Ten days ago, I sat in the lobby of the McConnell Sport & Spine Center while players went through physicals, got their head shots taken, and did the first official interviews of the 2015-16 season.
The following morning, we were back at the OhioHealth Ice Haus at 9 a.m. for the first practice of training camp and the unofficial kickoff to the new season.
When camp began, the Blue Jackets had 63 players on their roster, and three days later, they played their first exhibition game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
And, to say the least, there’s been a lot of action since then.
It’s Monday morning and when the sun came up today, the Blue Jackets’ camp roster stood at 31 players with five preseason games down (2-2-1) and three to go, the next coming tomorrow night at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. On Saturday afternoon in Pittsburgh, we got the first look at what might be a large portion of the team’s opening night roster – including the debut of the No. 1 line: Ryan Johansen centering Brandon Saad and captain Nick Foligno.
In addition, these are five things we’ve learned in the first 10 days of camp:
1. The Blue Jackets are a deep team (that’s mostly set)
Even after trading four forwards in the same deal, Columbus still had an abundance of forwards on NHL contracts entering training camp. Then they invited veteran forwards James Sheppard and Antti Pihlstrom to camp on tryout agreements, but there just wasn’t room for them and both were released last week. While that’s bad news for those players, it’s great news for the organization and its future; the group of forwards that have been on regular lines during camp are more than likely going to comprise the group that begins the regular season, and it’s going to be mighty difficult for anyone to break through (barring injuries). Todd Richards has said time and again that, in order to be successful in today’s NHL, you need to be a four-line team with 12 forwards that can step in and contribute quality minutes. On the back end, they have seven defensemen on one-way contracts and those are the players who will, in all likelihood, break camp on the roster.
2. Thumbs up to both Kerby Rychel and William Karlsson
There’s a reason these two guys are among the 31 players remaining in camp: they’ve earned it. Karlsson has been a regular fixture in the preseason lineups as has Rychel, and both players have featured in different roles as well. Karlsson played a fourth-line role on Saturday, centering Brett Gallant and Jared Boll, and played a sound and solid 200-foot game. He also played the middle on a kid line with Sonny Milano and Oliver Bjorkstrand early in camp. Rychel led all players in Thursday’s game with six shots on goal and has played in the top six with Brandon Dubinsky and Rene Bourque, and also on the fourth line with Sheppard and Boll. The focus last week was on the top prospects who were assigned to Lake Erie (AHL), but in the cases of Karlsson and Rychel, it’s all about finishing camp strong and giving management and the coaches a difficult decision. So far, they’ve made it an easy decision to keep them around.
3. Sergei Bobrovsky appears (quite) ready to go
We heard this summer about Bobrovsky’s newly-structured training regimen and how he was in the best physical shape of his life. After working out at home in Russia and now at camp in Columbus, we’re seeing some of the payoff from that offseason investment. Bobrovsky has indeed looked more powerful and explosive in the net, and off the ice, he’s noticeably bigger and stronger. He was very good in Tuesday’s game against St. Louis at Nationwide Arena, but his best test came against the Penguins.
2015 BLUE JACKETS TRAINING CAMP CENTRAL
The Blue Jackets dominated the first part of the game, out-shooting Pittsburgh 18-1 and leading 4-0, but the second half was a different story. The Penguins out-shot the Blue Jackets by a 34-15 margin in the final 40 minutes, and their lethal duo of Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel applied some serious pressure. Expect Bobrovsky to start at least one of the remaining three preseason games, but if the first two are any indication, he’s raring to get started.
4. After a slow start, the vets are ramping up
It’s hard to get a read on the early preseason games. The lineups are a jumbled mess, the youngsters are often over-eager and the veterans often aren’t playing with familiar line mates…which all adds up to sloppy games and a ton of mistakes. Those games are helpful to get the legs going again and get used to game-like situations (also to evaluate the young players), but from a productivity standpoint, it’s hard to measure – especially for the players who have done it many times before. Saturday’s game was a starting point for the Blue Jackets’ veteran group, with Richards dressing three of his four projected lines and two of his three defense pairs. The nature of the game helped, too, as it sported a much different feel than the first three exhibition games and even a little nastiness along the way. On the whole, the Blue Jackets were engaged, energetic and happy to get a “real” game under their belts as we hit the home stretch to Oct. 9.
5. The kids aren’t quite ready – and that’s OK
John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen have said countless times that, whenever possible, they want the club’s young players to spend an appropriate amount of time learning and growing at the AHL level. If there’s no need to rush, then why rush? That certainly applies to a few of the team’s top prospects – notably Milano and Bjorkstrand – who were assigned to Cleveland as part of the roster cuts last week. Sure, there was anticipation that one of them might make a push to stick around late into camp, but with the current setup of the team (particularly up front), it was a long shot at best. The Blue Jackets have a best-case scenario on their hands: both players are entering their first full seasons of professional hockey, and they’re going to be placed into prominent roles on a young and exciting Monsters team. How much responsibility they earn is entirely up to them, but they have all the tools to be top-line, go-to players for Jared Bednar and his staff. When it’s their time, it’s their time, and it’s quite alright if that time isn’t right now.