Two weeks ago, in this very space, we talked about the story lines and competition for roster spots that would transpire as training camp hit its stride.
We weren't kidding. And guess what? We're just a few days from a conclusion.
The Blue Jackets are mere hours away from playing their eighth and final exhibition game of 2013-14, which means there's one last dress rehearsal for the veterans (in a game situation) and one last opportunity for players on the bubble to state their cases. At forward, there are multiple spots open at least for the time being, with Derek MacKenzie, Jared Boll and Cody Bass currently out of the lineup.
Blue Jackets vs. Hurricanes
On defense, the top four is set but in no particular order: James Wisniewski, Jack Johnson, Nikita Nikitin and Fedor Tyutin. You have to figure Dalton Prout is part of the regular mix, which makes five, leaving two spots open for 4-5 players to settle.
And then there's the goaltending position, which we all know is quarterbacked by Sergei Bobrovsky, but there's still some uncertainty as to how the backup's job is going to look come opening night. Curtis McElhinney is still out of the lineup but has been skating on his own recently, and there's been no definite word as to whether he will be ready for next Friday's opener.
First, a couple of updates from today's skate: Cam Atkinson will not play tonight for precautionary reasons. He was on the original roster but the team is being careful and doesn't want to push it. Marian Gaborik (family reasons) is taking a brief absence from the club to return to his native Slovakia, and is expected to return early next week.
What's at stake tonight and who's got something to prove? Let's take a look:
- Tim Erixon, an NHLer for more than 30 games last season, is one of the players fighting for a spot on defense. He's had a very good camp and looks much stronger and more poised than last year, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he has a lead on one of the final two positions.
- Ilari Melart, who came over from Finland this summer, may be one of the guys headed to Springfield to work on his game. And there's nothing wrong with that, either; he's put his mean streak on display and proven himself to be a physical presence on the ice, but there's still work to be done on his footwork and overall adjustment to the NHL ice surface. With some hard work in the AHL, he'll be on the short list of call-ups.
- Ryan Murray, who's had some very impressive moments and also a few mistakes along the way, is also a leading candidate to start the year in Columbus. He's formed a nice partnership with Wisniewski and they could see time together tonight against Carolina. He's got the three C's: cool, calm, collected.
- Michael Chaput, written about today on BlueJackets.com, may be a surprise to some but Todd Richards has really liked his game in training camp. He's smart with the puck, stronger than he was a year ago, and took on a lot of responsibility with Springfield last year in his first pro season. He's still probably a bit of a long shot, but he's made a good impression on the coaching staff in camp.
- The goalie situation is the tough one to figure out, if for no other reason than both McKenna and Smith have seen equal time (or thereabouts) during the preseason. They split time on Wednesday night in Buffalo and McKenna in particular played very well against a strong Sabres lineup. This one could go either way if McElhinney isn't ready for opening night.
- Cody Goloubef and David Savard have each brought a better game to this year's camp and it's an encouraging thing for the Blue Jackets, who weren't afraid to use either player during last year's stretch run (and in important minutes, too). They're ahead of where they were a year ago and if they don't stick with the Blue Jackets out of camp, they'll be on the first flight if help is needed on the blue line.
We'll cover more of these situations over the weekend, but make sure you stay tuned to BlueJackets.com for complete coverage of tonight's game - both during and after the game.