This week, we’ve been examining the organizational depth chart at each position, following the recent draft and free agency. Today, we wrap up the series with the most critical position, and one which has haunted the plans of Columbus Blue Jackets general managers throughout the history of the franchise.
Rick Nash never had a true top center during his decade here. An attempt to trade for one in J*ff C*rt*r drove the team to rock bottom. From the ashes rose the first star homegrown center in Ryan Johansen, only for him to be traded away. In his place came Pierre-Luc Dubois, until he also became part of a blockbuster trade. (Both trades brought worthy returns, but the fact that both came in conflict with coaching and/or management is worrying).
Now that the team has legitimate top 6 wingers in Johnny Gaudreau, Patrik Laine, Oliver BJORKSTRAND, and Jake Voracek, plus promising young wingers such as Yegor Chinakhov and Kirill Marchenko, is there anyone available at center that can hang with them and maximize their effectiveness? Is there anyone who can help the team defense, which was a major weakness last season?
I’ve listened to a lot of national reactions to the Gaudreau signing, and when it came to discussing Gaudreau’s linemates, it was surprising how few mentioned Sillinger. The #12 pick last summer, he was the only member of his draft class to play more than 10 games last season. He ranked sixth on the team in goals (16) and tenth in points (31).
What can we expect from a 19 year old Sillinger? I look to another recent 19 year old center in Dubois. He quickly rose to the 1C position here as a rookie when he was paired with Artemi Panarin. Why not pair Sillinger with Gaudreau and see if the same thing happens?
Sillinger shows maturity beyond his years, which includes a focus on improving his 200 foot game last season. Based on his junior stats and highlights there is a lot more offensive skill there to be tapped into.
Roslovic famously had a “Come to Jesus” meeting with Coach Brad Larsen after a rough game in Calgary in February. At that point, he had merely 20 points (8/12) in 46 games. Over the last 35 games, he scored 14 goals and 11 assists. He finished fourth on the team in goals despite being an afterthought for most of it. So, who is the real Roslovic?
He was a center through college, but his time in Winnipeg was limited to being a bottom six winger. He got his chance in Columbus not just to play center, but to get top six minutes. In the 2021 season he played two minutes more per game over his time in Winnipeg, and set career highs in goals and assists in just 48 games. So, we have two great half-seasons and one bad one.
He didn’t get a chance to center the first line until Boone Jenner’s injury, but he made the most of the opportunity. His defense isn’t a strength, but with talented wingers and offensive deployment, does that matter as much?
He signed a two year contract which takes him to unrestricted free agency, so now is the time to prove he can be a top six center for the forseeable future, or he’ll be replaced by a prospect or an outside trade target.
Projecting centers can be difficult, since so many players who play center at the junior level end up at wing in the NHL. It’s one thing to play center because you’re the most talented player on a roster of teenagers, but another to be able to handle the extra responsibilities of a demanding position, while also still scoring.
Boone Jenner was drafted as a center, but was exclusively a winger for the first five years of his career. When he had to move to center in 2018-19, it felt like an act of desperation, and not a natural fit.
Fast forward to last fall, with a brand new contract extension and the captain’s C on his sweater, and Jenner was playing the best hockey of his entire career. He scored greasy netfront goals on the power play, and on a line with Laine and Voracek. He put up 44 points (23/21) in just 59 games, before a back injury cut his season short.
Is that performance sustainable? Almost certainly not. But, on the plus side, we know that a healthy Boone is versatile. He can play at center or wing, and on any line. If he gets passed by and ends up as the 3C this year, that’s a good thing.
Look, not every center is going to be a star, right? You need ones who can fit their role down the lineup. That’s the role for Kuraly, though he showed last season that he can play up in the lineup if needed. He put up career highs in goals and points. He’s not a defensive whiz like Riley Nash was as 4C, but it’s nice having scoring ability on all four lines.
Danforth’s long journey to the NHL is a great story, and it was neat to see him earn not just a spot on the roster, but a multi-year contract extension. He’s another player who fits the checking line role, but can score some goals, too (10 goals in 45 games). If Kuraly has to play up in the lineup again, Danforth can slide over to center on the fourth line.
