We’ve finally made it! It’s September which means the hockey preseason is around the corner and training camp gets underway for your Blue Jackets in mere days. The Cannon kick off the excitement with another installment of training camp battles, and today, we take a look at centers. It’s a position that the Blue Jackets have longed for, and yet, there finally could be a crop full that the organization can realistically consider in high regard.
The Jackets got a taste of what it was like adding All-Star center Matt Duchene on the top line late last season. They started the season with free-agent acquisition Riley Nash, who didn’t quite live up to the expectations he had produced in previous years. So, needless to say, where there are more questions going into this season, it’s more about how certain prospects can continue to evolve and who might make an impact sooner than later. And we break it down now.
On The Roster
Pierre-Luc Dubois has rapidly ascended in his brief Blue Jackets career to date, setting career highs in points (61), goals (27), and assists (34) in his second NHL season last year. He has never missed a game, including the playoffs (two goals, three assists), and while optimism should be there as Dubois has thrived to date, it will be his first season without Artemi Panarin, an aspect I covered in his top 25 under 25. While an adjustment is warranted, I believe Dubois will continue to mature and develop, but we’ll see how the top line can adjust without the play-making Panarin to help drive the offense.
Well, it’s not exactly a secret that Alexander Wennberg really needs to show up this year, particularly from the offensive side of the puck. John Tortorella has been searching for any semblance of what the young center did in 2016-17, when he had his best season, scoring career highs in points (59), goals (13), and assists (46). Since that season, Wennberg’s offensive consistency has been spotty, to put it gently.
He showed a bit of a resurgence in March 2018 when he had Thomas Vanek on his wing, but Wennberg needs to get back to shooting the puck, at least a little. It’s fine if he’s a facilitator first, and a shooter second. However, last season, Wennberg took a career-low 64 shots and had a 3.1 shooting percentage. Both totals are down from the season prior when he took 74 shots on the net and had a 10.8 shooting percentage.
The opportunity to be paired with Gustav Nyquist, whom he has chemistry with on international ice, could be seen as both a boon to Wennberg for the upcoming season and the last chance he has of sticking around on the Blue Jackets roster. Wennberg did look refreshed when playing for Sweden at the 2019 IIHF World Championships in May, scoring 10 points in six games (three goals, seven assists), including a multi-goal game.
Boone Jenner has really turned out to be a very solid NHLer with leadership qualities, and is certainly among the veterans the Blue Jackets will count on in 2019-20. It was a solid year for Jenner a year ago, scoring 16 goals, notching a career-high 22 assists, and his 38 points were the second-most of his career. He also scored three points (one goal, two assists) in the playoffs. Jenner has really turned into a dependable bottom-six forward, who started over 60% of his shifts in the defensive zone for the first time in his career last season (65.8%) and subsequently saw his faceoff production increase last year, winning 54.1% of the draws. Right in line with his career norms.
It’s funny, I think my perception of Jenner has marginally improved since this article a year ago.
Brandon Dubinsky has regressed and likely won’t be the Dubi of old. But maybe he can turn the clock back a bit, at least to be more of a central figure for Tortorella. Primarily seen as a faceoff guy in the defensive zone last season — his dZS% was a career-high 79.7 in 2018-19 — Dubinsky won 57.1% of his faceoffs, the best mark of his career since 2012-13. He averaged just over 12:00 a game last season, the lowest of his career, and he brought up the rear in CF% among regulars on the team (45.1). You never have to question his heart, but you can’t expect much offensive value with Dubinsky these days. Playing to that utility/grinder role, and who takes face-offs in the defensive zone, will have its value but in small doses when compared to the larger picture.
The good news is it should get better for Riley Nash this season. It almost can't get worse, right? I probably shouldn't have asked that. Nash scored just 12 points (three goals, nine assists) last year, his lowest offensive totals in a season since 2012-13 when he played just 32 games for the Hurricanes. Last season, Nash endured a 23-game goalless streak to start the season before cashing in against the Wild. He did put together a solid playoff for Columbus, until an injury in Game 2 against the Bruins, which worsened in Game 3, knocked him out for the remainder of the series. After adjusting to having a new team and system under his belt through year one, we’ll see what the savvy veteran brings to the table in year two.
Alexandre Texier got his shot on the Blue Jackets roster late last season, in fact, game no. 81 as the Jackets slipped past the Rangers in a shootout to clinch a playoff spot. It wasn’t the first time a player made his NHL debut for a Tortorella-coached team prior to the playoffs, and we saw some of the strides, and growing pains, that Texier exhibited during the brief start to his NHL career.
Mixed with the late-season winning streak by the Blue Jackets, and culminating with the first-round sweep over the Lightning, Texier didn’t feel the sting of defeat at the NHL level until Game 1 of the second-round series against the Bruins, a string of seven games. In the playoffs, Texier had three points (two goals, one assist).
To begin the 2018-19 season last year, Texier was on loan to KalPa, where he scored 41 points (14 goals, 27 assists) in 55 games and also scored seven points (five goals, two assists) in seven games for the Monsters.
Corey Pronman of The Athletic ranked Texier number two in his August prospect rankings, also placing him amongst the tier of ‘very good NHL prospect.’
