Every NHL team wants its training camp to be about "competition," from a couple of different perspectives.
First, they want players to earn their jobs. For teams like the Blue Jackets with plenty of depth, they're looking for younger players (or perhaps those who have been further down the depth chart) to push from within and seize opportunities.
Second, coaches are looking to ramp up their team's game-readiness. It's a long summer, and most players don't start intently skating until late August. Getting up to "game speed" doesn't happen overnight, and for as much as we loathe preseason games, they do serve a purpose – particularly for veteran players.
The Blue Jackets concluded their formal training camp schedule this weekend and the real-deal practices start this week, with the 2019-20 season opener only a few days away. They will be tested right off the bat with back-to-back games against the Toronto Maple Leafs (home, Friday night) and Pittsburgh Penguins (road, Saturday). For now, the coaches have done their teaching and management has collaborated on its evaluations; final rosters are due to the league office in short order.
With all that said, let's dive into what we've learned from this edition of Blue Jackets training camp, which has produced some intriguing storylines.
Encouraging signs from Wennberg
This one is two-fold; first, Alexander Wennberg has had himself a strong training camp. And he needed it. The Blue Jackets were cautiously optimistic that Wennberg's pair of down seasons – and the clear-cut opportunity to reclaim a larger role this season – would serve as motivation entering 2019-20. We're a long way from seeing the final results but he's off to a good start. A key to this could be the addition of Gus Nyquist, a fellow Swede who seems to think the game similarly to Wennberg. They've been line mates throughout camp and in the exhibition games, and there's some chemistry between the two. Could Nyquist be the guy who unlocks Wennberg's game?
A competitive reset on the fourth line
Brandon Dubinsky's (assumed) prolonged absence has pushed the Blue Jackets into a position they probably thought they'd be in a year or two from now. But, here we are. They're reconstructing their fourth line and Riley Nash is the anchor, likely flanking two newcomers in Jakob Lilja and Emil Bemstrom. Sonny Milano could be in that picture, as well, but the other two wingers have had decidedly better camps – leaving his future with the Blue Jackets in doubt.
It's becoming more clear what the Blue Jackets are aiming for: in this post-Panarin era, they're going to need everyone on board. And they'll need to commit to an uptempo, hard-forechecking attack that has skill on every line. This new look is a far cry from the Hartnell-Sedlak-Gagner fourth line of 2016-17 (pour one out), but it's a step in the right direction for a team that needs any offensive help it can get.
Which leads us to...
Different, deeper look
It's no secret. The Blue Jackets have every reason to take a step back. They've lost a handful of quality players to free agency. They have young, unproven goalies. Their division is no cake walk. And one potential difference-maker – special teams – is an enormous question mark. But, let's not lose sight of one thing: there are still a lot of good players in Columbus, and they seem decidedly energized by this opportunity.
They're a deep team. Just look at their "third" line, which generated 27 goals from Josh Anderson, 17 from Nick Foligno, and 16 from Boone Jenner in 2018-19. That's a luxury. And the turnover has created a chance for a promising young player like Alexandre Texier to take on a bigger role, and a free-agent addition like Nyquist to bolster their top six and play minutes in a variety of key spots.
When it comes to their defense, the Blue Jackets are swimming with depth.
They're eight players deep right now and might carry eight defensemen to begin the season (final opening night rosters are due to the NHL on Tuesday). Waiting in the AHL right now is Adam Clendening, a guy who played well in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and was squeezed out in a numbers game, and likely Andrew Peeke, a rising youngster who impressed in Traverse City (and has been strong in camp).