It's almost like the Hockey Gods get it. I'm writing this article staring out my window as the sun melts the snow from my front lawn. It's almost like the universe knows it SHOULD be September when we have these conversations, and is throwing us a bone, if only for a day.
Mike got us rolling yesterday with a review of one of the longest off-seasons we've ever seen, both in terms of the lockout and in terms of trading away our franchise player. Front office and coaching staff moves abounded, but it's time to focus in on the guys that will (or maybe won't) take the ice.
So, let's take a look at each of the position groups, and consider who's probably coming to "camp" such as it is. Tomorrow, Matt will take us through the position battles.
This group is going to look the most different from the big chunk of last season. Gone are Rick Nash, Antoine Vermette, Samuel Pahlsson, Jeff Carter, and Kristian Huselius. In are Brandon Dubinsky, Artim Anisimov, and Nick Foligno. At first glance, two things appear to have changed: the Jackets don't have any pure scorers, but they do have a lot of new depth down the middle. That last part might sound strange with the losses of Carter, Vermette, and Pahlsson, who formed roughly 75% of the expected centermen last season.
But, it's actually (finally) true: the Jackets have all of the following players that can "play center": Derick Brassard, Mark Letestu, Ryan Johansen, Dubinsky, Anisimov, and Derek MacKenzie. Those are six guys that can play center, and there's some depth there. Johansen and Brassard are probably considered more "scoring line" centers, with Johansen having a great year in Springfield and, at 20 years old, still looking like the franchise's best bet at a Joe Thornton-type anchor on the top line.
Dubinsky and Anisimov are "two way" centers, and Letestu and MacKenzie are "energy" centers. And this doesn't even take into account a guy like Michael Chaput, currently playing in Springfield, or Boone Jenner who is playing in juniors. Those guys are on the horizon. Of that group, only Letestu isn't under the team's control beyond this season. THAT, my friends, is center depth.
On the wing, things get a bit more dicey. The vacuum left by Nash's departure is large, at least in terms of scoring. There are, however, some signs of a "by committee" type of scoring charge, and the Jackets will need that this year to have any kind of success. First up is the other newcomer, Nick Foligno. This is not a guy whose numbers will "wow" you, with the exception of maybe one in particular: Foligno has missed only 22 games in the last four years, including playing in all 82 games the past two seasons (and 81 games in '08-'09). In that span of 306 games, he put up 139 points on mostly mediocre-to-bad teams. Foligno's not a pure scorer, but in the seasons he stayed fully healthy he scored 17, 14, and 15 goals. Not too shabby an addition, especially consider he came over for Marc Methot who was really an odd man out on defense for the Jackets.
In addition to Foligno, Cam Atkinson now becomes one of the default top pure wingers on this club. He's continuing his dominance in the AHL this season, sitting third in the league in points (38 in 33 games) behind Jordan Eberle and Justin Schultz. Atkinson has now played 89 games in the AHL, and he has scored 49 goals and added 38 assists. Atkinson came on late in the season for the Jackets, including notching a hat-trick against Colorado and a near-miss two-goal, one assist game against the Islanders in his final two efforts of the season.
Finally, though he's not been purely a winger over his career, we come to Vinny Prospal. Vinny endeared himself to the fan-base by choosing to stay with the team during the fire-sale last winter, and by signing a one-year extension (plus handshake agreement) to stay with the franchise longer-term. Make no mistake, Prospal is at the end of his storied road in the NHL as a player, but that's not to say he doesn't have a contribution to make on the ice as well as in the dressing room. Prospal played in all 82 games last season, and put up 16 goals and 39 assists. And Vinny's not coasting right now; he's played 19 games in the Czech league, and has 23 points to show for it.
Obviously, there's going to be some bleed-over from the list of "centers" I discussed above, and that's why the list of pure wingers is fairly short. The Jackets are very bottom-heavy on the wing in terms of hold-overs from their last year's NHL roster. Derek Dorsett took a big step forward with a 20-point season, in addition to seizing more of a leadership role as well as showing his worth on the PK. Jared Boll is back by virtue of his contract. Colton Gillies is in the final year of his contract as well.
