Let's have a little roundtable discussion, shall we?
Bear in mind: the term "roundtable" is relative in this context. There was no table used in the creation of this piece, nor was it round. But would I even have to clarify it wasn't round if the table didn't exist in the first place?
Thankfully, I am merely the presenter of topics in this discussion. Everyone else can share their well-thought out thoughts, opinions and perspectives and you can see how awesome they are.
Today's panelists: Mark Erickson (better known as @RedditCBJ) from HashtagCBJ.com, Matt Wagner (@bzarcher) from SB Nation's Cannon blog, and Alison Lukan (@AlisonL) from The Union Blue and FOXSportsOhio.com.
Our panelists will be talking about and sharing their views on three different questions or topics this morning, ranging from the Blue Jackets' 2013-14 schedule to keeping pace in the Eastern Conference playoff chase while Nathan Horton recovers from shoulder surgery.
Disclaimer: these are independent panelists invited to provide their input on a variety of topics as part of the roundtable discussion. Their views are not necessarily shared by the Blue Jackets.
Without further ado, let's begin!
QUESTION 1: Which of the Jackets’ opponents in the Metropolitan Division represents the best “new rivalry?” Why?
MARK: Pittsburgh is clearly the best geographic rival and the number of Penguins fans that live in Columbus from the pre-CBJ era will certainly make for some interesting home games and the fan rivalry is going to be absolutely enormous. That said, I think the Rangers games are going to be even bigger from the on-ice perspective. Nash, Brassard, Dorsett, Moore, (Johnson... Arniel...) vs Gaborik, Anisimov, Dubinsky, Erixon (and we can't forget Tyutin and Rychel)! The amount of players changing sides between the same two teams in a matter of nine months has to be fairly unusual in the NHL.
When you factor in the amount of knowledge that both teams are going to possess of their new opponents' strengths and weaknesses, it should lead to some incredibly dynamic match-ups. Oh wait, did I forget to mention that these games are going to pit the two most recent Vezina winners against each other?
ALISON: The easiest answer (and I think the right one) is the Rangers. The Rangers have been the Jackets' trade partner for arguably the two biggest trades in franchise history. The first, the Rick Nash trade, gave up Columbus' lone All-Star and captain, and brought back a surprising list of riches that changed the culture in the locker room and reinforced the style of play that brought Columbus success. The second, the Marian Gaborik trade, woke up the hockey world to bring an All-Star back in exchange for depth that the Rangers had learned (the hard way) that they sorely needed.
The battle of pride will be a big one between two teams who have many familiar faces on both benches. Similarly, these two trades brought the fan bases in contact with each other well before we became division rivals. Both sides want to see if they players they've let go are who they thought they were, or if they'll surprise - in a positive or negative way.
Storylines aside, I think it will also be an interesting match up of hockey styles. It seems New York is ready to move away from the gritty, hard-nosed hockey that was a Tortorella hallmark while Columbus is cultivating this very same approach. Which game plan will take the series?
Also - Derek Dorsett returns to Nationwide Arena ice.
MATT: Even though the Rangers are a natural answer, I think there's a lot of fun waiting to be had with the Capitals. Not only have we had some serious barn-burner games with them in the past, we also have a decent bit of bad blood. (Remember when Umberger called out Ovechkin for not playing the right way? Oddly prophetic.) DC is a quick flight for fans wanting to travel back and forth to games, or a pretty decent drive if you want to make a weekend of it, so I think there's good potential for rowdy crowds visiting both barns. I suspect we're going to get some sparks when these teams meet, and that's the best way I can see to build a rivalry.
QUESTION 2: In your mind, why will the Blue Jackets fare well until Nathan Horton returns? What will be their biggest issue until he’s healthy?
ALISON: The Jackets will fare well because the core of the team that found success last year remains intact and has only been strengthened. The last two seasons have given us an object lesson in how you start as a team, and that will be critical once again. I also like the return of Blake Comeau; can he be one of the pieces to fill the hole that Horton leaves in the lineup until his return late in 2013? Overall, the first 10-12 games will be key in terms of setting a level of confidence for the team, and more importantly, avoiding a hole we'd have to dig out of when it comes to our record. Again, I think the experience of fighting through adversity to create success late in the season is an asset of the returning Jackets, so a weak start won't rattle us but it surely won't help.
MATT: The Jackets aren't going to be as potent offensively until Horton heals, but the club is still going to have a veteran defensive corps supporting a strong goaltender. In addition, the club is going to have a 100 percent healthy Gaborik playing alongside guys like Anisimov, Dubinsky, and Atkinson who will have had a chance to build more chemistry and settle into their new roles compared to last season's scramble. Scoring goals is still going to be a concern, particularly on the power play, but I think the coaching staff will find answers - after all, this team showed they could win without Nathan Horton just fine last season.
