Alive's biweekly Blue Jackets column returns with important questions for the 2019-20 season, which kicks off with a home opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday, Oct. 4
You may have heard that everybody left the Columbus Blue Jackets after last season. You may have wondered whether the organization would be able to ice a squad, given that everyone left.
But Straight Jackets has it on good authority that there will, indeed, be NHL hockey in the capital city for the 2019-2020 season, so put your fears to rest.
And then start fearing a bunch of other stuff.
No, not everybody left. Yes, there are still plenty of good players here. But let’s not act like filling the skates of dynamic (if aloof) forward Artemi Panarin and two-time Vezina Trophy-winning (if mercurial) goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, plus top center and trade-deadline acquisition Matt Duchene, doesn't present a daunting challenge.
General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen brought in generally dependable veteran scorer Gustav Nyquist to help the cause, but if the CBJ is to build on last year’s won-a-playoff-series breakthrough, it will be done with players that were here for said breakthrough.
Here are five big questions entering the season.Don't miss a single Straight Jackets column this season: Sign up for our daily newsletter
What's gonna happen between the pipes? (duh)
This is the most obvious concern. Since midway through the first season after the Jackets acquired Bobrovsky in 2012, the gifted goalie has been a given in net. But it's clear Kekalainen had a plan for this all along. In addition to young backup Joonas Korpisalo, the GM had assembled youthful skill and depth in the system, including generally accepted best-goalie-not-in-the-NHL Elvis Merzlikins and recent draft picks Veini Vehvilainen and Daniil Tarasov. It was clear that Jarmo's pan was to bring Elvis in to share the load with Korpi, and that's pretty much what the offseason and preseason was about. That Korpisalo has thus far seemed more than equal to the task is encouraging.
Who's gonna score? (duh deux)
I can't tell you how badly I want the answer to this question to be Alexandre Texier, the young French phenom who joined the big club late last year and made an impact right through the playoffs. He has appeared overmatched and out of sorts at times this preseason, so I'm tempering my enthusiasm somewhat. It looks like former prospect Emil Bemstrom will at least see some time and his Alexander Ovechkin-esque shot from the dot on the power play could be a nice addition. Nyquist is a value add as a free agent, but scoring will need to come from names you already know — Pierre-Luc Dubois, Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Josh Anderson et al. Maybe this is Sonny Milano's time?
Wither Wennberg? (redux)
This was a thing to watch last year, and the still-young and once-promising forward is now coming off a second consecutive to-call-it-subpar-would-be-generous season. Alexander Wennberg and Head Coach John Tortorella seem to have reached an understanding... maybe? Torts has placed Wennberg between Nyquist and Bjorkstrand much of camp and the preseason. The idea makes me wince, but if it works, and Wennberg can regain some of his skillful form, it will make a big difference.
The power play, in particular, was poor (again) in 2018-19. (Remember the failed “let's switch the duties of the defensive and offensive coaches” idea from early last year? Yeah, that didn't work, either.) This is a matter of scheme (coaches) and confidence (players) — in particular, top defensemen Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.
A third top-two blueliner?
For much of last season, defenseman Ryan Murray looked like a former number two overall draft pick. He was steady all over the ice and at times flashed some of his vision and skill. Murray’s troubles have been physical. The oft-injured blueliner is a treat to watch when healthy, offering Tortorella an alternative to the young gun Werenski as Jones' D partner in certain situations. There is depth on the blueline — at the end of camp, the team has nine NHL-ready defensemen still on the roster, and that doesn’t count Adam Clendening, who filled in admirably due to injuries during the playoffs. If Murray can stay healthy, the Jackets might just have the league’s best blueline.