With the Blue Jackets hitting the ice for the first time today, it's a good time to look at the roster and try to figure out what changes, if any, fans can reasonably expect in the final product.
Goaltending is obviously set, the defense is reasonably predictable (though we'll take a look at that later this week), and while the team has been reluctant to call out a "number one" line, we can expect that some combination of Marian Gaborik, Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, R.J. Umberger, Nick Foligno, Ryan Johansen, and Cam Atkinson are going to start the year in "top six" roles.
Considering that the club has invited 34 forwards to camp (33 if you consider that Nathan Horton will be unable to skate), that means things are likely to get interesting fairly quickly.
The House Money
With the versatility shown by Mark Letestu, he could be a "top six" guy in a pinch, especially while Horton recovers, but he's just as likely to anchor a checking or energy line. He's one of the guys who I think the organization considers a lock for the roster unless we get a really dramatic surprise (or injury) in camp.
Similarly, love him or hate him, Jared Boll is probably feeling pretty comfortable about renewing the lease on his apartment for another year. No other forward in camp really steps into the "heavyweight" category that Boll fits, and his willingness to back up his teammates was an important part of their chemistry down the stretch.
Last but certainly not least, Derek MacKenzie has been a vital PKer and checking forward since his arrival in Columbus, and he's earned the respect of fans and his fellow players. I would almost guarantee we'll see him dressed from day 1.
That locks down 10 of a possible 13 forward slots, and even then we're likely going to see someone sent down to the AHL (or perhaps even traded) once Horton returns to the lineup. That's going to make for some volatile chemistry as the competitions in camp get going.
Since Blake Comeau signed a new 1 year deal this past summer, you would expect him to remain part of the NHL lineup, but his $1 million dollar pricetag is pretty reasonable if the club does make the decision that he'd be a better fit in Springfield, assuming that he would clear waivers. Matt Calvert is also likely to remain part of the main club, with the way he rebounded from a sophomore slump, but he could easily be asked to take on a top six role with the Falcons so he can get appropriate levels of playing time.
Jack Skille, acquired as a free agent this summer, is likely to start the season in Springfield, but the organization has not been afraid to use him in offseason marketing and promotions. Aaron Portzline recently called out as a player to watch. In addition to being good friends with Jack Johnson, Skille has been a solid fourth line contributor for the Blackhawks and Panthers over the past three seasons, and seems like an excellent guy to contribute defensively while scoring a few timely goals. Even if the journeyman does begin the year in Springfield, don't be shocked if he's one of the first players called when the injury bug strikes.
Alex Aleardi is joining the training camp roster after an impressive performance at Traverse City, having made the jump from the OHL to a brief appearance with Springfieled at the end of the season. It's possible he could edge his way on to the roster, but I suspect he'd be just as happy if his performance earns him a full two-way deal instead of an AHL contract.
If anyone could dislodge Jared Boll from his current role on the club, it might be Cody Bass. The 26 year old grinder is one of the toughest guys in the organization, to the point of playing through the pain of a shoulder that needed surgical repairs. Willing to challenge opponents emotionally and physically, he earned the respect of the organization in spades. If he put on a strong enough performance, it's a real possibility that we could see him up with the big club. (Plus, can't you just hear the "Kick his ass, C-Bass!" cheers from the crowd if he dropped the gloves?)
The New Deal
Much has been made of Boone Jenner's opportunity to break into pro hockey this season, and for good reason. After the end of his OHL career, Jenner headed to Springfield and didn't seem out of place through their playoff run. He faces a challenge to make the NHL roster, but it remains possible, especially if he continues to improve his skating.
Jonathan Audy-Marchessault is another player with interesting potential, turning in a dominant performance in the AHL, but not finding a fit on the NHL squad last season. I think the club would be equally pleased if he provided consistent scoring for the Falcons and a solid call up option, but I've yet to meet a player who goes to training camp and says he's just hoping to make the AHL squad, even if it would be in a top line role.
Then there is Kerby Rychel, this year's 19th overall pick. Unlikely? Absolutely, but his combination of relentless energy and impressive scoring ability could easily turn heads in the right situation, especially if he shows chemistry with a pivot like Johansen or Anisimov. I'd guess IF he shows a strong camp, he'll probably get a few games before being returned to Windsor, but I wouldn't be shocked if he's in one of the early wave of cuts, either. (The same goes for Oliver Bjorkstrand, who seems likely to be given a chance to experience the intensity of the NHL game, but will ultimately play for Portland in the WHL this season.)
The more recent class of draft picks, including Michael Chaput, Dalton Smith, and Jake Hansen, who are starting the early part of their pro careers are also worth keeping an eye on, but for now they're more likely to go back into Springfield to continue their development alongside veterans like Spencer Machacek, Andrew Joudrey, and Trent Vogelhuber.
Barring a major shift or unforeseeable event in camp, I'd bet that your bottom six is going to look very similar to what we saw last season, but that's also not a major source of concern - we know just how strong a performance this group can deliver, and even if they are shaken up slightly, perhaps that will be just what was needed to bring them to the next level.