It's one of the NHL’s most coveted roles.
After signing Johnny Gaudreau and re-signing Patrik Laine, the Blue Jackets’ top line has two dynamic wingers in need of a center. Coach Brad Larsen plans to give captain Boone Jenner first crack; but nothing is guaranteed, and internal competition could be fierce all season.
“That spot is earned, not given,” said Cole Sillinger, a second-year center who spent time last season with all four of the Blue Jackets’ forward groups. “That’s one good thing about our team. You see ‘Lars’ talk about it all the time, the internal competition. It never stops. Those two players, with ‘Patty’ and Gaudreau, whoever gets to play with them has to always be on their ‘A’ game and be consistent and compliment their games.”
The argument for Boone Jenner
Prior to the back injury that cut short his season, Jenner was putting up career-high numbers as the Jackets’ top center in his first year as the team’s captain. He had 23 goals, 21 assists and 44 points in 59 games and was on track to score 30-plus goals for the second time in his career. And Jenner succeeded with a rotation of wingers on his flanks.
The only issue was a giant spike in ice time. Skating around two minutes more per game (20:28) than his previous career high of 18:07 in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 campaign may have contributed to the back issue that’s now being closely monitored.
Jenner’s foot speed and playmaking skills aren’t on par with elite No. 1 centers, but his skill at the faceoff dots, relentless drive and sturdy 6 foot 2, 207-pound frame make him a top candidate to skate with the dynamic duo of Gaudreau and Laine.
“I haven’t decided yet, but (Jenner) would be my choice right out of the gate, a veteran guy,” Larsen said. “I think he could complement them. Who slots in there at what time? We’ll see, but with Boone it’s easy. He’s good on faceoffs. You know he’s going to hound pucks and get to the net.”
The argument for Cole Sillinger
Sillinger, 19, is in the mix for the top center role despite an early upper-body injury that’s kept him out of practices, scrimmages and the split-squad preseason games Sunday against Pittsburgh.
Drafted 12th overall in 2021, the 6-2, 203-pound center earned an NHL role last season as the league’s youngest player, finishing his rookie season with 16-15-31 in 79 games. He made steady improvement on the defensive side, despite a minus-22 plus/minus rating, to become more of a two-way forward than he was in the junior ranks. And Gaudreau choosing Columbus after putting up 40 goals and 115 points in his final season for the Calgary Flames stoked a fire under Sillinger that was already burning bright.
“When we signed him in the summer, and signed (defenseman Erik Gudbranson) and extended ‘Patty’ … it makes it easier to train,” said Sillinger. “You’re motivated a little more to want to be one of those players. It’s career changing if you get to play with those guys, but nobody really thinks about that. It’s what you can do that day to help your team.”
The argument for Jack Roslovic
Roslovic, 25, is another option for Larsen, which wasn’t something that could be said in the first half of last season, before he finished strong and signed a two-year contract extension in the spring. Roslovic’s turnaround, ironically, began in Calgary after an egregious turnover against Gaudreau’s line that led directly to a game-changing goal.
Afterward, he committed to playing more responsibly, with and without the puck, and centered the Jackets’ top line during Jenner’s injury. Roslovic had a career-best 22-23-45 in 81 games, but a 42.4% career faceoff percentage could hinder his ability to win the top center spot again.
It’s not preventing him from trying.
“It’s like anything, the spot is open,” Roslovic said. “It’s just one of those things where all four (centers) push to make each other better. A lot of people look at our team and say that we don’t have an outright No. 1 (guys), but I think if you look at all four of us, as a group, we’re a really strong group. We can all play up and down, wherever we need to be. It’s gonna be a good push.”
The argument for Kent Johnson, Sean Kuraly or Justin Danforth to center Blue Jackets’ top line
Realistically, the Blue Jackets have those three main options to center Gaudreau and Laine: Jenner, Sillinger and Roslovic. But other alternatives include Sean Kuraly, Justin Danforth and rookie Kent Johnson – selected fifth overall in 2021.
Kuraly proved last year that he can contribute more offense than he did with the Boston Bruins, but he’s ideally slotted as a relentless checking center.
Danforth has played the role of playmaking center throughout his collegiate and professional career, but found his NHL niche last season as a versatile, speedy bottom-six winger. Johnson is getting a look at center in camp, even playing with Laine and Gaudreau on Sunday against Pittsburgh, but making plays and scoring goals as a winger is his most likely role this season.
“You have to find the right chemistry,” said Gaudreau, who thrived in Calgary with top center Elias Lindholm. “This doesn’t happen overnight, but you want a centerman who wins faceoffs, is smart in their own zone, can move up the ice and make plays and see the ice as well. … It’s trying to find that right guy, that right fit and try to create that chemistry together on and off the ice.”
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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Blue Jackets options to center Patrik Laine, Johnny Gaudreau