Blue Jackets 2008 system audit

By Chris Leary

Year two of the Howson administration finds the Blue Jacket organization in much the same state as that inherited in the summer of 2007. Thanks in large part to a cadre of high first-round draft selections, the talent within the system is top-heavy, dominated by a handful of impressive youngsters either currently experiencing, or en route towards, an extended NHL audition. In fact, the Jackets could skate a starting prospect lineup that would put most NHL organizations to shame, highlighted by the top forward trio of center Derick Brassard and wings Jakub Voracek and Nikita Filatov. Each of those three youngsters have already earned ice time this season with the big club, with Brassard and Voracek making an early impact on the stat sheet and looking like the Calder candidates many expected them to be coming out of training camp. Add in a top-tier goaltending prospect in Steve Mason, and the strength of the Jackets organization, its prospect depth, remains as it has been for a half decade.

The problem, however, has been translating all that top-tier potential into results at the NHL level, and the Jackets continued absence from post-season competition is evidence that something has likely been lost in that translation. Granted, the core of the current NHL lineup includes a pair of former Blue Jacket first-rounders in forward Rick Nash and goaltender Pascal Leclaire, but the remainder of the annual lineup has been filled with draft misses and below-average NHL talent that passes quickly through the organization. The chronic lack of talent at center now borders on terminal, which has necessarily pushed Derick Brassard into the spotlight as the next contestant in the “find Rick Nash a legitimate partner” lottery that has plagued the franchise for several years.

And so the franchise approaches a crossroads as it nears the 10-year anniversary in the city of Columbus. Starved for success on the ice, the Blue Jacket organization desperately needs to find the winning formula that has eluded the franchise since its inception. And so the trio of young forwards find themselves in Columbus to start this season, interning on the job and logging significant minutes at the NHL level. The early returns on Brassard and Voracek in particular have been promising, and it’s not too much of a stretch to see both as contributing top-six forwards for the next decade. Filatov and goaltender Steve Mason may take a bit longer to get to that same point, but there’s every reason to expect both will be contributing members to the 2010-11 Blue Jacket lineup.

Center

The chronic lack of top-tier talent at center has been a primary contributing factor to the Jackets failure to earn a playoff spot in the short history of the team. The organization has attempted to address the situation through the expenditure of both high draft picks and free agent money, neither of which has produced the partner up the middle that Rick Nash so desperately needs. While former first-round pick Gilbert Brule and second-rounder Dan Fritsche have since moved on to greener NHL pastures, the Jackets have every reason to hope that they’ve finally found their man in the form of 2006 sixth-overall pick Derick Brassard.

Considered by many scouts to be the best pure talent available in the 2006 entry class, Brassard fought through a challenging rookie year last season, his first as a professional. Working through the effects of a broken jaw early in the year, Brassard turned in an impressive effort with Syracuse of the AHL, wrapped around an instructive 17-game audition with the Jackets. While Brassard did not make a significant impact in his brief NHL debut, he proved to be a dynamo down the stretch for the Crunch, rolling off an 8-goal, 14-assist over the final 11 games of the regular season followed up with a 13-point effort in 13 playoff games.

A quick, agile pivot who is able to create the space necessary to exploit either his NHL-caliber shot or keen opportunistic vision, Brassard has the obvious talent as a 20-year-old to develop into the top-tier center the Jackets have lacked. What his short NHL audition exposed was a need for greater upper-body strength, and improvements have already been noted over the opening weeks of the current season. While many expected him to center the team’s top line coming out of training camp, Brassard has made the most out of his opportunities regardless of who he has skated with, tallying a pair of goals and four assists over the first seven games of the season. If Brassard can continue that pace and remain a factor on the ice, the long-sought savior at center may have finally emerged from the wilderness.

Moving beyond Brassard, the organization depth chart displays only two true center prospects in Russian/Dane import Kirill Starkov and current Cornell Big Red freshman Sean Collins. Of the pair, Starkov is the most advanced within the organization as he begins his sophomore season in the AHL with Syracuse. While his rookie year was not a complete disappointment, Starkov struggled to maintain his spot in the AHL and ended up only appearing in 20 games with the Crunch, in which tallied four goals and four assists. At this point, he will need to continue to significantly develop just to earn regular ice time along the margins of a crowded forward group in Syracuse, and appears a long way off from a legitimate audition with the Blue Jackets.

