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Gearing Up -- Installment I: Three Roster Questions

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As the dog days of August begin to fade, the tangible anticipation of a new season begins to take hold. We start with a preview of the roster -- the locks , the contenders and the possibility for an eleventh hour deal.

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Cannonfest is behind us, and Labor Day Weekend looms just ahead.  Kids are back in school, pools will be closing soon, and the evening and early morning temperatures have just begun to carry a little edge. Training camp is a mere three weeks or so away, meaning that hockey is almost upon us once again, and from where we sit, it cannot come soon enough.  There is real, tangible anticipation in the air this year, and the hope of prior seasons is gently evolving into expectation.  A delicious, but dangerous phenomenon, to be sure.

I'll kick off this pre-season "Gearing Up" series with a look at the roster -- specifically, some of the thornier roster questions that the club faces heading into camp. Certainly, the quality of the club's problems has drastically improved over the last year or two from a personnel standpoint.  As the discussion should show, the Columbus roster is deeper and more talented than ever.  (Assuming that Ryan Johansen and Brandon Saad do not suddenly abandon hockey for MLB pitching careers)  Still, there are always questions and issues, threats and opportunities. Let's dig in.

1.  How many roster slots are truly up for grabs, and who are the contenders?

This is one of those no-win questions (actually two questions, to be honest, but they are logically intertwined. ) The front office and coaching staff would uniformly reply that they are all up for grabs, and that each player needs to earn his spot on the ice.  A true statement in the absolute, but unhelpful in reality.  So, looking at it from a pragmatic perspective, let's break it down by unit.

In goal, Sergei Bobrovsky and Curtis McElhinney are set.  You can argue whether perhaps more effort should have been expended for the back-up role, but CMac is the guy for now, as none of the pipeline netminders are ready to step in, unless Joonas Korpisalo or Anton Forsberg show some stunning progress at camp. (Oscar Dansk is spending this year on loan to the Swedish League, in order to restore his confidence and the mental side of his game.)  All the more reason why both Bob and CMac need to stay healthy this year.  In all probability, zero slots in real competition here.

The blue line is more intriguing.  Ryan Murray, Jack Johnson, Fedor Tyutin and David Savard are locks for the top six -- and most likely are the top four.  After that, Cody Goloubeft, Dalton Prout, Justin Falk and Kevin Connauton are all vying for the remaining roster spots.  Much depends upon whether the club elects to start the season with seven or eight defensemen, which will be a decision turning, in part, on the club's confidence as to Murray's health.  Knocking at the door will be Michael Paliotta -- a player GM Jarmo Kekäläinen specifically targeted in the Brandon Saad deal -- and Dillon Heatherington, a prospect whose stock keeps rising.

Of course, the situation has been muddled a bit by the persistent rumor that the Blue Jackets have been looking to add a veteran on the blue line.  The most persistent of these involved Christian Ehrhoff, who recently signed a $1.5 million deal with the Los Angeles Kings.  It was widely reported that the Blue Jackets had made a "low ball" offer to Ehrhoff, but Jarmo never confirmed that an offer, in fact, had been extended.  Given the rather paltry sum that Ehrhoff eventually brought in L.A., it seems clear that there was no serious interest from Columbus -- whether or not an offer was extended -- as it would have been a relatively simple matter to clear the necessary cap space through a minor deal for picks.  We'll discuss potential deals below, but for now, there are three or four positions on the Blue Line that will be subject to some healthy competition.  Complicating the equation somewhat is the fact that almost all of the contenders are vulnerable to waiver moves, and Murray, Savard, Prout, Connauton (all RFA) and Falk (UFA) will be free agents at the end of the year.

Among the forwards, Ryan Johansen, Nick Foligno, Cam Atkinson, Brandon Saad, Scott Hartnell, Brandon Dubinsky and Boone Jenner have to be considered locks as part of the core. Alexander Wennberg is a presumptive lock to be with the big squad, tough he could be moved to the Monsters without waiver risk should he falter. David Clarkson, Rene Borque and Gregory Campbell are all presumptive locks, due to their contracts, if nothing else. Matt Calvert would probably be the most vulnerable among this crowd, but his signing also suggests that he is presumptively here.  That's twelve healthy bodies, leaving one or two spots available on the 23 man roster, depending upon the decision as to carrying seven or eight on the blue line.  Jared Boll, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Kerby Rychel, Sonny Milano and William Karlsson would be the prime contenders here, with guys like Alex Broadhurst, Markus Hannikainen and Josh Anderson being dark horse prospects.

