Friday, August 26, 2011

The Johansen quandary (Part I)

Where will Columbus' wunderkind center
fit into the roster?  And is a roster spot
right now in his best interest - and the
club's - over the long haul?
Interesting Tweet from The Dispatch's Tom Reed the other day:
[Columbus Blue Jackets] coach Scott Arniel said if Ryan Johansen makes team he will play center. He won't be shifted to wing.
Because the obvious place for Johansen to continue his development - the American Hockey League - is off-limits, this is worth considering on a couple of levels: What it means to the roster, and what it means to Johansen.

As for the roster, the open speculation of Johansen on the 2011-2012 CBJ roster by Arniel officially marks the opening of the "Depth Chart Engineering" season.  Do you have your permits in order?

Seriously, Let's think about the roster as it stands: At center, you've got Jeff Carter, Derick Brassard, Sammy Pahlsson and Derek MacKenzie.  (There's also Antoine Vermette, not too recently a decent center in his own right, but he appears pencilled onto the wing for now.)  Now it's entirely possible that a Johansen roster spot could be spent up in the press box (more on that later), waiting for an injury to juggle the lineup.  Another possibility is that Johansen replaces one of the four CBJ centers in the lineup.  While there are four lines, each with a center, I honestly don't see four realistic openings for Johansen.

The first two lines are the "big boy" lines - the lines where top performers play.  These lines are expected to play a lot, and they are expected to provide most of the scoring.  Barring injury, it's reasonably safe to say that those top two center slots will be filled by Jeff Carter, for whom CBJ general manager Scott Howson offered up Jake Voracek's rights and a decent first-round draft pick over the offseason, and Derick Brassard.  Carter's a 2009 all-star, big-time scoring threat and a $5.2 million cap hit.  If he's not on the first line, I would think it only because he can't figure out a way to play with captain Rick Nash.  As for Brassard, he's a former (sometimes) top-line center who isn't a slouch in the scoring columns and also sports a $3.2 million cap hit in his own right.  (Johansen, by comparison, will be a $1.9 million cap hit if he makes the Columbus roster.)  Brassard has gone through his growing pains and appears able to hold his own in the top six on an NHL roster.  Long story short, unless Johansen demonstrates an ability far outstripping his status as the fourth overall pick in the 2010 NHL entry draft, I would be stunned to see him in the top six when you have Carter and Brassard holding down the fort.

The third line is the "checking line" - the line that's supposed to play defense first and smack the other team around.  Minutes generally don't match up to the top two lines, but the pressure situations in which the checking line is placed can often be as tough as those facing the big boys.  Keeping that in mind, tell me who would you want to play center on that line?
  • A 19-year-old who's six-foot-two and weighs 192 pounds, never having played a regular season NHL game, or
  • A 33-year-old who's six-foot even and weighs 208 pounds, entering his twelfth NHL season and with 718 NHL games under his belt?
If you're like me, you chose the latter...Sammy Pahlsson.  Pahlsson's no cheap date, either, costing $2.6 million a season for the CBJ.  

The emergence of Johansen aside, a demotion of Derek MacKenzie
to Springfield sends the precisely WRONG message to the
Columbus Blue Jackets roster.
Which brings us to the fourth line, which is centered by Derek MacKenzie.  I never got around to writing my DBJ 2011 Most Valuable Player post, but I was going to name MacKenzie.  MacKenzie is the epitome of merit-based play, providing endless effort, character and production that kept this $600,000, two-way player out of Springfield and in Columbus.  His presence provided tangible proof that Scott Howson's parade of one-way contracts for less-than-worthy players that cluttered up the bottom of the roster wasn't necessarily the way to go - that sometimes the incentive for less skilled players to avoid the AHL is stronger than the will of more highly skilled players with a secure place on the NHL roster.  Even better, coach Scott Arniel kept MacKenzie around despite the contracts that he was given to work around.  Arniel might still be green as an NHL head coach, but he's no dummy.  So I'll come out and admit it: Johansen or no Johansen, I really don't want to see MacKenzie bumped back down to Springfield.  (There's some speculation that he might be tossed out to wing on a CBJ roster if Johansen ascends to the number four center slot, but that then begs the question of who would be dumped from the wings to make room for DMac.  Another story for another day, I suppose, but a preliminary look at the CBJ depth chart suggests that the wings might be open for yet another refugee from center.)

But one also must consider the fourth line in general.  It's the line for guys who won't get a ton of minutes, who are struggling to stay in the roster, who are platooning with someone else who gets to hang out in the press box on game nights or perhaps are returning from injury and can't hack it on the top lines.  Chemistry isn't a top priority on the fourth line.  Nor is scoring.  Nikita Filatov found that the fourth line was no place for an elite (or, in Filatov's case, allegedly elite) talent.  Would Johansen fare any better?  How does the club benefit from having him playing with scrubs?  

You know, this is an excellent place to jump over to my other concern, which I'll cover in the next post.

1 comment:

  1. I see Johansen, should he make the roster, centering the fourth line. It's possible that each line will have two centers: Carter/Prospal, Brassard/Umberger, Pahlsson/Vermette, and Johansen/MacKenzie. Could make an already strong face-off team even more effective. Add in Nash, Calvert, Boll, Dorsett, Mayorov, Kubalik, etc., and this might be a potent offense. At last!


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