Coming off the best season in franchise history, the Columbus Blue Jackets had a bizarre offseason.
On the one hand, the team suffered some attrition. The Blue Jackets lost three mainstays in their lineup: William Karlsson, Sam Gagner, and Scott Hartnell. They'll hope to fill those vacancies from within, though it will be difficult. They also added star winger Artemi Panarin as well as Tyler Motte, parting ways with Brandon Saad and Anton Forsberg.
On the other hand, to say the rest of the club stayed largely intact would be false. In fact, the rest of the club stayed completely intact.
The Blue Jackets enter the 2017-18 season with some new faces in the forward group. With that comes some uncertainty. It's impossible to know how training camp will shake out, who meshes well (or not) with others, and who, if anyone, comes in and surprises.
All that's to say it will be fascinating to see how head coach John Tortorella will deploy his forwards to open the season. Sure, we're six weeks away from the season opener, but here's my educated guess on what the Blue Jackets lineup looks like on Friday, October 6, when they host the New York Islanders:
Panarin - Wennberg - Foligno
Bjorkstrand - Dubinsky - Atkinson
Jenner - Dubois - Anderson
Calvert - Sedlak - Motte
Werenski - Jones
Johnson - Savard
Carlsson - Murray
First, let's state the obvious: this is assuming no injuries between now and early October, which is optimistic and bordering on naiveté. Second, this assumes that no trade - for Matt Duchene or otherwise - is completed between now and then. And lastly, this assumes that both Alexander Wennberg and Josh Anderson are signed before the season starts.
Now, into the meat of the lineup. I think it would be amazing to see Bjorkstrand get a shot on the top line with Wennberg and Panarin, but something in my 20+ years of hockey watching/playing experience just can't let me put those three together. I love the direction hockey is going, where speed and creativity are king, but when push comes to shove, it's nice to have someone to effectively retrieve pucks in the offensive zone. Because of this, Foligno gets the first crack at it, where he'll benefit from the immediate uptick in skill around him.
Next, I'd love for Dubinsky to be this team's third-line center, but that would insinuate a trade, or a major promotion for Pierre-Luc Dubois (more on him in a second). Dubinsky and Atkinson, have had success on the same line in the past, and there's no reason to stop this train. Adding Bjorkstrand to the mix should make this a line that's capable of scoring at a similar clip to the top line.
Dubois is the team's third-line center out of necessity. He will be given every opportunity to seize this spot, and I think eventually he does enough to win that spot. Tortorella will be careful to put him around players who can make him successful, and Josh Anderson and Boone Jenner are both skillful enough to make this line dangerous. If they can play anything over 50 percent of the game in the other team's zone, it's going to be tough sledding for the opponent.
Finally, it pains me to leave Sonny Milano out of the lineup, and I genuinely hope I'm wrong. I just have a feeling that Motte will be better at camp than people realize, and he'll be lauded for his steady play in a bottom-six capacity.
The defense stays largely the same as last year. With a glut of depth on the blueline for the first time in their history, the Blue Jackets have the good fortune of being able to choose between scratching Markus Nutivaara and Gabriel Carlsson. To start the season, I think they go with Carlsson, the rangy Swede who could be on his way to a larger role with the club in the near future.
What does your opening night lineup look like? Sound off in the comments.