Training Camp Battles 2015: The Defense
In every chain, there is a weak link. Many have pointed to the Blue Jackets' blue line - but can a bit of young blood help strengthen their steel?
We had a look at the spots for some of the team's up and coming prospects to potentially earn their spurs in the NHL (or lack thereof), so now it's time to take a look at the defense.
Much like the forward lines, a lot of the depth chart is written already, and barring a trade it's likely that we'll see them line up something like this:
Johnson - Savard
Tyutin - Murray
Connauton - Goloubef
There's the potential to carry a seventh D-man, and that's the most likely spot for someone to break in, but the pickings remain awfully slim. It's also possible that the Jackets might shuffle these pairings, but this is my best guess for now.
The biggest issue that everyone has pointed out, particularly in recent articles in the Dispatch, is the pairing of Jack Johnson and David Savard. There's certainly evidence in the advanced stats community to say that both of them are, at best, second pairing material, but for now we can expect them both to be facing tough minutes.
What may help them, and the team in general, is Jack Johnson's tendency to ratchet his game up when he's feeling disrespected, as he did after team USA snubbed him for the 2014 Olympic team.
If I were Todd Richards? I'd be faxing him clippings on a daily basis.
Still, there's always the chance of a shakeup in training camp, so let's see who might be working to force their way through the door.
Justin Falk: Acquired in the trade that sent Jordan Leopold back to Minnesota, Falk spent some time with the Jackets down the stretch last season, but didn't necessarily set himself apart from the pack of players who were returning to the roster as the team got healthy. It's entirely possible that he'll start the year in Lake Erie, but I suspect he'll keep a bag packed - he knows how easily he could be in Columbus again should injuries strike the blue line.
Dalton Prout: Probably the most likely to take that 7th defenseman spot out of camp, Prout had been a regular with his booming physical play, but struggled last season, frequently getting abused by more agile skaters who could duck his checks and draw him out of position. Able to also stand in as an "enforcer" type player, he's probably valued right now more for that than his play on the blue line, but he will get the opportunity to prove to the front office that he can still bring more to the team.
Looking for a Break
Michael Paliotta: Acquired as part of the Saad trade from Chicago, Paliotta was regarded as a very promising defensive prospect, who had a brief taste of the NHL with one regular season game after leaving the University of Vermont. A right handed shot with a good eye for the net, he'll have a chance to show off what he can do at the Traverse City tournament.
Dean Kukan: Signed out of Sweden as a free agent, Kukan is looking to make that jump to the NHL, and certainly seems to have an NHL sized frame at 6'2" and 209 lbs. Because he is coming in from Europe, it's not clear if he'd go to Lake Erie if he fails to crack the roster, but still provides an interesting wild card. Like Paliotta, he'll also be participating in Traverse City, which will be his first major appearance on North American ice.
Blake Siebernaler and Dillon Heatherington will also be looking to make an impression as first year pros, but the odds are stacked against them - they'd have to beat out four guys just to be considered options for the NHL roster, let alone making the show, so it's nearly certain they'll be getting the chance to develop in Cleveland before making their way down I-71.
Old Age And Treachery
Andrew Bodnarchuk and Jaime Sifers are likely to be in Lake Erie as well to provide veteran experience, but each of them have at least a little NHL time. The odds are just as stacked for them - perhaps even more, since they don't have the benefit of being recent draft picks for the organization, but their seasoning might make them more suitable to call up in a short term injury situation.
Having a lot of competition for very few openings isn't a bad place to be as an NHL team. If nothing else it shows the club has a proven core that can be counted on, and the expectations will be set accordingly.
The bigger question is if that core can translate expectations into reality - and how the club's post-season hopes may affect their future.