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5 Questions facing the Blue Jackets as camp begins

Columbus has plenty of reason to be optimistic as team gets ready to start practices

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

The NHL announced more than a month ago that the season would resume this summer, with the Blue Jackets and Toronto Maple Leafs facing off in a battle to advance to the 16-team main field for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

Finally, now, actual hockey is within sight. The league and its players associationagreed in principle earlier this week on the details for the return to play plan, and if all gets ratified by the end of the week, training camps are expected to begin Monday with games starting Aug. 1. 

With that in mind, is taking a look at the burning questions that will face Columbus on the ice that will determine whether the best-of-five series vs. Toronto will be a success or setback.

1. Who will be the starting goaltender for Game 1? 

Of all the things the Blue Jackets have to figure out ahead of the first faceoff against the Maple Leafs, this is probably the biggest question that must have an answer. 

The good news is Columbus has two excellent answers in Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. Both showed they can carry a team for extended periods of time this season, with Korpisalo's strong December starting the team's journey up the standings (and earning him an All-Star bid) before Merzlikins' incredible January run made the Latvian rookie a sensation across the NHL world. 

So there's little doubt both are good enough to deserve the nod, but the reality is only one of them will be tapped to start things off in net against the Maple Leafs. And the second reality is there is precious little time to rebound in a best-of-five series if whomever gets the cage struggles off the bat. A goalie can win you a series or two in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but they can also lose them, so simply put, this is a question the Blue Jackets' brain trust has to answer correctly. 

2. What becomes of Liam Foudy? 

Because of injury, the Blue Jackets cycled through plenty of forwards this year, so there's depth on hand, but a player who skated in just two games might be the most intriguing person in Columbus when camp starts Monday. 

The rookie and 2018 first-round pick, just 20 years old, will get his shot to impress in camp, and if it goes anything like his two-game cameo in February, he will do just that. Foudy had an excellent season in juniors and didn't look out of place in games vs. Tampa Bay and Buffalo when playing for the Blue Jackets this year, and his speed and anticipation could earn him the chance to become a regular in the lineup this summer. 

For a Blue Jackets team that could use a little extra scoring -- the team finished 28th among teams in goals per game in the regular season -- he's certainly an intriguing option. But there will also be no shortage of competition for forward spots as well. 

3. How does the lineup shake out? 

Head coach John Tortorella has said throughout the coronavirus pause that he has a prospective lineup in place for the return, but it will be interesting to see who makes the cut when things kick off vs. Toronto. 

As we mentioned above, it's not like the bench boss and his staff don't have options. Because of the injuries, Columbus had to dig deep into its organizational depth this year, with 27 players playing at least 20 of the 70 games before the pause.  

That's a ridiculously high number -- just 24 players played 20 games for the CBJ last year in an 82-game season, and that number only got that high because of the trade deadline acquisitions of Ryan Dzingel and Matt Duchene -- and doesn't even include such names as Foudy, deadline addition Devin Shore, and depth players Stefan Matteau, Ryan MacInnis and Gabriel Carlsson, who all spent a fair amount of time in Columbus this year. 

In other words, there are options, but with something approaching a full roster on hand -- only Josh Anderson and Brandon Dubinsky aren't expected to be ready at the start of camp because of injuries -- there will be some tough calls for Tortorella and his staff. 

4. How quickly will the team mesh? 

This won't necessarily be answered in camp, but it is an interesting question to ponder. Many have pointed to the Blue Jackets as a potential sleeper team in the upcoming return to play bracket because Columbus will finally be healthy. 

But it is worth pointing out that the Blue Jackets were largely healthy for the first two months of the season and got off to a slow start, with a record of just 11-14-4 through 29 games. In the 29th game, rookie forward Emil Bemstrom went down with an injury and the maladies piled up from there, but a funny thing happened as the Blue Jackets lost players and had to go further and further down the depth chart to fill the lineup. 

That's when Columbus started to play its best hockey, with players coming up from Cleveland, putting their heads down, buying into the team concept and battling their behinds off to make the Blue Jackets one of the toughest teams to play against in the NHL. The wins piled up from there over the next two months, as Columbus won 19 of its next 26 games and had points in 24 of them. 

Obviously, it's good to be healthy, but the Blue Jackets will need to get things going much more quickly this time around with something close to a full roster on hand. 

5. Can they recapture the style of play necessary to win? 

The series with Toronto will be perhaps the most intriguing in the NHL's restart, and not just because it matches up the league's biggest historical market with one of its newest franchises. The Maple Leafs win games by scoring -- Toronto is third in the NHL in goals per game this year -- while the Blue Jackets do it by defense, placing third in goals against. 

In other words, it's a contrast of styles, and whichever team finds its game first will be the one to emerge victorious. For the Blue Jackets, that means tight checking at 5-on-5 and not allowing seam passes and odd-man rushes that Toronto's talented forwards like Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner can take advantage of. It also means staying out of the box and not letting the Leafs' sixth-ranked power play have too many chances to take over. 

It took the Blue Jackets a while to get there this year, but for the last three months before the coronavirus pause, Columbus was playing defensive hockey as well as or better than any team in the league. The Blue Jackets will have to get right back to that game quickly, and it wouldn't be a huge surprise if training camp is designed to remind the team of the style it needs to play to be successful. 

Defense tends to win in the tight-checking Stanley Cup Playoffs, but it can also be hard to build defensive chemistry immediately. It'll be fascinating to see how this battle works out.

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