Training camp is finally underway. From a Columbus Blue Jackets’ perspective, that means starting to get the answers to some important questions surrounding the team. Opportunity is available in a way that it hasn’t been in recent seasons.
As head coach John Tortorella put it on Wednesday at Media Day, this was the last time that he would make reference to the departed players in Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Sergei Bobrovsky. Although he still respects them, they are no longer here and is done talking about them. It’s time to turn the page to perhaps the most intriguing season surrounding this team in a very long time, perhaps ever.
That’s what this column will discuss. We will focus on the stories to follow as the 2019-20 season gets in full swing. We’ll hit the pressure points. We’ll touch on roster dark horses. We’ll touch on other notes around the team. This will be our comprehensive look at the Blue Jackets as we embark on the preseason and beyond.
Let’s first touch on who is not available for the team. Liam Foudy does have an upper-body injury. Stefan Matteau is also injured. Both of these were announced by the team at Media Day. Markus Hannikainen was also unavailable due to an immigration issue, but he is here now. Unfortunately for him, he will still have to complete the two-mile run. No dodging that one.
All others are healthy and available to start camp. The Blue Jackets released the initial groups they will use for practices and scrimmages. You can see the full listing here.
You can never draw definitive conclusions from how groups are split. But there are some pockets of interesting information you can gather.
From a pure lines perspective, the top three lines seem to be:
- Alexandre Texier-Pierre-Luc Dubois-Cam Atkinson
- Gustav Nyqvist-Alexander Wennberg-Oliver Bjorkstrand
- Nick Foligno-Boone Jenner-Josh Anderson
This is a pretty good top-nine despite the losses and despite not including players who could win a spot up there (Emil Bemstrom.) But there are questions. Here are the main ones we will be watching:
- Where will Texier play at the start? He can play both wing and center and affords the Blue Jackets flexibility depending on need and the performance of others.
- Is the worst behind Wennberg? It really can’t get much lower than last season. He has the talent. He now has a fellow countryman in Nyqvist there. If Wennberg can find his game and play to the level he’s capable of, that will help offset some of the losses from Panarin and Duchene being gone. It’s a lot to ask, but he’s an important player. If he struggles again, serious questions will have to be asked.
- Tortorella told the media Wednesday that Foligno would get the first crack on the left of Dubois. At least on the groups, Foligno finds himself with Jenner and Anderson. Again, can’t draw conclusions based on groups. Regardless, this is an important year for the captain and he knows it. He must contribute offensively no matter which line he’s asked to play.
- The wildcard in the top-nine is Bjorkstrand. There is no denying the ability has has to put the puck in the net. But in a time where offense is desperately needed, Bjorkstrand must step up. Seth Jones admitted on media day that Bjorkstrand can be a 30-goal scorer. He has to show he can do it now. His issue has been consistency which has resulted in lower ice time than many would like. Oliver has to come in make it happen from day one.
- The fourth line has players like Brandon Dubinsky, Riley Nash and Hannikainen. But where does Bemstrom fit? What about Sonny Milano who needs waivers to get to Cleveland? What about others fighting for a roster spot? More on the roster battles later. For now, the fourth line cannot be a liability. Which players not only win a roster spot but also play well enough to stay?
On defense, the Blue Jackets have an important question to ponder. Are they better off splitting Zach Werenski & Seth Jones? At least to start, they are each in different groups.
Ryan Murray is with Jones and David Savard is with Werenski. It appears the team will explore the feasibility of this top-four to see if it can work. Then your third pair seems to be Markus Nutivaara and Vladislav Gavrikov. Scott Harrington, Dean Kukan and Adam Clendening are all in the mix too. But that’s nine defensemen.
Something has to give here. Of the above names, only Gavrikov doesn’t need waivers to get to Cleveland. So if he makes it, someone might have to get waived. Or maybe, just maybe, the Blue Jackets look at a trade given the amount of depth that they have on defense.
Remember Gabriel Carlsson? He went from starting a playoff game to now being 10th or 11th on the depth chart. He was injured part of last year which bumped him down. He is someone worth watching for potential trade. The former first-round pick does have talent, but has a bunch of players to jump. Wonder if a change would do him good?
And keep your eyes on Andrew Peeke. He is in line to play big minutes for the Monsters but is an injury or two away in Columbus from a call-up. The team is high on him.
