Several Columbus Blue Jackets prospects primed for big things in 2014-15

By Richard Greco

Seth Ambroz - Columbus Blue Jackets

Photo: Forward Seth Ambroz will be looking to have a strong senior season with the University of Minnesota. Ambroz was a fifth round pick in the 2011 NHL Draft. (courtesy of Brian Ekart/Icon Sportswire)

 

For the first time in a while, the Columbus Blue Jackets are not consistently loaded with prospects across every level of hockey. With its second wave of players declaring their professional status, Columbus does not have the volume of prospects playing in Europe and the NCAA the way they did in years prior.

That being said a lot of those players (Alexander Wennberg, Kerby Rychel, Marko Dano, Michael Chaput, among others) are now competing for a spot in the NHL and should they not make the team have spots waiting for them in Springfield.

Pro

Top Pro Prospect
Alexander Wennberg, C, Columbus Blue Jackets (NHL)/Springfield Falcons (AHL)

Comfortable is the best way to describe how Wennberg looked while centering Dano and Oliver Bjorkstrand in the Traverse City Prospects Tournament in September. Although he only had two points through the tournament, Wennberg’s intelligence on the ice played a crucial role as Columbus claimed the Traverse City championship. His line was responsible for eight goals during the tournament.

Smart is the word that gets thrown around the most when describing the 6’1 forward. He recognizes the importance of playing defensively responsible as center and has the speed to get back in his own zone. On the offensive side of things, he plays an extremely relaxed game and makes high-percentage plays. The versatility surrounding the 20-year-old’s game allows him to excel on both the power play and penalty kill.

NHL-Bound
Tim Erixon, D, Columbus Blue Jackets (NHL)

Erixon has been behind the eight ball for most of his time with the Blue Jackets. Ever since he was acquired from the Rangers two years ago as part of a package for Rick Nash, Erixon has not earned the consistent playing time that he hoped. After agreeing to a one-way deal with the Blue Jackets in July, the Swedish defender has his eyes on the vacant spot left behind by Nikita Nikitin, who signed with Edmonton in the offseason. He will be up against David Savard and Dalton Prout for one of the two spots on Columbus’ third pairing.

Erixon is an NHL caliber defender and has been for the past few seasons. He has looked great in the AHL during his two years with the Falcons. The 23-year-old has been adding muscle to his 6’3 frame and remained in Columbus this summer to increase his strength. He has the mobility to join the rush and knows where to position himself in the offensive zone.

Offensive Breakout
Marko Dano, C/LW, Springfield Falcon (AHL)

Dano’s stats in the KHL never turned many heads and last year was no different. In his final season with HC Slovan Bratislava, he had five points in 41 games. However, if there were any questions as to whether or not he could be a force offensively, Dano silenced the critics after joining the Springfield Falcons following the KHL season. In 10 regular season games he surpassed his KHL point total with six points, two goals and four assists. His immediate success earned him a spot on the Falcons post season roster and he added two assists in five playoff games.

The Ryan Johansen hold out and the injury to Boone Jenner leaves a window of opportunity for Dano to crack Columbus’ roster as a fourth line center. He has filled out his frame and is strong enough to hold his own on the ice. He uses his strong legs to keep balance in high-traffic areas and is good enough at stick handling to keep control of the puck. His grittiness, defensive prowess, and faceoff ability make him an ideal penalty killer. While he will likely spend most of his season on an extremely young Springfield team, Dano will be playing in a top-six role, which will be crucial for his development.

Junior

Top Junior Prospect
Oliver Bjorkstrand, RW, Portland Winterhawks (WHL)

Oliver Bjorkstrand lite the lamp 66 times for the Portland Winterhawks last season. He scored 50 goals during the regular season and added 16 more as the Winterhawks battled to the Western Hockey League final. If he did one thing better than scoring that was setting up his teammates for scoring chances. The shifty winger had 59 assists during the regular season and 17 assists in the postseason. Last year saw Bjorkstrand come into his own. There were questions surrounding whether he could be effective on Portland’s top line, and he made it known that he could.

Bjorkstrand is built to score goals. He uses a heavy wrist shot with a quick release to fool goaltenders and is able to get open by staying slightly behind on the rush. He is not overly fast, but uses his acceleration to switch gears with ease and beat defenders in one-on-one battles. His stick-handling is one of his biggest assets. He has the potential to make some flashy plays, which has worked to his advantage in the WHL.

Offensive Breakout
Blake Siebenaler, D, Niagara IceDogs (OHL)

Siebenaler had a great rookie season with 30 points in 68 games. His offensive upside caught the eye of the Blue Jackets scouts and since Columbus is loaded with defensive defenders, Siebenaler was an ideal third round pick. He excels at all the things you would hope an offensive defenseman could do. He makes crisp tape-to-tape passes to start rushes, has good puck control at the point and shoots a low shot that attacking forwards can deflect in front of the net.

