Just a scant few months ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets center depth chart consisted of Pierre-Luc Dubois, Boone Jenner, Mikko Koivu, and Riley Nash. In a pinch, Nick Foligno could slot over and play center, as he had done with some regularity over the past several years.
Fast forward to today, and none (!) of those players are in the picture. Between trades, injuries, and a mid-season retirement, the Blue Jackets coaching staff is forced to break in an entirely new cast of characters at the center ice position, arguably the most important position on the ice.
While that is surely a daunting proposition for John Tortorella and co., it's my opinion that giving big minutes to the young group of centers is the only correct solution for an organization that made the right move in selling off assets at the trade deadline.
Will there be growing pains? Yes, absolutely there will be. But it's worth investing in the future. By trading Foligno, David Savard, and Riley Nash, it really is the end of an era in Columbus. The next era will be highlighted by the young players of today, including Patrik Laine, Jack Roslovic, Alexandre Texier, and Max Domi. By losing several regular forwards via trade/injury and acquiring zero roster players, the final 12 games of the regular season should give this young group ample opportunity to develop in a position where they were (in some cases) otherwise blocked.
Look no further than Texier, who, in the first game post-Foligno/Nash/Jenner, played a career-high 23:15, a huge gain over his career average (14:10). Coincidentally (or perhaps not?), he had a strong possession game, especially considering his most common 5v5 teammates were Eric Robinson and Zac Dalpe.
Domi, whose TOI numbers were skewed by his 14 PIMs, centered the (presumably) top line alongside Laine and Oliver Bjorkstrand. Roslovic didn't play a career-high but skated 17:34 as he centered Mikhail Grigorenko and Cam Atkinson. Centering the fourth line was Kevin Stenlund, whose 10:07 is appropriate for the role.
To recap, Domi (26), Roslovic (24), Texier (21), and Stenlund (24) were the club's centers in the 4-3 OT loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. That is a far cry from the likes of Jenner, Foligno, Nash, etc. And while mistakes are surely in the offing, the coaching staff and fans alike should be patient in their approach.
In his post-trade deadline press conference, GM Jarmo Kekalainen was pleased with his club's position heading into the future. Chances are this group will see another makeover before the puck drops on the 2021-22 season. But that just further strengthens the argument for allowing these last 12 games to be an audition for center ice slots down the line.
While the season may be lost from a standings perspective, there remains quite an opportunity for its young players - particularly at center - to grow into their future roles.