Coming off a playoff appearance for just the second time in the team's history, the Blue Jackets' front office found themselves in a unique position: there wasn't a glaring need to make a bunch of moves to the forward corps. Just the same, while there are some young guys pushing from within the system, there isn't an actual "need" to rush any of the kids.
What a concept!
After sending Marian Gaborik packing at the trade deadline last season and bringing back Matt Frattin (who was later traded) and some picks, GM Jarmo Kekalainen was also able to unload a disgruntled R.J. Umberger in an absolute heist with the Flyers, bringing back Scott Hartnell. Columbus expects a healthy Nathan Horton back this season, and then did most of their heavy lifting on the fourth line. Gone are Derek MacKenzie, Jack Skille, and Blake Comeau. In are Brian Gibbons and Jerry D'Amigo, who came via free agency and trade respectively, to go with re-signed Corey Tropp.
Of course, there's one big shadow over all of this, and that is Ryan Johansen's contract situation. We put this list together with the assumption that, at some point in training camp, Johansen WILL be signed and with the team. [crosses fingers]
Finally, there are all of those young guns looming on the horizon, specifically Alexander Wennberg and Kerby Rychel. Each of those two will have a chance in camp to impress, and it will be magnified the longer Johansen is (potentially) holding out.
The Locks - Center
Obviously, Johansen is the big question mark until he's signed, but it's safe to say that he's a lock on the top line, given his 33 goals and 30 assists last season despite a rotating platter of wingers. With some stability there and hopefully no letdown after the contract fiasco, the hope is that Johansen can pick up where he left off and take another step forward.
The other three center spots should be filled in some order by Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, and Mark Letestu. With MacKenzie gone on the fourth line, there really are no true "battles" for the four center spots. Dubinsky just signed an extension, and showed his mettle in the playoffs marking Sidney Crosby for six straight games. Anisimov has blossomed into a solid two-way center since being traded to Columbus, playing 81 games last season and notching 33 goals and 57 points in 116 games for Columbus the past two seasons. He's also been durable overall, missing just four games in the last four 82-game seasons.
Letestu is a guy who has really found a home in Columbus since coming over in trade during the ill-fated 2011-2012 season. He adds versatility, being able to play on the PK as well as the PP, being solid in the faceoff circle, and being able to fill a great number of roles. He will be the anchor of the fourth line.
The Dark Horses - Center
While it would appear that the centers are written in stone, with Johansen's potential holdout looming there may be some room for a couple of guys to make their mark in camp. Alex Wennberg is a natural center, as is Boone Jenner. Both could play center if needed in a pinch, and for Wennberg, Johansen's absence could allow him to really show his stuff.
Wennberg played in the big-boy league in Sweden as a 19-year-old, and put together a very good campaign with 16 goals and five assists in 50 games. He can skate, he plays a solid two-way game, and he has a cerebral knack for being in the right place at the right time and making the right decision. If Johansen opens the door, don't be surprised if Wennberg walks through it.
Jenner, on the other hand, found a home on the wing last season as a rookie, really making some bones as the season wore on. He finished with 16 goals and 13 assists in 72 games. He followed that up with a three-goal (and two assist) series against the Penguins, showing that the spotlight was in no way too bright for him. Jenner came up in juniors as a center, and so a move back to the middle wouldn't be a complete shock to the system. That said, the team would still rather keep him on the wing, given the way his season went last year.
The Locks - Wing
The Jackets have plenty of wings that will play, though where they will play is always up for debate. Consider the following list:
That's six wingers that will ALL play, and could all slot in just about anywhere. So, while there's no telling how Todd Richards and company will line them up line-by-line, six wingers that are "locks" really "locks" up your top-nine. We touched on Jenner above, but let's look at the rest of these guys.
Hartnell was the big offseason addition, replacing Umberger. Hartnell is a bonafide scoring winger, something Umby just was not anymore. Hartsy has experience playing with top-flight centers, and is coming off a 20-goal season. In fact, he's scored 20 or more goals in seven of his last eight full (i.e., 82-game) seasons. In short, he can score goals. He's also a smart player, he'll help the Power Play, as nine of his 20 goals last season came on the man advantage. Add in that he's got playoff experience (19/28/47 in 91 career playoff games), and the trade is a pure win for Columbus in the short term.
