As reported on Aaron Portzline's blog from the Columbus Dispatch, the Blue Jackets announced a major roster move this evening. Coach Ken Hitchcock informed 20-year olds Kris Russell and Jared Boll that they will be in the lineup opening night (Oct. 5th).
Kris Russell, at 20, is the most exciting player to come through Columbus' system since Rick Nash. He was given a so-so chance to make the big club coming into camp (mostly due to his size), and after the duration of preseason, he has been the best defenseman thus far. He is extremely gifted offensively, and plays much bigger than his 5'10, 167 lb. frame. The achilles heel to the Jackets offense has been the "seeing-eye shot," the guy who can be counted on to get the shot through to the net for a deflection, rebound, etc. Rick Nash can't do damage in his scoring area if the puck never finds the net. Ron Hainsey was primarily the man QBing the powerplay last season, and despite registering 34 points (9G-25A) was far less than impressive. His shots never seem to be on target; time after time he was set up for a perfect one-timer only to blast it over the net or 10 feet wide.
Duvie Westcott will hopefully be paired with Russell on opening night's powerplay unit- both players have good offensive instincts and good wheels to back them up. They have been a fairly productive pair in preseason, and will likely get the nod on Friday.
The emergence of Russell creates a semi-logjam along the blueline. The Jackets will now have 7 NHL-regular defenseman, and the odd man out appears to be Ron Hainsey, mostly due to lack of production. Fittingly so, because Hitchcock stated that those who produce and perform at a high level under the microscope will get the job they earn. Unfortunately for Hainsey (who reportedly came into camp in the best shape of his career), it looks like he'll be watching from the press box.
On the other hand, Jared Boll is poised to become a rock star in Columbus....really fast. He's reckless, relentless and fearless; something that Hitchcock has been waiting for in his players. Every time he suits up, he manages to find his way under the skin of the opposing team. Whenever he skates by the other bench, hell breaks loose. Perhaps the eye-opening moment for Hitchcock and GM Scott Howson was the thunderous open-ice hit he laid on Rod Brind'Amour Friday night in Raleigh. If you didn't see it....my apologies.
Boll will take Jody Shelley's spot on the fourth line alongside Dan Fritsche and Manny Malhotra. The hope is that finally, the Jackets' bottom lines will be an asset rather than a liability. Needless to say, whenever this trio is on the ice, fireworks are bound to explode. They are willing to get in your face, invade your territory and cause havoc. This line is dangerous. Note to NHLers: don't skate through Boll's path with your head down. Scratch that. Don't skate near him period- it's in your best interest.
These events may surprise some, but go hand-in-hand with Hitchcock and Howson's claim that only the best 23 players will make the team. Some doubted Russell, and the majority wrote off Boll as a "Bash Brother" type whose place in the game has evaporated. However, times have changed in Columbus, and management wants the Jackets to be one of the toughest teams in the NHL to play against. In their eyes, Boll gives them the best chance to do so. I've never second guessed Ken Hitchcock, and I won't start now.
It's an exciting time for the Blue Jackets, and it's about time that the players dictate who makes the team.
Congratulations and welcome to the National Hockey League, boys. Let's make this one hell of a year.