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W2W4: #CBJ Training Camp 2015

by Katie Foglia / Columbus Blue Jackets

We've spent all summer counting the days until NHL hockey returns.

And now, the wait is finally over.

The Blue Jackets will host their annual Media Day inside Nationwide Arena on Wednesday. John Davidson, Jarmo Kekalainen, Bill Zito, and coach Todd Richards will be available to speak with the media about the upcoming season.

On Thursday morning, all players participating in Blue Jackets Training Camp (pres. by OhioHealth) will report to McConnell Heart Health Center for physical and medical testing, and then, the fun really begins.

Training camp will officially open on Friday, Sept. 18, with the first morning session slated to begin at 9 a.m. at the OhioHealth Ice Haus. The practice is free and open to the public.

The on-ice practices will continue through the weekend in preparation for the first preseason game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday, Sept. 21. The pucks drops at Nationwide Arena at 7 p.m.

Excited yet? Thought so.

With that in mind, here are the four key story lines we’ll be playing attention to when the Blue Jackets return to the ice on Friday morning:

1) What will the No. 1 line look like?

With names like Ryan Johansen, Brandon Saad, Cam Atkinson and others on the Blue Jackets roster, it’s exciting to think about possible line mates for the upcoming season.

Although, as Richards has stated, there are ideas of where all of the players will fit, but no decisions will be made until camp gets underway. In terms of line combinations, this camp could almost begin as a clean slate.

The projected top four centers are Johansen, Dubinsky, Alexander Wennberg and Gregory Campbell. It will be interesting to see what combinations emerge during camp and the start of the preseason, and there will certainly be several options explored.

Who will play on the left and right side of the aforementioned centers is still up in the air. As always, anything could happen.

Remember: last season, with Johansen missing all of camp, the top lines weren’t finalized until just before the regular season opener.

2) Possible breakthrough players?

Each and every player attending training camp has one objective in mind: earn a spot on the roster.

As mentioned above, there’s a chance for a few surprises this year, and here are a few of the guys who you should watch for: forwards Oliver Bjorkstrand, Sonny Milano, Kerby Rychel and defenseman Michael Paliotta.

Bjorkstrand, drafted 89th overall in 2013, is coming to camp on quite a roll after the Traverse City rookie tournament. The 20-year-old spent the 2014-15 season playing for the Portland Winterhawks (WHL), scoring 63 goals and 118 points in a record-setting campaign. In Traverse City, he was the team's leading scorer and had an impact every night.

Another player to keep an eye on is the 19-year-old Milano, who has well-known puck handling skills but is coming into his own as a player. Milano split the 2014-15 season with the Plymouth Whalers (OHL), the United States World Junior team and the Springfield Falcons (AHL).

Milano, the Blue Jackets' first round pick in 2014, scored 22 goals and added 46 assists for 68 points in 50 games with the Whalers.

Rychel is another name that continues to turn heads. The 20-year-old was singled out by many as the Blue Jackets' best player in Tuesday's championship game in Traverse City, and he's entering a big year in his career. He put up 33 points in 51 games for the Falcons a year ago, and is on the bubble and ready to make an impact in camp with the Blue Jackets.

3) Defensive depth

There’s been a lot of discussion surrounding the depth of the Blue Jackets defense. But, if you’ve followed along closely, you’ll notice that GM Jarmo Kekalainen isn’t worried about it. He believes in the blueliners within the organization, and here’s why you should too:

A healthy Ryan Murray is the key. After playing only 12 games last season, getting Murray back to contributing big minutes will be tremendously important. Add on a newly-extended David Savard who keeps getting better each year, and you’ve got a great start.

Despite not having any ‘big name’ players, that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of ability.

Young talent, eager to pull their weight includes Kevin Connauton, Dalton Prout and Cody Goloubef, and don’t forget about veterans Jack Johnson and Fedor Tyutin, rounding out the blueline with seasoned experience.

Then there are players coming through the pipeline, those who could possibly see NHL time this year and likely beyond. Paliotta, Dillon Heatherington, Austin Madaisky and Justin Falk all have the potential to make a push for the Blue Jackets, who have a crowded blueline entering training camp.

Zach Werenski, the team's 2015 first round pick, will return to Michigan for his sophomore campaign this fall (thus won't be attending camp), but his is another name to watch in the years ahead.

4) What about the PTO guys?

James Sheppard and Antti Pihlstrom, who are attending camp on professional tryout (PTO) agreements, are interesting pieces to the camp puzzle. Can they make a push for the opening night roster? They essentially have a two-week audition to make it happen.

Sheppard, 27, was Minnesota's first round pick in 2007 and traded to San Jose in 2011. A deadline acquisition by the New York Rangers this past season, Sheppard saw fourth-line duty down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Pihlstrom, 30, has spent the past four seasons with Ufa (KHL). The Vantaa, Finland native dressed for one NHL game with Nashville after being signed as a free agent in 2007. He also represented Finland at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

While neither Sheppard nor Pihlstrom have a guarantee of a full-time spot, both players' mere presence will up the competitive level of camp. One thing’s for certain: more experienced NHL players at camp means more competition for the Blue Jackets players and prospects.

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