The Columbus Blue Jackets head into the 2023-24 season with an optimistic vibe. A new coach, a legitimate blue chip prospect in Adam Fantilli, a replenished defense corps, and a genuinely crowded forward group that needs sorting.
This will be the first installment of several breaking down, line-by-line and pair-by-pair, the candidates, and the ensuing roster battles for each slot. Up first, the fourth line.
As the Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights illustrated, a fourth line needs to be a group that can not just chew minutes but turns the tide of the game with their energy. Nobody will see Keegan Kolesar, William Carrier, and Nicolas Roy as anything resembling star players, but they played a heavy, solid game that allowed Vegas to more-or-less roll four lines throughout the playoffs.
So, who are the players most likely to fit that billing for the Blue Jackets?
Sean Kuraly, Justin Danforth, Eric Robinson, Mathieu Olivier
In a perfect world on a playoff-contending team, Kuraly is a 4C. Last year, injuries and inexperience forced him higher in the lineup. But all things equal, he should be in sharpie marker. Olivier is a prototypical fourth-line winger, and it's easy to imagine a demanding coach like Mike Babcock finding a regular spot for a wear-it-on-your-sleeve type of player like him. Danforth just seems like the kind of player that will continue to will himself into the lineup. He has 12 goals in 51 regular season games and while he lacks optimal size, he brings intensity and passion to his game. So, that's it, then... right?
But where would that leave someone like Robinson? Surely he can't play higher in the lineup, especially with the club returning to health? I tend to think that Robinson is somewhat expendable - if he could match his feet with his hands, it would be a different story - but in a flat-cap environment, he's not much of an asset. As such, it's likely that one of those three - Olivier, Danforth, and Robinson will be one of the club's healthy scratches on a night-to-night basis.
Emil Bemstrom, Dmitri Voronkov, Liam Foudy
Bemstrom cleared waivers last October, and it would surprise nobody to see him placed (and clear) again this year. The day of reckoning may be coming for him in the NHL. Does he have enough offense to play in the top nine? Does he play the type of game required of a bottom-six player to justify a lineup spot?
The same shpiel about waivers can be said for someone like Foudy, though his game more closely resembles a modern fourth-liner. He started to come on at the end of last season, and the club was remiss to place him on waivers (unlike Bemstrom). Voronkov is a major wild card in the lineup puzzle. Many (myself included) tend to see him as the club's 3C, but that may be a bit rich. Maybe he's a 3LW. Maybe he's a 4C or worse. Time will tell.
Alexandre Texier, Jack Roslovic, Yegor Chinakhov
Chinakhov seems to have more rope (and is still waivers exempt) than Bemstrom, and probably than Foudy. Seeing the 22-year-old Russian on the fourth line would be a surprise. Roslovic's main problem (and this will be an ongoing theme throughout this series) is that he's purely talented enough to play in the top six but inconsistent enough to question him in virtually any lineup spot. Can you imagine Babcock playing him on the fourth line? I'm not sure I can.
Texier is a bit of a different story. If he struggles to provide offense, I could see a world where he's asked to simplify his game, and playing alongside (for example) the speedy and north-south Kuraly and Robinson may do that.
Hunter McKown, Carson Meyer, Trey Fix-Wolsnsky, Josh Dunne
Of the four, McKown seems the most likely to be given a shot at the NHL level early on, but even then, I'm not sure if it's in a fourth-line capacity. It's not all that plausible to assume that Meyer, Fix-Wolansky, Dunne, or any other Cleveland-bound forwards beat out any of the other 17 (!) forwards that are included in this exercise, but I suppose that's why training camp exists.
The Last Word
Kuraly, and some combination of Olivier, Danforth, and Robinson seem to figure as the club's fourth line. One of those three would figure to be a healthy scratch. I think Foudy is ultimately a 4LW with upside on a very good NHL team... is that in Columbus? Voronkov, Texier, or Chinakhov playing this low in the lineup would portend injuries or major disappointments, and players like Bemstrom and Roslovic don't fit the profile of what is asked of a modern fourth-liner.