They say the one constant in life is change.
That certainly applies to the 2021 calendar year version of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Less than one year ago - in January of this year! - the Blue Jackets were skating with a team centered around Seth Jones, Cam Atkinson, Pierre-Luc Dubois, David Savard, and led by the captain, Nick Foligno.
None of those players remain, but all of those players were a part of trades that has the future looking fantastic for the franchise that is old enough to drink.
What about the present, though? The NHL season is just days away, with the Columbus Blue Jackets set to open the 82-game campaign Thursday night against the Arizona Coyotes.
This was originally thought to be a year where the Blue Jackets would flounder, perhaps even worse than their 28th place (out of 31) finish during a dismal 2020-21 season.
While it doesn't count, the preseason has infused confidence in some parts of the 5th Line. Columbus has looked, in a word, good. They're 4-1-1, and appear to have solved an important weakness in recent seasons: the power play. The Blue Jackets have converted on the power play seven times in 20 attempts (35%) through the first half dozen exhibition games, including five of seven in the last two games.
Again, it's important to stress that the preseason is doesn't count. Good teams have poor preseasons, and poor teams have good preseasons.
But it sure does feel good to not fall flat before the season even begins, and it feels even better to see that this team has a significantly higher ceiling than some of the previous "future looks bright!" eras.
Alas, we come to opening night. The first real litmus test for
guys kids like Cole Sillinger and Yegor Chinakhov, who both seem like a sure thing to make the roster. The first time we'll see Patrik Laine and Jake Voracek together in a regular season game, a pair of wingers that weren't on the team at the beginning of the year but, seem to be building chemistry at an exciting rate. The first time we'll see Zach Werenski free of Jones' shadow.
Here's the best, or at least final, guess for what should be an entertaining opening night.
|LW: Patrik Laine||C: Jack Roslovic||RW: Jake Voracek|
|LW: Gustav Nyquist||C: Cole Sillinger||RW: Oliver Bjorkstrand|
|LW: Boone Jenner||C: Max Domi||RW: Yegor Chinakhov|
|LW: Eric Robinson||C: Sean Kuraly||RW: Alexandre Texier|
|S1: Gregory Hofmann||S2: Emil Bemstrom|
This is where things will get interesting.
There are four slots that seem to be a complete lock: Patrik Laine and Jake Voracek on the top line at the winger slots is certain (though who centers them is a toss-up), Oliver Bjorkstrand will headline the second line, and Sean Kuraly on the fourth line.
Everything else is up for debate. But, here's one train of thought:
Sillinger and Chinakhov will be in the opening night lineup, but a few things are unlikely: that they'll be on the top line, the fourth line, or that they'll play together. With Bjorkstrand locked in as the second line right winger, that puts Chinakhov on the third line, and thus, Sillinger on the second line. Sillinger will be helped on the second line by a goal-scorer like Bjorkstrand, but even more aided by the steady, veteran presence of Gustav Nyquist.
The rest of the dominoes begin to fall from there, but with one big caveat: it sure does seem like Max Domi wants to be in the opening night lineup, and if he's already in contact drills, that's a sign that bodes very well. It may be optimism speaking, but let's slot him in as the third line center. He's got plenty of grit to keep Chinakhov from being mugged around too much, and if he can resort to his pre-2020-21 season self, should be able to get the 20-year-old winger some good looks.
With Domi back, that slides Boone Jenner back to wing. Jenner is possibly the most versatile player on the Jackets, and will likely play all three positions on the three top lines at various times throughout the season, but for opening night, he's LW3.
This brings us to a 4th line, where Sean Kuraly is the fourth and final "lock". He'll center a line that sees Eric Robinson at the left wing. The fourth line for Robinson seems low, but with the surprises of Sillinger and Chinakhov, there's not much else available for him. It's a similar situation for Alexandre Texier, who finds himself here by default. There's simply no other spot for him, but it would seem odd for him to be in Cleveland, so here he is.
Gregory Hofmann and Emil Bemstrom are in Columbus, but not in the opening night lineup. Both will likely see plenty of action and be given a chance to stick in the lineup.
It's a bit of a logjam, absolutely. Cleveland will be a beneficiary of said logjam, as it becomes the home for Josh Dunne, Justin Danforth, Liam Foudy, etc.
Defense & Goaltending:
|LD: Zach Werenski||RD: Adam Boqvist|
|LD: Vladislav Gavrikov||RD: Jake Bean|
|LD: Mikko Lehtonen||RD: Andrew Peeke|
|S1: Scott Harrington|
|Starter: Elvis Merzlikins||Backup: Joonas Korpisalo|
The top two pairings here, as they have been for a few months now, seem locked in. It's a young blue line; green, as our own Dan Dukart says. Mistakes will be made, some egregious in nature, but it will be exciting to see them mature as the season goes on. Werenski and Adam Boqvist have the potential to be special, and one of the best offensive blue line pairings in the NHL in the very near future.
The third pairing is where things get interesting. Columbus seems to really like Mikko Lehtonen, and it would not be a surprise to see him on the opening night roster. Andrew Peeke has looked better, and the Blue Jackets seem prime to give him the best chance he's had yet to become a regular in the lineup.
Two names are missing from this list that are familiar to the 5th Line: Dean Kukan and Gabriel Carlsson.
Kukan seems to be in the most unique position. Benched early and often last season, he played in 35 of the Blue Jackets 56 games. It was a career high for games played, but it was a struggle on the ice and former head coach John Tortorella made him a healthy scratch on numerous occasions.
During the offseason, Kukan was a prime candidate to become a member of the Seattle Kraken. It didn't happen, but don't be surprised if the log jam of third-pairing defenseman results in a trade of some sort before Thursday's opener. He seems like the odd man out, and would likely be a depth addition for a team. In return, Columbus would likely net a late-round draft pick. 6th rounder in 2022, anyone?
Carlsson, meanwhile, was drafted six years ago, will be 25 before the halfway point of the season, and at this point, it is becoming somewhat concerning that he has not impressed the organization enough to see more than 37 games at the NHL level. It seems to be reaching a do-or-die point with Carlsson, at least with the Blue Jackets, and whether or not he's one of the six best defensemen for the club is a question that unfortunately may be answering itself. He would need to clear waivers to go to Cleveland, and that may be the best place for him to start the season.
The goalies, to no surprise, are Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo. It's clear that the Blue Jackets view Merzlikins as their top guy, but the organization is publicly taking a stance to "ride the hot hand", at least for the beginning of the season.