Right Wing

As with the other two forward positions, the Jacket organization is possessed of a top-tier prospect in the form of a high first-round draft selection, in this case the seventh overall selection from the 2007 draft Jakub Voracek. And as with Brassard at center and Filatov on the off wing, Voracek has been asked to contribute at the NHL level while learning the ropes as a professional hockey player.

Of the three big forward prospects for the Jackets, Voracek might be the most NHL-ready at this early stage of his career. After looking like a possible contributor prior to last season, Voracek showed the wisdom to return to Halifax of the QMJHL, where he continued to adjust to the North American game and lifestyle while further growing into his large frame. The decision certainly paid dividends on the stat sheet for Halifax, as Voracek potted 33 goals and added 68 assists in just 53 games, and appeared to be every bit the big-play prospect the Jackets thought they acquired in the summer of 2007.

Not surprisingly, Voracek parlayed his patience and impressive attacking style into significant ice time to start the current season as a top-six forward for the Jackets. And, also not surprisingly, Voracek has rewarded that confidence from the organization by tallying three goals and three assists already on the young season, usually skating on a line with fellow phenom Derick Brassard. It is not too difficult to project both as legitimate contenders for the Calder this season, and Voracek has the scoring ability to make that a reality.

Skating well behind the pace set by Voracek on the right side are a group of forwards with varying skill-sets and potential, headlined by 2004 second-round pick Adam Pineault. A consistent scorer with the Crunch over the last two seasons, Pineault has a world-class shot and the large frame necessary to eventually develop into a second-line power wing. At 22, there is still enough time for Pineault to develop into an NHL-caliber contributor, although his continued relegation to the AHL suggests that the organization is still unconvinced he can be a contributor at the NHL level. With several younger prospects already skating in the NHL, this has become a critical year in Pineault’s development. Off to a solid start with the Crunch over the past two weeks, there’s enough talent here to suggest an extended audition will occur for Pineault on Nationwide Ice at some point during the 2008-09 season.

The remainder of the organization’s depth along the right side includes a pair of NCAA-bound scoring wings in 2007 third-round selection Jake Hansen and 2008 sixth-rounder Cameron Atkinson, talented agitator Derek Dorsett, and organizational enigma Stefan Legein. Dorsett has made the most immediate impact, using his physicality to earn a regular spot on the Blue Jacket fourth line this season and averaging 14 shifts per game and pacing the team early with 39 penalty minutes in six games. While likely ticketed back to Syracuse once several veterans get back on the ice, Dorsett has shown enough to suggest that he will be given every opportunity down the road to earn consistent NHL ice time as a third-fourth line power wing.  As for Stefan Legein, the youngster shocked practically everyone several months before his twentieth birthday by retiring from hockey after a successful OHL career. Rumors have circulated that the youngster may have experienced a change-of-heart, which would put him in the mix at Syracuse. 

Joining Hansen and Atkinson for another collegiate year this season is Dublin, Ohio native Trent Vogelhuber, who provides the organization another chance at developing a homegrown talent. All three are expected to remain in the NCAA for the next several seasons before transitioning into the AHL.  The remaining prospect talent within the organization on the right wing involves a pair of Czechs at different stages of their career, 22-year-old Petr Pohl and teenager Tomas Kubalik. While Kubalik, the organization’s fifth-round selection in the 2008 draft, will return to Europe for another amateur season, Pohl is back on the ECHL-AHL shuttle he has had trouble getting off since turning pro two years ago. A point-per-game forward with Youngstown last season, Pohl will need to improve markedly with the Johnstown Chiefs this year to earn his way back to Syracuse, which makes Nationwide a long-shot for the near future.

Left Wing

As expected when the Jackets targeted him with the sixth overall selection in this past summer’s NHL draft, the organization’s prospect pool on the left side revolves around Russian phenom Nikita Filatov. The first European player selected in the draft, Filatov has impressed in both his native junior leagues and on the international stage, and joins Brassard and Voracek to provide the Jackets with three of the top blue-chip prospects in all of hockey.

