Blue Jackets 2008 training camp preview

By Phil Laugher

There was much roster movement for the Blue Jackets over the summer, with the off-season departures of forwards Nikolai Zherdev, Gilbert Brule and Dan Fritsche, as well as defenseman Ron Hainsey, among others. Meanwhile, veterans R.J. Umberger, Kristian Huselius, and Raffi Torres were added to a forward unit that already includes the likes of Rick Nash and Fredrik Modin.

This player movement has left a couple of roster spots open for members of their burgeoning prospect corps. With the potential for at least two forward spots (and perhaps one spot on the blue line) to be up for competition, a few of Columbus’s top prospects appear ready to make the jump to the top level.

Columbus has yet to taste any playoff action in their relatively short history, but the influx of young talent as well as the addition of several veterans with playoff experience should raise the spirits of the Blue Jackets organization and their fans.

Goaltenders

The situation between the pipes for the Blue Jackets is not of much concern. Pascal Leclaire emerged as a quality No. 1 goaltender last season, and was backed up by veteran Frederik Norrena, who played adequately when called upon. It is likely that the Blue Jackets proceed with this tandem once again to start this season.

If Norrena runs into difficulty, Steve Mason will be ready, champing at the bit. Mason had a strong camp last season, and has seen his star grow brighter since, having backstopped Canada to a World Junior gold back in January. Mason, however, is still recovering from a late-season injury, and could still use some conditioning in the minors before making the jump to the NHL. If Mason has another fantastic camp, his presence will be hard to overlook for the Blue Jackets management.

Defensemen

While there has been much movement on the blue line since the 2008 trade deadline, with the departures of Foote, Hainsey and Tarnstrom, those holes have already been plugged through trade (the Blue Jackets acquired talented youngster Fedor Tyutin and competent veteran Christian Backman in the Zherdev deal) and via free agency (in signing veteran Mike Commodore). Veterans Rostislav Klesla and Jan Hejda return for another season with the Blue Jackets.

Youthful returnees Kris Russell and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, both of whom saw occasional duty with Columbus last season, have the inside track on earning the sixth and seventh defenseman spots on the opening-day roster. Russell’s quickness and offensive awareness will likely ensure his spot, while Tollefsen brings a physical dimension to the table.

Marc Methot, a stay-at-homer who has been on the cusp of earning a spot with the Blue Jackets and has previously appeared in 29 games for Columbus, will once again be in a heated battle for one of the final roster spots. Andrei Plekhanov is a bit of a wild card, and has had a meteoric rise through the organization’s depth chart in recent months, but he could still use some more seasoning in the AHL before garnering a promotion to Columbus.

Forwards

They had for the past few years been deemed the future offensive corps of the Blue Jackets (Rick Nash aside). However, the 2008 off-season saw the departure of three former highly-touted Blue Jackets forwards, as Zherdev, Fritsche, and Brule were all traded away, bringing in a cadre of capable veterans. Thankfully for the Blue Jackets, Scott Howson (and before him, Doug MacLean) filled the prospect cupboards admirably, lessening the blow such moves may have caused otherwise.

In all likelihood, at least two Columbus prospects will make the full-time jump to the Blue Jackets to start the season. Center Derick Brassard and right winger Jakub Voracek are widely anticipated to suit up for Columbus’s first game, and they will both likely play a key role in the Blue Jackets offense moving forward. Both Brassard and Voracek are dynamic offensive threats with incredible vision in the offensive end, and chances are they will both see time in the top three forward lines.

Brassard has already had a taste of action with Columbus. While he was a regular offensive threat in his half a season with Syracuse, he did look a bit over his head during a 17-game stint with the Blue Jackets in 2007-08. He is a year stronger and a year wiser, and has shown that he can be a key offensive cog when given the opportunity. The centerman should play in a scoring line role this season, assuming he can rekindle some of the offensive magic that he displayed last year with the Crunch, and previously in junior with Drummondville.

Voracek, like Brassard, had been an offensive juggernaut in junior. He has played like a man among boys during his two-year stint with Halifax in the QMJHL, scoring at nearly a two-points-per-game clip. He has uncanny vision and a very dangerous shot. In the off-season, he improved his upper-body strength – something that had been of concern for the young Czech forward. He played for the Blue Jackets entry into the Traverse City prospect tournament, before management removed him, having already seen enough strong play out of him. The former first-round pick has an excellent chance at cracking the Blue Jackets roster this season, and will likely find himself on the wing of the second or third line, and seeing special teams time.

Immensely talented Russian forward Nikita Filatov is also in the mix to earn a roster spot. However, he failed his physical as a result of a previously undisclosed leg injury. The injury will likely keep him sidelined through the start of training camp. Howson and company hoped they would be able to get a long look at Filatov in Traverse City, but the injury has kept him out of the tournament. Filatov had a coin flip’s chance of earning a roster spot out of camp to begin with, and if he is not at 100 percent, his chances, at least in being a part of Columbus’s opening-day roster, may have diminished.

Columbus will open their eighth training camp on Saturday, Sept. 20.