The Columbus Blue Jackets were coming off a successful seasons entering the 2014 NHL Draft and the future looks bright for the youthful team. After having three first round picks and eight overall picks in last year’s draft, Columbus was able to address a lot of its offensive needs. This year GM Jarmo Kekalainen put together a balanced draft that added depth to the Blue Jackets’ system in every area.
Columbus selected talented center Sonny Milano with their first pick and added depth forwards Julien Pelletier and Tyler Bird in the later rounds. Kekalainen grabbed a dark horse in Latvian goaltender Elvis Merzlikins in the third round, which gives Columbus options when it comes to looking for their next future netminder. The Blue Jackets also selected a defensive defenseman in Ryan Collins and two offensive defenseman in Blake Siebenaler and Olivier LeBlanc.
Sonny Milano, C, USNTDP
1st round, 16th overall
Height: 5-11 Weight: 180 lbs
Sonny Milano remembers watching fellow Long Islanders Mike Komisarek and Chris Higgins get selected in the first round of the 2001 and 2002 NHL Drafts respectively.
Seeing the New Yorkers succeed was an inspiration for a then child, who was quickly falling in love with hockey as an Islanders season ticket holder. Although Komisarek and Higgins’ accomplishments seemed to be the light at the end of the tunnel, Milano never worried too much about it and concentrated on his own game.
“At the start of this year and when I started to play for USDP, you start comparing yourself to other players in the country,” Milano said. “You never knew, ‘oh I’m a first rounder,’ but maybe you thought about it a little bit. You don’t try to focus about that too much.”
Milano was projected as a middle first round pick as soon as the 2013 NHL Draft came to a close and an 86-point season on the U.S. National U18 team in the USDP did not raise or drop his projections. In fact his projection nearly stayed true to form as the Blue Jackets snagged him with the 16th picked.
The 6’0 center was one of three players from the U18 squad to be selected in the draft’s first round. Dylan Larkin was grabbed by the Red Wings a pick before Milano and Alex Tuch joined the Wild as the 18th pick. Milano credits the developmental program, where he played two seasons, as having a huge part in preparing him for the draft.
“The development there was great,” he said. “It’s not just on ice, it’s off ice. You mature a lot. You become a lot more independent living away from your family…Being with a bunch of kids your own age and all being in it for one goal is a pretty great experience.”
The 18-year-old put his exceptional playmaking ability on display last season with 57 assists in the USDP and 25 assists in the USHL with USNTDP Juniors. While his crisp passing makes him ideal to quarterback an offense from the boards, Milano became famed from a viral video that showed him executed some nifty stick handling moves.
“I’m an offensive player,” he said. “I like to create plays and make the players around me better. I have pretty good hands and good feet. I just like to put points on the board.”
Milano will now look to put points on the board for an exceptional Boston College program as he will begin playing for his dream school next season. The highly touted playmaker will look to follow in the footsteps of last year’s Hobey Baker winner Johnny Gaudreau, who made his debut with the Calgary Flames last season, and continue to develop in college.
“Seeing skill players like Johnny Gaudreau and players like that have success kind of gives you hope that I can go and have success,” Milano, who will be joined by Tuch at BC, said. “Through past experiences they’re always a top team and are always competing for national championships. Jerry York is a great coach as well. He knows what he’s doing.”
Milano’s media scrum from the 2014 NHL Draft can be viewed in this HF video.
Ryan Collins, D, USNTDP
2nd round, 47th overall
Height: 6-5 Weight: 203 lbs
The Blue Jackets played it safe with their second round pick and drafted a defensive force in Ryan Collins.
At 6’5, Collins is an imposing figure on the ice and plays a secure game opposed to an overly aggressive one. Although he may not throw many bone-crushing hits, the 18-year-old uses his physicality to deny open space from opposing forwards.
“I’m a physical defenseman,” he said. “I’m not a huge open ice hitter. I like to use physicality as a big part of my game though.”
While Collins is very defensively sound, he does not bring much of an offensive game to the table. He had seven points (one goal) in 59 games with the U.S. National U18 team and has not reached double digits in points in a single season during his USHL career.
With a low offensive ceiling, Collins needs to continue growing into his big frame. At just over 200 pounds, he still has some room to add muscle, which will make him even more difficult to skate past.
Collins will continue his development in college when he joins fellow Blue Jackets defensive prospect Mike Reilly at the University of Minnesota. Reilly, a junior who has been praised for his balanced game, and Collins have the potential to be playing together for a while. The two have become familiar already and Collins began to pick Reilly’s brain leading up to draft day.
“I was talking to him the other day about the draft,” Collins said. “I’m excited to get back and talk to him about Columbus.”
Collins did not wait long to get to know the University of Minnesota and is already taking summer classes. The early arrival is helping him get acclimated to campus as well as gives him the chance to take part in some summer work outs at Mariucci Arena.
“There aren’t too many people on campus right now, but you get to take some time to get to know the team and do some workouts,” he said. “It’s good to get acquainted with the campus.”
