We continue today with our look at potential training camp battles, which begins Friday with off-ice physicals. In Part 2 I will take a look at the competition among blueliners to be in the starting six when the Jackets open the season on October 8th against the Sharks.
It's assumed that GM Scott Howson was busy this summer looking to upgrade the blueline, but wasn't able to make any moves. It has been reported in various outlets that the Jackets were very much in the mix for Tomas Kaberle, but the Leafs and GM Brian Burke were unable to find a deal that suited them.
Last year's group isn't really different from the group that took the team to the playoffs the year before, with the exception of Anton Stralman. The difference between last year's group and the won that participated in the previous post-season was poor play and conditioning issues. The poster boy for the conditioning issue was Mike Commodore, who modified his off-season workout routine last summer, with disastrous results. Commodore reverted back to his previous routine this summer, and is optimistic that he won't experience the problems he had last year.Commie is a lock to make the squad, given his contract and his ability to be a top level shutdown blueliner.
Jan Hejda, who when paired with Commodore two seasons ago, combined to form one of the league's better shutdown tandems. Commodore's poor play had an impact on Hejda last season, but at the end of the day he was arguably the Jackets' top defender last season. He's very steady in his own end, and tied his career high in goals with three last season. He will be on the opening night squad, it remains to be seen if he is partnered with his former partner in crime in a shutdown role, or if new head coach Scott Arniel opts to go with balanced pairings by slotting him with an offensive type like Kris Russell.
Speaking of Russell, one would have to think that after his second-half breakout last season he is a lock for a top-four spot. He's got the most offensive talent amongst the returning defensemen. It was a real treat to see him rush the puck up-ice late last season, he is an effortless skater and this season I look for him to take the next step and hit the ten goal plateau. He should also see plenty of powerplay time.
Fedor Tyutin is arguably the most complete blueliner on the team, but he still struggles with turnovers. He does well on the powerplay, and is a good second option behind Russell when it comes to supplying offense. He is a player who needs to step it up this season for the Jackets to make the playoffs.
After those four players things get murky. Rusty Klesla suffered another major injury last season, but he is healthy going into this season. Under former coach Ken Hitchcock, Rusty was streamlined into a defense-first rearguard, and his game excelled. He's the ideal partner for an offensive player who isn't solid in his own end.
On that note you'd have to think that after signing a new contract, Anton Stralman would be a lock for the team. He has serious offensive talent and has the ability to be lethal on the powerplay. That said, his defensive game is severely lacking. He's more of a forward on the ice, but given the relative lack of back-end offense outside of Russell, Stralman's talents are a necessity in the lineup.
Also in the mix is Marc Methot. He is an interesting player, for a supposed defensive-defenseman he is a great skater and has the ability to put up a reasonable amount of offense. If Howson were able to strike a deal to upgrade the defense, Methot seems like trade bait. He has value, but I just don't see him playing over a healthy Rusty Klesla or taking away from the offense that Stralman brings.
Grant Clitsome spent time with the big club and didn't look out of place. He made a few errors, but that was to be expected for a rookie. He is another player who has offensive talent, and if he has a good camp he's got the pro experience to make the roster.
The biggest wild card in my opinion is John Moore. The former first rounder almost made the squad last year out of camp, but the (proper) decision was made to send him back to junior last season. He has the talent to unseat Klesla, Methot, Stralman or Clitsome in the lineup. My guess is that unless he is the star of camp, he'll start the season in Springfield, but he won't be there for long.
My prediction of the starting six:
Hejda - Commodore
Tyutin - Russell
Klesla - Stralman
As you can see I am optimistic that Hejda and Commodore will return to their form from two seasons ago, matching up against the opposition's top line and getting the lion's share of PK time. Tyutin and Russell seem like a good pairing, they can work off of each other to create offense and get the puck to the forwards.
I see Rusty battling hard for a spot, he's got a chip on his shoulder and is looking to prove that he is a quality rearguard. Another battle I see is for the sixth defenseman. That is a spot geared perfectly for a special team player, and Stralman fits the bill. He will see plenty of PP time, but won't be relied on for much five on five.He will battle John Moore for this spot.
Marc Methot will make the team, but won't dress in my scenario. He and Rusty are in a direct battle for the bottom pairing, and with both players offering similar skill sets, I see Rusty getting the upper hand due to his experience.
Grant Clitsome seems to be the odd man out, but he will be the leader on defense in Springfield and will be tops on the list for a callup.
I believe that Hejda, Commodore, Russell and Tyutin are locks.
Rusty Klesla and Marc Methot are battling for the fifth spot, PK time and riding shotgun to an offensive type.
Stralman and Moore are locking horns for the last starting spot, with plenty of PP time.
Clitsome I see being sent to Springfield.
These are my predictions, what are yours?