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After sending forwards Carson Meyer and Kirill Marchenko as well as defenseman Jake Christiansen to Cleveland, while releasing veteran forward Victor Rask from his professional tryout offer, Larsen admitted Wednesday he’s reached the point where players who very well might deserve to be on the Blue Jackets have to go.

“My whole message to (the players) was, ‘Make my decision hard,'” Larsen said. “Some of them were easier. But those two guys (Meyer and Marchenko), I’d definitely put them in the category of much harder.”

Meyer was one of the most noticeable players in camp, arriving in excellent shape after making his NHL debut a season ago with 13 games at the end of the season. The scoring touch he showed in his formative years in Powell, Ohio, and with Ohio State was evident, and he impressed Larsen and the staff with the relentless way he attacked training camp.

“I told him two years ago, ‘I really didn’t know who you were,'” Larsen said. “That’s just honest. And this guy has done nothing but exactly what you want a pro to do. He’s worked. He flipped an AHL contract into an NHL contract. He came here.

“The difference I see from him last year to this year is last year, I don’t know if he believed in himself. I think he was working hard and he’s in the NHL, but this year, I think he’s starting to understand, ‘I belong here.’ It’s a tough business. He’s teetering. He’s right on the cusp, but you can’t take a breath now.”

Marchenko, meanwhile, showcased his scoring ability both at the annual Traverse City prospects tournament (three goals in three games) as well as in the preseason, but the 22-year-old Russian winger admittedly was still adjusting to the pace of the NHL game in his first camp in North America.

“I think he has to figure out the smaller ice game a little bit, and he knows it,” Larsen said. “He has to get up to pace a little bit quicker, faster, because he has the body to protect pucks. He has the shot, he has the release, all that. He just has to figure out, ‘I gotta get up to speed first, then I can slow it down.’ ”

An original training camp roster of 68 players has been pared to 29, meaning Columbus must make moves with six more players to get down to the Monday max of 23. The Blue Jackets have four goalies in camp and will likely only have two on the opening roster, which leaves four roster moves to make among the skaters.

To this point, we’ll consider 16 skaters as locks for the opening night roster — forwards Johnny Gaudreau, Patrik Laine, Boone Jenner, Gustav Nyquist, Jack Roslovic, Jakub Voracek, Cole Sillinger, Justin Danforth, Sean Kuraly and Eric Robinson as well as defensemen Zach Werenski, Adam Boqvist, Vladislav Gavrikov, Andrew Peeke, Erik Gudbranson and Jake Bean.

That leaves nine skaters on the bubble, with only five (barring injuries) able to make the roster — forwards Emil Bemstrom, Yegor Chinakhov, Mathieu Olivier, Kent Johnson, Liam Foudy and Joona Luoto as well as blueliners Nick Blankenburg, David Jiricek and Ben Harpur.

The situation in goal seems relatively simple. Elvis Merzlikins will be the starter, and Joonas Korpisalo will be the backup if he’s ready after offseason hip surgery. If not, Daniil Tarasov seems ready to fill that role barring any further setbacks from his own hip repair.

With that in mind, here’s how it looks for those skaters who are set to make their final push starting tonight against St. Louis, with Chinakhov, Olivier, Johnson and Foudy in the lineup for the game at Nationwide Arena.

Emil Bemstrom

Age: 23 | 2022 stats (CBJ): 41 GP, 6-5-11 | Contract status: NHL one-way deal (must clear waviers)

The case for Bemstrom: He’s been on the team for the past three seasons, scoring 19 goals and 36 points in 117 games, so he brings NHL experience to the table. Bemstrom still has a great shot, even if he’s yet to become the consistent net-filler some projected when he led Sweden’s top league in goals in 2018-19. The analytics say he’s a reliable defensive performer as well, which has value in a bottom-six role.

Yegor Chinakhov

Age: 21 | 2022 stats (CBJ): 62 GP, 7-7-14 | Contract status: NHL entry-level deal (does not have to clear waivers)

The case for Chinakhov: Preseason stats really don’t count for a hill of beans, but it’s hard to ignore someone who has four goals in his last three games like Chinakhov (he’s tied for first in the NHL in tallies this preseason, in fact). We know he has a killer shot, and the 2020 first-round pick showed a good sense for the game at times last year as a rookie. Larsen said Chinakhov’s pace and confidence are better this year, and our sense is he’s clinched a spot this preseason.

