Three years ago, the Blue Jackets got into the Stanley Cup playoffs because they had exquisite goaltending and they were deep down the middle.
That 2013-14 club had serious strength at center ice: Ryan Johansen, Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, RJ Umberger and Mark Letestu gave head coach Todd Richards plenty of options to tinker and deploy different looks both at even strength and within his special teams rotations.
Over the last few seasons, that depth has taken a hit – mostly because of trades that have remade the look of the team – but there’s talent in the pipeline that appears ready to make a serious case to stick around.
Pierre-Luc Dubois, the surprise pick at No. 3 in the 2016 NHL Draft, is the Blue Jackets’ top prospect and will have an open floor to audition for one of the team’s four center positions once training camp begins in September. Jordan Schroeder, signed to a two-way contract in free agency, is a depth option that will get a long look as a utility player.
Lukas Sedlak, a key cog in the Blue Jackets’ successful fourth line with Scott Hartnell and Sam Gagner, stands a good chance of opening the season in a third or fourth-line role. Tyler Motte, acquired from Chicago in the Panarin/Saad deal, is a highly-thought of prospect who could see NHL time, as well.
But of course, the elephant in the room is the potential acquisition of another player.
GM Jarmo Kekalainen has had ongoing discussions with the Colorado Avalanche regarding center Matt Duchene. To this point, those talks have stalled and the negotiation has become a staring contest between the two teams; there’s plenty of time to get a deal done before the season, but the Blue Jackets are proceeding with their options at hand for the time being.
So, what does the Blue Jackets’ center depth look like after free agency, the draft, and trading season has cooled? This is our best mid-July guess:
1 – ALEXANDER WENNBERG
Wennberg is a restricted free agent as of this writing, but at some point this summer, he and the club will agree on a new contract that secures him as the Blue Jackets' No. 1 center heading into the season. His point totals have increased in each of his first three NHL seasons and, with a new linemate in Artemi Panarin, will have ample opportunity to see his production take another leap in 2017-18.
2 – BRANDON DUBINSKY
Assuming the Blue Jackets can't close a deal to acquire another center, it's a safe bet that the veteran Dubinsky anchors the No. 2 line - likely with Boone Jenner and Nick Foligno on his wings - when training camp opens. Dubinsky, 30, is under contract for four more seasons at an annual cap hit of $5.85 million.
3 – PIERRE-LUC DUBOIS
This is the wild card. If Dubois arrives in camp and has a strong showing, it's reasonable to believe he can hold down the No. 3 center job. Matt Calvert is an option for his wing, Oliver Bjorkstrand another, but that's all up in the air as the talented but as-yet-unproven Dubois has a long way to go before John Tortorella pens his name on a lineup card. Early signs are encouraging regarding Dubois, who has added muscle and trained aggressively in preparation for the biggest camp of his young career.
4 – LUKAS SEDLAK
Barring something unforeseen, Sedlak will be on the Blue Jackets' opening night roster and most likely as the No. 4 center. He excelled in the role last season and, despite some inconsistent deployment and matchups, was able to drive play at 5-on-5 over the course of his rookie season. He is a superb face-off man and, on the special teams front, became a valuable asset for assistant coach Brad Shaw on the penalty kill.
Others in contention: Jordan Schroeder, Tyler Motte