In the next installment of our season preview, we look at the Columbus Blue Jackets and our friends at Jackets Cannon.
#1: The Ryan Johansen contract situation has hung over the team all summer, and it sucks being a fan and stuck in the middle. Since it's looking like the Blue Jackets will be without him for at least a little of the regular season, what does the center depth look like and how will that affect the roles of the guys that are there now?
Not only is Ryan Johansen not in the picture, but the rest of the projected top line is out of commission as well. Boone Jenner broke his hand and will miss four-to-six weeks, while Nathan Horton is dealing with a degenerative back issue. The Jackets' depth is going to be given a tough test to start the season, but depth is something they do have.
Brandon Dubinsky, who nailed down the second line center position last season, can be considered the de facto number one pivot with Johansen out. Artem Anisimov will move up a slot as well, while super-utility man Mark Letestu has the inside track on the third center spot. Michael Chaput spent some time with the Jackets last season, but has turned a terrific 2014 training camp into an almost assured roster spot as fourth line center.
Outside of those four, 2013 first round pick Alexander Wennberg may see time up the middle, with Letestu moving to wing.
#2: After a tough and hotly contested playoff series, what did you as a fan learn about the Pittsburgh Penguins? Did anything surprise you? Who is a player you maybe have a little more respect for or was impressed by now due to his performance in the series?
The biggest takeaway for me as a fan was that the Penguins could be slowed down with overwhelming physicality. Dubinsky gave Sidney Crosby fits, while Marc-Andre Fleury did nothing to shake his penchant for so-so play in the playoffs. The Pens obviously have far more elite talent than the Jackets, but the CBJ were given a very informative course in how to beat the Pens this past spring. Bringing in Scott Hartnell, who has intimate knowledge of the Pens from his Flyer days, can only help.
As fans, we couldn't help but be impressed by Brian Gibbons. In Game 2 of the 2014 first round series, he scored a pair of goals and showed serious speed. Though that game went on to be the Jackets' first ever playoff win, Gibbons put himself on our radar. He obviously made an impression on CBJ brass as well, as the Jackets signed him this offseason.
#3: Columbus seems to have a lot of great young players, are there any that might make NHL debuts this year? By that, I mean who might be this year's Boone Jenner- the guy that the average hockey fan might not know yet but soon will.
Thanks to the aforementioned lack of a top line, the Jackets are forced into starting the season with some kids. In years past the Jackets were known for rushing prospects, but in this case, there are a trio of players who are showing that they belong in the NHL. These three players will always have their names linked to one another, as they were all first round picks by the Jackets in the 2013 draft. Wennberg, Kerby Rychel and Marko Dano are all still in camp, and at least two of the three are likely to start the season with the Jackets. Wennberg is perhaps the most well-known, while Kerby Rychel has NHL bloodlines and is known for helping take Guelph of the OHL to the Memorial Cup. Dano is perhaps the more unknown youngster, even with his first rounder status. He has been great in the preseason, and may be the most surprising rookie for the Jackets this season. Interesting, as he was the third of the trio to hear his name called in 2013.
#4: Where would you say the Pens rank on your fan and team's rivalry scale right now, after a playoff series and now in the same division for going on 2 years?
The current playoff format is designed to breed new rivalries or boost existing ones. The Jackets were left without a true rival when they moved to the Eastern Conference. There will always be the Red Wings hatred from Columbus fans thanks to the whole Ohio-Michigan thing, but last year the Jackets were essentially auditioning new Eastern teams to be the squad they loved to hate.
The 2014 playoff series, combined with the geographical status of Columbus and Pittsburgh, make the Jackets and Pens a truly budding rivalry. It will take another playoff series or two against each other for the rivalry to fully arrive, but the foundation is in place.
If they hadn't already, Dubinsky's handling of Crosby last year made the fans of the Jackets fall absolutely in love with the guy. Performances like that, combined with highlights like Matt Calvert's double-OT goal against the Pens for the team's first ever playoff win that stick with fans. That goal will always bring fans back to the series against Pittsburgh, and there's a good chance that many more memorable moments can be created between these two teams.
#5: What is the range of positions (1-8) that you could see Columbus finishing at in the division? What's the best case and worst case situations?
If you read some of the major media outlets, the Jackets have a good shot at second in the division. It's the Penguins' to lose, but the Jackets are ready to take the next step in the standings, from wild card team to one of the division slots.
Second in the division is possible, but it's going to take Johansen getting signed and performing at or beyond last year's pace post-deal signing; a healthy Boone Jenner and Nathan Horton; and for the New York Rangers to regress as much as well think they will.
If injuries mount, or Johansen takes a step back, the team will have a difficult time moving out of the wild card range. They earned a wild card last year essentially without Marian Gaborik and Horton, so it's doable again this year.
The Capitals and Islanders are tough to peg, so they make it hard to prognosticate where the Jackets will finish. That said, a playoff spot is a good bet with health, Johansen and Sergei Bobrovsky in a contract year.