With training camp officially starting yesterday with player physicals, focus can now turn to some of the potential battles that could take place in training camp. Today I'm going to look at the competition on defense for the 5th, 6th, and 7th spots on the roster. The top four, at least at this point, seems set with James Wisniewski and Fedor Tyutin on the top pairing, and the duo of Marc Methot and Radek Martinek on the second pairing.
Let's take a look at who is in the mix for these three spots, after the jump.It's easy to assume that Kris Russell and Grant Clitsome have the inside track on spots five and six. In Russell's case, he's been a full-time member of the Jackets for a few seasons now. Clitsome joined the team midway through last season, and was an instant boost to an otherwise pathetic powerplay, also showing poise in the defensive zone. This season is different, however, in that Russell and Clitsome won't be assured spots based on past accomplishments. These are two players with something to prove yet, and they have some very talented fellow blueliners nipping at their heels. Those players include the likes of David Savard, John Moore, Nick Holden and Aaron Johnson. Let's take a brief look at each of these players:
What Russ lacks in size, he makes up for with his skating. He's an effortless skater, and his breakouts are a thing of beauty. It's what he does when he gets to the offensive zone that can cause frustration. When he's "on", Russ carries the puck up-ice, uses his skating to avoid checking, and goes to the net, using his above-average wrister to put a shot on goal. He's more than capable of doing this- he just doesn't do it enough. Too often we'll see Russ skate with the puck across the opposition blueline, and either make a bad pass or hesitate, turning the puck over. He doesn't posses a hard or heavy slapshot, he's more of a table-setter. The guy who feeds his partner on the point for one-timers. This season he'll need to stay confident in his abilities with the puck, and take it to the net. He'll need to carve himself a niche on one of the powerplay units, pairing himself with a shooter. He's got the best chance to make the team of any of the players I am talking about here, but given the fact he's undersized and isn't the most physical player in the defensive zone he needs to be producing offensively to be guaranteed a spot.
Clitter (uggh, it is his nickname after all) really surprised when he joined the team last season after being called up from minor-league Springfield. He has a hard and accurate slapper, which proved to be an asset on the powerplay. He was positionally sound in the defensive zone and although, like Russ, he isn't the most physically imposing blueliner, he makes up for it with positioning. Given the fact that his slap shot is as good as it is, I think he's got a great shot at making the squad. He'd be ideal as the shooter on the second powerplay unit (the player firing one-timers on the first unit would undoubtedly be The Wiz) and he brings a solid game five-on-five. He'll need to continue to provide timely offense, especially on the man advantage. Clitsome is a player who has the potential to carry a high "plus" in the +/- category.
Last season was Savard's first pro campaign, playing the entire season with the Springfield Falcons. He went on to finish second in rookie defensemen scoring in the AHL, and was the highest scoring blueliner for the Falcons. He put up 11-32-43 in 72 games played. The offensive ability is obvious, but he is also very adept in his own end. He can run a powerplay, and has a booming shot. I would consider him to be the biggest threat to Russ and Clitter in terms of job takeover- if in camp and to start the season if one of those two players fails to produce any offense or struggles five-on-five, you could see Savard snatch their job. That said, if we're talking the seventh defense spot, Savard would be wasted in the pressbox. If he doesn't outright earn a spot over Russ or Clitter, he should be back in Springfield, where he will be the team's top blueliner.
Moore's fortunes are almost directly in-line with Savard's. Like Savard, Moore was a rookie pro last season, spending the vast majority of the year with the Falcons. While Savard is a point-producer, Moore is more of a puck-mover, a player who creates plays and is seamless in getting the pucks up to the forwards. Like Russell, Moore is an effortless skater, that relies on positioning and skating more than physical play. If he can outshine Russ in all aspects, he could have a job. He's a former first round pick, so there's going to be more pressure on him, but in the end I believe Moore is best suited in Springfield to start the year, where he can improve on his ugly -27 rating from last season.
Last season, Holden had a cup of coffee with the big club and didn't look out of place at all. His style reminds me a bit of former Jacket Rusty Klesla. Holden is a two-way defenseman, a player who isn't afraid to pinch up when necessary, but his best work is on display when he is shutting down opposition forwards. He was signed to a one-year contract this summer, a "last chance" contract as I like to call them. At this point in time, he seems like the best fit as the seventh defenseman. He would be able to slide into the lineup at any point, and he has experience in the AHL. It would allow the younger prospects like Savard and Moore to either play full time minutes on the third pairing in Columbus, or play an even bigger role in Springfield.
Rick Nash's best buddy, Sunshine, is back with the Jackets- the team that drafted him. He's now a veteran and provides steady play in any zone. He isn't relied on for offense, rather he's the kind of guy you don't want to notice. Like Holden, he seems like a good fit as the seventh defenseman, mainly because it would allow the younger prospects to play more, whether it's in Columbus or Springfield.
This is obviously purely speculative, but at this point I see Russell and Clitsome as the bottom pairing. Johnson and Holden will duke it out for the seventh spot, with the other player heading down to Springfield. Savard and/or Moore will have to completely outplay Russell and/or Clitsome, forcing one of the latter to the minors. These battles will be exciting to watch, and fans can rest assured that if one of the regulars goes down, a more than capable replacement is right there to take over.