In an offseason highlighted by the acquisition of superstar winger Artemi Panarin from Chicago, the Columbus Blue Jackets should feel pretty good headed into training camp. Most of the key pieces from last year’s squad are still in place. Two of those pieces are forwards Alexander Wennberg and Josh Anderson, who at this moment are still in need of new contracts. Both are RFAs who the Jackets value strongly. There isn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind that these two get extensions before the offseason is over.
One of the biggest questions remaining for this Jackets team right now is “who is going to play center on the third line?”. The departure of William Karlsson to the Las Vegas Golden Knights via the expansion draft leaves big shoes to fill. Fellow Blue Jackets writer Mark Scheig recently gave his perspective on this very situation. I thought I’d piggyback off his ideas and provide my own opinions on what options the Jackets have to fill their third line center role.
Is Pierre-Luc Dubois Ready for the NHL?
I think Pierre-Luc Dubois is the first name that comes to mind for many people when considering who fills the third centerman opening. Everybody surrounding the organization is intrigued to see what he can do at the NHL level. The former third overall pick in 2016 has a lot to prove after a down year in the QMJHL this past season. What a gigantic opportunity the youngster has this coming training camp to persuade his drafted team that he’s ready for the challenge.
Move Boone Jenner to the Middle?
Boone Jenner has spent the majority of his career on the wing. But he played center at the junior level and has tried it out at the NHL level, too. It has just been a preference of the Jackets to keep him on the wing likely to get in first on the forecheck and grind along the boards with his big frame.
Under head coach John Tortorella, he has been leaned on for his efforts in the defensive zone. He also has a 30-goal season to his name which he accomplished two seasons ago. Even if Jenner is viewed as a downgrade defensively compared to William Karlsson, his offensive capabilities make him a viable candidate for the third line center. Putting Jenner in that role creates a strong balance amongst the forward group. Plus, he’s listed as a center on his NHL.com player profile. A move to the middle for Boone Jenner would make a whole lot of sense.
Sign a Free Agent?
Last year on Aug. 1, the Jackets made a low-risk decision by signing former 2007 first round pick of the Edmonton Oilers, Sam Gagner. That experiment turned out to be a huge success as Gagner tallied a line of 18-32-50, his best season since his rookie year. Gagner also left the Jackets this summer, signing with Vancouver as a free agent.
Most of the top remaining free agents are wingers so if the Jackets end up signing a true centerman, it probably means they’re trying to add some more depth at the position. There doesn’t appear to be any Sam Gagner’s lurking in the free agent waters right now that the Jackets can reel in. But who knows? Maybe General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen has his eye on someone he likes.
Matt Duchene Still a Possibility?
For the first couple days of free agency, there were rumors flying all over the place regarding Colorado forward Matt Duchene. He’s pretty much been on the trade block since the beginning of spring and one rumored landing spot is Columbus. The discussion surrounding the Avalanche star have come crashing down since the first couple days in July but a trade is certainly not out of the equation.
Former Blue Jackets beat writer Aaron Portzline joined the BSN Colorado Avalanche podcast last week with most of the discussions centered around a Duchene trade. The hosts of the podcast, AJ Haefele and Adrian Dater, believe a Duchene trade is inevitable and they’re just waiting any day now for the trade to happen. Because his name has been out there for so long and since the Avs are trying to rebound quickly after a horrific season, it is believed that General Manager Joe Sakic must win the trade. He isn’t backing down from his steep asking price.
The Blue Jackets make perfect sense for Duchene. They’re a very young team trying to repeat a record-breaking season lacking center depth – including a true #1 center – and looking for as much offense as possible to compete against a loaded Metropolitan Division. The Jackets are also in need of somebody who can win draws as they finished in the bottom third of the league last year in team face off win percentage. Duchene had a career high face off percentage of 62.57% last season.
If in fact the Jackets acquired Duchene, they more than likely lose a forward off their NHL roster. However, the addition of Duchene would still create a strong top three lines. Wennberg would move down to the second line while Brandon Dubinsky becomes the third line center. There are certainly other trade options the Jackets could pursue that may involve giving up much less to acquire a third line center. But Duchene has been the hottest name on the trade market for a while with the Jackets being linked to him every step of the way.
The Jackets are definitely going to look inside their organization first to fill that third center hole. It may appear to be Dubois’ to take but I just have a feeling he will make a living in the NHL on the wing. Dubois’ performance during training camp will dictate how the Jackets go about filling the hole in the middle of the third line. If he wows during training camp as a center iceman, then he’s the guy. If he underwhelms, that’s when the Jackets start looking at other options. My prediction, though, is that Dubois spends another year in the CHL to develop his overall game before playing alongside the big dogs.
I believe it makes the most sense to transition Jenner to center if the Jackets decide to stay in-house. The Jackets have plenty of wingers including Cam Atkinson and Oliver Bjorkstrand that belong in the top six. Not to say that Jenner doesn’t. His move down to the third creates room for those two. Plus, I really enjoy watching Boone Jenner and Josh Anderson play on the same line. No matter who’s on the left wing, there’s already a lot of weight being thrown around with those two.
All in all, the Jackets have options. They’ll figure out in the next month which of the above options is best for the team. It should be noted that all these options stay on the table through pre-season and into the regular season. The front office is constantly evaluating so if they don’t like Plan A, they’ll move right along to Plan B. Hopefully, at least one of these plans works out allowing the Jackets to recapture the tremendous success they achieved last season.