In a recent conversation with The Athletic's Aaron Portzline, new Columbus Blue Jackets head coach Mike Babcock has indicated a preference to have two players that can play center on each of his four forward lines this season.
“What we’re going to do is try to have two 200-foot players on each line,” Babcock said. “What I mean by that is, having another guy (other than the center) who can play down low.
The thought process for this is not totally revolutionary but gives a good glimpse into what Babcock perceives as a weakness and an opportunity for the club moving forward. Centers, compared to wingers, are tasked with more defensive responsibility, often acting as a third defenseman to match the opposition's three forwards. If given the choice of drafting a star winger and center that were otherwise equal in skill, the center would be picked virtually unanimously.
The Blue Jackets, who have been thin down the middle since the dawn of time, head into training camp with a completely new look at center. Aside from incumbents like Boone Jenner, Jack Roslovic, and Sean Kuraly, the club welcomes first-round draft pick Adam Fantilli and KHL import Dmitry Voronkov, to say nothing of others who didn't play center much (or struggled mightily) for the Blue Jackets last season for various reasons, like Alexandre Texier, Kent Johnson, Cole Sillinger, Justin Danforth, and even Patrik Laine.
And that's a good thing for a coach that is looking for, effectively, eight players that he can entrust to play the most defensively demanding forward position.
“(Red Wings great) Pavel Datsyuk used to say to me, ‘How can I have the puck down low in the offensive zone when I’m supposed to be the first guy back?’ It can’t work like that. So we’re wanting two centers or two guys on each line who can play down low in the defensive zone.”
Another consideration when wanting eight centers is the ability to have (at least, at times) a right and left-shot who can complement each other in the faceoff circle. The Blue Jackets have struggled to win faceoffs for years, but this committee approach could pay dividends.
“Guys are way more dominant on their strong hand, their backhand,” Babcock said. “So if you can have a lefty and a righty on the same line, and you can be dominant on both sides of the ice, you have the puck way more. These are some of the things that will go into it.”
So, which eight Blue Jackets players make the list? Well, 10 come to mind as potential centers, which is a good start. In no particular order:
- Boone Jenner
- Jack Roslovic
- Sean Kuraly
- Adam Fantilli
- Dmitry Voronkov
- Alexandre Texier
- Kent Johnson
- Cole Sillinger
- Justin Danforth
- Patrik Laine
My initial thought in looking at this list is there still aren't enough 'true centers' on this roster. A player like Johnson could eventually become a center, sure, but he may be suited on the wing for the present time. Others, like Fantilli and Sillinger, project well as centers long-term, but may not be this season in an attempt to build (or rebuild) confidence. Lastly, I'm not sure you could convince Babcock that a line with Roslovic and Laine has one center, much less two.
On the other hand, perhaps this is the single most important task of the new coach. In this first season, where playoffs are an unlikely reality, player development and building a foundation for future success is paramount. In such a world, molding some of these players to eventually become centers becomes part and parcel with that overall objective.