A slick, agile forward who has that uncanny ability to create space on the ice, Filatov has as much offensive upside as his fellow top-tier Blue Jacket prospects, but remains slightly lower on the development curve behind Brassard and Voracek, due largely to his inexperience with the North American game. That discrepancy may go a long way towards explaining why Brassard and Voracek have been provided with significantly more ice time and responsibility in the early going of the current season, a situation that has many wondering if Filatov’s development would be better served by an expanded role with Syracuse. Averaging just over six minutes of ice time in his four appearances this year with the Jackets, Filatov has yet to be provided with the consistent opportunity to acclimate himself to the NHL. He remains a top-50 prospect, and should be expected to hold down a consistent spot behind Rick Nash on the left side by next season, even if his contribution this year comes largely in a Crunch uniform.

Should Filatov eventually skate for Syracuse, he will join an already-talented corps of left wing talent with the Crunch, highlighted by fellow Russian teen Maxim Mayorov and 21-year-old Tom Sestito. Of the two, Mayorov provides the most buzz, thanks in no small part to his enigmatic junior Russian career which left many wondering exactly what type of player he would develop into. Expected to play with Brandon of the WHL after making the jump this past off-season, Mayorov instead looked like a possible draft-day steal in training camp and has instead worked his way into a prominent role with the Crunch, netting a goal and four assists in five games on the young season. There are still too many question marks to fully project where Mayorov ranks within the organization, but the early returns provide reason for significant optimism.

Joining Sestito and Mayorov in Syracuse on the left side this season will likely be John Vigilante and former first-round pick Alex Picard. Both players will be 23 this year, which suggests that the clock is ticking down for each to make an impact at the professional level. For Picard especially, who was selected with the eighth overall pick in the 2004 draft, the opportunities to return on that investment are slipping away and his future may well involve a change of NHL scenery. Vigilante moves over from Milwaukee of the AHL, where he displayed a speed game highlighted by a 15-goal, 31-assist effort last season.

At the amateur level, the Jackets organization counts three left wings who remain several seasons removed from any opportunity at an NHL audition.  Toronto native and 2006 fifth round pick Nick Sucharski returns to Michigan State for his senior season, after a strong collegiate career and is expected to compete for a spot with Syracuse in 2009. 2004 eighth-round pick Matt Greer also heads into his senior NCAA season with the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and will likely open on the shuttle between the minor leagues next year. As for 2008 fifth-round selection Matt Calvert, his near-horizons will involve at least one more season with Brandon of the WHL.

Defense

As problematic as the franchise’s travails at center have been, the situation along the blueline has been a consistent cause for concern. Apart from franchise cornerstone Rostislav Klesla, the Jackets have been singularly unable to develop NHL-caliber rearguards within the organization and have been forced to tap into the free agent market to round out most of the top six over the past eight years. That unfortunate situation should come as little surprise, as it often takes a number of years for expansion teams to draft and develop the requisite number of defensive prospects to percolate up to the big club. Not surprisingly, the Jackets invested significant energy in filling out the NHL blueline with NHL veterans this off-season, reshaping the defensive corps around external talent as there is not much en route to Columbus from the lower levels of the organization on the near horizon.

The cream of the current Blue Jacket crop of defensive prospects includes a pair of early-20’s AHL vets in Andrei Plekhanov and Marc Methot, and the incumbent second-round selection Cody Goloubef.  Of the three, the clock is most loudly ticking on Methot, a 23-year-old veteran of nearly 200 AHL games who has yet to earn a place off the shuttle between Columbus and Syracuse. A solid presence since 2005 for the Crunch, Methot is now regarded as the seventh defenseman with the Blue Jackets, and has repaid them with a goal and an assist in three games on the young season. Effectively out of options, there is as much chance that Methot will see the turn of the new decade in another organization than as the fifth or sixth rearguard for the Jackets.

