When the Columbus Blue Jackets return to the ice after the now-extended holiday break, we know one thing for sure.
The forward lineups will be different. Patrik Laine will be back from the oblique injury that kept him out for six weeks. Emil Bemstrom was recalled in earlier in the month following an injury and, while his season debut has not happened yet, the post-Covid pause (and holiday break) is likely to change that.
What we don't know, however, is what exactly that "different" will look like. But one-third of the way through the season, there is enough data available to shed some light on what the Blue Jackets best options may be for their post-Christmas lineup.
In part one of two, here's a glance at what Columbus may be best served to do with their forwards:
Patrik Laine, Cole Sillinger, Jakub Voracek
WHY: The Blue Jackets acquisition of Voracek was everything the team was hoping it would be. The playmaker for Laine, the veteran presence, the list goes on. Prior to Laine's injury, the top line was clicking — even despite a rotation at the center position. Voracek shared the stat line on six of Laine's ten points in his nine games before the oblique strain. The question is who should center them. Boone Jenner is an option, but that would mean breaking up a duo of Jenner and Olive Bjorkstrand that works really well — more on that momentarily. Jack Roslovic is coming out of his slump that plagued the first six weeks of his season, but it's not been enough to warrant top minutes.
It's Cole Sillinger who should get the first crack at playing between the two upon the restart. While the 18-year-old has struggled in recent weeks, there were flashes of brilliance in the limited action he did see with Laine to his left and Voracek to his right. Playing with lesser-skilled players has meant teams are putting more of a focus on the rookie, but that goes away when the opposition has to account for 29 & 93. Whether or not it's sustainable this season is an unknown, but it should be the Plan A for head coach Brad Larsen and company when play resumes.
Gregory Hofmann, Boone Jenner, Oliver Bjorkstrand
WHY: Lovers of analytics, rejoice! No Blue Jackets forward trio with meaningful (15+ minutes) time on ice together this season has a better expected goals per 60 minutes than this lines' 3.95. They've spent nearly an hour on the ice together during game action, and while the sample size isn't tremendous, it's enough to warrant giving them more of an opportunity together. Of all Blue Jacket forward lines with 60+ minutes together, the last group to exceed this trio's 3.95 xGF was the combination Nick Foligno, Alex Wennberg, and Bjorkstrand during the 2017-18 season.
Hofmann ranks sixth on the team in unblocked high/medium danger shot attempts, despite having at least 37% fewer total shot attempts than the five names above him, and 42% fewer than Alexandre Texier, who is right behind him. That's a testament to Hofmann's ability to either create or find a quality shot and playing with Jenner and Bjorkstrand should only make that easier.
Max Domi, Jack Roslovic, Alexandre Texier
WHY: Max Domi is having a sensational start (3.62 points per 60), but that's come on the wing, and three of those four spots above him are held down in tight order by Laine, Voracek, and Bjorkstrand — which, for now, puts Domi on the third line. If the Hofmann-Jenner-Bjorkstrand combination from above doesn't work out, Domi should get first crack in Hofmann's spot.
But for now, this line would give the Blue Jackets an above-average (and speedy) third line. Texier is on track for a 20/20/40 season, and it's important to remember that he's still just 22. After being tossed around from line to line and position to position, Texier seems to have found a sweet spot at the right wing slot. Consistent linemates have helped too, but it's time to elevate him to play with players who can do a little more offensively than Eric Robinson and Sean Kuraly. After just eight points in his first 20 games, Roslovic had five points in the seven December games before the new pause. The slow start seems to be behind Rosy, and this puts him in position to continue to play center instead of being shifted over to wing.
Eric Robinson, Sean Kuraly, Gustav Nyquist
WHY: One of the unique things about the 2021-22 Blue Jackets is that the fourth line doesn't generate panic, as has been the case many times in seasons' past. In fact, you could make the argument that the "fourth" line here is simply an extension of the third line. (Of course, whether or not it's a good thing that the fourth line could double as the third line or a bad thing that the third line could double as a fourth line is up for interpretation.)
Robinson, Kuraly, and Gus Nyquist have five goals *each* and 15 goals through 28 games would be a productive fourth line on most teams. Two of the three — Robinson and Kuraly — have been paired together throughout the season.
So far, Texier has been the uber-productive third wheel in that tandem. But with him getting the opportunity to move up, it's Nyquist who finds himself with Robinson and Kuraly. Nyquist is a steady hand, though not flashy on offense. He's a perfect fit for heavy minutes on the fourth line, as well as the ability to log significant time on special teams.
What Else: Bemstrom will get playing time, but it could take a bit before either (a) or (b) a spot opens for him in the lineup due to injury. He, along with Justin Danforth, should be the first two to fill spots — something that will be critical as the COVID-plagued season continues.
But the most glaring omission from this lineup is Yegor Chinakhov. The 20-year-old has been in and out of the lineup, and as exciting of a player as he is, this fact can't be ignored: There are only two forwards who have skated with the Blue Jackets this season who a lower goals per 60 minutes lower than Chinakhov's 0.25. Kevin Stenlund, who has played in just three games and saw limited minutes in all three, and Voracek, who is not a goal-scoring forward and makes up for the 0.13 goals per 60 with a 2.85 points per 60, good for third on the team.
Finishing the season in the AHL with the Cleveland Monsters would let Chinakhov continue to adapt to the North American style of play, would give him consistent playing time, and would give him heavy, top-line minutes. The Blue Jackets — and Chinakhov — would be far better off putting last season's KHL Rookie of the Year in Cleveland.
Wednesday's Part Two: The Defensive Pairings