In an odd way, the Blue Jackets lost Rick Nash, but gained a lot of flexibility. As Mike's post on the top six shows, there's at least eight legitimate candidates for a spot in the top six, even if it's hard to call them "outright" top line talent. That depth offers a lot of options to head coach Todd Richards, and even if we assume that certain players "should" be on the first two lines, don't be shocked if some configurations end up putting them into a checking role, but still expect them to deliver offense.
With that in mind, let's look at some of the candidates...and some of the possible dark horses who might be looking at this offseason as an opportunity to break through.
The Current Crop
Each of these players is currently on an NHL contract, and is likely to be on the opening day roster in some form.
With the Rangers, Anisimov was a solid checking forward who could be counted on for offensive production. Though many think he could blossom with more ice time, it's entirely possible that he could find himself on the third line based on the development of Ryan Johansen. If that is his fate, expect to see the third line used as much for scoring as defense, but don't count out his ability to stand up to tough competition.
Many fans thought Jared Boll's career with the Blue Jackets was at a crossroads last season. With Derek Dorsett growing into a greater on and off ice leader, Boll's time on the ice has diminished each of the last three years, and his offensive stats have shrunk to a career low. Suffering badly in scoring chances and CORSI ratings, many wondered if the club might choose not to qualify him in restricted free agency. Instead, Scott Howson chose to give Boll a 2 year, $2.1 million dollar deal. In his defense, Boll continues to offer physical play and a willingness to drop the gloves in defense of his teammates, but he suffers from being enough of a fighter to entertain fans, but not vicious, skilled, or intimidating enough to deter opponents from taking liberties. Skinny guys fight 'til they're burger, but they aren't really going to stop someone from starting the fight in the first place.
If any player on the current NHL roster could be supplanted from the prospect ranks, Boll might just be it.
The other side of Jared Boll's coin, Dorsett had a career season in 2011-2012, and was rewarded with a 3 year, $5 million dollar deal. Becoming a lynchpin of the club's penalty kill, Dorsett still lead the NHL in PIMs, but clearly has started to make an effort to avoid offensive zone and "stupid" penalties. Perfecting his role as an agitator, he also has expanded his offensive capabilites, breaking 10 goals for the first time in his NHL career. Tapped as a leader by former head coach Ken Hitchcock, Dorsett has taken his increased responsibilities seriously, and has made an effort to expand his involvement both on and off the ice. Look for him to serve as a wing on the third line, but he could slip to the fourth line depending on how some of the assigments shake out.
Though he's likely to end up as a top six forward, it's worth pointing out that Dubinsky consistently had some of the best CORSI ratings and faced the toughest minutes of any New York Rangers forward since John Tortorella became their head coach. Skilled at faceoffs and dedicated to playing smart with the puck, I wouldn't be surprised if Dubinsky is a regular part of the PK unit even if he's generally used on the second line.
Another player who is more likely to slot into the top six, Foligno did take his share of defensive assignments and PK minutes in Ottawa. If he ends up on the third line, like Anisimov or Dubinsky, expect it to be used in much more of an "offensively focused" manner, though he can still lay the lumber when required.
Brought in off waivers last season, Gillies didn't set anyone's world on fire, but he was OK. His scoring chance rates weren't terribly good, but given his lack of offensive production against the heavy competition he's faced, it's not entirely surprising. Almost certainly slated for the fourth line, he's another player who could, potentially, be replaced if he doesn't show enough jump in camp.
The Test Tube's greatest strength is his versatility. Playing up and down in the lineup when he joined the club last season, he delivered solid results on the penalty kill, the power play, and at even strength. His numbers did tail off towards the end of the season, but he also found himself used much more often in a checking role. At the same time, that versatility also means he hasn't really carved himself a true niche on the team. He could be a second unit PP, second unit PK, third line "plus" guy, or he could find himself working as a fourth line grinder. It needs to be pointed out that Letestu is in a contract year, giving him a lot of incentive to break out this season, but he'll face some stiff competition.