The forward situation highlights the dilemmas that can come from the "brick by brick" improvement in both the quality and depth of the lineup.  As presently constituted, the Blue Jackets could field a strong "roll 4" forward lineup that would be the envy of many in the league.  Even the presumptive 4th line of three of Clarkson, Borque, Campbell and Calvert is a potentially productive trio.  Yet, you still have insanely talented guys like Milano, Rychel  and Bjorkstrand banging on the door.  There are still others behind them.   It's unlikely that any of those three would be held on the big club for a fourth line role, so the options narrow.  The most likely scenario would seem to have the three start in Cleveland, gain some more playing time, and await call-up due to injury or simple malfeasance. That creates the risk of something of a logjam in the minors, but enough players in the prospect chain are in the junior/college loop right now, making this a bit easier to digest.  If one or more should make the big club, it sets the stage for some dealing, which is our next question.

2.  What deals remain to be made before the puck drops in earnest?

If this off-season taught us anything, it was that predicting off-season deals is pure folly.  If anyone says they called the Brandon Saad deal, they lie.  While in general it was entirely foreseeable that the Blackhawks would have to make an unsavory deal to meet their salary cap troubles, the specifics of a Saad-to-Columbus deal were clearly not on anyone's radar.  Except for Jarmo and Stan Bowman, and those are the only two that count.  So anything I have to offer on the subject at this point should be taken with something more than a grain of salt, and something a bit less than a salt lick.

That being said, deals at this point of the season are the fallout of circumstances, rather than huge degrees of pre-meditation.  Teams that have been allowed to exceed the cap during the summer must get down to size, and the other squads flirting with the line must do some fancy footwork to be where they need to be when the season opens.  This year, the bubble teams included Detroit, the Rangers, Tampa Bay, Chicago and Philadelphia.  Even the St. Louis Blues have to be included in this bunch.  They have $2.3 million in cap space, but have three roster spots to fill and almost $600K of applicable bonus reserve.  That pinch they feel is real.  So, as those clubs make the moves necessary to move into cap compliance, opportunities are created elsewhere  Similarly, as teams get into camp and realize that some youngsters are ready to make the jump, the incumbents must be moved along.  Sure, many of these are players who would likely clear waivers, but there are others who fill needs elsewhere, and a club will always look to derive benefit for an outgoing player where possible.

With the huge caveat that anything is possible if a player of the appropriate caliber is made available, I think it's safe to say that any Blue Jackets activity will be prudent, targeted and measured.  A veteran defenseman could still be on the shopping list, for example.  However, that depends largely on the organization's view of 1) Murray's health; 2)Tyutin's health and stamina; 3) Johnson's early performance; and 4) the viability of Goloubef, Connauton, Paliotta, Heatherington & Werenski.  Keep in mind that the only Columbus defender over 30 is Tyutin, and he is only 32. Johnson is the next "elder" statesman at 28. Justin Falk is 26.  Prout, Goloubef and Connauton are 25. Savard is 24, Paliotta is 22, Murray 21 and Heatherington 20.   Factor in Werenski, and you easily account for a decade or more of defense, with room to spare.  Kekäläinen has professed his willingness to enter the regular season with some combination of these guys, and there is little reason to doubt him.  However, GMs' opinions and plans are often transformed by intervening developments, and the same could happen here.

With just $500,000 of "true" cap space, due to reserves for bonuses that the organization probably hopes are met (as that would likely signal a playoff appearance), any deals would have to be carefully orchestrated, and could involve multiple deals. On the one hand, if the club determined that another blue liner was needed, and that Sonny Milano had earned a place on the big club,  the organization probably looks at moving a forward for a defenseman, hopefully accepting less cap hit than they deliver.   Alternatively, they can create cap space by moving players for picks.  It's tough to find a role on this club for Jared Boll, and at least one -- and perhaps two -- of the "losers" in the battle for the final three or four defense slots would likely be moved, rather than exposing them to waivers.  If done for picks or prospects, you get some true cap relief.

Another factor the front office has to account for are the "bubbles" of players that will  be coming up for contracts at the same time.  Bjorkstrand, Rychel and MIlano all come of their ELCs after the 2017-18 season, the same year that Johnson, Tyutin, Atkinson and Calvert have UFA status. The year before that, two guys named Johansen & Wennberg have their RFA years.  As noted earlier, a slew of the defensemen are due for new contracts next year, along with Boone Jenner.   So, the front office is caught in a Catch-22 situation.  On the one hand, they want everyone to excel. On the other, they may not be able to afford to keep everyone if they do excel.  Thus far, the club has done a pretty masterful job of balancing UFA/RFA status, and the fact that Johansen will still be in his RFA years at the next renewal is huge.  Still, it is a matter for some deft juggling, aided by the likely increases in the cap limit, but hindered by the escalating values for talent.  Somewhat like a gas, value seems to automatically expand to fill the available cap space.

