Don’t let Mother Nature fool you. Just because it has felt more like early August around most of the country than late September, it does not mean we’re going to have to wait another few months for some hockey. No, with training camps already under way it will only be a few short weeks before the first puck is dropped and the NHL kicks of the regular season.
Until that time fans will have to get their fix of hockey by watching a little preseason action and also keeping an eye on the battles for roster spots that go on prior to October 7. Like always there are plenty of jobs to be won throughout the league and no where is the more evident than in the Columbus Blue Jacket camp. Right?
At least that is what we keep hearing from the Jacket brass. As far back as even rookie camp the Columbus brain trust, right from GM Doug MacLean on down, has contended that the battle for spots in this training camp is the most competitive ever.
My problem is I just don’t see it. I do realize that the Jackets are deeper than they ever have been in their brief three-year existence. That includes the entire organization, not just the 22 or 23 man Columbus roster. This is just natural for any team as they mature in the league. Every year they continue to grow with the Entry Draft and also the opportunity to sign free agents.
Top to bottom, there is no doubt that Columbus has improved their talent level throughout and increased talent level does lead to a greater competition for jobs. The problem lies in the fact that despite what you have been reading about the Blue Jacket situation, they really do not have an abundance of job openings.
You can have all the depth you want, but if you only really have only one spot available, like Columbus does, and six or seven players vying for that spot, it really takes some bite out of the competitive aspect. Now don’t get me wrong, this does not constitute a problem for Columbus and if it was, it is a good problem to have because throughout the season all that depth will come in handy. It just doesn’t make for much theatre has we count down the days until opening night.
Plenty of reports have stated that Columbus probably will keep 22 players. That makes for 13 forwards, seven defenseman, and two goalies.
For starters, let’s look at the forward situation. Thirteen players out of the approximately 27 forwards currently in the Jacket training camp will make the club. Right off the bat, I believe you can name at least ten that are automatics. Nine are no-brainers with Andrew Cassels, Espen Knutsen, Mike Sillinger, Tyler Wright, Ray Whitney, Jody Shelley, David Vyborny, Grant Marshall and Geoff Sanderson. The next two spots I also feel are as close to automatics has you can get at this point. Veteran Kevin Dineen, who recently signed on for his nineteenth season and also 2002 fifth round draft choice Lasse Pirjeta have a better than average chance on being with the Jackets come October 10th.
Both Dineen and Pirjeta are playing with one-way contracts in the neighborhood of a half million dollars or better which definitely helps their situation come cut down time. Some player will have to be performing at a much higher level than either of them for the Jackets to consider keeping that player instead of Dineen or Pirjeta.
One possibility could have Pirjeta struggling to adjust to the North American style of hockey after spending a majority of his career in the Finnish Elite League and the Jackets decide to buy his contract out. The problem there is I just don’t think that Columbus would give up that quickly on the highly regarded Finn.
So that places us at eleven spots filled and we haven’t even talked about the first pick overall in the 2002 Entry Draft, Rick Nash. It’s obvious after only a few short weeks; Nash is the real deal. The only thing that keeps him from donning a Columbus Jersey to start the season is his contract. That being said, I see Doug MacLean working overtime to get this thing done and for the Rick Nash era to begin this season in Columbus.
Twelve spots accounted for and if the reports ring true, only one spot left with a host of players vying for that final spot. The most talked about are Sean Pronger, Chris Nielsen, Don MacLean, Andrej Nedorost, Mathieu Darche, Kiel McLeod, and Tim Jackman.
Let’s begin by paring that list down by two. Both Chris Nielsen and Don MacLean have been nursing injuries with MacLean’s being serious enough that he may miss the entire 2002-03 season. Nielsen should be ready by the start of the season, but he has missed valuable time and probably will start the season in Syracuse because of it.
That leaves a pool of five players with Pronger and Nedorost leading the pack and that, I believe is where the competition lies. McLeod, although he definitely has potential, looks to be a year away. Same as Jackman, who I believe will be better served by spending a season in the AHL.
The last player we haven’t mentioned is Mathieu Darche. He is sort of a wild card who I feel would have a better chance if he were a natural right wing. Not much as been spoken of Darche in the preseason, but that doesn’t mean he may not surprise some and end up that 13th forward.
However that seems more of a long shot because as stated earlier, I still like Pronger or Nedorost with Nedorost holding a slight advantage after three preseason games.
Taking a look at the defensive corps and you’ll find even a less competitive situation than the forwards. Reports having Columbus keeping seven defensemen and the top five are all but written in stone with Klesa, Lachance, Richardson, Spacek, and Grand-Pierre.
The last two spots are also has close to being definite as you can get with Radim Bicanek and Jamie Allison likely to be the number six and seven blue liners when the season starts. Each is under one-way contracts and just like the previously mentioned forward situation, they would have to be severely outplayed to be on the outside looking in come October 7.
All in all, the goaltending situation may actually be the most competitive one in camp in a strange sort of way. Marc Denis is the man; having been handed the reins with Ron Tugnutt’s departure in the off season. The competition lies at the back-up position between what appears to be between J.F Labbe and Pascal Leclaire.
That is where the twist lies. I believe Labbe is in a battle, but not with Leclaire, at least not any more.
Leclaire would have had to really wow the Columbus brass to stay on as the number two. Doug MacLean and company know it is a less than ideal situation for Leclaire to sit on the bench some 50 plus games in the NHL. He is young and needs playing time and by not standing on his head so far in camp, he has made the decision for him to develop in the American League an easy one.
So that leaves Labbe all by himself with no competition right? Wrong. He is not only battling himself every time he steps in the Jacket crease, but every other veteran goalie in the NHL who at this time is unemployed. Labbe has to prove every day that he can handle the back-up position.
That is what I feel Columbus ultimately wants. They want Leclaire to spend a year in the minors, gain that valuable experience and grow while Labbe gets his long awaited opportunity to perform in the show.
The only problem is nothing is certain. It remains to be seen if J.F. is ready for prime time and if he isn’t, there are plenty of capable netminders out there who would love the opportunity to cozy up behind Denis.
So there you have it, the real skinny on the supposed intense competition at the Columbus training camp. Another example that you can’t always believe what you read just because it is in print.