Mathieu Olivier

Age: 25 | 2022 stats (NSH): 10 GP, 0-1-1 | Contract status: NHL one-way deal (must clear waivers)

The case for Olivier: Columbus sent a 2022 fourth-round pick to Nashville this summer for Olivier with the thought that the 6-2, 210-pounder can add some size and bite to the bottom six. He’s not just here for that, though, as the belief among the front office is he can play a little, too. Olivier fills a unique role given the stiff game he plays, which gives him an edge others might not have. He likely makes it.

Liam Foudy

Age: 22 | 2022 stats (AHL): 29 GP, 7-12-19 | Contract status: NHL two-way deal (must clear waivers)

The case for Foudy: The 2018 first-round pick could be ticketed for the minors simply because he was just cleared for contract after shoulder surgery cut short his campaign a year ago. But Foudy looked like a legit NHLer during the 2020 bubble playoffs, and reports were his game was coming along nicely a season ago in Cleveland before the injury. He’s in great shape coming into the season, and his speed and battle level show someone who can still be an NHL factor.

Kent Johnson

Age: 19 | 2022 stats (NCAA): 32 GP, 8-29-37 | Contract status: NHL entry-level deal (does not have to clear waivers)

The case for Johnson: The fifth overall pick in the 2021 draft, Johnson is one of the team’s top two prospects along with Jiricek. He’s battle tested at the college and international levels, and the highly skilled Johnson has shown he’s playing with more pace than he was a season ago during his nine-game cameo. He’s played mostly center this camp after skating on the wing at Michigan, and the argument for sending him to Cleveland to start is to get more experience in the middle. But he’s also looked ready enough to be on the team from the start, too.

Joona Luoto

Age: 25 | 2022 stats (Finland): 27 GP, 9-5-14 | Contract status: NHL two-way deal (does not have to clear waivers)

The case for Luoto: Coming off a season in which he won the Jari Kurri Award as the best player in the Finnish Liiga playoffs (8-9-17 in 14 games with Tappara), Luoto came back to North America to test himself against the best. Luoto has NHL experience, playing 16 games with Winnipeg in 2019-20, but he finished without a point in those games. He has said his style of game isn’t pretty, but he’s a big body (6-3, 192) who isn’t afraid to go in the corners and play a straight-ahead playoff style. He has missed the last few days with a lower-body injury.

Nick Blankenburg

Age: 24 | 2022 stats (CBJ): 7 GP, 1-2-3 | Contract status: NHL one-way deal (does not have to clear waivers)

The case for Blankenburg: Two things are working against Blankenburg — his 5-9 stature and his inexperience at the pro level, as he just left Michigan at the end of last season to make his debut with the Blue Jackets. But the defenseman’s poise, intelligence and aggressiveness are part of a two-way game that will make it hard to keep him out of the lineup. A right-hand shot, Blankenburg has been working on the left side to add more versatility to his game given the Jackets’ strength on the right.

David Jiricek

Age: 18 | 2022 stats (Czechia): 29 GP, 5-6-11| Contract status: NHL entry-level deal (does not have to clear waivers)

The case for Jiricek: He’s still here, isn’t he? The No. 6 overall pick in this summer’s draft is working to follow in the footsteps of Cole Sillinger when it comes to sticking in the NHL just months after being chosen by the Blue Jackets. His size, reach and two-way skill will make him a regular sooner rather than later; the question is just if now is his time. The reports are he’s been getting better by the day, and the Jackets might just want to take a look at him early in the season.

Ben Harpur

Age: 27 | 2022 stats (NHL): 19 GP, 0-1-1 | Contract status: Professional tryout

The case for Harpur: The Blue Jackets wanted to add size to the blue line this offseason, and while Gudbranson was the marquee signing in that regard, Harpur was brought in on a PTO to see if the six-year veteran of 156 games could also help. With just 15 points in his NHL career with Ottawa and Nashville, it’s fair to say defense is his game. Unfortunately for Harpur, he was hurt in a fight in the first preseason game at Pittsburgh, but he did return to practice Wednesday.

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