When Blue Jackets training camp opened this year, there were realistically two forward spots open. The expectation was that those spots would be claimed by Ryan Johansen, and… well… let's just say it was open season. The candidates included Cam Atkinson, Tomas Kubalik, Maksim Mayorov, as well as AHL guys such as Alexandre Giroux.
As we close in on the last two exhibition games, how is the race shaping up? The early returns make it look like the two spots are Johansen's and Mayorov's to lose, but let's take a closer look at their performances. Some quick hits:
Johansen: 3 GP; 2G, 0A; +3; 6 PIM; 2-for-5 shooting (40.0%)
Mayorov: 4 GP; 2G, 2A; Even; 0 PIM; 2-for-5 shooting (40.0%) - 1 SHG, 1 GWG
Atkinson: 4 GP; 1G, 0A; Even; 0 PIM; 1-for-11 shooting (9.1%)
Kubalik: 1 GP, no stats (has been out with a concussion)
Giroux: 4 GP; 1G, 3A; +1; 2 PIM; 1-for-12 shooting (8.3%) - 1 PPG, 1 GWG
But, while numbers don't always tell the whole story, they do give us a pretty good start. Let's try to delve a little deeper.If you look at the numbers, however, it seems as though Johansen and Mayorov would be the front-runners, with Giroux also in the discussion. Johansen has solid numbers in his work so far, and hasn't looked overwhelmed yet by the NHL game. The wild card, of course, is that Joey would have to go back to juniors if he doesn't make the big-club. This is a move that's tough to justify given the fact that he has nothing to prove in the WHL, and his Portland team may take a big step backward with so many guys having been drafted from the Winterhawks. In other words, the organization can't really make the argument to send him back for "playoff experience," after last year's run to the WHL Championship series. He also put up 120 points in 84 games last year. There's no reason for him to go back.
Cam Atkinson certainly shows flashes, but his situation isn't quite as dire as someone like Johansen's; Atkinson can go straight to the AHL, and can be recalled if needed or if he earns it. The NCAA scoring machine hasn't looked overmatched, despite his diminutive size. It's a question that's going to follow him everywhere, but he owns it; he seems to enjoy proving people wrong. Atkinson can skate with the big boys, and doesn't give up the puck easily. He also displays pure skill in the scoring areas when he has chances. His time will come; I just don't think it's right now, given the numbers game with Johansen, and with the play of this next guy.
Mayorov may have been one of the surprises of camp. He's long been a guy who appeared to have the skills necessary to make the jump, but his desire--and his willingness to play a complete game--were often in question. Mayorov looks to have answered many of those questions, as he's not only played well offensively, but he's been a solid two-way guy as well. He's seen time on the penalty kill, and he's shown his willingness to check as well as to use his skills to contribute offensively. He looks like a guy who may be able to develop into a third-line role that could contribute on offense as well as being a defensive player. More than likely, he'd slot in on a fourth energy-scoring-hybrid kind of line right now. The important thing is that he's clearly showing that he wants a spot this year, rather than perhaps thinking he deserves it.
Kubalik has been facing an unfortunate set of circumstances. He was legitimately in the discussion for a spot this year, and even got some time with the big boys (Rick Nash and Jeff Carter) in camp. So it was a bummer when he suffered a concussion in his opening exhibition game against the Jets. He hasn't played since, and his practice time was limited at first due to the enhanced precautionary moves taken league-wide when dealing with concussions. It seems clear he's destined to head back to Springfield.
Lastly, we have Giroux. The AHL vet was signed for experience at that level, as well as depth. He doesn't qualify as a "young" player in the way that the other guys do, but he's shown that he is an absolute sniper, putting up 278 points (!) in his last three seasons spanning 208 games with Hershey and Oklahoma City. That is a ridiculous number, including 142 goals. That, of course, doesn't mean a lot; he's played just 39 NHL games, and has a mere five goals and 11 points to go with it.
So, with all of that on the table, the smart money would seem to lie with Ryan Johansen and Maksim Mayorov. Thankfully, the Jackets appear to finally be in a position roster-wise in which these two can make the team and not have mountains of expectations heaped upon them. We can only hope.