D-Mac was one of the team's best checking forwards over the last two years, and his concussion robbed the team of a valuable contributor. Frequently referred to as a "heart and soul" guy in the clubhouse, it's worth pointing out that when asked if he would return to the club at the end of last season, he immediately stated that he wanted to "finish what we started." Mackenzie handled some of the heaviest competition after the departure of Sammy Pahlsson, but the addition of new depth down the middle makes him more likely to start back in the fourth line C position out of camp.
The Dark Horses
Though most of these guys are on two way deals, each is coming to camp hoping to break into the NHL rather than returning back to Springfield.
"JAM" was regarded as one of the best forwards in the QMJHL before he started his pro career with the Connecticut Whale, and many Rangers fans were frustrated that Scott Howson nabbed him away in free agency. A skilled forward who has competed hard despite his lack of size, he's very much a "Cam Atkinson" sort of player. Likely to start in Springfield since he doesn't really have the build for an NHL checking line, expect him to get a look for a call up if a "skill" guy should suffer an injury.
Called up to Columbus last season to "add some glue" by Scott Arniel, Bass may not have delivered a lot of skill, but his hard work and heart endeared him to his teammates almost immediately. His season was dramatically impacted by a major shoulder injury, but he managed to rehab himself to where he could return to the Falcons to end the season. If he brings the same dedication to training camp, I could see him stepping up and replacing one of the current slated fourth liners.
After an explosive start to his career, Calvert suffered a major sophomore slump last season, and it took serious time in the AHL for him to get his game back towards the "hustle" and scoring touch that characterized his NHL debut. At this point, I think a lot of Columbus fans are once bitten, twice shy on the young forward, but he could earn his way back to Nationwide if he can recapture the aggressive speed in his NHL game.
A player that many expected to "take a leap" last season, a concussion suffered in the pre-season seriously impacted his development. He did score his first regular season NHL goal last season during a brief call up, but the 22 year old is in the final year of his entry level deal and needs to prove himself. He might be able to crack the lineup with the right circumstances, but he has a big hill to climb.
Twin brother to former Jacket Kris Russell, RyRuss spent a significant amount of time on the NHL roster last season between the third and fourth lines. Working as a solid penalty killer and willing to get physical, his greatest asset was the speed that he used to chase and move the puck. I wouldn't be shocked at all to find Russell making a push for the roster in camp, and he could easily be one of the last cuts / first callups if he doesn't succeed in breaking in for opening day.
Other names to keep in mind this season include Michael Chaput, Nicholas Drazenovic, and Oliver Gabriel, all of whom are expected to start in Springfield, but will likely try to show their stuff in camp for the "new" coaching staff.
In the case of the bottom six, the battles are as much philosophical as positional. Will the third line be used for scoring, or focused on checking? Are they going to be expected to deliver both?
In a more "conventional" configuration, much depends on how the top six sorts out, but it seems likely that the third line would involve Dorsett, Letestu, and perhaps Anisimov, while the fourth line features the "grinders" with guest appearances by Jared Boll. In a more scoring focused arrangement, it's entirely possible that we could see guys like Dubinsky, Anisimov, and perhaps even R.J. Umberger as "third liners", while the fourth line is tightened down to a unit featuring D-Mac, Dorsett, and perhaps Cody Bass or Jared Boll depending on how that battle plays out.
If there's one thing that still nags at me, it's the fourth line RW spot. Regardless of how the club arranges itself, are we really sold on Jared Boll as a full time contributor this season? Even without his recent injury history, the fact remains that Boll hasn't been that effective over the last two seasons, either as a hockey player or an enforcer. I wouldn't be shocked at all if he finds himself beaten out of a spot by someone like Cody Bass, which could open the possibility of demotion or a trade unless the club plans to carry him as an additional forward.