For 22-year-old Russian import Andrei Plekhanov, last year was a learning experience after making the jump across the pond. Still finding his way in the North American game, Plekhanov enters his sophomore season with Syracuse as a solid two-way option from the blueline. There is enough talent in his game to suggest he will eventually develop into a top-four defenseman for the Jackets, but that future is still likely several seasons off.

Also several years removed from a realistic opportunity to make an impact at the NHL level is 2008 second-round selection Cody Goloubef, a poised, offense-minded defenseman who may represent the best defensive prospect in the organization in a half-decade. Only 18, Goloubef is firmly entrenched as a contributing member on the University of Wisconsin hockey club as a sophomore, and will look to improve upon his impressive rookie campaign with the Badgers. It should be well into the next decade before the youngster is given an opportunity at an NHL job.

Apart from the top three, the organizational blueline has a wealth of mid-level defensive prospects currently toiling away between the AHL and ECHL. Joining Plekhanov in Syracuse this season are Jonathan Sigalet, Grant Clitsome and Nick Holden. Of the three, Sigalet has the most to prove after a three-year stint with the Providence Bruins that never earned him a real look with Boston. Clitsome and Holden are essentially both rookies, as each have a handful of games under their belt at the AHL level and are expected to grow into top-four roles with Syracuse over the next two seasons. Sigalet would likely get the first call in the event of an opening with the big club, but another full year in the AHL is likely in the offing, and may well represent his future at the professional level. Fighting for an opportunity at an AHL job this season will be Trevor Hendrikx, Jon Landry and Kyle Wharton, each of whom will likely shuttle between minor league-stops in 2008-09 and remain off the radar for an NHL job at the moment.

In the amateur ranks, the Jackets have a number of defensive prospects who may develop into NHL-caliber talents with more seasoning in either the NCAA, junior North American leagues or across the ocean. Headlining this group is 2007 second-round pick Will Weber, a lanky two-way rearguard still growing into his oversized 6’4 frame. While still several years removed from an NHL audition, Weber may well have the most talent below the NHL level among the organization’s defensive prospects. He’ll get a chance to further refine his game just a few hours down the road from Nationwide at developing collegiate powerhouse Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Amateur prospects Brent Regner, Dimitri Kosmachev, Steven Delisle and Drew Olson are all expected to remain at their respective levels this season, and are likely still several years removed from an opportunity at an AHL internship.

Goaltending

With the long internship of Pascal Leclaire officially over, the focus within the organization shifts to wunderkind goaltender Steve Mason. Selected by the Jackets in the third round of the 2006 draft as an off-radar youngster after just 16 amateur games, Columbus definitely struck gold in Mason who has since developed into one of the top goaltending prospects in all of hockey. In his penultimate amateur season last year, Mason opened many eyes with a 32-7-3, 2.51-GAA effort split between London and Kitchener, but even more so with his performance for Team Canada’s Under-20 squad at the World Juniors. The 20-year-old turned in a 5-0, 1.19-GAA performance on the premier prospect stage, which brought home the gold for Canada and recognition as the Most Valuable Player of the tournament for Mason.

As impressive as the final stages of his amateur career were, all eyes will now focus on his upcoming debut with Syracuse after a pair of knee operations over the past six months. While those issues are expected to be temporary, how Mason adjusts to his first lap around the professional ranks should indicate how long it will take for him to challenge Leclaire for playing time with the big club. If he really is the goaltender many expect him to be, Mason may very well be forcing the issue come training camp 2009.

Preceding Mason as the starting goalie in Syracuse is 22-year-old Dan LaCosta, who has displayed a competent AHL-caliber game since turning pro before the 2006-07 season. In four appearances this year, LaCosta has rolled off four wins behind an impressive .922 save percentage, perhaps in recognition of the upcoming competition with Mason for Crunch ice time. Although something of a long-shot to earn a sustained NHL job, LaCosta is a solid option in the AHL net, and should eventually earn a shot at a backup job in an NHL net. Given the crowded situation in the Columbus net and imminent arrival of Steve Mason, however, that opportunity may come with a different organization. On the far horizon in net is 2007 sixth-round selection Allen York, who enters his freshman year as the backup netminder at R.P.I. in 2008-09.