The first weekend of camp is in the books and the Jackets are gearing up for some preseason play. The top 12 forwards are mostly set, but there could still be some decisions to be made. Could a Kerby Rychel or Oliver Bjorkstrand earn their way into a starting role with the big club? How are those lines going to play out? Hint: whatever you think, Todd Richards will probably change it by Game 3. Who is going to get power play time? Can David Clarkson and Rene Bourque become serviceable players or has their time passed them? Will Jared Boll be a 4th line regular or find more time in the press box? These are just some of the questions the coaching staff hopes to answer before the regular season starts.
We continue on with our season preview of the forwards, a group some believe has the potential to be the deepest in the NHL.
Todd Richards talked about trying to establish lines early in camp so as to build momentum and chemistry heading into the season. That is very evident if you have been able to check out some of the practice sessions at the Ice Haus or have been following along online / Twitter. The head coach wants to play his two budding stars together on the top line in Brandon Saad and Ryan Johansen. I would suspect to see these two paired together for quite some time, especially if they can find some success together. Both will see ample time on the power play as should the third forward on that line (for now) - captain Nick Foligno.
Many were wondering who might be opposite of Saad on that top line after the blockbuster trade this summer - Foligno, Cam Atkinson, or perhaps Boone Jenner. It appears the crafty Foligno will get a crack at that spot first and it makes sense given that he and Johansen have had success playing together in the past. Both guys are coming off of 70+ point seasons and we all know about Saad's pedigree. Johansen carried much of the scoring burden early last season as injuries hit, and the team is hoping his defensive play will improve with less weight on his shoulders on the offensive end. On paper at least, this should be a very formidable line for Columbus.
The left side of the second line also appears set with Boone Jenner staying at left wing and Brandon Dubinsky at the pivot. Initially, it appeared David Clarkson (more on him later) would get the opportunity on the right side, but in recent days it has been Rene Bourque skating opposite of Jenner. Injuries hit everywhere and just about everybody last year, but the team and forwards especially play with a different purpose when both Jenner and Dubinsky are in the lineup. Their teammates seem to respond and elevate their play when those two are on the ice and pairing them together could create a lot of headaches for opponents. The right wing spot seems a little unsettled for now and there's probably even a chance Cam Atkinson could play there given he has played well alongside Dubinsky before.
Part of the turnaround last season for Alexander Wennberg was teaming up with veteran winger Scott Hartnell. The two clicked really well (along with the now-Blackhawk Marko Dano) and are penciled in on the third line again to start this year. Cam Atkinson has been skating with the two and many have him pegged for a 30-goal season and as a "fantasy sleeper" for those playing fantasy hockey. This is another solid line with two guys who can put up goals in bunches surrounding the sophomore center Wennberg.
Perhaps the most difficult decision will come down to who plays on the right side of the fourth line, and not because there aren't some good candidates. Let's start again with the more settled positions at center and LW - Gregory Campbell was signed after a deal couldn't be reached with Mark Letestu and he brings Cup experience from Boston. He will also be active on the penalty kill, as should left winger Matt Calvert. For much of his time in Columbus, Calvert has been a middle-six winger but depth has pushed him to the fourth line for now. We saw him late last season still getting plenty of minutes on that fourth line with Letestu and Jeremy Morin and that could be the situation this year if the team rolls all four lines pretty equally. The right side, once the permanent home of Jared Boll, seems less settled. Boll is still here, but he's battling David Clarkson for that spot right now. Regardless, the Jackets appear to have 13 forwards who are "locks" as it is unlikely management will put Boll or Bourque through waivers and Clarkson has a No-Movement Clause in his contract. Those would appear to be the guys battling for the last couple spots.
On the Fence
As we just established, if those 13 players meet or exceed expectations through camp it will be very difficult to grab an open roster spot. That said, trades and/or injuries could happen or a young guy could play so well that the team has to keep him in Columbus. The most buzz around these "borderline" guys has to start with Oliver Bjorkstrand. He had a monster final junior season in Portland and dominated in Traverse City at the Prospects Tournament. Is he ready for the jump to the pro game? Does he need to bulk up to play in the NHL or is he ready now? The next couple weeks should tell us more, but there is no doubting he has the offensive skill to be a solid contributor.
Right there with OB pushing for a spot will be Kerby Rychel. The former first-round draft pick played in five NHL games last season before heading back to Springfield where his season was cut short due to injury. Since he does not have to clear waivers, Rychel will really have to outperform someone currently with a roster spot. The thought seems to be he will start in Cleveland and probably be one of the first guys called up when necessary, which isn't bad for a guy who is not even 21 years old yet.
There a few others who have NHL experience and will be in the mix of knocking on the door - William Karlsson, Josh Anderson, and Michael Chaput. All three will probably start the season in Cleveland but are good candidates to see some time with Columbus. First-round draft pick from 2014 Sonny Milano has plenty of puck skills, but is still proving he can play responsibly without the puck. Milano is said to be up over 200 pounds now thanks to off-season weight training. Many experts also think he needs a season in the AHL and should start in Cleveland.
The Other Guys
With all the injuries last season, many young players got a chance to play in the NHL. Unfortunately, as we saw, some of that depth wasn't quite ready for the big stage just yet. That does not appear to be the case this year. In addition to the six guys mentioned above as "borderline," the talent should be pretty darn good in Cleveland as well. Ryan Craig, longtime captain in Springfield, made the jump over and signed a two-year contract with the Lake Erie Monsters. Craig was added to the NHL roster on an "emergency recall" last season and it is unlikely we will see him in Columbus, but that is still a possibility this season.
In addition to Craig, the Monsters should see the services of Markus Hannikainen. It is always possible the Fin could jump back over to Europe after camp. Others on the roster should include, down the middle, T.J. Tynan, Lukas Sedlak, and Alex Broadhurst. Similar to the Jackets, there appears to be plenty of guys who can play center for the Monsters.
Nick Moutrey will be making the jump to the pros as well. Joining him on the right side will be Swede Daniel Zaar. Others who should see time for Lake Erie include Brett Gallant, Seth Ambroz, Peter Quenneville and Trent Vogelhuber. The last two, like Craig, have AHL-contracts with the Monsters.
Back to Juniors
The following are all likely to head back to their junior teams: Paul Bittner, Dante Salituro, Julien Pelletier, Keegan Kolesar, and Kole Sherwood.
Both James Sheppard and Antti Pihlstrom are in camp on professional tryout agreements. It would be a surprise if either sticks coming out of came but stranger things have happened.
On paper, this is a very deep and talented group of forwards. Even lines in Cleveland like Milano - Karlsson - Bjorkstrand or Rychel - Tynan - Anderson have to have fans excited about the next few years. The right side with the big club isn't quite settled, but that is why they have the preseason. At this point, it appears the extra forward on any given night assuming full health will be Jared Boll, Rene Bourque, or David Clarkson. That is going to be an expensive 13th forward and if Bjorkstrand or Rychel earn a spot, that could necessitate a trade. It will be an interesting battle to watch as Richards solidifies the lines, which of course are subject to change.