A lot of questions have been hovering over the Columbus Blue Jackets this summer.
Thankfully, for the players and coaches, they've had about three months to avoid answering them.
Now they're back in Columbus, they're back in the locker room, and most importantly, on the ice. This does mean that these lingering questions are now unavoidable, though.
So, after winning a playoff series for the first time in franchise history, waving goodbye to three major free agents and now needing to embrace a new team identity, here are 10 questions for the Blue Jackets as they enter training camp.
Which rookie(s) step up and make an impact offensively?
Alexandre Texier seems to be a lock in the lineup, and he's technically still a rookie even with a cup of coffee late last year. Gustav Nyquist also fills one of the holes created in free agency. There just may be one forward slot left, so who would grab it? Emil Bemstrom and Trey Fix-Wolansky could be fighting for that 12th/13th forward spot as training camp progresses. Don't sleep on Columbus' own Kole Sherwood, either.
Who makes the cut for the sixth spot on the blue line?
Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Ryan Murray, David Savard and Markus Nutivaara are in. Then, there's the field. Does John Tortorella move forward with the more experienced Scott Harrington, or try his hand at Vladislav Gavrikov or Dean Kukan? Adam Clendening is a veteran option who played well in the playoffs.
Who starts between the pipes, and who is the backup?
Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins form the presumed one-two punch for the Blue Jackets. But who's No. 1, and who's No. 2? Does Tortorella start the season with it being an open competition, or keep that mindset through the entire campaign?
What will change about the power play?
The Blue Jackets ended last season with the fourth-worst power play in the entire NHL, and that was with Artemi Panarin in the fold. What will change about the structure, or personnel, for them to improve their efficiency? Nyquist will likely assume a role on the first unit, and you better believe Texier gets a crack at it as well.
Who will step up to lead the team offensively?
Panarin set the franchise record – twice – for most points in a single season. Who will grab the torch to lead the team in scoring? Oliver Bjorkstrand, Cam Atkinson and Josh Anderson are bona fide goal scorers, but then there are the likes of Nyquist and Pierre-Luc Dubois to think about, who are solid playmakers as well as scorers. Will one of them take the lead, or will the club have to score by committee?
Will the team trade out of their defensive depth and go in on a big-time goal scorer?
The Blue Jackets have nine or 10 defensemen who could be a third-pair blue liner on nearly any club in the league. With the goal-scoring free agency departures, will Columbus send off a few of them to attain a top-tier scorer? If so, who?
Will Alexander Wennberg return to his old self?
We all know the story. Wennberg was a near-60 point player just two seasons ago and failed to score even one even-strength goal last year. Wennberg's presence in the middle of the ice is needed now more than ever, and the question will remain as long as he is a Blue Jacket: can he return to his old self and maintain that consistency? For the Blue Jackets, that's a $4.9 million question.
Can Ryan Murray be counted on?
Murray, when healthy, could make an argument to be on the top-pair alongside Seth Jones on the Columbus blue line. In just 56 games last year before his season-ending injury, Murray put up 29 points and was a driver of the team's production and possession. When healthy, Murray looked like his second-overall-draft-pick self, but that "when healthy" is a big question mark.
How will Elvis Merzlikins adjust to the North American style?
This may be a bigger deal than we think. Olympic-sized rinks are listed at 200ft x 100ft (what Merzlikins is used to) and his new home in NHL-sized rinks 200ft x 85ft. These tighter spaces mean, in its simplest form, that Merzlikins needs to be ready for shots at many more angles than he's been used to. How will the rookie adapt?
What will the new team identity be?
The Blue Jackets have relied on Sergei Bobrovsky and Panarin to bail them out time after time for the past two seasons (with Panarin) and since 2012 (with Bobrovsky). This new era is now upon us, where every piece of the organization will need to do its part to continue their success over the past three seasons. Will someone step up and take the torch to lead the team, production-wise, or will the club make it more of a team-focused effort? October can't come soon enough.
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