It's arguably the biggest question left to answer for the Columbus Blue Jackets between now and October:
Who on earth is going to center the forward pairing of Patrik Laine and Johnny Gaudreau?
It's a question that has no shortage of answers. The Blue Jackets have an array of options, ranging from crafty rookies to skilled veterans and everything in between.
Here are, in alphabetical order, the six options to play center between Laine and Gaudreau when the season opens October 12th.
Jenner could be the leading candidate for the role. The Blue Jackets captain had a stat line of 23-21-44 in 59 games before missing the final two months of the season with a back injury. The 29-year-old is healthy again at 20:28 per game, led all forwards in average time on ice last season, consistently sees time on both special team units, and had a team-leading 54% win rate on faceoffs last season. He also plays an above-average defensive game that will be much-needed, given Laine and Gaudreau's (understandable) defense-second mentality. There's no doubt that the organization has the utmost trust in Jenner — is it enough to put him between the most talented forward pairing in franchise history?
While Jenner is possibly the leading candidate, Johnson may be the least-likely option — but don't entirely rule the rookie out. He got just a quick sniff of NHL-level play, picking up three assists in nine games back in April. But Johnson kept up with the pace of the NHL game, and looked surprisingly comfortable for a 19-year-old. Johnson's time was spent mostly on the wing in his 112 minutes of ice time last season, so it would quite an adjustment and set extremely high expectations to thrust him into top-line center duties between world-class skill players. But stranger things — like the whole reason for this conversation — have happened. Johnson could be a top center in the organization sooner rather than later, but 2022-23 may be a little early.
Another dark horse candidate, Nyquist seemed destined to be playing elsewhere in the upcoming season after the signing of Gaudreau was announced. Columbus had to get under the cap, and Nyquist's name was at the top of most lists. But the Blue Jackets moved Bjorkstrand instead, and the 32-year-old Nyquist (33 by time the season starts) will likely spend at least one more season with the club.
But despite not being a natural center, the case for Nyquist can still be made. He's one of the most responsible, steady players on the team. His weaknesses are limited both in quantity and depth, and he's the type of player who doesn't need to shoot the puck to be effective — the perfect type of player to play between Laine and Gaudreau.
When Roslovic signed an extension last month, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said that he has "great potential" and will have the chance to prove himself as a top-line center. Roslovic ended this past season by showing some of that potential, scoring 12 goals and adding seven assists in his last 23 games of the season. Extrapolated over an 82-game season, that would project out to 67 points — now, imagine what that could be playing between Gaudreau and Laine for a full season. There's an argument to be made against the Columbus native, though. There are gaps in his game, particularly on defense, and he'll need to get better at the faceoff dot. His 44% win rate is not good, yet still better than his career 42% figure.
Perhaps the most intriguing of the choices, it's Cole Sillinger — not Kent Johnson — who is the youngest player on this list. But while Johnson was at Michigan playing Big Ten Hockey, Sillinger was skating in 79 of Columbus' 82 games and performed admirably. His stat line of 16-15-31 was impressive, especially considering he was just 18 years old for the duration of the season. Sillinger also spent a good chunk of the season at center, and has a vital year of experience that Johnson doesn't have yet. Obviously there's still much to be learned, but the prospect of at least experimenting with Sillinger between Laine and Gaudreau is enthralling.
Texier was having a breakout season until an injury and personal leave of absence sidelined him for the second half of the year. He had 11 goals and nine assists in a total of 36 games, but gained confidence and grew his game on what seemed like every shift at some points. Texier has played mostly wing in his 123-game career with the Blue Jackets, but sooner or later is going to get a shot at this natural position of center. Whether or not this is his opportunity remains to be seen, of course, but if Texier continues to get better at the rate he did last season before the injury, he could force his way into the conversation.