The Blue Jackets' Opening Night Roster Is In Clearer Focus, Though Key Questions Remain

By Dan Dukart on September 23, 2019 at 1:20 pm
Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella instructs his players during a training camp practice at the OhioHealth Ice Haus.
1st Ohio Battery

On Monday, the Columbus Blue Jackets made a series of cuts to get down to 28 players: 16 forwards, nine defensemen, and three goaltenders.

Among the Saturday cuts were Trey Fix-Wolansky, Eric Robinson, Kole Sherwood, and Gabriel Carlsson, all of whom are destined to open the season with the AHL Cleveland Monsters.

The Monday cuts were a bit more eye-opening, with Markus Hannikainen and Adam Clendening among those placed on waivers. With Robinson and Sherwood out of the running to land an opening night job, the forward group is coming into clearer focus. Alexandre Texier looks entrenched as a top-six player, maybe even on the top line with Cam Atkinson and Pierre-Luc Dubois. It appears Alexander Wennberg will have an opportunity for redemption as the second-line center, presumably alongside fellow-Swede Gustav Nyquist and the Danish sharpshooter Oliver Bjorkstrand.

An intimidating third line will feature Josh Anderson, Boone Jenner, and Nick Foligno. And we believe Riley Nash and Brandon Dubinsky will be two-thirds of the opening night fourth line. 

Depending on roster composition, that leaves between two and three spots for the fourth-line winger and healthy scratches (the club may decide to lean on their defensive depth and carry eight defensemen instead of seven – more on that in a moment).

Right now, the forwards in the running for those spots are, in on particular order: Sonny Milano, Emil Bemstrom, Marko Dano, and Jakob Lilja. Who will emerge from that group is the question. My money is on Bemstrom and Milano making the club, while the club will hope that Dano and Lilja can be reliable options for recalls.

Unlike the forwards, which featured some cuts that gave us pause, none of the cuts to defensemen came as a surprise. While it would have been nice for Gabriel Carlsson to push harder for a spot with the big club, in the end, it would have been a shock for him to make the club this year. One encouraging sign is the play of young defenseman Andrew Peeke, who stood out in Traverse City and is here in Columbus late into training camp.

Like the forward group, the biggest question remaining is who will secure the third-pair spot alongside Markus Nutivaara, and who will be kept on the roster?

It's safe to pencil in some combination of Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, David Savard, and Ryan Murray as their top-two pairings, and Nutivaara appears to be entrenched on the third pairing. That leaves several quality defensemen, including Dean Kukan, Scott Harrington, and Vladislav Gavrikov along with the aforementioned Peeke. 

As mentioned earlier, the club may opt to healthy scratch one forwards and two defensemen for each game, a nod to the depth they've built on the back end. Harrington, for example, is a player the Blue Jackets have been careful to demote to the AHL in recent years, as the club is convinced he would be poached on waivers. Gavrikov (and Peeke) are the only defensemen in this conversation who could be sent to Cleveland without waivers, which is good for the club and bad for the player. This alone puts Gavrikov at a disadvantage, as the team may send him down almost by default, as the risk of losing a quality defenseman for nothing may not outweigh the benefit of him playing in a limited role.

When push comes to shove, the club might decide to carry eight defensemen: the five "staples", plus Gavrikov, Kukan, and Harrington. 

These roster battles are far from over, and much can change between now and the beginning of the regular season. At the end of the day, the club will have several difficult decisions to make, and that's a good problem to have for an organization looking to make the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.