third line with center Alexander Wennberg. This gives the opportunity to put a play-making center with great passing ability alongside two skilled and shifty players that can find soft spots in the defensive zone.
While the Blue Jackets’ youth presents some skill, they also promise blistering speed, particularly down the wing with forwards like Eric Robinson and 2018 first-round pick Liam Foudy. Both are on a projected fourth line with a steady, well-rounded center in Riley Nash.
Robinson has shown flashes of speed throughout the regular season and is slowly developing a scoring touch in camp with a team-leading five goals in five scrimmages including a hat trick performance. He has had a solid season with 7 goals and 12 points in a fourth-line role and could be looking for more.
Foudy on the other hand, ever since his impressive NHL debut against the Tampa Bay Lightning back in February, has caught the eye Blue Jackets’ head coach John Tortorella, particularly with his play away from the puck. If Robinson’s or Foudy’s hands ever catch up with their speed, the fourth-line combination with a player like Nash could give Tortorella the option to roll four lines.
As of moving towards the NHL bubble, the inexperienced forwards on the outside looking in are Kevin Stenlund and Stefan Matteau. Both players had great stints with the Blue Jackets after countless injuries.
Matteau was called up to the Blue Jackets in February and had an impressive three points in three games before tailing off in production, but Stenlund showcased a dangerous shot with a quick release and got plenty of power-play time and even time at center for his solid two-way play.
Although Matteau and Stenlund aren’t likely to play at the start of the play-in series, they could absolutely draw in if a player fails to meet expectations or if injuries continue to be an issue.
It’s hard to believe that Vladislav Gavrikov only has 71 games of NHL experience to his name, including the two games played against the Boston Bruins in the second round last year, but the Russian defenseman has used a good start to his NHL career and become a fixture on a shutdown second pair with David Savard.
You would think that Gavrikov would have 200-plus games, if not more, of NHL experience under his belt with a calm, cool, and collected demeanor that he shows along with Savard. However, Gavrikov did play over 200-plus games in the KHL including 50-plus playoff games in five seasons before signing with the Blue Jackets in April of 2019.
A defenseman to watch for the Blue Jackets that isn’t in the typical spotlight like Seth Jones or Zach Werenski is Dean Kukan. He has been in and out of the lineup for the last few seasons and has bounced between the NHL and AHL, but still has just 77 games of NHL experience in four NHL seasons.
This would be a concern, but in the limited time he has played has been extremely encouraging. Kukan’s ability to carry the puck with speed as well as the crucial long pass out of his own zone shows that he has all the tools to move up and down defensive pairs, just like he did with playing on a pair with Jones in late December.
The inexperienced defensemen on the outside looking in are Andrew Peeke and Gabriel Carlsson. Peeke seems to be a defenseman that is held in high regard by the Blue Jackets brass. Meanwhile, Carlsson, a first-round pick in 2015, seems to have fallen out of favor over the years but does find himself on the Jackets’ NHL bubble roster.
Peeke played three seasons with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and was a captain before signing with the Blue Jackets on April 1, 2019. He split the season between the AHL and NHL and looked to be a solid option on the bottom pair and even saw time on the top pair with Werenski late in the 2019-20 season.
Carlsson, on the other hand, has fallen off drastically since making his NHL debut against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2016-17 playoff series, but has since put together a nice season in the AHL this year with 2 goals and 12 points in 41 games while substantially improving as a defender.
Peeke and Carlsson can both add something on the bottom pair if injuries do arise, but the Blue Jackets are best served to turn to veterans like Scott Harrington or Adam Clendening if injuries overwhelm the team.
Goaltending is often seen as one of the most difficult positions to play in sports and none would revel in that pressure and spotlight more than Elvis Merzlikins. He has had a dynamic rookie season in the NHL highlighted by a spectacular stretch of five shutouts in eight games.
Merzlikins has come a long way in a short time and hasn’t really resembled a rookie since allowing 7 goals on 40 shots in a 7-2 defeat to the Pittsburgh Penguins in his NHL debut. Merzlikins is battling with Joonas Korpisalo to assume the net for Game 1 of the postseason play-in series against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Aug. 2.
Although Merzlikins is seen as someone that can go on a Jordan Binnington-type run through the playoffs, we have to remember that this has been a Blue Jackets’ season filled with wacky circumstances when it comes to injury. So, it pays to have a solid No. 3 goaltender to calm things down and look no further than his Latvian counterpart in Matiss Kivlenieks.
If one of Merzlikins or Korpisalo goes down to injury, the other would almost certainly be the starter, but Kivlenieks has to be ready for anything. He got a taste this season and didn’t seem to shy away from the responsibility. Kivlenieks won his first career NHL start against the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden, raising the question if goaltending has been figured out in Columbus.
Looking ahead to the postseason, Merzlikins is probably the most vital NHL rookie that the Blue Jackets have and with the history of injuries this year, Kivlenieks adds an extra layer of importance.
Ready for Bubble Hockey
After four and a half long months, the NHL finally seems to be getting back on track after the NHL paused its season way back on March 12. All of the teams have reported to their hub cities and are now practicing with exhibition games scheduled to start in the early evening on Tuesday.
The Blue Jackets, like any other team, will rely on their veterans to set the tone of their play with the rookies and young players following suit, hoping that a handful of them step up and make names for themselves in this fast and furious postseason.
Whether it’s forwards, defensemen, or goaltenders, each and every player will have a chance to make their mark when the stakes are at their highest, even if high-intensity hockey has never been seen in the month of August.