Horton is a bit of a wild-card. We saw what he could do early on when he came back in January, but as his body continued to break down as the season wore on it was clear that he was hampered. And, that's the big question mark: when he's healthy, he's a legit top-line guy for this team. But, can he stay healthy? He played in just 36 games last season, and had just five goals and 19 points. Four of those goals and seven of those points came in his first 10 games back (coincidentally, the team went 9-1-0). After that? Well, the wheels came off. He got shut down and needed abdominal surgery. If he's healthy this fall, look out. If not? Well, then maybe one of the young guys gets a shot.
Calvert and Atkinson often found themselves playing together, most often with Dubinsky. Calvert's grittiness was on full display, but he also added nine goals and 15 assists. Calvert also scored one of the biggest goals of the season, netting the game-winning on double-overtime of the Jackets' first ever playoff win. At this point, his scoring ceiling isn't crazy-high, but you love his speed, his tenacity, and his ability to put pucks in the net on occasion to keep teams honest. Atkinson, on the other hand, is more of an offensive threat, having his coming-out party this season with 21 goals and 40 points in 79 games. He battled some mid-season scratches, but appeared to take the message to heart. He's got the speed and the skill to be a threat each time out on the ice.
And then, of course, there's Foligno. One of the "heart and soul" guys, he played this past season with some serious distractions early on with the health issues of his newborn daughter. But, showing his character, he played through that, endearing himself to fans and teammates alike, while putting together a solid season with 18 goals in 70 games. Foligno is an all-out, all-the-time player, and can play a top-six or a checking line role. He also, of course, scored one of the other biggest goals in franchise history, putting the Game Four game-winner past Marc-Andre Fleury in overtime after calling his shot in the dressing room.
Wennberg has an outside shot to earn one of those top-nine spots, but he'll have to have a great training camp and also possibly see an injury in front of him.
Fighting For Ice Time - Wingers
Then, there's the fourth line. We touched on Letestu above, and he should be the center there all season long (assuming health). However, there are four or five bodies fighting for those two wing spots:
This is where it gets dicey. You have the big heavies--i.e., guys without much skill--in Tropp and Boll, but they have the contracts: multi-year, one-way contracts. Boll's has been dissected here forever, but the shocker to me was Tropp's two-year deal. It's not for a lot of money, but it's a one-way deal for two years. The pair combined for just three goals and 10 assists in 81 total games. Boll is coming off a serious injury, however, so perhaps he has a little more to give now that he's healthy.
The other three guys on the list, however, are wild cards but have much higher ceilings. Gibbons came over from Pittsburgh in a free agent, two-way deal, and the memory of what he can do is fresh in many Jackets' fans minds: he dropped in two goals--one a shorty--against the Jackets in Game Two of the playoff series. Overall, he managed five goals, 12 assists, for 17 points in 41 games in Pittsburgh. He can add speed and a knack for finding the back of the net from time to time on the fourth line. That said, he's far from a sure thing there, given his size.
D'Amigo is more of an unknown, coming over in a trade for Frattin after the season ended. D'Amigo got his first taste of NHL action last season in Toronto, getting 22 games. He notched a goal and two assists. As of 2010, the Leafs seemed to think he had top-six potential, though that talk has slowed down over the last four years. D'Amigo brings speed, and pesky attitude on the ice, and some hands and potential scoring ability, though he hasn't yet showed that at the NHL level, of course. That said, in three full AHL seasons, he notched 52 goals and 51 assists in 197 games.
So, you have two guys that have speed and potential scoring touch, and two guys that are slower and "tougher". Hmm.
Finally, there's Rychel, who will have a chance to impress in camp. The 2013 first round pick had another dominant year in the OHL last season, with 34 goals between Windsor and Guelph, helping the Storm get to the final game of the Memorial Cup. Over the past three years in the OHL, he's scored 115 goals. Yep. He's strong and feisty, and has the knack for finding the back of the net. Whether or not he could play a fourth line role in the NHL, but he has the tools to succeed. With the logjam in front of him, however, it's a tough road to get there.
The Other Guys
After all of those guys, there are some other guys that might be in the discussion if injuries happen. 2013 first rounder Marko Dano will be in Springfield, and Simon Hjalmarsson was signed this summer on a two-way contract to provide depth in the AHL, if nothing else. Michael Chaput got some run on the fourth line last season, and should be on the short list for a call-up if injuries are rampant. Josh Anderson is in Traverse City, and should make the jump to Springfield this year after three successively better seasons in London of the OHL.
The Jackets are in a good spot to take another step forward this year if they can build on their playoff push and performance from last season. And, for once, there are plenty of bodies in place to make sure that they won't have to rush any young guys and/or give them too much too soon. That said, there are plenty of young guys waiting in the wings to push this team forward in the next couple of years.