Let The Preseason Begin: Blue Jackets, Penguins Play In Split Squad Games To Start The 2023-24 Exhibition Season

By Ed Francis on September 24, 2023 at 10:49 am
Dmitri Voronkov and Adam Fantilli on the first day of practice at Nationwide Arena.
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There's Columbus Blue Jackets hockey on Nationwide Arena ice Sunday.

...and in Pittsburgh, too.

The 2023-24 preseason begins with a split squad game between the Blue Jackets and Penguins. Columbus will send half of the team to the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh for a 1:00 p.m. battle, while the action at Nationwide Arena kicks off at 7:00 p.m. 

There's no doubt that the more high-profile roster will stay in Columbus. Johnny Gaudreau, Patrik Laine, Boone Jenner, Zach Werenski, and Adam Fantilli — amongst others — will be on the ice in front of the home crowd.

That said, there are plenty of things to keep watch for in western Pennsylvania, as well. Here are three things to an eye on in each of Sunday's preseason openers:

In Pittsburgh: 
  • Dmitri Voronkov: a big body, or something more? At 6'4" and nearly 200lbs, there's no denying that the latest KHL-to-Columbus rookie has the size to make an impact. The 23-year-old had 18 goals and 13 assists in 54 games with Kazan Ak-Bars in the Kontinental league last season, and he looks every bit the role of an NHL player in his limited time so far on Nationwide Arena ice. Can his game and skill set transfer? We get the first glimpse of an answer to that question Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh.
  • Who gets an early jump for a spot in the bottom six? The Columbus squad features most (if not all) of the projected top six. But with Voronkov, Justin Danforth, Eric Robinson, Cole Sillinger, Emil Bemstrom, and others in the lineup Sunday against Pittsburgh, it will be a who's who of middle six and fourth-liners. The players that impress the most in games like these are likely to be the ones with first crack at meaningful minutes when the regular season is underway.
  • Is Aaron Dell the new backup? The 34-year-old has 106 career starts (with 24 relief appearances) over his seven-year career, mostly spent with the San Jose Sharks. The potential role for Dell — currently signed to a professional tryout contract — would be clear: a #2 to Merzlikins, and someone to play in Columbus and allow Daniil Tarasov to start full-time in Cleveland as he continues his maturation. For what it's worth, the career numbers for Dell aren't too bad: .905 save percentage, 2.92 goals against, and a record of 50-50-13. 

    In Columbus:
  • What will the budding relationship between Laine and Fantilli look like against the competition? The two have excelled in their limited time together on the ice, something likely helped by the bond they're forming off the ice. But it's one thing to look great in practice and against teammates. If the duo can look impressive against the Penguins — yes, even in an exhibition game — it could give the Blue Jackets another sign to put the pair together when the games count.
  • How will Elvis Merzlikins look? He will likely split time with Pavel Cajan between the pipes, but any time on ice is pivotal for Merzlikins, who is coming off a disastrous 2022-23 campaign. A shaky exhibition season could give the Blue Jackets, the fans, and even Elvis himself reason for pause. A strong one, though, could give him desperately-needed confidence heading into the new campaign.
  • How much rust do Werenski and Alexandre Texier have? Texier didn't play in the NHL at all last season and hasn't played a game with the Blue Jackets since January 26th, 2022 — a span of 606 days. Werenski, meanwhile, hasn't played sine tearing his labrum and separating his shoulder in early November. Rust will definitely be a factor, and rightly so. How much rust and how quick they can shake it off will likely have an impact on Columbus' start to the new season.
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