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What Did We Learn: Preseason Openers

by Brian McCormack / Columbus Blue Jackets

Blue Jackets head coach Todd Richards has stated repeatedly throughout training camp that the coaching staff would need to wait for the exhibition games to truly evaluate his players and to learn what to expect from certain members of his squad. So, after two Jackets preseason games on Sunday, what are some things we’ve learned about this group?

1) Cam Atkinson making an impact

Atkinson taking the next step in his development will go a long way in helping the Blue Jackets to take the next step in theirs. Atkinson had his ups and downs last year, and still finished with an impressive stat line and 20-plus goals. He spoke in training camp about becoming a more consistent player.

“That’s the hardest part. What makes a really good pro and a successful long-term pro is doing it day in and day out. That’s the hardest part is figuring that out, and that’s what I’m going to try to do,” said Atkinson.

The best of Atkinson was on display yesterday with two goals against the Hurricanes, the first a breakaway product of his up-ice speed and the second an in-close finish around the net after sneaking in behind the defense.

Atkinson had 21 goals last season, but a shooting percentage of only 9.7 percent, a diluted percentage because he took the second-most shots on the team. But if he can boost that number and be a more consistent force, he could be a 30-goal man. He showed flashes of that ability yesterday.

2) Center ice options

The indefinite absence of Ryan Johansen means the Jackets will have to be creative in filling vacancies at center throughout their lineup. This could mean that Alexander Wennberg has an even better chance at cracking this roster, but he will have to earn it. The coaches have also been using Boone Jenner at center during camp, the position he played in juniors when he was drafted before being moved exclusively to the wing last season.

Another option to fill the space higher in the depth chart is Mark Letestu, and he reminded us on Sunday. Letestu had two assists playing with Atkinson and Nick Foligno, one of which was a terrific stretch pass through the neutral zone the sprung Atkinson for his first goal.

3) Boone Jenner

Speaking of Jenner at center, his first audition down the middle for the preseason was very strong. Jenner played mostly between Jared Boll and Kerby Rychel against the Blues, and was one of the more engaged forwards on the night. He scored a rebound goal in front of the net and had an assist on Wennberg’s power-play tally. Jenner was physical on the forecheck, forcing turnovers and creating opportunities beyond what was on the scoresheet. And he did it all in only two periods of play, 12:56 of ice-time, before Richards removed him from the game as a health precaution.

“When Boone came out of junior, being a center, we were thinking that when he comes, into our organization and eventually gets to the NHL that Boone’s going to be a center,” said Richards. “But he came in an impressed and it’s tough to take a really good player and send him to Springfield just so he can be a center. So we put him on the wing and he turned out to be a real valuable player.

“It gives us great flexibility that we can take a really good young player and try him in the middle.”

4) A true goaltending battle

The No. 1 goaltending job in Springfield is up for grabs and it's an intense competition between Anton Forsberg and Oscar Dansk. Both saw action in the NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, with Dansk starring in his two appearances vs. Detroit, and then against Dallas in the championship game. 

On Sunday in Raleigh, it was Forsberg's turn for a terrific performance and he turned in a gem against the Hurricanes. Carolina came in waves and fired pucks from everywhere, and Forsberg made 29 saves (several of which were high quality stops) to preserve a 4-3 victory. 

This is one thing to keep a close eye on as training camp progresses, and the battle is far from over. It's really only getting started. 

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