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Young centers are learning on the job for Blue Jackets

Players like Roslovic, Stenlund, Texier have taken on big jobs for CBJ

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

This isn't exactly how they drew it up. 

Entering the 2021 season, it seemed like the Blue Jackets had a clear pecking order at center. After two years as the team's No. 1 pivot, Pierre-Luc Dubois was penciled in to hold that spot again but expected to be pushed by offseason trade acquisition Max Domi. 

The bottom six would be anchored by two veteran centers who could still provide a little offense in free-agent signee Mikko Koivu and Riley Nash, both of whom were among the top defensive pivots in the league a year ago. 

Well, as they say, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. 

As most Blue Jackets fans know by now, Dubois was traded in late January, Domi has been moved to wing as he tries to settle into the team's system, and Koivu retired earlier this month. 

The result is that the center position the last few games has seen three youngsters -- 24-year-olds Jack Roslovic and Kevin Stenlund and 21-year-old Alexandre Texier -- with little experience at the position occupying spots in the center lineup along with the ever-steady Nash. 

Coming into the year, you might have been able to count the number of games those three had played at center in the NHL on your fingers and toes. Now, they're crucial parts of a team trying to stay in the playoff race while being extremely young at one of the most important spots on the ice. 

And as head coach John Tortorella says, it's a process to bring those youngsters along. 

"With so little practice time, you are kind of doing it a little bit on the morning of games, doing it with tape work," Tortorella said last week when asked about the process of helping the pivots along. "You play the games, and I think the tape has really helped in showing some contrast of doing things right and wrong in our end zone. 

"The biggest thing for us as coaches is to get out of their way offensively but just work on the parts in our end zone, the defensive part of it. Like (Friday), we were just working on breakouts and wall play, what is the responsibility of all three forwards there, that includes the centers. All those things come into play, but it's just such a crazy year with so little practice time. It's hard." 

And there's an old adage in hockey that, just like in baseball, you're only as good as you are strong up the middle. Or in another sports adage, getting strong play out of the team's centers and defensive corps is like the offensive and defensive lines of a football team -- the trenches of the game that go a long way in determining just how good a team is even if it's not always the sexiest part of the roster. 

Centers function as the low forward in the defensive zone, a third defenseman in the end zone responsible for both helping out in front of the net and aiding the breakout. There's a lot of responsibility there, as a center being in the wrong spot can have disastrous consequences, whether it be an open man with a chance down low or a failed breakout that keeps a team stuck in its own end zone for a long stretch. That doesn't even take into account faceoffs, where the Blue Jackets have also had issues in recent games. 

So the obvious question -- does Tortorella think the young CBJ centers are coming along? 

"I do," he said. "I think they all want to learn. It's a good group of guys as far as paying attention and getting along with it. We have to make decisions on how much do you want to give them, too, because you're playing another game then another game with so little practice time. You don't want to paralyze them with too much information. 

"A lot of this stuff would have been done in preseason; they would have gone through some experiences in our six or seven or eight preseason games. We're just trying to do the best we can in the circumstances that are in front of us." 

Time will tell how long the leashes are for the youngsters, as there are other options on the team who can play the position. Domi always could move back there as he did late in Saturday's game with Nashville, while veterans like Nick Foligno and Boone Jenner have played plenty of the position in their careers. 

But there's also something to be said for continuing to bring along the youngsters. Roslovic has been a success story thus far, coming over from Winnipeg in that deal that also netted Patrik Laine in exchange for Dubois and moving up to the top line, centering Laine and Cam Atkinson while notching a 4-6-10 line in his first 12 games. 

Roslovic said he didn't play much center with the Jets but did so with the team's AHL affiliate, so he is used to holding down the position and is gaining more and more experience thus far in Columbus. 

"I am pretty familiar with it at the pro level," he said. "It's just little details, faceoffs, just being a little bit louder a voice in the defensive zone and really just taking control of my line and the two wingers and really keeping us together and keeping us working well." 

Stenlund and Texier also have shown offensive instincts that play well at the NHL level, with the big Swede notching three goals and six points in eight games and Texier boasting a 4-4-8 line in 19 games after a hot start. 

It's a work in progress, but the Blue Jackets feel like things are getting there in the middle.  

"They are learning on the fly right now, which isn't the easiest thing to do, but they've shown real good promise," Foligno said. "You look at the way Jack has stepped in and helped us in that area, he's done a fantastic job. Stens every game has improved. So I think there's just more question marks in the sense of they're not normally guys you'd see in our lineup in that position, but they're all tried and tested in a lot of ways at center and have done a good job." 

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