The Columbus Blue Jackets forward group has arguably never been more crowded than it is today.
That isn't to say that it's chock full of NHL superstars, because it is, unfortunately and definitively, not. Still, the organization has a surprising number of roster battles underway, and the increase in competition is bringing out the best in players who know this is their time to put up or shut up.
With that being said, here are five forwards that find themselves in interesting spots as the preseason barrels forward:
Bemström came to Columbus with such high hopes but has never been able to deliver on that potential. Last year, with so much of the roster injured and missing in action, the 24-year-old was given a 55-game tryout to show his offensive stuff... and he mostly disappointed, to the tune of 7-15-22.
And while we should be careful to put too much stock in preseason games, they have to count for something... right? The right-shot forward has shown well so far this fall. He scored twice in a 3-2 loss in St. Louis, but what was more impressive was his ability to deliver without the puck by turning a forecheck into a goal. That is translatable.
Some excellent work on this shift from Bemstrom and Marchenko lead to a goal from Laine in front of the net! pic.twitter.com/WzHFzXvAUX— The CBJ Center (@CBJcenter) September 30, 2023
He is not waivers eligible, and cleared waivers several times last season. Clearly, the rest of the NHL is in the same boat as Columbus - not that enamored. Has time run out on the Swede?
Robinson's straight-line speed is high-end, even for NHL standards. The 28-year-old was recently listed as a lock to make the opening night roster by The Athletic's Aaron Portzline, and I understand on the surface why that is. He's a veteran bottom-six forward who can eat minutes and chip in offensively and has posted double-digit goals in each of the past two seasons. But I do wonder if the roster glut has caught up with Robinson. The Blue Jackets have always thought quite highly of former first-round pick Liam Foudy, who is waivers eligible. Robinson has been able to fend off Foudy for years, but is there room for two offensively challenged left-shot forwards who can fly but bring relatively little else to the table?
In a vacuum, the answer is probably yes. But in reality, with players like Justin Danforth, Sean Kuraly, and Mathieu Oliver (for various reasons, each), I'm not so sure.
Speaking of depth forwards who bring something different to the table, the massive (he was just listed at 6-5, 240) Russian is something to behold on an NHL rink. He has a KHL out clause, meaning if he's playing in the AHL when the clock strikes 2024, he can return to Russia. The Blue Jackets will accordingly do everything in their power to make sure he is a contributing member in Columbus on the shortest timeline.
To follow up the conversation about Foudy/Robinson, Voronkov is the type of player who could immediately change the complexion of a line. If he skates alongside, for example, Sean Kuraly and Mathieu Olivier, that immediately becomes a line that could be a physical nightmare for the opposition. His stock is rising, and it will be fascinating to see how/where he is deployed in the lineup.
Jenner has been a good soldier for years, but he's just not suited for the 1C role. A lot has changed since last year, most notably the drafting of Adam Fantilli. But don't sleep on the Patrik Laine-to-center experiment, either. Pascal Vincent (correctly) identified that it's a no-downside proposition, and who can say if he lasts there long-term. But if Laine does stick, we could see him centering the top line alongside Johnny Gaudreau and Kirill Marchenko. That could open the door for Fantilli to play 2C alongside, well, Jenner? Kent Johnson? Alexandre Texier? Jack Roslovic? Suddenly, Jenner would be appropriately slotted in terms of his optimal usage.
Oh, boy. What does a team do with an uber-talented, defensively-maddeningly player who disappears for weeks at a time? Well, if it's in the midst of a disastrous 31st-place finish, the answer is nothing. What can you do? But what if the team is trying to take a step in the right direction? As stated, the forward group is deep, and there are more NHL contracts than there are roster spots. Roslovic could conceivably play either center or wing and probably on the second or third line. But where is the spot?
I certainly wouldn't take anyone off the aforementioned Gaudreau-Laine-Marchenko line in favor of him. And if Fantilli and Jenner go together on the second line, I think an argument could be made that Johnson would provide more offensive creativity and Texier more sandpaper. Roslovic could provide more speed, but at what cost?
Like Robinson, Roslovic is a pending UFA after this season. It's not difficult to imagine the organization moving on from either/both of them after the season, if not sooner.