If or when the Columbus Blue Jackets face off against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the qualifying round, John Tortorella will have an almost-entirely-healthy lineup at his disposal.
Even with the absence of Josh Anderson, the Blue Jackets have at least five lines (insert fifth line joke here) of NHL players in the organization, a luxury the franchise has never had in their 20-year existence.
Assuming Alexandre Texier is cleared for the start of training camp, Tortorella will almost certainly have in the lineup some combination of (in alphabetical order): Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Nick Foligno, Boone Jenner, Gustav Nyquist, Alexandre Texier.
That would leave five spots for some combination of Emil Bemstrom, Liam Foudy, Nathan Gerbe, Riley Nash, Alexander Wennberg, and Eric Robinson. But there are more options, still: Kevin Stenlund, Devin Shore, Stefan Matteau, Jakob Lilja, Ryan MacInnis, and even Kole Sherwood could be in the mix.
All of that is to say that Tortorella will have difficult decisions to make. I just listed 19 healthy players, but only 12 spots are available.
One player that has befuddled me when creating mock lineups has been Gerbe. He was definitively an AHL player at the start of the season, as The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline made clear in his piece about the club’s Masterton Trophy nominee:
“The Blue Jackets recalled Gerbe from AHL Cleveland on Dec. 22, making him the eight forward recalled from the minors this season. Put another way: he was no higher than 20th on the organizational depth chart.”
But more than becoming just a fan-favorite, he became a fixture at the NHL level and a key contributor when the Blue Jackets needed a spark. He could play up and down the lineup. To say that he impressed management would be an understatement. The Michigan native parlayed an AHL only contract into a two-year contract with a lofty $500k AHL minimum after putting up 4-6-10 in 30 games
But simply put, in the playoffs and with a healthy lineup, does Gerbe have a spot?
His tenacity and skating ability plays well into the Blue Jackets team identity. He brings a wealth of experience and the coaching staff would feel comfortable deploying him in situations they may hesitate with their younger players. His (lack of) size has always been an obvious source of skepticism, but he's proven that he can play at the NHL level. But perhaps more than anything, he's the kind of player Tortorella loves. An underdog story. No respect. Against the mighty Maple Leafs? That works in the locker room. He was the club's Masterton nominee for a reason.
On the other hand, the Blue Jackets are a physical team that isn't lacking for brawn, even without Anderson. He's shown he's versatile in his play, but he wouldn't crack either power play or penalty kill unit with a healthy roster (per NaturalStatTrick, he's played just over 20 mins combined PP/PK this season). If I were an NHL coach, I'm not sure how much need I would have for a player that's "versatile" that doesn't play on any of those four units.
And while he's played over 400 NHL regular-season games dating back to 2008-09, he's played in just nine Stanley Cup Playoff games. In other words, his versatility and experience are probably overstated. Then there's his health. In March, Gerbe underwent surgery to repair two torn obliques and a double-hernia. Who's to say how he'll recover (or not).
Even still, I have a hard time imaging Tortorella leaving him off the Game 1 postseason roster. Gerbe is the energizer bunny, the poster-child of the 2020 Blue Jackets. Even at 5'4, he's the guy who leads the charge into battle. In a shortened series where every play is magnified, Tortorella will choose the 32-year old player with the heart of a lion over a young player with more upside.
Time will tell if it's the right call.