The first playoff trip for the Columbus Blue Jacket franchise was accomplished in part through the significant contributions turned in by a pair of rookies in Jakub Voracek and Steve Mason. While the former developed over the course of the season into a legitimate top-six forward as a teenager, it was the goaltender Mason who was the story for much of the year. In what was expected to be a year of solid internship with Syracuse of the AHL, Mason instead jumped at the opportunity to showcase his talent in the Columbus net and turned in one of the best regular-season goaltending performances from a rookie in NHL history. Capped by a pair of nominations as a finalist for both the Vezina and Calder trophies, Mason was an integral component of the Jackets march to the post-season.
The rookie netminder was joined in the freshman ranks with the Jackets this past season by several other upper-tier prospects, including a trio of former single-digit first-round picks in Voracek, Nikita Filatov and Derick Brassard (the latter of which again caught the injury bug), Russian import Maxim Mayorov, pugilist-in-training id=”HFlink” href=”/prospects/derek_dorsett”>Derek Dorsett, goaltender Dan LaCosta and journeyman defenseman Aaron Rome.
Stepping right into a regular shift as a teenager, Czech native Jakub Voracek looked the part of a top-six forward in his rookie campaign for Columbus. An impressive offensive performer as an amateur, Voracek scored 9 goals and 29 assists in 80 games as a rookie, good for sixth on the team in points. Add to that a sharp +11 rating and a recurring role on the power play, and Voracek contributed a solid performance while navigating the professional waters for the first time in his career. Projected for the second line next season, perhaps skating again with NHL veterans Antoine Vermette and R.J. Umberger, Voracek should provide the two-way anchor in the rising trio of forward talent with Brassard and Filatov in Columbus.
By any metric you care to use, Mason’s rookie season in Columbus was a profound success. Considered a candidate for significant minutes in Syracuse entering the year, injuries to incumbent No. 1 Pascal Leclaire cut short Mason’s internship in the AHL and provided the rookie with an opportunity to earn the starting spot in Columbus. Building upon a strong debut, Mason earned the top spot in net in December and ran off a 33-20-7 record, 2.29 GAA and .916 save percentage in backstopping the Jackets to the first playoff appearance in franchise history. While the post-season may have exposed the learning curve inherent in developing a top-tier goaltender, Mason’s contributions have not gone unnoticed around the NHL, as the rookie has been named a finalist for both the Vezina and Calder trophies. The dual nomination puts Mason in line to become the fifth player in NHL history to walk away with both awards and the first since Ed Belfour captured both in 1991.
With the departure of Leclaire via trade, the organization has effectively hung the mantle of franchise netminder on Mason, and he will be expected to lead the Jackets right back into a playoff berth as a sophomore next season. Given how far he has come in a very short period of time, there’s no reason to bet against his continued development into one of the better goaltenders in the NHL.
The sixth overall selection in a deep 2006 entry draft, center Brassard looked the part of a Calder candidate over the first month of the season, earning the Rookie of the Month Award for October. In 31 games to start the year, the Quebec native tallied 10 goals and 15 assists to go with a +12 rating and had begun to emerge as a critical part of the power play for the Jackets. All that came to a sudden and unfortunate end in December, when Brassard suffered a freak shoulder injury during an altercation with Dallas tough guy Kyle Barch that would keep him out of the lineup through the rest of the season. The early returns on his recovery have been positive, and Brassard should step right back in this fall as a legitimate candidate for one of the top two pivot positions with the club.
Considered one of the top European prospects in hockey, Moscow native Filatov made his NHL debut this past season over two four-game stints in the Blue Jacket lineup. In eight games for Columbus, Filatov potted four goals on 10 shots, highlighted by a hat trick in a 4-2 win over Minnesota on January 10th of this year. The Russian phenom provided a better indication of his top-tier potential at the AHL level, scoring 16 goals and 16 assists in 39 games. Toss in an impressive turn at the World Juniors this past winter with Team Russia, where he accounted for eight goals in just seven games en route to a bronze medal, and this past season proved to be a successful rookie year in North America. Filatov will head into training camp this September with every opportunity to earn a regular shift with the NHL club, and should provide Columbus with another Calder candidate next season.
Perhaps the most understated of several pleasant surprises for Columbus this season was the contribution made by former seventh-round pick Derek Dorsett. A strong, physical presence at even strength, Dorsett worked his way into the lineup 52 times on the regular season and followed that up with three appearances in the first-ever playoff trip for the franchise. In 52 games this season, Dorsett only accounted for six points (on a single goal and 5 assists), but made a much larger impression in the penalty box, finishing second on the team in penalty minutes (150) and major penalties (12), and first with four game misconducts. It is often difficult for a player of Dorsett’s obvious physical value to an NHL lineup to work out of being typecast as a fourth-line enforcer, but Dorsett has enough natural ability to enhance his game at both ends of the ice, and may eventually develop into a third-line two-way forward. Until then, expect a return engagement as the muscle behind a young, talented Columbus lineup moving forward.
Playing for his fifth professional team in as many years, overage rookie defenseman Aaron Rome skated for a majority of the year with Syracuse of the AHL before earning a brief call-up with the big club towards the end of the season. In eight games with Columbus, Rome contributed as a solid blueline presence at both even strength and on the power play, and capped it off by appearing in one of the Jackets four post-season games. The majority of Rome’s season was spent at the AHL level for the fifth straight season, scoring seven goals and 21 assists in 48 games with the Crunch. Considered something of a seventh defenseman within the organization, Rome will likely end up back on the Columbus-Syracuse shuttle next year.
While the big story in the Columbus net this year was the emergence of Steve Mason and subsequent departure via trade of long-time franchise-netminder-in-waiting Pascal Leclaire, rookie goaltender Daniel LaCosta worked his way into a brief cup of coffee with Columbus this past season. After bouncing around part-time gigs for the past few seasons, the 2004 third-round pick found a home in the Syracuse Crunch net in 2008-09, running off a 19-18-2 record to go along with a 2.79 goals against and .913 save percentage. That solid performance earned him a short promotion when injuries hit in mid-February, and he looked sharp in his three game stint with the Jackets, posting a 2-0 record, 1.54 goals against average and .950 save percentage. LaCosta will likely head back to Syracuse next year, and another season of positive development should keep him on the radar for the backup job in net behind Mason over the next few years.
A surprise call-up to the Nationwide ice this past January was recent Russian import Mayorov. Considered a steal in the fourth round of the 2007 Entry Draft, thanks in part to transfer agreement issues that dropped him on many draft boards, Mayorov transitioned to North America in 2008-09 with the Syracuse Crunch. In his first lap around the AHL circuit as a teenager, Mayorov scored 17 goals and 14 assists in 71 games with the Crunch. His efforts were rewarded by the team, winning the Crunch’s rookie of the year award and looking the part of an upper-round offensive talent. The quick development of his game at the AHL level earned him a three-game appearance with the Jackets in January. While Mayorov will likely compete for an NHL job in camp this autumn, a sophomore campaign in Syracuse appears on the near horizon.