Training camp in the summer is normal. Training camp in the summer for an October Stanley Cup is not normal.
But, here we are. On Monday, the Columbus Blue Jackets kicked off training camp with the 2019-2020 season set to resume in less than a month, and they are facing some serious season-concluding questions.
No, not season-opening ones, as they normally would this time of year. Now, we have a full-season sample size to look at. Thanks (?) to injuries, we have an abundance of players that will be competing for spots in this postseason and actually have resumes (from the regular season) to back up their claims.
This makes the evaluation process much different. And probably harder.
Another reason being the stakes are higher. If you whiff on choosing the wrong player to join your lineup for opening night, then no big deal. You have an abundance of games to rectify that mistake, try new combinations and see what works to get your team to the playoffs.
Now, you can't afford that whiff. You need to get this right the first time, especially in a best-of-five series.
Lineup questions are important, but some are player-performance-dependent. You can set the perfect lineup, but players need to execute. So, without further ado, here are five big questions for the Blue Jackets as training camp begins.
Who gets the Game 1 start in net?
This is probably the biggest question on every fan's mind and even the coaching staff heading into the qualifying round series with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In one corner, you have Joonas Korpisalo (19-12-5, 2 SO, 2.60 GAA, .911 SV%), the shadow of Sergei Bobrovsky for years, who after a shaky start to the season, earned all-star honors and brought the Blue Jackets back to life from dreadful playoff hopes.
In the other corner, you have rookie sensation Elvis Merzlikins (13-9-8, 5 SO, 2.35 GAA, .923 SV%), who had an even shakier start than Korpisalo, but a higher level of success than his counterpart as the season went on. He's also sure to be a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy.
Perhaps John Tortorella hasn't made up his mind just yet, but he gave us a hint that it might be Merzlikins getting the nod just a few weeks ago. I don't know if there's a wrong choice here, but certainly, one that will cause the most debate.
Can the power play work itself out?
The Blue Jackets have had a perpetually bad power play for the last three seasons, and this campaign was of no exception. The lack of offensive star-power certainly gives a viable excuse to this year's team, but without a solid man-advantage in the postseason, they may not make it past the Maple Leafs.
Some of this has to do with structure, but typically the teams with the highest-ranked power play in the league are the teams with the best offensive studs. This is where Columbus lacks, so either their 5-on-5 game better be stellar, or they need to pull out some new tricks on the man-advantage.
Dean Kukan or Markus Nutivaara?
The final defenseman spot likely comes down to a decision between these two. That is if we're assuming the first five are Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Ryan Murray, David Savard and Vladislav Gavrikov (which they probably are).
Kukan and Nutivaara have both been in and out of the lineup this season due to injury or just coach's preference, and we can assume that it will be a fight between the two (at least to get a Game 1 slot). Kukan (1-4-5, 33 GP) has slightly fewer games played than Nutivaara (3-6-9, 37 GP), but both their absences are mainly due to injury. With other defensemen injured, too, it was rare to see one of these two being benched for the other. Meaning, one was either injured or both were in the lineup.
Kukan showed incredible potential and confidence in his playoff stretch last season, while Nutivaara has dipped in production a bit over the last few years. However, Kukan also has played in only 77 career games, far less than Nutivaara (244) and so this brings up the "experience" question to deal with, too.
Against a team like the offensive-juggernaut Maple Leafs, the Blue Jackets need to be on their p's and q's defensively, and so who stands on the blue line come August will be of utmost importance.
Should Liam Foudy make the cut over other veterans?
Devin Shore, Kevin Stenlund and Nathan Gerbe all have the age and experience over Liam Foudy. But right now, Foudy is listed in Group 1 in training camp (A.K.A. the "regulars") and those three are on the outside looking in.
This is an age-old question for coaches with lineup decisions, especially come postseason times. What's more important - potential or experience? Liam Foudy has the possibility to be last year's Alexandre Texier, who had three points in four games against the Tampa Bay Lightning. But, what if he's not ready yet? Is it safer to keep a Gerbe or Shore in the lineup who are a lot more likely to play a sound defensive game?
Some say safe is death, but safe might get you past the Maple Leafs. We shall see.
Will Pierre-Luc Dubois rise to the occasion?
I may be Pierre-Luc Dubois' biggest critic, for how good he is, but it's because I see so much potential with him. He can carry the puck up the ice, has got a lethal wrist shot and can bully anyone in the league in the corners. And I think he is the most valuable offensive player for the Blue Jackets this postseason.
Yes, Oliver Bjorkstrand was hot in scoring and will be needed, and Atkinson is always counted on to light the lamp, but Dubois is a jack-of-all-trades forward. When he's on, the Blue Jackets are winning. He makes those around him better and can shift the tide of a game with one monstrous shift. He needs to be on.
If he's not, the Blue Jackets lose in three. It's as simple as that.
What burning questions do you have as the Blue Jackets enter training camp, and prepare for their qualifying round with the Maple Leafs?
Follow 1st Ohio Battery