BLUE JACKETS at SABRES
Wednesday, 7 p.m., KeyBank Center, Buffalo (97.1 The Fan)
Less than a week from now, the Blue Jackets’ roster for the opening game vs. Toronto on Oct. 4 will have to be set.
In other words, we’re down to the nitty gritty for Columbus, and the three preseason games in a five-day span — tonight’s game at Buffalo followed by home games Friday (New Jersey) and Sunday (St. Louis) — will be the final pieces of the puzzle when it comes to creating the 23-man opening night roster.
“These are three pretty important games for a number of people,” head coach John Tortorella said. “On our back end as far as figuring out who we are, basically I would have to say our sixth defenseman, and what is our fourth line and maybe even part of our third line and who fits in the first two lines.
“There’s still a lot of questions that need to be answered.”
Columbus finished Tuesday with 28 players on its camp roster, a number that was actually closer to 26 considering injured forward Liam Foudy and camp invite goaltender Hayden Stewart were technically still on the roster.
That would suggest the team was down to three more cuts to make from the 15 healthy forwards and nine defensemen on the roster. If the team were to keep eight defensemen, that would mean just one blueliner would go, while the team would likely then have to cut two out of the quartet of former first-round pick Sonny Milano, high-scoring rookie Emil Bemstrom, returning veteran Marko Dano and Swedish import Jakob Lilja. If the team were to keep seven on the blue line, that would mean another cut there and just one forward on the way out.
But Tortorella cautioned Tuesday in his remarks to the media that some of the players who had been sent to AHL Cleveland would still have their chance over the coming week to impress, with the head coach saying, “we’re certainly not done making our decisions.” And, of course, a surprise could always be in the offing.
The competition might be most intriguing on the back end, simply because of the NHL experience in play. Five defensemen – Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Ryan Murray, David Savard and Markus Nutivaara – have been regulars with the Blue Jackets for multiple seasons, while both Scott Harrington and Dean Kukan worked their way into the playoff lineup a year ago.
Then there’s Vladislav Gavrikov, the Russian defenseman who joined the team late last season after standing out in the KHL and for his home country’s Olympic team, as well as 2016 second-round pick Andrew Peeke. Those nine are still in camp, while Adam Clendening – who looked good in limited playoff action a year ago – was sent to Cleveland on Monday and did clear waivers.
That’s a lot of talent, which means a lot of competition – a good thing – but also the reality that only six will be able to enter a given lineup at a time.
“You want to have a good team; to have a good team, you need depth,” said Harrington, who played a career-high 73 games a season ago. “The back end is a very important part of every team nowadays with guys being able to move the puck and play solid defensively. I think our management has done a good job of acquiring a lot of good defensemen over the last couple of years and keeping the core together.
“We’re all very familiar with each other and we push each other and everyone knows the situation here where we have a lot of guys who can play. It’s good.”
But as always, Tortorella said the final decision on playing time won’t be made by him as much as it will be by the players on the ice.
“It depends how they play,” Tortorella said. “If six (defensemen) are better than the other two, then six are going to play. If it’s a dogfight, and one guy struggles and the other guy is ready to go … it all depends on how the players play.”
The Blue Jackets will not release a lineup until Wednesday; after the announcement, this story will be updated.
Tortorella said Tuesday that the Blue Jackets will recall “six or seven” players from AHL Cleveland before the game to help fill out the roster.