Lurking in the AHL is newcomer Jonathon Audy-Marchessault. JAM has played 109 games in the A the past year and a half, and has 97 points to show for it. He's currently third on the Falcons in goals (behind Atkinson and Johansen), and can bring a little additional scoring punch to the Jackets lineup should a spot open up for him. And even if it doesn't, he's only 22 years old, so there's time as the roster changes over this coming off-season. Also in Springfield are Matt Calvert and Tomas Kubalik, both of whom have had their cups of coffee in the NHL and for whom the proverbial clock is starting to tick. Calvert has 10/11/21 in 33 games, and Kubalik has 6/5/11 in 30 games.
This is the area of probably the most excitement for Jackets' fans. With the acquisitions of Nikita Nikitin and Jack Johnson--both of whom played better after coming over than they had on the previous teams--as well as Tim Erixon and Ryan Murray coming in over the summer, the Jackets now seem to be deeper on the blue line than ever before. There aren't nearly the spots open in "camp" as there are up front, but there are several key names to keep in mind as we form out the blue line roster.
Fedor Tyutin, Nikitin, Johnson, and James Wisniewski will all be back in 2013. All had their moments, though none of them played a "full" season in Columbus. Tyutin and Wisniewski both had injury issues (and Wiz had the unfortunate suspension), and Johnson and Nikitin didn't play full seasons for the Jackets. The hope is that a full season (this season being decidedly "not full" of course) of all four of these guys together can provide a boost at the top of the blue line.
In terms of "veteran presence," the Jackets went out and signed Adrian Aucoin as a free-agent, presumably to groom some of the younger guys. To that end, further down, the Jackets are building toward the not-so-distant future with several young players. Obviously, losing Murray to injury dampens this season, but it creates a great opportunity for a guy like Erixon. Currently playing in the A, Erixon is fifth on the Falcons in scoring with 4/18/22 in 33 games. John Moore played the lion's share of the season in the NHL last season, and while not having big numbers in Springy right now, has improved his +/- numbers. David Savard also got some time in the NHL last year, and clearly has some work to do on his skating and his positioning. But, there's no denying his vision and passing abilities, not to mention his nice right-handed shot from the point. Dalton Prout, Cody Goloubef, and Will Weber are also in the long-term discussion on defense as well.
This might be the area of biggest concern but also biggest upside on the team. Obviously, we all know the history of Steve Mason. Well, perhaps it's fitting that what is going to be (presumably) his last season in Union Blue is a truncated season. The two guys who will provide (hopefully) more of a safety net are newcomers Sergei Bobrovsky and Curtis McElhinney. Though neither has had any sustained success at the NHL level, Bobrovsky is young enough to have potential, and McElhinney isn't too old to no longer contribute.
To wit, McElhinney is killing it in the AHL right now, with 17 wins in 25 starts to go with 2.19 gaa and a .930 save percentage. And, perhaps more encouraging, is Bobrovsky's work in the KHL during the lockout: he's played 24 games for St. Petersburg SKA, and has 18 wins with a very nice 1.90 gaa and a .932 save %. Of course, neither of those stat sheets means anything for playing in the NHL, but both goalies appear to be on the right track for the season to come.
Overall, this is a roster that's no longer going to be able to rely on the scoring punch of Rick Nash. However, it also just might be a roster built from the back out that has a better chance of staying in games and scoring some timely goals to get some wins. The Jackets of the summer of 2011 went "all in" by making some huge acquisitions. This year's bunch can't say the same. They've reshaped (there's that word, hehehe) their roster quite a bit in the last 18 months, and on paper they haven't made the team demonstrably better. But, that might just be the rub: this team isn't better on paper, but it's decidedly different. There are no "stars" on this team. It's going to be a sum-is-greater-than-the-parts kind of team, and they're going to go as far as their defense takes them. As the Kings showed, that's not a bad place to start in terms of trying to forge a new identity.
And, who knows? In a 48-game season, ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN!
Stay tuned for Matt's post tomorrow on the roster spot battles that will shake out in the next couple of weeks!