Pinch yourself: hockey season is less than 48 hours away.
The Blue Jackets begin their 15th training camp on Friday morning at the OhioHealth Ice Haus, officially opening the book on the 2015-16 season. And, because we'll get this question: all sessions in the practice rink are free and open to the public.
Earlier this week, I sat down with Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards -- now entering his fourth season behind the bench -- to cover a variety of topics as we get to set to start a new chapter.
Among those discussed: does he have a No. 1 line penciled in? Will Boone Jenner stay on the wing? Read on for the full conversation:
RM: Certainly you’ve heard the talk that your defense isn’t good enough and perhaps needs an upgrade. What do you make of that?
TR: I think you can use it as motivation, and hopefully the players are. For me, it’s the same group that we finished the season with and they played very well for us. There were a lot of good things. I’m 100 percent confident in the guys that we have on the back end. They proved it last season, and a lot of these guys we’ve had for a few years here and we know what they can do and what they bring to our team. And when you’re playing defense, it’s not just the group of defensemen; our forwards have to help out and the goalies have to help, too, and that makes everyone's jobs a little easier.
RM: Hypothetically, let's say it’s Oct. 9…do you have someone in mind to start on the right side of Brandon Saad and Ryan Johansen?
TR: I don’t think anything’s been decided yet, and that's even if Saad is playing with Johansen. That's a possibility, obviously. I have ideas and we have ideas in the coaches’ room, but right now, that’s all it is. I’ve talked with Joey a little bit and got his thoughts on the situation as a player, and moving forward, (the coaches) will make the decisions. But right now, I’m not ready to say ‘this guy is playing with that guy’ and so on. We’ll answer those questions in camp and closer to the season.
RM: The good thing is that you have so many options, right?
TR: It’s a great problem to have. This is the first time in a long time – at least since I’ve been here – that, going into camp, we have lots of players that can be used in so many different ways. We have versatile players that can play either wing, center, and up and down the lineup. Left shots on the right side, right shots on the left side, you name it. The one thing is, as a group, everyone’s going to be thrust into roles and those are the roles we have to be ready for. Whatever’s asked of you, be ready for it.
RM: When did you start thinking of line combinations and jotting down ideas?
TR: Your mind is always going, always thinking of ideas. A coach’s mind never stops. It’s not necessarily that I was writing things down, but I think as the thoughts go through your head, you start thinking about matchups and what certain players could do in certain situations. Then you’re also starting to look at things like power play combinations and rotations, and sometimes that will dictate how the lines look. You’d like to have some sort of continuity from 5-on-5 to the power play, and I think you can build some chemistry at even strength that carries over to the power play.
RM: Are you okay with Boone Jenner (a natural center) spending another season on the wing?
TR: Right now we have that luxury. We’ve used him on the wing and he’s done a real nice job there. We’ve used him at center a few times and we’ve also used Nick Foligno at center, as well. But that goes back to the versatility that I was talking about – we have guys that can play the middle, play the wing and shift back and forth. We used Alex Wennberg on the wing a couple times last season, too. Here's the other thing: we have some young prospects that are really close that play wing, and we have some prospects who are centers; so even if there’s an injury, it’s not like we have to move a wing to center or a center to the wing. We have those players in our organization who, based on how we’re sitting right now, might be starting in Cleveland, but they’ll be ready for their opportunity.
RM: What’s your biggest challenge as this season begins?
TR: For me, it’s getting everybody on the same page right away. Making sure everybody is bought in to what we want to do. If you do that, you’ll have some success. But based on the players we have here and the talent that we have, I think we’ll have more than just ‘some’ success.