Blue Jackets’ Preseason Thoughts, Part One

The Columbus Blue Jackets have now completed half of their preseason games after losing in St. Louis Sunday afternoon 5-3.

Now is the time to start talking real takeaways from the four games we have seen. As it stands, the Blue Jackets have 34 players remaining in camp as we approach the final week of preseason action.

There’s really only a couple of decisions left to be made from our estimation. We will try to diagnose the status for you. What have we learned to this point? Let’s dive in.

Joonas Korpisalo Shining

The obvious thing to watch this preseason was the goaltending and who would step up. Joonas Korpisalo has been the best goalie at camp and it’s not close.

He’s allowed just one goal this preseason and has looked comfortable in doing so. He knew a great summer and camp would solidify his spot as the opening night starter and beyond.

His presumed backup Elvis Merzlikins has had nice moments no question, but hasn’t done enough to unseat Korpisalo. I really wonder if time in Cleveland last season would have done him wonders for this season in terms of getting used to the smaller rinks sooner.

You can see Merzlikin’s upside, but he is learning. This begs the question how many starts will each goaltender get out of the gate? I was inclined to think 60/40 depending on performance. At this point, Korpisalo is ahead and I could see him landing 50-60 starts this season.

Korpisalo is also the goalie most familiar with the way the Blue Jackets operate. When pressed into longer action in previous seasons, he’s been good. With consistent reps, he could shine, but he has to prove it when the games count.

The thing I’ve learned to this point about the goalies (subject to change?) Korpisalo has more of a foothold on starting than I imagined. I thought Elvis would make more of an impression. While he’s had some moments, it’s not enough to be the starter or to alternate starts. Korpisalo is the man for now.

Columbus Blue Jackets Joonas Korpisalo
Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Joonas Korpisalo has been excellent this preseason. (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

Did Blue Jackets Send Guys Back Too Early?

On Saturday after the Penguins game, the Blue Jackets did trim their roster to 37. Some interesting names made this list. Trey Fix-Wolansky. Eric Robinson. Kole Sherwood. Kevin Stenlund. Calvin Thurkauf. Gabriel Carlsson.

Upon further review, it doesn’t surprise me all that much. If these guys were going to knock the door down and make the club, they had to be special. While each had good moments, I wouldn’t classify any of it as “special.” Plus the time came to reduce the roster and start to get everything ready for the season. While many of the above could make an impact on the Blue Jackets eventually, they all have important work to do in Cleveland.

In addition, the above mentioned names did not require waivers to get to Cleveland. Because there are a combination of roster locks and contenders who do need waivers, it’s easy to see why the ones who remain are still in Columbus.

So no, it was not too early to send these guys back to Cleveland. Monsters’ camp is starting up so you might as well have them be there from the start. We’ll hear from them at some point. Just not right now.

Evaluating the Bubble

In my mind, there are possibly three roster spots up for grabs. This depends on how many defensemen they decide to keep. If a forward impresses enough, they could force the Blue Jackets to keep seven defenseman. At this point, I think the team will go with 13-8-2, but this week will determine that.

Who is in contention for the final roster spots? Let’s look.

  • Emil Bemstrom: He has absolutely made a difference on the power play. He can shoot. He knows how to move around to cause havoc for the defense. He still needs to get used to the game on the smaller rink. But he is very interesting and has the inside track to a roster spot in my mind.
  • Marko Dano: With Riley Nash, Brandon Dubinsky and Markus Hannikainen seemingly penciled in on the fourth line, if Dano were to make the team, it would be in one of those three spots. He would need waivers to get to Cleveland. The team could elect to keep him as an extra forward, but I feel he ultimately ends up in Cleveland. I don’t think he’s done enough to unseat someone.
  • Sonny Milano: Tick tock. The clock is certainly ticking. With Alex Texier in line to make the roster, that puts Milano on the outside. This is a tricky situation since he know needs waivers and it seems safe to assume someone would claim him. The Blue Jackets would prefer a trade, but who makes that deal given the rocky road? It’s a very interesting situation to monitor. If they want to keep him, they’d have to cut a defenseman loose. Not sure they go down that road, but we’ll see.
  • Jacob Lilja: I have time for Lilja. He scored twice in St. Louis Sunday. He looks comfortable with the puck. If he continues this week and puts up results, then the decision gets that much harder. Big week for him upcoming.

Blue Jackets Still Have a Panarin Sized Hole

Texier is going to be a nice player, but he’s not Artemi Panarin. Very few are. In watching the tape of the Blue Jackets in these four games, offense is going to be tricky at times. Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson are going to see a more focused game plan against them.

Other lines will get their opportunity, but there isn’t that game-changing, difference-making forward on the team.

Atkinson will get his. Dubois will get his. But if they’re shut down, goals are going to be scarce.

Where am I going with this? I don’t think the Blue Jackets are done. They will monitor the RFA situations and see if there’s something they’d pursue. Given the reports of their Marner interest and the tendency of GM Jarmo Kekalainen showing no fear, they will pounce if the opportunity presents itself.

Deep down, the team knows there’s a gaping hole in the Panarin spot. Maybe Texier does enough to limit the loss. But given their interest in Marner, it shows they’re willing to go after the big fish. Some of the biggest deals in recent Blue Jackets’ history sneaked up on everyone (Brandon Saad, Panarin.)

While the most likely outcome suggests status quo, never say never, especially when there is a need and there is cap space.

The Blue Jackets are in Buffalo Wednesday night and then they host New Jersey and St. Louis to finish the preseason. Watch the bubble guys. Watch the RFA situations. And finally watch to see if Korpisalo keeps a strangle hold on the starting job.

We’ll recap everything in part two once the final roster is set.