The top-two goalies in both Columbus and Cleveland seem set. Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins will start with the Blue Jackets while Matiss Kivlenieks and Veini Vehvilainen will each play in Cleveland, most likely. Brad Thiessen will also resume his role on the Monsters.
Some questions stand out as being worth monitoring. How will Korpisalo and Merzlikins split starts? Korpisalo is the expected starter for their regular season opener. If he plays the part, he could easily get 50+ starts. He’s never had more than 31 games played in a season. What if Merzlikins gets hot and plays well?
For the first time in a long time, the Blue Jackets go into a season with a potential 1A and 1B situation. The workhorse is gone. It will be fascinating to see how Tortorella decides who plays throughout the season.
In Cleveland, how long will it take Vehvilainen to adjust to the smaller rink over the course of a season? And don’t forget about Kivlenieks. Matiss the beast as they say is a good prospect and the team is high on him. Don’t discount the experience he comes in with now.
Some Names to Watch
That top-nine above is a pretty good one. But the Blue Jackets do have some guys knocking on the door. If they have a great camp, the team will make room for them.
So who are some names we are watching that could surprise and earn a roster spot? Let the battle begin.
- Eric Robinson: He got a little lost in the shuffle last season but did get some time in Columbus. Outside of Emil Bemstrom, Robinson is the player next in line for me in terms of making this team.
- Kole Sherwood: I think he’d be a perfect fit on the fourth line as he plays with an edge and can chip in some offense if asked to. He got into a game last season so he’s close. Can he knock someone off?
- Marko Dano: He’s back. After being included in the Brandon Saad deal and then bouncing around the league, Dano is back to where his career first started. His issue is the players seemingly ahead of him. He would need waivers, so perhaps he’s in as the 13th or 14th forward? Tough to say at this point.
- Sonny Milano: If only he had the defensive game figured out. He has the offense and has enjoyed some limited NHL success. But in a numbers world, where does he fit? This is a huge camp for him, obviously.
- Jakob Lilja: He was Bemstrom’s teammate in Sweden and enjoyed success. While I am intrigued by him, he doesn’t need waivers. I believe he’s destined for Cleveland but he’ll be someone I’m watching all season.
- Zac Dalpe: He was everything for the Monsters last season. He’s proven he can excel at that level and wants his chance in Columbus. He would make for a fine fourth-line candidate if he kills it at camp.
- Liam Foudy: The team will give him every chance to show he’s ready. I’m just not ready to give him a spot full-time. He’s in the running though. For me, it’s top-nine or London. Either he’s ready for a full workload in Columbus or he returns to London, dominates, gets to play in the World Juniors and tries to help the Knights in the OHL Playoffs. He’ll get multiple looks in the preseason.
- I asked GM Jarmo Kekalainen on media day about his thoughts on if 19-year olds playing in the CHL/juniors should get the option of going to the AHL. He admitted it should be on a case-by-case basis but did say he supports what’s currently going on. Foudy is in that boat where the AHL is not an option. Kekalainen said he would return to London if he didn’t make Columbus. Elliotte Friedman wondered if this would be a topic as part of the next CBA.
- John Tortorella on making mistakes: “Each year that goes by, especially for me the last two years, this league has turned into just mistakes. It is a game of mistakes.” With as many as four rookies that could make this lineup, how will Tortorella handle this if mistakes keep happening? He went on to admit the thing that really bothers him. “But the mistake that is made all the time, every time and that it keeps on coming at you, those are the ones that get under a coaches’ skin.” So expect there to be plenty of mistakes, but watch how it’s handled. He went on to say he wants his players to express themselves. How patient will he be? It will be interesting to watch.
- Don’t be surprised if the Blue Jackets are stealth looking for ways to improve their forward group before the season. They have to see where the kids stand, but with cap room, depth and options, one can never rule out this possibility.
The Blue Jackets open their preseason Tuesday night at home against the Buffalo Sabres. Unlike preseasons past, this one will have plenty to watch out for. With so many things up in the air, one or two really good performances can make the difference whether someone gets an NHL job or gets sent back to the AHL. In six years covering this team, there hasn’t been a more interesting preseason all things considered. Last season was drama. This season has numerous possibilities. May the best Blue Jacket win.