Texier had a great season between Finland, the AHL and eventually in the NHL with the Blue Jackets, including in the playoffs. He’s a super smart player with the skill and vision to be a top-six forward in the NHL. Texier is always looking to make a play and is deadly along the half wall. His shot is sneaky good too, but it’s not the strength of his game. Texier’s skating has improved. It breaks down every now and then, but he’s added a lot of speed to his stride. Off the puck he’s OK. He competes fine and engages physically, but he’s not a great defensive forward and likely won’t kill penalties in the NHL. He’s a player who for years has been on an upward trajectory.
Trying to make the roster
Liam Foudy represents among the younger talents inside the Blue Jackets organizational pipeline that comes in with tremendous upside and potential. Will he crack the opening night roster when the Jackets square off with the Maple Leafs? Maybe not. But he’ll have his opportunity in camp to turn the heads of the higher-ups. At just 19-years-old, he’s too young to play in the AHL, so if he can’t crack the Blue Jackets roster, he’ll return to the London Knights.
Foudy spent his 2018-19 with the Knights, where he dressed as an alternate captain, and registered 68 points (36 goals, 32 assists). He then skated with the Monsters for their playoff run and scored two goals in eight games.
Corey Pronman of The Athletic ranked Foudy number five in his prospect rankings in August, placing him in the tier of ‘legit NHL prospect:’
Foudy had a solid third OHL season, as a top player on a good London team. What defines Foudy is his skating. He’s a burner with high-end speed and the ability to consistently turn the corner on defenders. I had some questions last season about his offensive upside, but when I went to London games I was impressed by both Foudy’s puck skills and vision. There is offense in his game. The question is whether his skill can reach the level to make him a top-six forward. In that respect, I’ve gone back and forth. I think the safe call is he’s a third-line forward who can kill penalties and provide secondary offense, but I’m not ruling out the possibility of more.
Kevin Stenlund made his NHL debut with the Blue Jackets last year but didn’t score a point in four games. It’s safe to say he’ll likely see time up there once again this year. Last season, Stenlund put together a 25-point (15 goals, 10 assists) campaign for the Monsters in 59 games, scoring one goal in five playoff games. He could be another prospect with some brief NHL experience to have a leg up on the others in camp.
Corey Pronman of The Athletic ranked Stenlund number 12 in his August prospect rankings, placing him amongst the tier of ‘legit/chance bubble.’
Stenlund looks like a player. There are times you see a 6-foot-3 forward with great hands, a fine skating stride, the ability to make plays and score goals, and think he should be on the fast track to the NHL. While he did play a few games this season, he has some work to do before he’s a full-time player. Stenlund has all the tools, but he lacks consistency. He doesn’t get to the middle of the ice that often and he needs to get better defensively. I know some scouts who are huge believers due to his massive upside.
Zac Dalpe spent the last season in Cleveland, playing in the clubs’ 55 games, scoring 33 goals — tied for second on the team — and 22 assists, for a 55 point campaign. He also scored three points for the Monsters in the playoffs (two goals, one assist) and played one game at the NHL level for the Blue Jackets, notching an assist against the Panthers. The 29-year-old veteran will try to do what he can to earn a call-up this season and give the young kids healthy competition in camp.
Justin Scott scored 13 goals, 11 assists, for a 24-point season in Cleveland (two goals, one assist in the playoffs) and comes to camp looking to show what he can do to provide a greater role in Columbus. Scott has not cracked the NHL level yet. Elaine Shircliff mentions that Scott is one of the more underrated forwards in the organization:
He is incredibly skilled on the faceoff. If he loses a faceoff, it’s almost as if he knows his linemates are going to be able to create an even better play from a different spot on the ice. Scott also knows when to step in for the defense and protect the goaltender from any players trying to enter the crease.
Ryan MacInnis returns for his second season in the Blue Jackets organization, looking to build off his 24-point campaign (four goals, 20 assists) a season ago (one goal, two assists in the playoffs). The son of Hall of Famer Al MacInnis, Ryan suited up for 71 games in Cleveland last year, the third-most of all players in Cleveland. With a plethora of forwards in the Jackets organization, and those currently forecasted ahead of MacInnis on the depth chart, the logjam will likely keep MacInnis in Cleveland for the duration of the 2019-20 season.
Calvin Thürkauf played in just 26 games for the Monsters last season and scored two goals in his tenure there. He was out most of the year with a lower-body injury, so Thürkauf looks to resemble his game from pre-injury and be considered high in the mix with all of the other young forwards competing for spots.
It would be best if Thürkauf spent more time at center than winger. He’s similar to Alexandre Texier in the sense that when they’re able to get the puck on their stick more frequently, they’re able to create magic on they ice.
Sam Vigneault might make an appearance at training camp as a free agent invite. Vigneault did not get offered a contract this year by the Blue Jackets, but the Monsters signed him July 1. He could be another body that gets thrown into the mix. Last season, he played 61 games for the Monsters (four goals, 16 assists) and played three games for the club in the playoffs adding an assist. Vigneault also played three games in the ECHL for the Jacksonville IceMen (one goal, five assists).
Derek Barach comes off his first season with the Monsters in which he put up 11 points in 15 games (seven goals, four assists), helping propel Cleveland to the playoffs. He also scored one goal in eight playoff games. Barach joined the Monsters after his college season with Mercyhurst University, whom he captained the previous two seasons, and where he put up 37 points (15 goals, 22 assists) in 2018-19.
That covers the center-ice portion of the Blue Jackets, and we’ll be sure to update the progress reports as camp gets underway, and the preseason gets going. Be sure to check back with us tomorrow when we preview the other side of the puck, the Blue Jackets defense.