With five days until the Blue Jackets open the season at Nationwide Arena on Oct. 4 vs. Toronto, BlueJackets.com is counting down to the days until start of the campaign. Today we look at five questions that must be answered for Columbus this season.
Every NHL team faces question marks going into their season, but the ones facing the Blue Jackets seem to be among the biggest in the NHL.
Columbus made a third straight playoff appearance a season ago and moved on to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but offseason losses have led many around the NHL to be skeptical a fourth consecutive postseason berth is in the offing.
Of course, every question has an answer, and if most of the following questions are answered in the affirmative, it should be another fun season at Front and Nationwide.
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1. How will the team's goaltending situation shake out?
This is the biggest question facing any NHL team, as bad goaltending is the surest way to sink any season at hockey's highest level. But the question takes on extra importance in Columbus, where the team will go into the season with the lowest number of combined career games of any team in the NHL.
Joonas Korpisalo has played in 90 games over the past four years as the team's backup, while Elvis Merzlikins is yet to take the ice for a real NHL game. Yet the Blue Jackets have cultivated a strong goaltending pipeline for the day they'd need it, and that time is now.
A 2012 draft pick, Korpisalo has made 81 career starts and has 41 wins to his credit. He's looked his best when he's been in a rhythm as an NHL starter, something that happened during the 2015-16 season and for a January stretch a season ago. That could be huge, as Korpisalo has come to camp looking like and exuding the confidence of a No. 1 goaltender, allowing just three goals in his three preseason starts and also appearing sharp in scrimmages.
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Merzlikins, meanwhile, was drafted in 2014 but has finally made the leap to North American hockey after standing out in the Swiss NLA the past six seasons. His athleticism and skill are off the charts, but goaltending is about so much more than that, and preseason has been an adjustment as Merzlikins has gotten used to the smaller rink and the higher skill level of this side of the pond. If he continues making that adjustment, the sky is the limit.
There seems little question the talent is there, but the reality is the CBJ goaltending duo will be graded not on talent or ceiling but on how they perform when the games are for real.
2. Where does Alexander Wennberg go from here?
Pretty much everyone with the organization agrees that there's not much more to be said about this question, that it needs to be answered on the ice.
And if you look at the Blue Jackets lineup, it's a question that must be answered. Two seasons ago, Wennberg looked like one of the great playmaking pivots in the NHL when he finished with 59 points, including 23 on the power play.
Last year, Wennberg had 25 points total, including six on the power play. Part of that has to do with the types of players he ended up on a line with last year, but that was also a reaction from the coaching staff to the type of production it was getting.
Certainly, Wennberg has excellent vision and can be a top playmaking center. He also has looked more assertive this preseason, making more plays along the wall and showing more confidence carrying the puck. He'll likely be paired with two wingers who can put the puck in the net in Oliver Bjorkstrand and fellow Swede Gustav Nyquist. The ingredients are there, but time must tell what the final dish will look like.
3. Can the power play be a strength of the team?
It's another question that many are tired of answering, but again, the numbers don't lie.
Last year, Columbus set a franchise record for goals scored but did so while finishing 28th in the NHL in power-play percentage at 15.2. Even a league-average power play would have given the team nine more goals, and in a league where most games come down to the wire, you can imagine how much nine more goals would have helped in the final standings.
The Blue Jackets did perform with the man advantage in the playoff series vs. Tampa Bay, thanks in part to strong fundamentals -- faceoff wins, strong possession, an effective net-front presence and elite shots from the team's snipers. There's no reason those same things can't happen this year, and it will be key for a team that is looking at playing a smarter, less offensive risky style at even-strength.
4. How will the forward lines look?
Head coach John Tortorella sometimes reminds the media that we put too much emphasis on lines -- after all, NHL players should be able to play with other NHL players.
But chemistry can be something that develops when a line is going strong, so it will be interesting to at least see how things come together not just at the start of the season but as the year goes on.
The goal seems to be to keep Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson together, as Dubois' strength on the puck can win battles along the wall and draw defenders, allowing Atkinson to get into advantageous scoring positions. Will Alexandre Texier, the 20-year-old Frenchman with all the skills but precious little North American experience, be the answer, or will the team look to someone like Nyquist or Nick Foligno to put on the top line?
If so, that causes a cascading impact down the line, as Foligno appears quite comfortable with fellow heavy players Boone Jenner and Josh Anderson, while the hope appears that Nyquist develops a chemistry with countryman Wennberg.
Then there's a question of who fits on the fourth line. Riley Nash will likely center the line, but does someone like Sonny Milano fit there or would the Blue Jackets be better off trying to find a top-six role for him? Can Emil Bemstrom, who is more than just a sniper but is also young at just 20 years old, fit there or should he slot in elsewhere if he makes the team?
Again, it might be overrated, but it's at the least interesting to wonder about.
5. Will Seth Jones pair with Ryan Murray or Zach Werenski?
OK, this one won't determine whether the season is a success or failure, but it is also fun to talk about. Two seasons ago, Tortorella talked about how much he loved Jones and Werenski together as the duo set the type of pace the team wanted to play with. The young standouts also mixed well together last season during the postseason run.
Yet Jones played with Murray for much of last season and it also worked quite well, and the Blue Jackets' Norris Trophy candidate has been paired with the smooth-skating Murray as much this preseason as he has been with Werenski.
Tortorella also has spoken this camp of not leaving the young goalies out to dry, so the pace and offensive abilities that Jones and Werenski have when paired together might not be as crucial to the team's strategy.
Again, this won't be a do-or-die question for the team this year. But it will be something to watch.