While his first year saw him produce offensively, this year should yield a nice spike in his production. With a huge offensively ceiling, the big breakout for Siebenaler needs to come in his own zone. As the season went on and especially in the post season, the Ohio-product began playing more consistently in his own end of the ice. He needs to continue improving his defensive positioning and learning to differentiate when to join the rush and when to stay at home.

New Team for 2014-15
Markus Soberg, RW, Windsor Spitfires (OHL)

After being grabbed by the Spitfires in the first round of the CHL import draft this summer, Soberg has decided to make the trip over to North America. The 19-year-old spent most of last season competing in the SuperElit with Frolunda J20. He was successful at that level with 38 point in 45 games. He joins a Spitfires squad that finished fifth in the Western Conference and was swept by the London Knights in the first round.

There is a lot of potential surrounding the winger. He has a lanky frame and uses his long legs to get down ice quickly. He has some finesse moves, but mostly relies on his balance to play strong on the puck. Playing in the OHL should help Soberg bulk up as well as let him begin to play a more gritty game.

Amateur

Top Amateur Prospect
Mike Reilly, D, Minnesota Golden Gophers (Big Ten)

The reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year broke out for the Gophers last season. He led Big Ten defenders with 33 points and played responsible in his own zone for the conference’s top defense. He was also a unanimous selection to the Big Ten’s preseason players to watch list.

Reilly has developed soundly in a Minnesota program that has been grooming capable defenders for a while now. He has bulked up, putting on 30 pounds since his draft day, and has matured as a defender. His offensive-minded game rarely gets him into trouble and he has the speed to get back in position if he is caught joining the rush. With a ceiling as high as Reilly’s and still two more years to develop under Don Lucia, the 21-year-old has the potential to be something special on the blue line for Columbus.

Freshman to Watch
Tyler Bird, RW, Brown Bears (ECAC)

After playing on one of the top lines in high school hockey at Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire, Bird headed to Rhode Island to play for Brown University. Following a senior season that earned Kimball Union the NEPSAC Simmons/Piatelli Championship, Bird and his linemates went their separate ways. Bird and his linemates seemed to fit like a puzzle and complemented each other in nearly every aspect of the game. Prior to his addition to that line, Bird was good, but not the head turner that entered the draft last year.

It will be very interesting to see how the lanky 6’3 winger develops at Brown. He has a heavy shot that gave goaltenders a ton of trouble in high school and he worked hard in front of the net. As long as his instincts for being around the crease continue and he is able to put on 30 pounds or so, Bird could develop into a decent power forward.

Unsigned for 2015-16
Seth Ambroz, RW, Minnesota Golden Gophers (Big Ten)

Entering his senior year at Minnesota, Ambroz has his last chance to impress the Blue Jackets. After falling to the fifth round of the 2011 Draft, Ambroz only tallied eight points in his freshman year. From there he has steadily improved, but really has not had that breakout season that the Blue Jackets were hoping for.

There is no doubt Ambroz has size, standing at 6’3, 216 pounds. He plays with a lot of grit as well, which is something that Columbus seems to be tailoring its team around. But his hard shot has not wowed anybody just yet. His solid frame gives him the potential to be dangerous around the net and his physicality has checking line written all it. The power forward was named an alternate captain this year and while he will likely be signed with Columbus following the season, will need to continue his progression to put his best statistical season together.

Europe

Top Prospect
Daniel Zaar, RW/LW, Lulea (SHL)

Zaar has been on fire to open the season. He has eight points, three goals and five assists, in seven games playing for Lulea in the SHL. The shifty winger dominated the Allsvenskan last season with his play making ability and his passing only got better in the Kvalserien. His offensive instincts are his biggest asset and his speed has been consistently improving. He is able to get open the rush and has a very nice one timer. While Zaar leaves a bit to be desired on defense, his offensive ability makes him standout on the ice.

Bounceback Prospect
Joonas Korpisalo, G, Ilves (Liiga)

Korpisalo had a season to forget last year. While his numbers were not terrible, he was loaned out on four different occasions and played for six different teams. His constant traveling preventing him for sustaining any consistency. He played in the most games with Ilves, eight, and that is where he started this season. He also was most successful with Ilves having a 1.42 goals against average and that success transferred over to his first three game this year. He has a 1.35 goals against average.

Columbus has a lot of depth at the goaltending position and the athletic Korpisalo seems to be the odd man out. He needs to have a consistent season to be able to catch up with fellow prospects Oscar Dansk and Anton Forsberg, who are battling for the a spot in Springfield.

New Team for 2014-15
Elvis Merzlikins, G, Lugano (NLA)

After splitting time between Lugano and Lugano U20, Merzlikins opened this season in the Swiss National League A. The Latvian-born netminder is off to a good start with a 2.41 goals against average in his first three games. The upside surrounding Merzlikins seems endless. He is extremely athletic, plays aggressively in the crease, and can handle the puck well. He is not afraid to use any part of his body to make a save and has pretty sound rebound control.

The thing to watch about Merzlikins is his composure as he enters his first full season in the NLA. He has been able to get away with overplaying situations in the junior leagues, but his aggressiveness may get him into some trouble in the NLA.