After the abrupt and very early departure of Pierre-Luc Dubois last season, the center position has been an Achilles heel for the Columbus Blue Jackets, made more noticeable by Laine’s regression. Dubois’ departure simply accentuated an already present deficiency at center ice. Jarmo Kekalainen admitted as much last March when he told Bill Rabinowitz of The Columbus Dispatch, “Centers are not available very often....usually you have to draft one and develop one.” Even high draft picks often need time for development before being moved to center ice. “You have to know where everybody is on the ice at all times and what your responsibilities are. You see top overall picks go through it early in their careers. They usually play wing before they’re put into the middle. There’s just a lot going on in the position,” admitted Rick Nash last year.
If you glance at the active roster, there are 17 players listed as centers. Clearly, the majority are wingers. So realistically, who should we expect to see thriving center ice?
Roslovic had a career year last season after being traded from the Winnipeg Jets in the Dubois-Laine shocker with 12 goals, 22 assists and 34 points in 48 games. He’s a bet to start as the #1 center, at least for now. Due to lack of a “true” #1 center, Roslovic likely will start between Patrik Laine and Jacub Vorachek on the first line. He does bring scoring prowess; teams have to worry he won’t just pass (Wennberg), taking pressure off our snipers.
Although he was initially traded for Josh Anderson with the expectation of sliding into the second-line center position, his play was a disappointment. He seemed to rebound as a winger towards the end of the season, but went through some Mad Max phase which saw him with penalty box minutes only second to widely beloved Tom Wilson. He was left unprotected in the expansion draft but not selected, which raises red flags as to CBJ’s trust in him. Which Max will we see return in December following his right shoulder surgery? Maybe he should call Mel Gibson for comeback advice.
Jenner can play center and does at times, but arguably is better suited at wing. He’s reliable but lacks speed. He’s an inconsistent scorer who has problems executing. He’s also a face-off expert, winning 54% of draws in his career average. Yet he’s tenacious and a responsible defender who is visible on the penalty kill. Averaging in the 30s for points per season, he’s recently signed a 4-year extension with the Blue Jackets and may even wear the C someday. Although only 28 years-old, he seems older, probably because he’s been in the NHL for 8 years. He’s also been on the second half of his career bell curve the last few seasons.
Signing a 4-year, $10 million contract with the Blue Jackets, he’s netted 24 goals and 44 assists with 68 total points since his Boston Bruins’ debut in 2016-2017. “Sean Kuraly is a big, strong center that plays a 2-way game, can kill penalties and will add size, physicality and character to our line-up.” -Jarmo Kekalainen (www.nhl.com). Although he’s projected to be the fourth-line center, I would bet that to improve as the season progresses. He wins face-offs in the defensive zone, with his winning percentages improving every year. Additionally, he’s hard-nosed and tenacious on the puck.
Although listed as a center on the roster, he hasn’t really seen success at this position. His defensive ability is questionable. Face-off win percentages are lower, in the 30s.
Even though there are 17 center listed, the only other players that reasonably might play center are Kevin Stenlund and Josh Dunne. They are both big and can carry the puck up the ice. Dunne played well in Traverse City, finishing with the leading point total for the team. However, he was a little disappointing last season, and got sent back to Cleveland. Speaking of tearing it up in Traverse City, Cole Sillinger’s play was described as electric, but he’s only 18 years-old. Liam Foudy has also played center, but hasn’t with the Blue Jackets. Foudy is likely more of a winger with his speed and scoring ability. He might slide in nicely between Sean Kuraly and Eric Robinson. With Tortorella's departure, its anyone’s guess, but expectations are high for a more creative, more fluid offensive scheme, opening possibilities we can ‘t foresee. It will be fun to watch.