MARK: The likely roster going into next season up until Horton comes back from his injury looks to be almost the same as the roster that saw the Jackets finish the season with the second best record in the NHL over the final 28 games of the year (the 19-5-4 mark was second only to Pittsburgh's 23-5-0). One obvious missing piece of that puzzle is the absence of 2013 points leader Vinny Prospal but I think a healthy Marian Gaborik and the ever-improving group of young players in Johansen, Atkinson and Calvert can pick up the slack. The offense paired with a very solid D corps (and the possible debut of Ryan Murray?) and returning Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky should be able to keep the Jackets on pace with the rest of the pack while Horton recovers from his surgery.
The biggest potential issue, in my mind, is the lack of NHL-ready depth at wing in the event of injury. Of the non-2013 draft class forwards in the system only Cody Bass, Spencer Machacek, Sean Collins, and Jonathan Audy-Marchessault have any NHL experience (a combined 80 games). Of those guys only Machacek is currently listed as a wing. Jarmo did mention around development camp time that they would consider moving Boone Jennerto wing and I think it's an experiment worth trying if the situation calls for it. The free agent signing of 2005 7th overall draft pick (CHI) Jack Skille will certainly help provide some depth. While his offensive numbers aren't overwhelming, he does have 178 games of NHL experience. Another interesting option is Ryan Craig, who was signed to a two-year, two-way deal in the offseason and is captain of the Springfield Falcons. Craig, also listed as a center, has 190 games of NHL experience and his 32-31-63 stat line is slightly better than Skille's 20-29-49. One thing Skill has going for him is he played 40 out of 48 games in the NHL last season while Craig hasn't played an NHL game since February of 2011.
To make up for our lack of depth at wing, the Jackets are positively loaded in the number of players that can play center and on the wing. Anisimov, Umberger, Johansen, Letestu, Dubinsky, MacKenzie, Comeau, Jenner and the list goes on and on. Should we need to call up someone from Springfield, Todd Richards should have plenty of options to move people around.
QUESTION 3: What did you glean from development camp?
MARK: Unfortunately I only got to spend about an hour watching the second day of development camp, so I didn't get much of an opportunity to focus in on more than a few players. One of the things that did stand out, though, was the quality of the goaltending. Between Forsberg, Korpisalo and Dansk the cupboards are pretty well-stocked for the next few years. While none of these guys are even close to being NHL ready, they all seem to be well on their way to earning a chance to prove themselves in the next 2-4 years.
Beyond the goaltending, one of the things that I noticed right away was just how well Ryan Murray skates. Every time he was out on the ice he was immediately identifiable by the way he carried himself during the play. Having been out of the spotlight for the last few months due to his injury and subsequent recovery, it was easy to forget that there was a reason this kid went second overall (and was considered by some to be worthy of the No. 1 pick) in 2012. Probably the biggest difference between Murray and most of the guys at development camp, outside of his skating, was how no matter what he was doing he always had his head up watching the play develop. I wouldn't be surprised to see Melart find his way onto the Jackets as the seventh defenseman to allow Murray to play top line minutes in Springfield to start the season. I also wouldn't be surprised to see Murray only play a couple dozen AHL games before making his way to Columbus in the event of an injury.
And I would be remiss if I didn't pay special attention to my favorite Swedish prospect... no, not that one. I'm talking about Daniel Zaar. I'm no scout, and probably not even a good judge of 'talent', but I'm telling you... this kid has it. His shot is always on the mark and if I didn't know any better I'd swear Zaar was Swedish for "bar down." For the second straight camp, whenever I would key in on Zaar he would always end up doing something special. I really hope he decides to play in North America in the next couple years so I can buy a Zaar jersey that's not plastered with ads (especially since Mixer declined my bribe attempt to snag his development camp jersey when no one was looking).
ALISON: The theme of development camp this year was finally what it should be: BUILDING ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH. The very best part of development camp this year was knowing that we can safely allow every single player to return to hockey systems OUTSIDE the NHL to continue to develop and strengthen their game. The core roster at the big club is strong enough to not grasp at young players and rush them into the NHL.
Goalie will continue to remain a long term question mark for the club, but the young tenders are filling out slowly and seemingly well.
MATT: I wasn't able to attend camp this year, sadly, but the biggest thing I took away as an observer is how the strength of the team already at the NHL level is giving our younger players a chance to build themselves up. Unlike more than a few years, we're not looking at players who were drafted high and that we assume will make the roster. We're assuming that players like Ryan Murray and Boone Jenner will be given a chance to prove themselves, but it's just as likely that they'll cut their teeth in Springfield before we see them making their way to Columbus.