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Tortorella: Blue Jackets lineup nearly set ahead of Toronto series

Head coach still working out lines, but the game group appears largely set

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

When head coach John Tortorella split his 33-man player pool in Columbus into two groups to start the team's summer training camp July 13, it wasn't hard to see one group was filled with Blue Jackets regulars and the other was going to be fighting for a chance to get into the lineup. 

The main group featured 22 players while the second included 11, and Tortorella said that's how he viewed things to start camp, though he also said players could certainly move from one group to the other. 

"I put the teams together for a reason, to let players know where they stand in the coach's mind right now," Tortorella said. "But there's some good things going on in both groups." 

Two weeks later, as the Blue Jackets took to the ice Monday at the Ford Performance Centre in Toronto for its first practice in the NHL bubble, the only thing that had changed was the venue. 

The player pool was cut to 31 for the trip, but the same 22 players -- 20 skaters and two goalies -- were in the so-called "game group" on Monday while the other nine skaters who made the trip left to take part in the "black aces" skate afterward.  

Though things could still change at a moment's notice, it's hard not to see that and think the 18 skaters who will take on Toronto in Game 1 of the five-game qualifying series Aug. 2 will come from the main group. 

"I think we need to answer some questions as far as who is playing with who," Tortorella said, mentioning that the July 30 exhibition game vs. Boston will help answer those questions. "We have a pretty good idea of the players that will probably start in the first game." 

All indications are, then, that the 12-skater forward group will include all the CBJ regulars as well as rookie forwards Eric Robinson and Liam Foudy, leaving Nathan Gerbe, Devin Shore and Kevin Stenlund on the outside looking in. 

If there's one reason the young speedsters continue to have the edge, it's because they're young speedsters. Tortorella has talked often in camp about the pace the two bring to the table, as Robinson has shown off his wheels at the NHL level when given the opportunity and Foudy became the first-round pick of the team in 2018 in large part because of his elite skating ability. 

When it comes to Foudy, Tortorella says, "Foudy has a good chance of playing in the first game." With Robinson, meanwhile, the experience gained from playing 64 games the past three seasons is allowing the 25-year-old's game to catch up with his legs.  

"Quite honestly, he was probably our most consistent player through the first week of camp," Tortorella said. "The puck followed him around, as it always does it seems like in a game. He has a ton of things to improve on, but his speed and how he gets up and down that wing is so very important in today's game. 

"So he's in. How many minutes he gets, it's going to depend on him as the game goes on in situations, but I think he's had a very good camp and he deserves to be in our lineup and get a chance to make a difference." 

Video: Building Blocks: Eric Robinson highlights

Defensively, with the top two pairs (Seth Jones and Zach Werenski as well as David Savard and Vladislav Gavrikov) set, the main battle seems to be who joins Ryan Murray on the third pair. Dean Kukan skated there Monday, as he has for most of camp, with Scott Harrington and Markus Nutivaara comprising the fourth pair. 

Here's how the Blue Jackets lined up Monday during the 22-man game group practice. 

Nick Foligno - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Oliver Bjorkstrand  

Gus Nyquist - Boone Jenner - Cam Atkinson  

Alexandre Texier - Alexander Wennberg - Emil Bemstrom  

Eric Robinson - Riley Nash - Liam Foudy  
  
Zach Werenski - Seth Jones  

Vladislav Gavrikov - David Savard  

Ryan Murray - Dean Kukan  

Scott Harrington - Markus Nutivaara  

Joonas Korpisalo/Elvis Merzlikins 

Notes

• It seems likely Tortorella will split the time in net during Thursday's exhibition game vs. Boston between Korpisalo and Merzlikins, and no choice -- at least a publicly declared one -- has been made between the goalies who started 35 games and 31 contests, respectively, this year. When asked when he'd make a decision on his starting goalie for the Aug. 2 opener against Toronto, Tortorella simply said, "August 1st." 

• The NHL is planning to recognize both the ongoing protests for racial equality as well as front-line workers who have been key to the coronavirus response ahead of games Aug. 1, but CBJ defenseman Seth Jones said the Blue Jackets and Bruins might do something as well ahead of the exhibition game.  

"I think it's great the league is taking the initiative and showing the support for Black Lives Matter and everything that is going on in the world," Jones said. "I know we're talking with Boston for the exhibition game, we may do something with them before the game and show a united front that we're all here, we all care and we're all trying to make a difference in the world. We're trying to create a cultural change, not just in hockey but around the world." 

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