So, barring the huge specter of injury that would necessitate a goalie acquisition or other similar move, I'd expect a Blue Jackets deal if any of these three elements hold true:  1) the front office decides that some added veteran presence is needed on the blue line;  2) one or more of the young forwards demands a starting role on the big club; or 3) a "Godfather Deal" (i.e. an offer you can't refuse) is placed on the table.  As we have seen -- anything can happen -- but that's what the crystal ball shows at the moment.

3.  What can the Blue Jackets do to maximize their chances of a good start?

The opinions on the causes and cures of the Blue Jackets' bad starts are many and varied, but I think the reasons have varied over time, and involve both individual and group dynamics.

First, let's lay the groundwork.  We'll start with the 2011-12 season (Rick Nash's final year in Columbus, and the beginning of the Todd Richards regime) and go through last season.  In 11-12, the club ended up with just 65 points, good for rock bottom in the league.  Their start that season was consistent with the final result :2-8-1 for October.  In 2012-13, the Blue Jackets did not lose a game in October.  Of course, nobody did, since this was the strike-shortened campaign that saw league play begin in January.  The Blue Jackets were 3-6-2 over their first eleven contests, and still came within a hearbeat of the playoffs, losing out by virtue of the Minnesota Wild's win on the last night of the season.  They posted 55 points in 48 games -- a 94 point clip.  The following season -- 2013-14 -- saw the club post it's best October over this time frame: 5-6-0.  That season concluded with 93 points and the club's second appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Finally, in last year's injury-plagued season, the Blue Jackets posted a 4-6-0 record in October . . . then lost the first five in November.  A heroic late run made them relevant in March, but the hole was dug way too deep at the beginning.

The first key to these bad starts is what I'll call the "turmoil factor" -- simply too much adversity over a short period of time.  In 2011-2012, Columbus was the Land of the Misfit Toys.  Scott Arniel was at the helm, and after sufficient piling on from the media and fans, was replaced in January 2012.  Rick Nash was disgruntled, as was Scott Howson.  Jeff Carter moped his way through the season.   It is telling that of all of the players who saw ice time in Columbus during that season, only Tyutin, Johansen, Johnson, Atkinson, Savard, Boll, Calvert, Goloubef and Prout remain.  2012-2013 saw Nash and Methot exit, Dubinsky, Anisimov, Foligno & Erixon enter, the work stoppage hit, and a shortened, compressed schedule arrive.  The following year saw Moore, Brassard & Dorsett exit, Gaborik & Horton enter (sort of), and Ryan Johansen emerge. Last year was simply The Season of M*A*S*H.

While every team undergoes adversity, the Blue Jackets have had more than their share, particularly when attempting to rebuild from the bottom established with Arniel's departure.  Despite the "brick by brick" moniker, the roster has almost completely turned over in just the past four years.  Calculated plays that looked good at the time (Carter, Horton, Gaborik) were undermined unexpectedly by injury or attitude.  Once chemistry began to take hold, good things happened.  Witness the near miss in 2012-13, the playoff run in 2013-14 and the incredible season-ending streak put together by a healthy club late last year.  So, all of this turmoil -- roster upheaval, coaching upheaval, work stoppage, massive injuries -- destroys existing chemistry and hinders the ability to form new chemistry among the players.

The other primary cause, in my book, is preparation -- both personal and organizational.  Individual players -- and sometimes key ones -- have come into camp in less than optimum shape over the years -- or missed camp entirely.   Those players then have to consume regular season time to get into shape, and that same time to establish chemistry with their linemates.  This has become less of an issue over time, but is still an element in the equation.

From the organizational angle, I believe adjustments have to be made to accommodate the changing personnel landscape and the need to hit the ground running in October.  First, revamp the conditioning programs to address (and minimize or prevent) the "sports hernia" injuries that have plagued the club over recent years.  You can't do anything about the contact injuries, the puck to the throat, etc., but the non-contact injuries can be minimized.  Secondly, training camp should be adjusted to give the roster guys more time working together in the pre-season.  With over sixty guys in camp for an extended period,  it's virtually impossible to get the necessary reps in to allow the front line guys to hit the ground running.  There are realistically no more than 30 guys with a shot to make the club this year.  Throw in two more goalies for practice and game work, and you have 32.  Start with sixty if you want, but then cut down to 32 or so right after the split-squad games vs. St. Louis on September 22.  That provides ample time to get some quality work among the top-line guys, without having to expose them to unnecessary risk of injury.

Additionally, with the Blue Jackets' AHL affiliate now just a couple of hours north on I-71, the scouting staff will have more than ample opportunity to see the prospects in action, so the need to hold them in camp for a protracted period is much less compelling.

That's it -- we're off and running.  Lots more to come.  Stay tuned.