Training camp is right around the corner.
With the 2023-24 regular season fast approaching, we look at the Columbus Blue Jackets position groups and assess their strengths versus weaknesses.
The Blue Jackets forward group is a strength of the roster.
Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine are on the wings, an up-and-coming top center in Adam Fantilli and exciting second-year pros in Kent Johnson and Kirill Marchenko.
There is a lot of depth on this side of the roster, to the point where you could almost pencil in anyone anywhere. Then you add Alexandre Texier back to the fold, Justin Danforth coming off a season-ending injury, Cole Sillinger looking for a bounce-back season, and Dmitri Voronkov entering his first season with the team.
With that said, there are a lot of questions and unknowns as to what we'll get from almost every player. Gaudreau might be the surest thing, and while his offensive totals dipped last season, he was in an entirely new situation with a vastly different supporting cast.
Laine, if he can stay healthy, should score many goals, perhaps 40, but we've yet to see a whole season like that from Laine.
Johnson provided a baseline last season. Can he take a step toward being a 60-plus point player this season?
Will Marchenko pick up where he left off last season with his goal-scoring?
The expectations for Fantilli should be kept in check, but how fast can he take a step?
Will Texier and Danforth respond to being back in the lineup, or will someone else push them for roster spots?
Training camp will help decide where the pieces fit Mike Babcock's puzzle.
Boone Jenner has served as a serviceable center on the top line and will likely start the season there. Could Fantilli make a move for that spot this season?
As is the case for every position group, if everyone stays healthy, that alone should be a step in the right direction toward improved play.
Until Fantilli is ready to be the top center for the team, the center spot is up in the air after Jenner. Whether it's Fantilli at center on another line or on the wing, you have Jack Roslovic, Sillinger, and Sean Kuraly. Perhaps Texier and Vronkov are also options down the middle.
Babcock is looking to get his team more involved in the two-way game.
As an offense last season, the Jackets scored the third-fewest goals in the league (213) and registered 2.60 goals per game. The season prior, they scored 258 goals (14th) and put up 3.15 goals per game, also 14th in the league.
Columbus' power play was much better in the second half last season, so will this be the season that it finally all comes together?
The defense should be better than it's been in recent years.
Besides the fact it can't be much worse than it's been, there were the obvious notable additions made by general manager Jarmo Kekalainen to address this side of the puck over the summer.
Availability is the best ability, and that's where Damon Severson and Ivan Provorov enter the equation.
Severson has played 161 of 164 games in the last two seasons. He played in all 56 games of the shortened 2020-21 season, all 69 games in the shortened season in 2019-20, and all 82 games in 2018-19. That's been the theme most of his career.
Severson also brings a lot of skill on both sides of the puck.
|Damon Severson||Games Played||Goals||Assists||Points|
|2019-20||69* Full season||8||23||31|
|2020-21||56* Full season||3||18||21|
Provorov's play has dipped since he first burst onto the scene in 2016-17, but maybe he's the perfect change of scenery candidate. Provorov is also constantly available, having missed only three games—2021-22—in seven seasons.
|Ivan Provorov||Games Played||Goals||Assists||Points|
|2019-20||69* Full season||13||23||36|
|2020-21||56* Full season||7||19||26|
Zach Werenski might as well be a new addition to the 2023-24 club after missing 69 games last season with a separated shoulder and torn labrum.
Babcock's structure could also be enough to elevate the play. While defense might not be the utmost strength of the club, things will be much better, assuming health.
How much better?
After Werenski, Severson, and Provorov, some combination of Adam Boqvist, Andrew Peeke, Erik Gudbranson, Marcus Bjork, Jake Christiansen, Nick Blankenburg, Tim Berni, and Jake Bean will all plug spots as they vie for ice time.
This leaves the goaltending, bringing up the rear.
Similarly to the defense, the team hopes for much-improved play from the crease. If both the defense and goaltending are better in their own right, that will help the other.
Niklas Backstrom, a good goaltender in his own right during his playing career, is in his first year as the goaltending coach to help right the ship and should be a strength for the club.
Elvis Merzlikins enters the second season of his five-year contract extension signed before the 2020-21 season. He's looking for a rebound after being one of the statistically worst goalies a season ago with a -25.9 GSAx per MoneyPuck.
Like the defense, there's only one place for the goaltending to go, and that's up. But will that be enough?
If Merzlikins can resemble his 2021-22 season when he went 27-23-0 in 56 starts with a 3.22 GAA and .907 SV%, most would probably take that now. Joonas Korpisalo was 11-11-0, 3.17, .913 for Columbus last season, and his play improved that much more with the Los Angeles Kings with a better defense in front.
Daniil Tarasov is the other wild card.
Also battling injuries throughout last year, he'll be depended on as the backup behind Merzlikins. It might be more of a 1A:1B timeshare upon starting the season, with Merzlikins presumably getting the bulk of starts and every opportunity to succeed. He's being paid too much money not to play otherwise.
But if Merzlikins struggles, expect Tarasov to get his share in the net.
Aaron Dell was signed to a PTO recently, and Jet Greaves is in Cleveland.
The Athletic's Aaron Portzline did a one-on-one with Babcock, who also acknowledged an improvement in the defense would help the goaltending.
Werenski has gone to work. When you see him, he’s a man. He’s in shape. That’s a man ready to take a step. (Provorov) is a real player. (Severson) is a real player. (Gubranson) is a man. So suddenly your goaltending just got way better. In fairness to the goaltender, if you get organized and you play with structure … that’s the hardest position in the world (goaltender) when it’s not going good, because you don’t know ever where the puck is coming from.
The bar is low, but if the team can keep opponents out of the net under 300 times, that would be a start.
The season starts a month from Tuesday, Oct. 12, at Nationwide Arena against the Philadelphia Flyers. Between now and then, we'll have all the answers to these questions soon.