Training Camp Battles: Centers
Piecing together a puzzle down the middle
Columbus Blue Jackets training camp begins in a few short days, thank the hockey gods. This year’s camp will feature no shortage of storylines to watch, but you can always count on position battles to serve as running subplots throughout the preseason. We’ll handicap each position group beginning today, with the team’s centers.
The Blue Jackets will carry a handful of centers into camp with a range of experience and particular skills. Who has the best chance to make the Opening Night roster, and where will they line up?
It feels like the top center spots are spoken for, but a little healthy competition is a good thing. We’ll also be discussing true centers listed as such on the official roster, so…not Nick Foligno.
PLD is this team’s No. 1 center righ now. Dubois’s rookie season last season cemented his status as the franchise pivot they’ve been waiting on for years (with apologies to Alex Wennberg). His ascendency last year (20 goals and 28 assists) helped push the Blue Jackets into the playoffs along with his chemistry with Schroedinger’s Jacket Artemi Panarin, who needs the puck more than anybody else on the team. Though it could change if he falters to start the season, the top center job is PLD’s to lose heading into the preseason.
Wennberg ranked fifth on the team in assists (27) in a disappointing year for the 24-year-old Swede. He battled injuries and shook off a cold streak in November to deliver some big games down the stretch while ceding first-line duties to Pierre-Luc Dubois. Few can match Wennberg’s vision and passing skill, and this will be his fifth NHL season. He’s experienced and expected to bounce back for a big campaign. Moving him on the power play brought the moribund unit to life last year, and he’ll be gunning for the top job. Wennberg may likely see some first line duties once the season gets underway.
The Blue Jackets expect a big year from Brandon Dubinsky, who finds himself running out of leash in Columbus. He turned in a career-worst season last year (six goals and 16 points) after an offseason spent recovering from wrist surgery, a problem he thankfully did not have this summer. Dubinsky’s spot may be one of the most untenable with the youth of Riley Nash and Lukas Sedlak angling for a chance in the middle. Ideally, Dubinsky would be a top-six center. He’ll need to displace Wennberg, though Dubinsky provides a game only he can play when he’s on–something that will be important to watch for the 32-year-old in camp.
Jenner’s a winger at this point in his career, and with a glut of centers in camp, him staying on the wing is a near-certainty. Boone was one of the best face-off men on the team last year though, and the organization clearly views him as a leader (he’s an alternate captain and signed a two-year deal over the summer). He’ll probably see spot-duty down the middle, but can definitely provide strength between the dots. For more on Jenner, check out this in-depth profile from July.
One of the newest players on the team, the Blue Jackets brought in Riley Nash to specifically shore up the team’s depth at center. The 29-year-old enjoyed a career year in Boston in 2017-18, scoring a career-best 15 goals, 26 assists and 41 points. Nash minds the shop defensively and has played mostly on the third line, but saw a large chunk of time on the second for the Bruins while Patrice Bergeron recovered from an injury. He joined Columbus in large for increased opportunity and the ability to advance his career, and that chance begins in camp.
Once you get to Sedlak, the centers seem more or less fleshed out on paper: Dubois, Wennberg, Dubinsky and Nash. Sedlak, however, has made his living on the fourth line and can be a force on the bottom six when healthy and feeling it, a combination that didn’t happen too incredibly often last year (eight points in 53 games). He has the size and the willingness to throw his body around with the skill to get his wingers going. A healthy Sedsycat would be perfect for Columbus on the fourth line and make for some tough decisions higher on the lineup card.
Dalpe played 12 games with the big club last year, going pointless while picking up 13 penalty minutes. The former Buckeye picked up 26 points with 11 goals in 35 games in Cleveland and has bounced up and down throughout his eight-year pro career. He’s seen a ton NHL time without being a bona fide full-time NHLer, so he may have an edge. He did make the team out of camp last year due to Jenner’s injury, after all. Barring a huge camp, it’s likely he’ll start with the with the Monsters to provide some veteran leadership on the farm–but a rash of injuries could see him speeding down Interstate 71.
The Blue Jackets signed Gerbe in January, bringing the diminutive centerman in from Switzerland. He played two games in Columbus before heading to Cleveland, where he spent 24 games (four goals and 14 assists) reacquainting himself to North American hockey. He’s a cagey vet who has almost 400 NHL games on his resume and the team signed Gerbe to a two-year, two-way extension in March. The odds may be stacked against him making the Opening Night roster, but Gerbe has defied the odds for his whole career.
Broadhurst was an alternate captain for the Monsters and enjoyed a cup of coffee with the big club at the end of last season. He scored 19 goals and 22 assists in 66 games (first on the team in goals and second in points and assists) in the AHL, finally making his NHL debut after five years in the minors. He didn’t crack our list of “Top 25 Under 25,” but he was close. The Blue Jackets resigned him to a one-year, two-way deal in June, so he’ll likely start the year in Cleveland again. With a big camp, though, he might make that a tougher decision than it seems initially.
Liam Foudy, Ryan MacInnis, Kevin Stenlund, Alexandre Texier, Calvin Thurkauf and Sam Vigneault represent the future of the Blue Jackets. These players round out the rest of the centers on the official roster and the oldest, Vigneault, turned 23 a few days ago. Vigneault and Stenlund have torn it up in Traverse City and several of these prospects will bring hopes of making the big club into camp. Their energy and skill will be one of the most fun things about following not only this year’s preseason, but the ones down the road as well. After all, the next Pierre-Luc Dubois has to come from somewhere.