Let's Take A Look And Assess The Columbus Blue Jackets At The Center Position

By Will Chase on July 12, 2022 at 1:45 pm
Columbus Blue Jackets center Boone Jenner and Toronto Maple Leafs center David Kampf face-off in the first period at Nationwide Arena.
Gaelen Morse-USA TODAY Sports
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With the NHL draft in our rearview mirror, we're just that much closer to next season.

By all accounts, the Columbus Blue Jackets did pretty well in the draft, nabbing two of the best defenseman inside the first 12 picks of the first round. The quote below is from Corey Pronman of The Athletic who gave the team an A- grade after day one of the draft. 

Columbus Blue Jackets: A-

I liked the talent Columbus targeted in this draft. On day one they added a massive injection of talent to their blue line in David Jiricek and Denton Mateychuk. I’m also a Luca Del Bel Belluz fan; he was their first pick on day two. I can envision all three of those players becoming quality NHLers, with Jiricek having the potential to be a top-of-the-lineup player. I was a fan of their later swings too and see other picks here who have shots to make it.

Some might have wondered why they didn't grab a center like the Detroit Red Wings did at No. 8, selecting Marco Kasper, like the Buffalo Sabres at No. 9, grabbing Matthew Savoie, the Arizona Coyotes at No. 11, taking Conor Geekie, and the Chicago Blackhawks, taking Frank Nazar at No. 13.

With still NHL free agency to officially commence on July 13, the Blue Jackets are currently set to go into camp with Boone Jenner, Jack Roslovic, Cole Sillinger, and Sean Kuraly down the middle. Kent Johnson could get looks at center in the future—in nine games he had a 1.9 xGA/60 per Natural Stat Trick. Alexandre Texier is expected back with the team and could play center.

Jenner surprised many with his offensive resurgence. The first-year captain scored 44 points (23 goals, 21 assists) in 59 games before a lower back injury ended his season. Still, at only 29 years old, we do know what Jenner is. Not an elite two-way player, but a very reliable forward who does all the little things. Even still scoring goals at a surprisingly strong rate as we found out. If he were on a team stacked at center, imagine his mid-to-bottom six production. 

The prior names we mentioned are all very good hockey players. Kuraly had a career year, as the bottom six forward set career marks in games played (77), goals (14), assists (16), and points (30). He was first on the team with 240 hits and second among forwards behind Jenner (56) with 51 blocked shots.

Sillinger was exciting as a rookie and as they say, the ceiling is unlimited. He wasn't a Calder finalist but could have been among those players to receive votes, and maybe would have if the class wasn't so deep, and if the Blue Jackets were a better team.

 How important was Sillinger to his team?

He was second on the team in individual scoring chances with 143, second with 55 individual high-danger chances, and he was among the team leaders in individual expected goals per 60 with 0.81 (only Danforth (0.89 in 45 games) and Gabriel Carlsson (0.95 in 30 games) were higher, according to Natural Stat Trick.

We know how hot Roslovic was down the stretch after a trying start to his season. His 10 goals for April placed him top 10 in the league for the month as he completed a career year with 45 points (22 goals, 23 assists) in 81 games, all new highs.

Texier was in the middle of having a really nice season, probably his best to date, before leaving the team with a fractured finger and personal reasons. Sillinger and Johnson are the wild cards in that we don't truly know how great they can be in the NHL.

With all this said, the Blue Jackets don't currently have that dynamic center that you see is so important around the NHL.

You hope for the same type of production from Jenner and Roslovic if they're relied upon to score goals as top-six forwards in Brad Larsen's lineup. Kuraly plays a grinding role which is important to have. Any secondary scoring he can provide is a bonus.

But the key to being able to drive the play in all 82 games, open up your explosive and dynamic wingers, and light up the scoreboard with the kind of ease and regularity like Steven Stamkos, Nathan MacKinnon, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin? That's what the elite teams have.

Since you're wondering, here is a quick note by Pronman on the center, Luca Del Bel Belluz, taken in the draft by Columbus at No. 44.

Analysis: Del Bel Belluz is a very skilled center with decent size. He has the crafty puck skills to manipulate the puck in tight areas and often shows he can beat defenders one on one. He can run a power play off the flank due to his very good vision and shot although I don’t see that as his role in the NHL. He lacks foot speed for the higher levels, but he works hard enough and provides some two-way value down the middle. He projects as a top-nine forward. With his feet he may struggle to stick at center but if he does it’s on the third line.

Speaking of Malkin, it certainly feels like he could be changing teams for the first time in his 16-year career as he enters his age 36-season. Though injury has slowed him down a peg, he's still a fascinating player to watch in free agency, and for how much and how long of a term he receives from teams. And there may still be the chance he and the Pittsburgh Penguins agree to a new deal to keep the future Hall of Famer in town as they go for one more Stanley Cup.

Malkin has played 129 games since 2019-20, scoring 144 points (53 goals, 91 assists).

Claude Giroux is the other big center out on the market. After spending his time in Philadelphia for 15 seasons before joining the Florida Panthers for their own Stanley Cup push, he'll be highly coveted. There are lots of interesting players that can be available, and Nazem Kadri is the other big name that's destined for big money.

Yet, it's doubtful the Blue Jackets make that kind of push this year.

As Ed Francis said, the team is likely to stay quiet on the free agent front this summer since the team is stacked at forward, but they're also not quite in their full contention window yet.

Jarmo Kekalainen still needs to get Patrik Laine signed and they'll likely make the under-the-radar signings in free agency as they did in acquiring Kuraly last summer.

Yes, the team needs a dynamic center to compete with today's playoff and Stanley Cup contenders.

As the team looks to take a gigantic step forward next season, part of that factors on how much of a step Sillinger and Johnson take.

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