The Columbus Blue Jackets are off to one of the hottest starts in the team's history. Complaining feels silly but there are ways that optimizing the lineup can still make an impact.
One of the only lines that have shown any chemistry and has produced consistently is the "French Bread" (credit to Buckeye State Hockey's Matt Souva) line. That line consists of Artemi Panarin, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Josh Anderson. It includes two of the team's highest scorers and the strongest possession forward at center.
"I think he's played good with them all along," said head coach John Tortorella about his first lines chemistry after their game against the Washington Capitals. "I just think [Panarin] the last two games has upped his compete. I thought he hit a little bit of a lull there for a few games but the last couple games he has really been strong on the puck."
How do you find chemistry among players that have struggled? Is it line juggling until something fits or can you look at the numbers to find the issues at hand?
Boone Jenner-Brandon Dubinsky-Nick Foligno
On paper, without ever looking at the numbers you would assume that this line would be absolute dynamite. Brandon Dubinsky is one of the most underrated shot differential forwards of the past five years and Nick Foligno is a jack of all trades that can be a defensive forward one minute but at another, he can score a nifty goal. Looking at the players in the here and now, you'll find clarity.
Jenner, Dubinsky, and Foligno are the worst short differential forwards on the team, full stop. All three are starting in the defensive zone more than normal and with Foligno and Dubinsky on the wrong side of 30, they're not as spritely as they used to be. The good news is that all of them have scoring chance percentages on the right side of the ledger. That means they keep players to the outside more often than not.
Jenner and Dubinsky have been together for most of the year and are the group that needs to be broken up if they want to move the needle at even strength. They can bully their way to the inside offensively but let other teams skate around them in the defensive zone in a sustained way. A dose of quickness could help this line and it could be solved by their other left-wing options, Tyler Motte or Matt Calvert.
Matt Calvert-Alexander Wennberg-Cam Atkinson
We have yet to see this line together but you can put together what you might see from two of the linemates. Wennberg and Atkinson have been dominant when put together, it didn't matter if Artemi Panarin was their left-wing or Sonny Milano. Now that Milano is in AHL Cleveland, it appears Calvert or Motte will occupy this slot in the short term.
Calvert is having a great season in his contract year. It all centers around what he has been able to do with the puck on his stick. He is pushing play in a positive direction and that is a great sign for a player that looked like he would be regularly injured. The center and right wing combo is going to work no matter what and it may not matter who occupies the left side. Jenner might be an interesting player as Wennberg and Atkinson are more about the finesse game while Jenner is as subtle as me at a buffet.
Out of all the lines currently not at their best, this is the one to worry about the least.
Tyler Motte-Lukas Sedlak-Oliver Bjorkstrand
This line is going to be fascinating for a million reasons. Oliver Bjorkstrand has lost a lot of ice time after making big in-roads offensively. Since moving to the bottom-six he has had trouble finding the back of the net. Lukas Sedlak since returning to the lineup from injury has been the exact same way. He also isn't doing as great in the shot differential battle since returning to the lineup.
That might all change if this fourth line is treated as offensively advantageous and put in a position to succeed. Sedlak is a defensive forward through and through but by playing with offensively skilled players that could change his role. He isn't going to be on a checking line and it might be out of his comfort zone.
Lucky for the Blue Jackets, Tyler Motte looks a lot like Calvert. He can play anywhere in the bottom-six and can play as high up as the second line if necessary. He is fast with grit and grime to his game. It makes sense that he is in good favor with the coaching staff.
The Blue Jackets are winning and the line blender isn't going to be as harsh as it once was. They have a third line that can be one of the best in the league and they have a second line that is getting pounded in shots. Tiny changes of a player or two moving to a different line can make a world of difference.
Winning cures all and sustained winning means that the team will be in a position to succeed in the playoffs. Optimizing lines is an easy way to do it and with a healthy forward group, they can afford to get creative.