Welcome to part four of a line-by-line breakdown of the Columbus Blue Jackets depth chart as it stands in mid-July.
A few weeks ago, we established that the fourth line should be relatively easy to piece together. The third line? Much less so. The same can be said for the second line. But for as much confusion as there is in the middle of the lineup, the top line is relatively easy to configure, at least, from afar.
So, who are the players most likely to fit the first line for the Blue Jackets?
Johnny Gaudreau, Boone Jenner, Patrik Laine, Kirill Marchenko
That Boone Jenner is the likely incumbent for the club's 1C is not necessarily a compliment. But in the captain's defense, he's performed admirably when elevated to the role and is clearly the club's heartbeat. It will surprise nobody if/when new head coach Mike Babcock falls head over heels for his plug-and-play, rugged, old-school forward. In a perfect world, Jenner is surpassed on the depth chart by a young centerman. Adam Fantilli surely comes to mind, but perhaps one day Kent Johnson or Cole Sillinger is the solution. But for now, the 1C is Jenner with a bullet.
Johnny Gaudreau is simply too talented to be considered anywhere other than 1LW on virtually any team, and indeed on this one. On a god-awful team a season ago, he still managed to put up 21-53-74 in 80 games, and while a return to his 115-point season feels unlikely this year, I'd recommend the 'over' on besting last year's totals. He's the singular top-of-the-lineup player that this team can rely on for production.
Jenner and Gaudreau are nice foils for one another on the top line, and it should allow Babcock options when deciding who will be the other flank. Patrik Laine got a fairly decent rope playing alongside these two a year ago, but it didn't click. Expect Babcock to attempt to reinvigorate Laine, and perhaps this line combination could click with a new voice.
If not Laine, Kirill Marchenko could be a good fit. The soon-to-be 23-year-old Russian is a talented scorer and is a better playmaker than his paltry four assists would indicate. Marchenko seems like the obvious solution if Laine isn't the answer.
Kent Johnson, Adam Fantilli, Alexandre Teixer
As mentioned in the second-line discussion, the downside of having Fantilli as the (projected) 2C is that he may be forced to play with other inexperienced players. But I suppose there is a world where Fantilli, or Johnson, while we're at it, could make sense to play first-line wing opposite Gaudreau. This would bump someone like Jack Roslovic to 2C, where he would theoretically slot with Laine. I could envision Babcock preferring that type of balance within the lineup.
Alexandre Texier remains arguably the club's biggest wildcard. He could conceivably play anywhere from third to first line, and it's hard to say with much conviction what his best landing spot is given that we haven't seen him play in the NHL in over a year. Putting Texier on the first line, alongside Gaudreau and Jenner, would give the line just enough offensive firepower to be dangerous, but would also allow one of Johnson or Marchenko to play on the third line, which could be a mismatch for opposing defenses.
The Last Word
The biggest question mark during training camp as it relates to the first line surrounds Laine. Does he stick opposite Gaudreau? On paper, it makes so much sense. But as we saw last year, it didn't result in the fireworks that were expected.
Unlike last year, there are contingencies in place if/when that experiment fails. Marchenko or Johnson both appear ready for the challenge and playing alongside Gaudreau would be a great opportunity for either player.