With the offseason drawing to a close, the Ice Haus has begun to fill with current Blue Jackets players and prospects, tuning up and getting themselves ready for the official start of training camp.
On the one hand, there's a good chunk of the roster that will be written on the lineup card in pen before a single blade touches the ice, and that means there will be a lot of continuity from the club that finished last season so strongly. On the other, it means that the few spots that are available are going to be hotly contested, and likely to end in a promising propsect (or perhaps even a former roster player) starting his season in Lake Erie.
Certain guys can just be locked in now: Ryan Johansen, Nick Foligno, Brandon Dubinsky, Brandon Saad, etx.
What you get when you assume they'll be opening night roster, is a depth chart that looks something like this:
Saad - Johansen - Foligno
Jenner - Dubinsky - Atkinson
Hartnell - Wennberg - Clarkson
XXX - Campbell - XXX
Two spots - maybe - means that things are going to be awfully fierce going into camp, and I'd expect things to get heated pretty quickly as guys try to prove themselves.
Now, I know what you probably said after reading that chart: "Wait, didn't Matt Calvert just sign a new deal?"
Well, yes, he did. And normally I'd pencil him in for that 4LW spot, but there's a few things working against him.
As much as Calvert is a driven, high energy player, he's also dealt with several injuries over the last few seasons, including at least one major concussion. I wouldn't go so far as to call him injury prone (yet), but when you play like a guy twice your size, it takes a toll on the body. The front office has to be aware of that.
Second, though he did sign a new deal, it's a pretty cap friendly one, with a $2.2 million cap hit and an "actual dollars" figure of $1.5 million this year. Not the best contract to soak in the AHL if he should get shoved, but not the worst either - and if the opportunity presented itself, also quite reasonable to be included in a trade.
That same logic also applies to another popular name I left out of my chart: Jared Boll.
While Boll has taken a lot of punches for this team (on ice and metaphorically), his benching for much of the team's impressive run down the stretch may be a sign that his time in Columbus may be coming to an end. When you look at some of Coach Todd Richard's remarks about the long tenured vet, you had to wonder if a buyout might be coming over the summer.
That didn't happen, though I suspect the idea was floated internally for a little while, and we have heard from Aaron Portzilne that Boll spent this summer trying to get his groove back. I don't think the team would be opposed to carrying an extra forward or two for the start of the year, especially considering how last season unfolded, but he's got a lot of work ahead of him to prove he belongs on the ice instead of in the press box.
Would the team move him? Hard to say - like Calvert his deal is relatively small - but on the other hand, $1.7 million is a lot to pay for a guy who isn't contributing past an on-ice scrap or two. Particularly since the team picked up another possible "enforcer" type - Brett Gallant - for peanuts this offseason.
Normally I'd put David Clarkson in this category too, but his salary demands he see ice time, and so I assume he'll find a role in the third line. (Where, to be fair, I think he might do quite well - just not $5.5 million well...)
Rene Bourque has to know that he's on the outside looking in right now. Last season, he began his tenure with Columbus in the AHL after the Wisniewski trade, and while he didn't look out of place when injuries opened a hole for him to join the main squad, he didn't necessarily do anything to set himself above his competition.
It's a contract year, and I have no doubt he'd rather spend it showing why he deserves another NHL deal somewhere, even if not in Columbus, but if he starts the season up in Cleveland I think he's got the tools to be an excellent mentor for the young guys who will be starting their pro careers along side him. The question is, would Bourque be happy with that? I don't think the idea of him asking for a trade if he doesn't make the final roster is entirely out of the question - assuming the team can find a partner.
The Young And Hungry
Now we get to some interesting questions - and where the competition is likely to be the fiercest.
The most interesting battle is likely to be between two first round picks - 2013's Kerby Rychel, and 2014's Sonny Milano.
Both have a fast, aggressive game, and while Rychel is a bit more physical, Milano brings hands like an angel. Even that physical edge may be a lot thinner than it was last year - if you saw some of the photos of Milano from this year's Cannonfest, it's clear that he's been getting seriously jacked in the gym. If he's added another ten pounds worth of muscle, that means he's got an NHL ready frame to go with his high end offensive toolbox. But is it enough to break into the roster - especially when he's likely to be most effective in a top six role?
Rychel's shown he can grind with the best of them, which may position him for a better shot at a bottom six spot, but don't be surprised if the competition ends with both of them taking top line positions in Lake Erie.
Of course, they aren't the only young players hoping they might bump someone out - both Josh Anderson and Oliver Bjorkstrand will come in to camp hoping to start their pro careers in Columbus, but they bring some of the same issues as Milano and Rychel - they're thoroughbreds more than draft horses. Would putting them in a lower role be serving them well, or is it better to let them build their skills up in the AHL and potentially call them up as needed?
Marcus Hannikainen brings a proven offensive package and experience playing an older man's game in Finland, but this would be his first experience in the smaller North American rinks. How does that translate? Will he adjust quickly? And as with many European players, will he settle for an AHL spot when he knows he can return to his native country and step back into their top ranks?
Kole Sherwood and Paul Bittner are just this side of Mars as long shots go, but stranger things have happened, and even though the acquisition of Gregory Campbell plugged the 4C spot that William Karlsson would have been vying for in camp, I suspect that "Wild Bill" wouldn't mind switching to the wing if it gave him a chance to play in Columbus on opening night. The same goes for Michael Chaput, who will also be an RFA this season, and is running out of time to prove he can "stick" at a higher level with the organization.
If you forced me to guess, I suspect that Calvert, barring a major upset or trade, will be on that fourth line LW spot when the team skates out to face the Rangers on October 9th.
The right wing spot is murkier, but I actually wouldn't be shocked to find David Clarkson there, regardless of his salary, and perhaps one of those young guns (Milano certainly seems like he wants it) filling a spot on the third line - or perhaps even a second like spot next to Dubinsky, with Cam Atkinson filling in off Wennberg's wing.
There's plenty of room for debate, but it's clear that while there might be an opportunity or two, the guys who are trying to break in are really going to have to work to earn it.