As the NHL and NHLPA work to ratify the new CBA agreement, it's finally time to talk about how the Blue Jackets are going to look ON the ice, as opposed to on the balance sheets.
In Case You Forgot...
In addition to the hiring of John Davidson to lead the club's hockey operations, we'll finally be getting a chance to look at the players acquired over the office season in the Rick Nash deal, plus free agency / trade pickups like Sergei Bobrovsky, Nick Foligno, and Jonathan Audy-Marchessault.
In one respect, the roster seems fairly set based on the team's current contract picture, but on the other, the performance of players abroad and in the AHL may have opened some doors that we didn't expect. Time to take a look at a few different areas and see what surprises training camp may hold.
Forwards: Whose Line Is It Anyway?
One immediate change from the departure of Rick Nash is the club will no longer be basing their forward lines around the perennial all star. Without an obvious "first line" forward, we have a lot of "lunch pail" guys, some of whom are looking to stretch themselves in an F1 role.
The Columbus fanbase's resident wise old bear, Jeff Little, recently proposed lines that would put Foligno and Brandon Dubinsky up front, with Derick Brassard likely between them, while Artem Anisimov would partner up with the explosive Springfield combo of Cam Atkinson and Ryan Johansen.
I'm fairly comfortable with that idea, but as much as Jeff doesn't see R.J. Umberger in the top six outside of a power play role, I think it's worth considering that Umberger and Atkinson seemed to click well during the second half of last season, and they could very well be put together in camp to see what develops.
If Todd Richards wants to role the third line as a "hybrid" that can check or put the puck in the net, I have to admit I like the idea of giving JAM a look with Vinny and Umberger (or possibly Anisimov if Umberger does go to the second line), but don't be surprised if Matt Calvert is given a serious look as well based on his rebound season.
In terms of a "pure" checking line, Derek Dorsett is a given, but the remainder of the fourth line is less certain. The idea of Derek MacKenzie and Mark Letestu taking the reins makes sense, but if Boone Jenner is given the opportunity to come to camp, I could see his performance this year earning him a serious audition. Nick Drazenovic could also be in the picture, and it seems likely that Jared Boll will be carried as a 13th forward for now.
(What happens to Colton Gillies? I suspect he's waived and sent to Springfield, unless claimed, and he'll become another footnote in team history.)
Defense: Young Guns
Even though Ryan Murray's shoulder injury opens up a bit of breathing room in the previous logjam, the first two pairs are basically set: The "controlled chaos" pairing of Wisniewski and Johnson will ride again, and I'd expect Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Nikitin to take the bulk of the tough minutes, especially on the PK.
That leaves two (perhaps three) spots open, and while we assume Adrian Aucoin will one of them, I'd suspect we'll see Tim Erixon in the starting lineup, with John Moore and David Savard fighting over the last spot. (Personally, based on what we've heard from Springy, don't be shocked if Moore stays in the AHL while Savard wins the battle.)
Goaltending: What About Bob?
Even though John Davidson had a lot of thoughtful comments on Steve Mason's improved work ethic and growing maturity, the fact that Sergei Bobrovsky is bringing back an 18-3-2 record and four shutouts is going to weight the battle in his favor. I'd expect Bob to take the starting job, while Mason will be fighting to keep a backup role - and while Allen York may not be much competition for the job right now, I think Curtis McElhinney could push him, especially since the team may need to protect McElhinney from a waiver claim.
One Last Thing...
The club may also have a few slots open up unexpectedly for one other reason: Retirement.
Though we've been given no indication that Vinny or Aucoin intend to hang them up, it's always a risk coming out of a long work stoppage. Aucoin has been skating independently, while Vinny played 19 games for Ceske Budejovice (where racked up 9 goals and 14 assists), so it's likely that both intend to finish this season, but strange things happen sometimes in training camp, particularly with so many things being rushed so the season can start as quickly as possible.
The good thing is that Columbus does have some solid depth in both areas, so the team is prepared regardless of injury or unexpected circumstances, but it's worth considering.
One thing is for sure: Fans in Columbus will have quite a few new faces to cheer for. Here's hoping that will translate into a lot of excitement both on and off the ice.