Assessing The Depth Forward Options For The Columbus Blue Jackets

By Dan Dukart on July 28, 2022 at 1:45 pm
Liam Foudy skates the puck against the Pittsburgh Penguins
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Even after trading Oliver Bjorkstrand for a pair of draft picks, the Columbus Blue Jackets have a surplus of forwards on the NHL depth chart.

There are still questions that need to be answered like finding a center to (presumably) play alongside Patrik Laine and Johnny Gaudreau on the club's first line. But more detailed problems exist further down the lineup, where Brad Larsen and his coaching staff will have to make sense of a crowded group of players to find the right fits.

Here's what I'll say with confidence today: barring injury, there are 10 players that I think have a spot in the everyday lineup: Gaudreau, Laine, Boone Jenner, Gus Nyquist, Jake Voracek, Jack Roslovic, Cole Sillinger, Sean Kuraly, Alexandre Texier, and Eric Robinson.

That leaves a host of players, like Justin Danforth, Yegor Chinakhov, Kent Johnson, Kirill Marchenko, Emil Bemstrom, Liam Foudy, Mathieu Olivier, to say nothing of AHL tweeners like Brendan Gaunce, Carson Meyer, Joona Luoto, Trey Fix-Wolansky, Mikael Pyyhtiä, and others, fighting for a scant few roster spots. 

To simplify the decision-making process, I broke that cluster into four distinct groupings: 

Touted Prospects That Are Waivers Exempt

Johnson (19), Chinakhov (21), Marchenko (22)

These players find themselves in a precarious spot, as they can be sent to AHL Cleveland without needing to first clear waivers. That affords the club maximum flexibility. On the other hand, it's safe to say that all three players deserve, at a minimum, a look (or another look) with the big club.

We saw Chinakhov play 62 games last year (7-7-14), and Johnson had a nine-game cameo at the end of the season (0-3-3). Marchenko has been playing with the KHL's vaunted St. Petersburg SKA since 2018. It can be tricky demoting KHL players to the AHL, but there is no reason to think, as it stands today, that there is any issue with Marchenko and/or Chinakhov playing in the AHL.

After torching the NCAA for two seasons, Johnson is ready for his next challenge. Is an offensive dynamo like him better served by playing a key role in the AHL, as opposed to sheltered and limited minutes in the NHL? Possibly, especially considering the other considerations at play.

Non-Waiver Exempt Players That Need To Prove They're NHLers

Foudy (22), Bemstrom (23)

Foudy and Bemstrom were both drafted by the Blue Jackets with high expectations. Drafted 18th overall in the 2018 NHL Draft, Foudy burst onto the scene in 2019-20, playing 10 playoff games in the Covid-19 bubble playoffs. Since then, he's not done much to prove himself ready for the NHL. In 27 regular season games, he's posted 0-5-5. His only career goal came against the Maple Leafs in the play-in round back in 2019-20.

Bemstrom torched the SHL as a teenager before making the jump to Columbus. Like Foudy, he showed well in 2019-20, posting 10-10-20 in 56 regular season games. But he's scored just 9-7-16 in 61 games since, and it's probably not a great sign for the 23-year-old that he's the lone pending RFA on the roster. 

It's unclear if either would clear waivers (though I think both would), but it's probably fair to say that the proverbial shine has worn off both players. 

Veteran Players Likely Preferred By The Coaching Staff

Danforth (29), Olivier (25)

After a long and winding path, the 28-year-old rookie Danforth was a bright spot in the 2021-22 season. He became something of a crowd favorite with his tenacious forechecking and relentless play style. In 45 games, he posted 10-4-14, a nearly 20-goal pace over an 82-game season. He screams 'extra forward' to me, but he's the type of utility knife that a coaching staff would love to have in their lineup.

Olivier was brought in this offseason as a clear indication that the organization felt that it lacked a physical presence. The 6'2", 210 lb Olivier is a fourth-line player at best, having scored 3-4-7 in 48 NHL regular-season games. Does the signing of Erik Gudbranson make Olivier redundant? I tend to think so, but it's bad asset management to trade a fourth-round pick and admit defeat before the next season starts. On the other hand, it's worse asset management to play someone because of a perceived sunk cost. Still, it's not hard to imagine a world where, with Johnson, Gaudreau, Laine, Voracek, etc. in the lineup, Larsen doesn't mind having an insurance policy like Olivier at the end of the bench.

Would either of these players clear waivers? Like Foudy and Bemstrom, probably, but definitely not certainly. 

AHL/NHL Tweeners 

Meyer (24), Gaunce (28), Pyyhtiä (20), Luoto (24), Fix-Wolansky (23)

In a perfect world, none of these players will see the NHL roster this season, as it would likely signify a serious rash of injuries. Like any organization, the AHL roster has plenty of players that could fill in in a pinch, and this is not a comprehensive list. Gaunce (30 games played) Meyer (13), and Fix-Wolansky (6), all chipped in last year. Some of these players, like Pyyhtiä and Luoto, are waivers exempt. 

Throughout the process of writing this piece, I couldn't help but notice how blurred the lines are between these groups. Is Danforth an AHL/NHL tweener? Is he really going to prevent a top prospect, like Marchenko, from playing? That seems foolish. Then, there's the issue of fit. Is a skilled player like Johnson going to play eight minutes a night on the defensive-minded fourth line? Who is benefitting from that? Plus, there are inherent biases from closely watching this organization. It's likely that 31 other NHL franchises have players just like Bemstrom, for example, that would ultimately clear waivers. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle. 

These roster decisions are never set in stone. Over an 82-game season, there are plenty of ebbs and flows. Even trying to understand the opening night roster is proving to be something of a challenge. But there is still plenty of time between now and the regular season opener on October 12th for the organization to pare down its roster. 

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