On The Fringe: Who Is And Isn't Making An Impression Through The First Half Of Preseason

By Ed Francis on October 1, 2022 at 1:45 pm
James Neal, who the Blue Jackets signed to a try-out prior to the opening of training camp, has looked serviceable so far this preseason.
© Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Competition to make the Columbus Blue Jackets roster is as stiff as it's ever been.

When healthy, there are a number of locks on the roster when it comes to the forward position: Johnny Gaudreau, Boone Jenner, Sean Kuraly, Patrik Laine, Gustav Nyquist, Eric Robinson, Jack Roslovic, Cole Sillinger, and Jakub Voracek. 

That leaves just three spots for (at least) the following players: Emil Bemstrom, Yegor Chinakhov, Justin Danforth, Kent Johnson, Kirill Marchenko, James Neal, and Mathieu Olivier.

It's pretty incredible to consider that more than half of those players in that group of seven won't see the ice on opening night when the regular season kicks off in less than two weeks. 

Now, with the preseason entering its second half, we can start to narrow down who seems most likely to get their name in the box come October 12th. 

Let's start with the rookies: Johnson seems to be a lock. While he didn't exactly shine in nine games with the Blue Jackets last season, he seems to have found his game ever since picking up the golden goal for Team Canada in the World Juniors in August. He had an impressive Traverse City showing in the prospects tournament and has looked sharp in both camp and in the preseason. All in all, it would be an odd decision to put Johnson in Cleveland. 

The other rookie of the group is Marchenko. He's has shown off his strong shooting skills since coming to North America over the summer, including a beauty of a goal in Wednesday night's preseason game against the Buffalo Sabres.

Marchenko is going to be an NHL player this season. Whether or not that's October 12th against Carolina in game one is a tough call. He's still adjusting to the North American style and the Blue Jackets could start him in Cleveland without needing to have him clear waivers. It feels like Marchenko may be an early, temporary squeeze by the organization. 

Next up — the players with limited playing time at the NHL level. That's Bemstrom, Chinakhov, Danforth, and Olivier. Chinakhov was with the Blue Jackets for nearly the entire 2021-22 season, skating in 62 games and picking up seven goals and seven assists. He proved himself a capable rookie and the organization has high hopes for him the future. Does the future stay in Columbus? It seems that way, but Chinakhov is still on a two-way contract this season and can be optioned back to Cleveland (and back to Columbus) for the entire 22-23 campaign. It may seem surprising, but don't be stunned if Chinakhov gets 20+ minutes with the Monsters this fall instead of half that with the Blue Jackets.

Part of the reason for that could be because of Danforth. (Note: I am high on Danforth; I think he's vastly underrated.) He picked up two goals in his preseason debut Sunday against the Penguins and is one of just three Blue Jackets with three or more points this preseason. The other two are Gaudreau and Voracek. Danforth scored ten goals in 45 games in his rookie season last year, and despite being "old" for a rookie (28, now 29), he brings value and if he continues to develop in his second year the way he did in his first, he could be a fixture on the Blue Jackets for the next several seasons.

Olivier was brought in via an off-season trade with the Nashville Predators and was acquired to be a tough presence on a team that got roughed up last season. The signing of Erik Gudbranson made Olivier's presence less needed. He hasn't done anything to stand out since the opening of camp and it feels like he may see only sparse, sporadic playing time in Columbus this season.

Bemstrom is the second-most intriguing name on this list. He was signed to a two-year, one-way contract extension just two months ago, but he is yet to really define himself as an NHL player. It feels like this is the third or fourth time we've waited on Bemstrom to make a splash because it is. How many more chances he'll get remains to be seen, but if you eliminate the contract situation — it doesn't seem like Bemstrom has a spot on the main roster.

That leaves one player — the veteran of the group and the only player more intriguing than Bemstrom on this list: James Neal. He's 35 and just four goals away from 300 career NHL goals. A decade ago, he was a pest for the Blue Jackets while playing with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Blue Jackets signed him to a professional try-out contract in August after bouncing around the league for the last few seasons.

But Neal intrigues me. It seems like he would also be an on-ice coach in some ways, being the oldest and most experienced player on the roster. He's got the size and toughness of the aforementioned Olivier, but seems more of a threat offensively. Neal's played just over 40 minutes in two exhibition games so far, scoring the first goal of Columbus' preseason. He's obviously lost a step or two, but it feels like he can still contribute enough. 

If I'm head coach Brad Larsen — and I'm definitely not — the players I choose from the group of seven for my opening night roster are Johnson, Danforth, and Neal. I put Olivier and Bemstrom as my healthy scratches, and I put Chinakhov and Marchenko in Cleveland. They are not the "worst" two players on this list — they are probably two of the best three when it comes to the long-term — but give them a limited amount of time in Cleveland to see minutes they can't see in Columbus. Injuries, poor play, and trades will eventually (and probably sooner than we all hope) come into play, and these two players will come in physically prepared for what will likely be a permanent call-up to the NHL.


View 3 Comments