The preseason is over. We made it, folks.
No major injuries to (major) players. A few wins. Some highlight-reel saves and goals. All in all, not a bad past couple of weeks for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
However, we're still left with a few questions. Who will start between the pipes on Friday? Who makes the final blue line spot, and what does the fourth forward line look like?
Currently, there are two spots on the fourth line up for grabs on each side of Riley Nash (because of Brandon Dubinsky's injury), one spot on the blue line likely next to Markus Nutivaara, and a question of who starts between Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins in net.
Let's take a look at which players are still in the running to make the final roster for opening night against the Toronto Maple Leafs:
The kid keeps hanging around, after not being expected by most to even make it past the first or second round of cuts. Lilja's two-goal performance against the St. Louis Blues on Sept. 22 certainly aided in the reasoning to keep the 26-year-old Swede in the running, so we will see in the next few days what comes of his chances. Though Lilja struggled with turning the puck over every now and then, he found himself around the puck and kept up a solid forecheck, tallying three points in four games.
Being noted as a player who would be a fourth-liner with man-advantage time potential, Bemstrom certainly makes a case to draw in on Friday night. The Blue Jackets need scoring, and the guy that led the SHL in that category last season has an argument to help Columbus out. His one-timer power play goal in his first-ever game on the club is hard to overlook.
Oh, this is a tricky one. Milano will get you goals, but surely hurt you in other aspects of his game, and the preseason was further evidence of that. Politics are also in the mix here, though. If Milano doesn't make the cut for opening night, his trade value (if the club would choose to move in that direction) decreases drastically, obviously. But this may not be a high concern for a club who has not accepted a 'tanking' mindset and is trying to win now.
Kukan showed last season and into the playoffs that he can hang around with the big boys, and make an impact on the scoreboard to boot. His two assists in this preseason, combined with his overall ability to skate the puck up and dictate play will be big contributions to his case to be on the blue line against Toronto.
Gavrikov's size will be his biggest advantage here. At 6'3, 214 pounds, Gavrikov is one of the only (big-er) defensemen for the club, along with Seth Jones and David Savard. His size could come in handy to help protect the net in front of the inexperienced goaltending of the Blue Jackets. He jumped into the play well in the preseason and was a solid stay-at-home presence.
Harrington signed an extension with Columbus this summer, turning heads to think he will be a more consistent blueliner for the team, but he might be an odd-man-out this season. Which is unfortunate, as Harrington would be a third-line defenseman on a lot of clubs throughout the league, but his lack of offensive touch and smaller frame doesn't help his case.
Peeke may be the hero the Blue Jackets want, but not the one they need right now. He's a defenseman the club will almost certainly see in the top six in the next few years, but just might not be quite there yet to play against NHL-caliber forwards. Though injuries can happen, and he'd be a viable option to call up, along with any of the three or four other defensemen that don't make the cut for Friday.
Korpisalo is almost indefinitely getting the nod on Friday night unless John Tortorella would rather play him against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night, thanks to the back-to-back opening weekend. Being the incumbent, Korpisalo already had a slight advantage over rookie Elvis Merzlikins, but his solid play throughout the preseason solidified his early-season placing in the depth chart even more.
Merzlikins is still adapting to smaller North-American ice size, and he has admitted this. The starting job that many thought would be his by season start may have to wait a bit, but it's always a good problem to have when you have two players in healthy competition for one spot. It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to let Merzlikins grow behind Korpisalo, and and if the time comes, have him take the lead.
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