Gaunce is a career-long tweener, and his new two-year contract is a two-way deal both years. Expect him to play most of the year in Cleveland (where he put up 28 points in 39 games last year), but he can play wing or center on the fourth line, or be a healthy scratch in the press box while younger players get minutes.
Remember when Texier was the top line center to start last season? Well I don’t blame you for forgetting, since it didn’t go very well. He only hit his stride after being demoted to the checking line. Does he still have a future at center? If so, is it up the lineup or in the bottom six?
Dunne impressed me in the six games he played for the Jackets in spring 2021 after signing as a free agent out of Clarkson University. Injuries limited him to just 29 games in Cleveland last season and he didn’t get to play for Columbus. He has never been much of a scorer at any level, so he’s another one of those “fourth line only” guys.
On the other hand, Angle is someone who has scored in bunches, including 67 points in 62 games in the OHL in 2019-20, and 24 points in 23 games for Cleveland in 2021. He had just 37 points in 71 games for the Monsters last season, and was listed on the roster as a winger. If he makes it to the NHL (and as a 7th round pick that’s a long shot), it will likely be at the wing.
The 2018 first round pick feels like he’s been around forever, and he is no longer waivers exempt, but Foudy is still just 22 years old. COVID and injuries have held him back, as he has played just 86 games since this day two years ago (10 in the playoff bubble, 10 in the 2021 world championship, 25 NHL regular season games, and 41 AHL games). The knock on him as a draft prospect was that he was a tremendous athlete whose hockey skills needed refinement. He’s still young, but is there enough time for him to grow into more than a depth NHLer? He has also been passed by younger, more highly rated prospects such as Sillinger.
Johnson was drafted #6 overall in 2021 as a center. He played wing for two seasons at Michigan, a top college team with NHL-caliber depth down the middle. He played wing in nine games in Columbus late this season. So, is he a wing or is he a center?
Could he learn the position this year in a sheltered bottom six role, perhaps with young wings like Marchenko? Or will his playmaking ability fit on the wing, as another facilitator like Voracek?
Luca Del Bel Belluz
For those of us upset that a center wasn’t selected with either first round pick this summer, the Jackets responded by spending their first Day 2 pick on LDBB. He scored 76 points in 68 games with Mississauga of the OHL, and also earned raves for his performance being matched up against #4 overall pick Shane Wright when LDBB’s Steelheads played Wright’s Kingston Frontenacs.
LDBB is likely at least two years away from the NHL and needs to work on his skating in the meantime. His puck skills give him middle six potential.
At 6’4”, Voronkov projects as a bruising power forward. He is signed in the KHL through this season, but could sign with the Jackets as soon as the spring (depending on ongoing international conflict with Russia, of course). His regular season scoring doesn’t jump out, but he was a point per game player in the 2020 World Junior Championships and scored six goals in 15 games in the playoffs as a 21 year old in 2021.
Other late round draft picks listed as center/wing, but...(/shrugs)
Mikael Pyyhtia (2020 4th round pick) — Scored 13 points in 18 points to lead TPS to the Liiga finals.
James Malatesta (2021 5th round pick) — Likely not a center at 5’9” but putting up good numbers in the QMJHL.
Ben Boyd (2021 6th round pick) — Big body, physical player. Known more for hitting than scoring.
James Fisher (2022 7th round pick) — Drafted out of high school and bound for the USHL before joining Northeastern University in 2023, he is a long way away from the NHL.
That’s 17 names and over 1700 words, but there are a lot more questions than answers. This is a season to find out if Sillinger and Roslovic can build on their 2022 seasons. To see how Johnson best fits on the NHL roster. To see how prospects like Foudy, Angle, Voronkov, and Del Bel Belluz continue to develop.
If uncertainty remains next summer, the 2023 class is supposed to be deep at center, and we could once again be picking in the top 16. Another option is trading from our depth at wing and defense to add an established top 6 NHL center.
Who are your favorite centers from this group? Which ones do you think have the brightest future?