Elvis Merzlikins, G, Lugano (NLA)
3rd round, 76th overall
Height: 6-3 Weight: 185 lbs
Merzlikins spent last season playing in Switzerland‘s National League A, which is a daunting task for any 19-year-old. He flourished playing against some of Switzerland’s top talent and posted a 2.13 goals against average through 22 games. The Latvian netminder’s performance was good enough to earn him the NLA’s rookie of the year award.
His success in the NLA seemingly came out of nowhere as the lanky goaltender showed significant maturity during his rookie campaign. His confidence stemmed from a strong start and quickly grew from his poise between the pipes. Merzlikins has all the tools to be successful. He is aggressive to challenge shooters, able to control rebounds and can do impressive things when handling the puck.
Although he was able to see time in the top league with Lugano, he also competed for Lugano U20 in the Elite Jr. A for the third straight year. He had a 2.07 goals against average through 12 regular season games and was lights out in the post season with a 1.68 goals against average through 10 games.
He also played for Latvia U20 in the World Junior Championship D1A. His 2.36 goals against average was enough to lead Latvia to a silver medal finish.
Merzlikins will return to the NLA to play for Lugano next season.
Blake Siebenaler, D, Niagara IceDogs (OHL)
3rd round, 77th overall
Height: 6-1 Weight: 185 lbs
Siebenaler impressed a lot of scouts during his rookie season in the OHL. His skating and puck moving ability were uncanny as the Ohio product raked up 30 points during 68 regular season games for Niagara.
The 18-year-old played as a top four defender for the IceDogs and helped them earn the seventh seed in the OHL playoffs. Niagara met second-seeded North Bay in the first round. After taking a 3-1 series lead, the IceDogs dropped three straight games to fall to the Battalion in seven games. Although the loss left Siebenaler unsatisfied, he admitted the experience was unforgettable.
“It’s great we play in a pretty small building over in Niagara in the Jack (Gatecliff Arena),” he said. “The fans are definitely a part of every game. They are pretty exciting and pretty supportive. It definitely gives you something to work hard for.”
Siebenaler’s hard work gave IceDogs’ fans everything they could have hoped for in a quick moving rookie defender. His speed allowed him to create odd man rushes during breakouts and his crisp passing created ample scoring chances.
Although his offensive upside is promising, Siebenaler has room to improve on the defensive side of things. He got better as the year went on, but early had trouble during one-on-one battles.
“I think that my skating ability has definitely given me a huge boost in my game. It’s definitely what puts me in front of everyone else,” he said. “I do need to work on other parts of my game like the Xs and Os.”
Improvements to his positioning should come over time and Siebenaler showed signs of that during the playoffs. After having a minus-16 rating through the regular season, he buckled down defensively and had a plus-four rating in the playoffs. He finished the playoffs with five points.
Julien Pelletier, LW, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (QMJHL)
4th round, 107th overall
Height: 5-11 Weight: 180 lbs
Pelletier’s rookie season with the Screaming Eagles proved to be a success as the Quebec native finished third among the QMJHL’s rookies with 50 points (25 goals and 25 assists). He helped the Screaming Eagles finished second in the Maritimes Division and earned the ninth seed of the playoffs. Cape Breton faced eight-seeded Gatineau in the first round and the Olympiques won in four games. Pelletier was held to two points in the series.
Pelletier could turn out to be a steal as a fourth rounder because of his playmaking ability. He will need to improve his speed and strength through his junior career to reach his full potential. He could develop into an offensively gifted third liner that is effective on the power play. The 18-year-old does not bring much of a defensive game with him.
Tyler Bird, RW, Kimball Academy (New Hampshire prep)
5th round, 137th overall
Height: 6-2 Weight: 201 lbs
Tyler Bird was one of two highly touted players from Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire. Bird and Joey Dudek (NJ) were each selected during the second day of the draft and helped the prep school claim the NEPSAC Simmons/Piatelli Championship.
Bird finished his senior year with 60 points in 37 games. Prior to playing for Kimball Union, he competed for St. John’s Prep and the Valley Jr. Warriors.
The Boston product plays with a lot of grit and uses his big frame to gain positioning in front of the net. He relies on his heavy shot to beat goalies and create rebounds. He is constantly pestering the crease looking for second chance opportunities.
He will attend Brown University starting in the fall of 2014.
Bird spoke with Hockey’s Future at the 2014 NHL Combine, with that conversation captured in this HF video.
Olivier Leblanc, D, Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)
7th round, 197th overall
Height: 5-11 Weight: 160 lbs
Much like Siebenaler, Leblanc has a tremendous offensive upside. He had 33 points (seven goals and 26 assists) in 56 games as the Sea Dogs finished last in the Maritimes Division. They were one of two teams to not qualify for the playoffs.
Leblanc is a smooth skater, which primes him to join the rush and skate confidently with the puck. His has good vision and can quickly change zones with crisp passing.
If Leblanc is going to pan out, it is going to take a lot of time. Bulking up is going to be a necessity, and he needs to mature into a defensively responsible player that can stay with opposing forwards in one on one battles.