Blue Jackets season preview: Center question must be answered

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The 2021-22 NHL season starts Oct. 12. With training camps opening this week, NHL.com is taking a look at the three keys, the inside scoop on roster questions, and the projected lineup for each of the 32 teams. Today, the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Coach: Brad Larsen (first season)

Last season: 18-26-12; eighth in Discover Central Division, did not qualify for Stanley Cup Playoffs

 

[RELATED: Complete season preview coverage]

 

3 KEYS

1. Center stage

By trading Pierre-Luc Dubois to the Winnipeg Jets for forwards Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic on Jan. 23, they created a void at No. 1 center that has yet to be filled. Roslovic is the top candidate to handle that role this season. He scored an NHL career-high 34 points (12 goals, 22 assists) in 48 games last season but sometimes struggled with the defensive structure put in place by former coach John Tortorella. Another option could be Max Domi, who scored 24 points (nine goals, 15 assists) in 54 games last season but is expected to be out until at least December after having shoulder surgery June 3.

2. Net results

First-year coach Brad Larsen will be scrutinized for how he handles goalies Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo. They shared the workload last season (Merzlikins, 23 starts; Korpisalo, 31) and were projected to do so again, but could the five-year contract extension through the 2026-27 season that Merzlikins signed Sept. 21 signal who the Blue Jackets favor long term? Merzlikins (8-12-5, 2.77 goals-against average, .916 save percentage in 28 games last season) and Korpisalo (9-13-7, 3.30 GAA, .894 save percentage in 33 games) each signed a two-year contract through this season in April 2020; Korpisalo can become an unrestricted free agent after the season. Complicating the situation is the death of Matiss Kivlenieks in a fireworks accident July 4, leaving Columbus without another goalie with NHL experience in the organization. Kivlenieks was in net for the two games not started by Merzlikins or Korpisalo in 2020-21. Daniil Tarasov came to North America from Russia last season, and the 22-year-old went 4-2-0 with a 3.16 GAA and an .896 save percentage in six games with Cleveland of the American Hockey League.

3. Werenski as top defenseman

Zach Werenski signed a six-year contract extension July 29 that could keep him in Columbus through the 2027-28 season. The 24-year-old will be the top defenseman and play in all situations after defenseman Seth Jones was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks on July 23. Jones had led Columbus in average ice time per game for six straight seasons, including 25:14 last season, and now those responsibilities will fall to Werenski. After leading NHL defensemen with 20 goals in 63 games in 2019-20, Werenski scored seven goals in 35 games last season and missed the final 14 games because of surgery to repair a sports hernia.

Video: Columbus Blue Jackets 2021-22 Season Preview

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Position battles

It is too early in his NHL career to call it a make-or-break season for Alexandre Texier, but the 22-year-old center hasn’t developed as quickly as hoped. With the center position unsettled, he will be given an opportunity to earn a spot behind Roslovic on the second line until Domi returns. Texier scored 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) in 49 games last season. Boone Jenner, Kevin Stenlund and Sean Kuraly, who signed a four-year contract July 28 after five seasons with the Boston Bruins, also are in the mix to play center.

Most intriguing addition

Forward Jakub Voracek was acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers for forward Cam Atkinson on July 24 because the Blue Jackets needed a playmaker who was adept at distributing the puck to generate more offense. Voracek, who played for Columbus from 2008-11, had 34 assists in 53 games last season; Oliver Bjorkstrand led the Blue Jackets with 26 assists in 56 games. Look for Voracek to play on a line with Laine, a sniper who scored 21 points (10 goals, 11 assists) in 45 games with Columbus but scored at least 28 goals in the four previous seasons.

Video: PHI@NYR: Voracek pads Flyers’ lead with 2-on-1 goal

Biggest potential surprise

Forward Yegor Chinakhov was a surprise selection by the Blue Jackets with the No. 21 pick of the 2020 NHL Draft, and he will get a long look in training camp this season. The 20-year-old forward was named rookie of the year in the Kontinental Hockey League last season after scoring 17 points (10 goals, seven assists) in 32 games with Avangard Omsk.

Ready to break through

Werenski, Vladislav Gavrikov and Adam Boqvist look to be the top three defensemen, and Andrew Peeke could be ready to join them in a regular role on the top two pairs. The 23-year-old is solid defensively and has scored six points (one goal, five assists) in 33 NHL games the past two seasons. He has good up-ice vision but needs to add physicality to earn a spot.

Fantasy sleeper

Boqvist is poised for a big role after being acquired in the Jones trade. The defenseman scored 16 points (two goals, 14 assists), including eight on the power play, in 35 games for the Blackhawks last season. He could skate on the top pair with Werenski at even strength and potentially the top power-play unit, bringing exposure to valuable wings Laine (bounce-back candidate) and Voracek (two-time 80-point scorer). — Rob Reese

Projected lineup

Patrik Laine — Jack Roslovic — Jakub Voracek

Gustav Nyquist — Alexander Texier — Oliver Bjorkstrand

Boone Jenner — Kevin Stenlund — Liam Foudy

Eric Robinson — Sean Kuraly — Emil Bemstrom

Zach Werenski — Adam Boqvist

Vladislav Gavrikov — Andrew Peeke

Jake BeanDean Kukan

Elvis Merzlikins

Joonas Korpisalo

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