Despite losing Scott Hartnell to buyout, William Karlsson to Vegas and Sam Gagner to free agency, the Blue Jackets remain a deep and talented group up front.
They have what could be an elite top line in Artemi Panarin, Alexander Wennberg and Cam Atkinson leading in the skill department, while the rugged trio of Boone Jenner, Brandon Dubinsky and Nick Foligno could potentially round out the top six.
What will make or break the fortunes of the Jackets is how the players below the aforementioned half-dozen in the lineup perform. These are the players who will provide depth scoring, contribute on special teams, and move higher in the lineup in the event of injury.
Matt Calvert is a veteran, and a key cog on the penalty kill. Though he lost his PK partner in Karlsson, there are other candidates who could step up. Perhaps Lukas Sedlak, who can take the draws and also serve as Calvert’s pivot five-on-five. Josh Anderson would be an ideal candidate to round out a line of this sort, looking to build on his breakout season a year ago.
I refuse to call it a fourth line, but the next trio I envision could play serious minutes, and has the ability to contribute to the offense in a big way. Jordan Schroeder has yet to put up appreciable point totals in the pros, but he has good instincts and fits the mold of a depth forward. On his opposite wing is Oliver Bjorkstrand, who will be the first candidate to move up in the lineup at the first instance of injury or poor play on one of the big lines. Bjorkstrand may fill the role Sam Gagner occupied last season - limited five-on-five minutes but a cemented spot on the powerplay. Rounding out the line is the centerman - Pierre-Luc Dubois. This line of Schroeder, Dubois and Bjorkstrand oozes skill, and if the trio is having a good night, they’ll get deserved minutes.
Behind the twelve forwards I’ve mentioned, the depth remains impressive. Tyler Motte was acquired with Panarin, and is a candidate to make the big club. He started last season playing with Jonathan Toews, and is a name to keep an eye on in training camp. Sonny Milano will be looking to make a statement in September as well, while Markus Hannikainen will again be looked upon as a depth forward and leader with the Monsters.
Further down the line the team has the likes of Zac Dalpe, Calvin Thurkauf and Kole Sherwood, a trio that should be a big part of the Cleveland offense this season. We’re still waiting on Paul Bittner, while Jordan Maletta, Justin Scott, Alex Broadhurst, Nick Moutrey and Sam Vigneault are long shots to see NHL action next season.
The key in any season is to stay healthy, but if the Jackets run into the injury bug they are well-positioned to offset losses. Depth is crucial to a championship run, and the Jackets have it in spades.