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Blue Jackets position breakdown: Forwards

Columbus adds Nyquist, returns most of the group that drove team a season ago

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

The good news for the Blue Jackets is that Columbus is coming off the highest-scoring season in franchise history, and 12 of the top 13 point scorers are back. 

In other words, on the surface, goal-scoring doesn't flash as an immediate area of trouble for the team, but most know it's not quite that simple.  

The offseason departures of Artemi Panarin -- who posted the two highest-scoring seasons in franchise history in back-to-back years -- as well as trade deadline acquisitions Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel means there will be three holes in the lineup from the team that made it to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

While Duchene and Dzingel contributed only a combined eight goals and 24 points to the regular-season cause, replacing the production of Panarin will be one of the questions of the season for the Blue Jackets as they try to match last year's 3.12 goals per game. 

The addition of free agent signing Gustav Nyquist (22-38-60 last year with Detroit and San Jose, an average of 21-29-50 in eight career seasons) will fill some of that gap, but for the rest, Columbus will be counting on some younger players blossoming, a couple of rebound campaigns, and a defense that is among the best in the NHL at adding to the attack. 

Breaking it down: On the veteran side, Cam Atkinson should lead the way as the now-30-year-old forward has shown a propensity for only getting better with age in his NHL career. Whether he can top last year's CBJ record-tying output of 41 goals remains to be seen, but concerns that he was only as productive last year as he was because of Panarin seem misguided considering he potted 35 goals two seasons ago.  

Video: CBJ@NSH: Atkinson snipes shot by Saros for 40th goal

There are also the gritty twin pillars of Nick Foligno and Boone Jenner, who have been able to combine physical play with goal-scoring capabilities in their careers. Both have 30-goal campaigns in their past, and while no one expects them to score quite at that level anymore, the captain had 17 tallies a year ago and Jenner 16 to add depth to the scoring.  

But where things truly get exciting is with the youth, as Josh Anderson, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Pierre-Luc Dubois all will be 25 or younger this upcoming season and each topped 20 goals a year ago. Anderson is a physical force who just keeps getting better and better when it comes to his offensive game as he potted a career-high 27 tallies a year ago and might have more in him considering he had some ice-cold slumps as well during the campaign. 

Dubois is cut from similar cloth at an imposing 225 pounds, but the 20-year-old center who is coming off a 27-34-61 campaign looks like a star in the making. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2016 draft has started his career with consecutive 20-goal seasons and brings a unique mix of high-level skill and strength to the middle of the ice.  

Bjorkstrand also could be in line for a huge jump after posting 17 goals in the last 36 games of the 2018-19 season. Blessed with an elite shot and with a history of scoring goals in juniors in his background, the now 24-year-old enters his third full NHL season eager to show his red-hot finish to the past campaign is his new normal.  

From there, one of the biggest questions that must be answered is what the team will get out of Alexander Wennberg, who looked like a franchise center when he posted a 59-point season in 2016-17 only to have a combined 60 points the past two seasons. The 25-year-old Swede could be the key to the entire lineup, as a rebound campaign would significantly strengthen the Blue Jackets down the middle.  

Veterans Brandon Dubinsky and Riley Nash paired together on a heavy fourth line come playoff time a year ago, but the two had 14 and 12 points, respectively, a year ago. Both will hope to rekindle the offensive spark while also bringing solid two-way play. Markus Hannikainen provides energy as well, as the man who has played parts of the past four seasons with the Jackets has 15 career points in 91 games.  

Rookies Alexandre Texier, Emil Bemstrom and potentially Liam Foudy also present potential high-level talents who are short on experience with a combined two NHL regular-season games -- both by Texier -- between them.  

Video: CBJ@OTT: Texier scores on rush for first NHL goal

The belief is that Texier, after his cameo last season in which he looked like an offensive threat both in those pair of late-season contests as well as in the first round of the playoffs vs. Tampa Bay, is ready for a full-time gig at the NHL level after leading his Finnish team in scoring a season ago. Bemstrom could be in a similar vein after not just leading his team but the entire Swedish Hockey League in goal scoring, and the 20-year-olds could be a source of additional offense if their games prove ready for the NHL level. Foudy, 19, was a first-round pick in 2018 and could add speed and depth at center as well.  

One of the top scorers in the Western Hockey League, rookie Trey Fix-Wolansky seems ticketed to begin the year at the AHL level but might bang down the door at some point. Another new addition is Swedish forward Jakob Lilja, who had 37 points in 52 games last year while playing with Bemstrom with Djurgårdens IF. And one can't forget the return of Marko Dano, the 2013 first-round pick of the team who signed a two-way deal this offseason. 

Also on the youth front, four players who spent most of 2018-19 with Cleveland will have chances to impress as well. Eric Robinson, Columbus-area native Kole Sherwood and Swedish center Kevin Stenlund all bring size, speed and some offensive ability, while 2014 first-round pick Sonny Milano will try to resurrect his NHL career after a solid year with the Monsters.  

30 for 30: How many Blue Jackets might top 30 goals this season? Obviously, the more, the better, but there certainly are candidates. Atkinson has done it twice now and seems ticketed for another strong season, while it won't take much to be added to last year's performance for Dubois, Anderson or Bjorkstrand to get to that plateau. Jenner and Foligno have 30-goal seasons under their belt as well, while Nyquist could be an under-the-radar pick considering he's posted 28- and 27-goal campaigns in Detroit.  

Breakout potential: Texier has to be at the top of the list and perhaps profiles as the top Blue Jacket who could be considered a fantasy hockey sleeper as well. He showed he's skilled enough for the NHL a year ago when he jumped into the biggest games of the year and didn't look out of place, even if the Boston series showed he needed to get a little stronger to play in the crucible of rough-and-tumble playoff hockey. But Texier has a great shot, a high compete level and a swagger about his game that should serve him well at the NHL level.  

Bouncing back: As much focus as there is on Wennberg to return to his level of two seasons ago, there's also an onus on Nash to produce more than he did a year ago. He went from a 41-point campaign in 2017-18 in Boston to just 12 points a year ago, and history shows he likely will fall somewhere in between. If he can get back to his career average line of 10-16-26, it will add some more punch to the bottom half of the CBJ attack and potentially round out the center spot as well.  

Battle levels: Looking at the roster, there seem to be eight locks for the Opening Night lineup assuming those players are healthy - Nyquist, Dubois, Atkinson, Foligno, Jenner, Anderson, Bjorkstrand and Wennberg. Veterans Nash and Dubinsky will have to play their way out of spots, and on the other side of the spectrum, the same could likely be said of Texier. That is 11 of 12 spots spoken for and about 10 players in the mix. Some certainly have better chances than others, but it wouldn't be a shock to see any of the players mentioned above making the team. How the season-opening roster will break down at the bottom side of the spectrum could be fascinating to watch during camp - and as the season stretches on, as well.  

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