After franchise highs of 50 wins and 108 points, one could have forgiven the management and coaching staff of the Columbus Blue Jackets for resting on their laurels. Surely they would only tweak a few things, right?
Wrong! Instead we see an opening night lineup that has as many as 8 changes from the lineup that remained intact through the 16 game winning streak last season. This roster is younger, faster, and more skilled. As Torts keeps saying, last year’s season only lasted 10 extra days. Some change was necessary to stretch this season longer. Let's look at how each line and pairing has changed, and how that may help:
Artemi Panarin - Alexander Wennberg - Cam Atkinson
I have to keep reminding myself to not get TOO excited about this line. After all, the much ballyhooed Saad/Johansen/Foligno line failed to deliver in 2015. Still, it is no stretch to call this the most skilled line in CBJ history. Wennberg broke out with 46 assists last season, and now he is flanked by forwards who scored 31 (Panarin) and 35 (Cam) goals. This trio will stay together on the power play, with Foligno and Werenski.
The only drawback? This unit is TOO GOOD at passing. John Tortorella vented this week about the need for each player to shoot more when given the chance.
Sonny Milano - Nick Foligno - Oliver BJORKSTRAND
Let's start with the drawback: can Foligno hack it at center for an extended period of time? He has not been a regular there since juniors.
Second drawback: can we rely on Milano and BJORKSTRAND as top 6 contributors? BJORKSTRAND was sent to Cleveland after just 2 disappointing games to start last season. Milano has been nearly invisible in his limited regular season action in Columbus.
YET this line is the one I'm most excited to see together. I have no doubt Foligno is strong enough defensively to handle the new position. BJORKSTRAND showed last spring that he can create goals at the NHL level. Milano, meanwhile, is a former first round pick who finally had a stand out preseason. Tortorella praised Cleveland coach John Madden for Milano's development with the Monsters last year.
These young guns will get ample opportunity to put up big numbers. This is their chance to capitalize.
Pierre-Luc Dubois - Brandon Dubinsky - Matt Calvert/Josh Anderson
How much was Dubinsky’s injured wrist responsible for his struggles last year? How much of it was the quality of competition and the high number of defensive zone starts? A third line role could be a better fit for Dubi’s game, as Torts will continue to trust him to match up against the opponent’s top line.
Like Milano, Dubois is a former first round pick with a lot to prove. Rather than being forced to master the center position at the NHL level, the team is putting him in a position to succeed by easing him in as a bottom 6 winger.
Anderson may miss the first game or two as he gets into game shape after his contract dispute, but once he’s ready this line appears to be a natural fit. He has his new contract, now he has to show he’s worth it and that his first full year was no fluke.
This line is going to HURT. Each player is over 6’2” and 200 pounds. Yet it has skill, too, with each player having the potential to score 15-20 goals this season.
(If Calvert starts on this line in Anderson’s absence, he won’t provide the size or scoring touch, but he’s just as physically painful to play against)
Matt Calvert/Zac Dalpe - Lukas Sedlak - Markus Hannikainen
Yeah, ok, this line doesn’t get me as excited. This certainly won’t put up the numbers that the Hartnell/Sedlak/Gagner fourth line did last year (in limited, sheltered minutes). I do like Sedlak’s defensive ability. With Dalpe and Hannikainen, I like their hunger. Neither one wants to get sent back to the AHL. For Calvert, he is a looming free agent and thus is playing for his next contract, whether here or elsewhere. This is a desperate line, and I think playing with urgency will create good results for them.
Zach Werenski - Seth Jones
Jack Johnson - David Savard
No changes here. I understand the argument for splitting up Werenski and Jones, but I have no issues with letting these pairings stay together for now. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Ryan Murray - Gabriel Carlsson
Scott Harrington - Markus Nutivaara
Can Murray live up to his high draft position? Will Carlsson show why he was picked in the first round? What will Harrington and Nutivaara do when they get a chance to play? WILL they get a chance to play?
Either way, the upside here is huge, and it’s great to have so much depth on the blue line should something happen to any of the top 4.
Bob. Need I say more? Korpi gives us a settled backup for the first time in a couple seasons. Hopefully he gets enough starts to stay sharp, and keep Bob rested.
There are new lines and pairings that need to gel. There are rookies adjusting to a full season of NHL play. There may be growing pains but there is also the potential for a lot of growth, and lot of exciting hockey.
Each season wipes the slate clean with a new team. Get ready for the debut of the new Columbus Blue Jackets tomorrow night.