For the past three years, the Columbus Blue Jackets have used first and second round draft picks to steadily build a solid defensive core for the club’s future.
At the 2015 NHL Draft, the Blue Jackets used their two first round selections on defensemen, including the University of Michigan’s Zach Werenski (eighth overall) and Linkoping defender Gabriel Carlsson (29th overall). In 2013, the team chose Swift Current Broncos rearguard Dillon Heatherington with the 50th pick in that draft, and in 2012 used the second pick overall to choose current Blue Jacket Ryan Murray.
Another of the high profile picks at defense for Columbus is University of Minnesota sophomore Ryan Collins. Collins was chosen 47th overall by the team at the 2014 NHL Draft out of USA Hockey’s National Development Team Program (NTDP).
With a season under his belt in the NCAA and as an NHL prospect, the 6’5” and 205-pound Collins looks back on the 2014-15 season as one that, while rewarding, was also not without some disappointment.
“I think things went pretty well,” said Collins. “It wasn’t easy last year – as a team, we didn’t make it as far as we wanted to in international or in college, but I’m hoping to repeat both this year and make it farther in both.”
The Golden Gophers entered the 2014-15 season as a team to beat for the national title after having lost to Union College in the 2014 NCAA championship game. The team did finish atop the Big Ten standings and won the conference tournament, but failed to advance to the 2015 Frozen Four.
Last season, Collins was paired primarily with Brady Skjei, who has now signed an NHL contract with the New York Rangers and has moved on to the pro game. Working with a two-way defender like Skjei allowed Collins to concentrate on his strengths in his first year of college hockey.
“I think, within a team, there is roles that need to be filled, and I think the role I needed to fill was to be a shutdown defenseman playing with Brady Skjei, and that’s what I focused on because that’s what we needed on the team,” said Collins.
While acknowledging that he is viewed as more of a defensive defenseman, Collins has hopes of adding to his repertoire in the 2015-16 season.
“I think part of that, again, is that there are roles that need to be filled, and something that I want to be relied on more is being able to be a guy that you want out there in the last five minutes of a game whether you are up a goal or down a goal,” said the Bloomington, MN native. “That’s something I’m working on this summer with Coach (Mike) Guentzel, and hopefully something I implement in my game.”
While Collins is a sizable player, his 14 penalty minutes in 2014-15 suggests that he isn’t necessarily the type that will use his size to crush an opposing player. Instead, he acknowledges that he uses his size in a more heady manner.
“Absolutely,” stated Collins. “I think my physicality is focused on the defensive zone, shutting guys down even if they move the puck, making sure I’m always finishing my check and being assertive and not making it easy for them to skate around, just knowing that I’m gonna be there if they do.”
Collins is another in a long list of Minnesota-born players to attend the University of Minnesota, and with good reason. Head Coach Don Lucia has an excellent track record of developing players while also keeping the program successful during his now 16-year tenure. Collins is certainly mindful of both the wisdom of the coaching staff, as well as the tradition of winning that Lucia has instilled.
“He’s taught us a lot,” said Collins of Lucia. “Obviously growing up, you’re able to see him coach. I went to tons of games, and you dream of playing for the Gophers and being under the coaching staff of Don Lucia and Coach Guentzel on defense, especially. It was great this year, and hopefully it’ll be great again this next year.”
In addition to preparing for his sophomore season at Minnesota, Collins is also looking to land a spot on Team USA‘s roster for the 2016 World Junior Championship that will take place in Helsinki, Finland. Collins was a part of last year’s team that finished a disappointing fifth and out of medal contention, the second straight year of doing so after having won gold at the 2013 WJC.
While the sting of finishing out of the money hasn’t been forgotten, Collins and his USA teammates may have gained some wisdom from those disappointing finishes.
“I think the main lesson is, obviously the game we lost, we don’t want to do that again,” acknowledged Collins. “It’s two years in a row that we’ve taken the opponent lightly in the quarterfinals, and that’s something we don’t want to do again.”
Should he make this year’s squad, Collins will be competing for another high profile coach, former NHL head coach Ron Wilson. Wilson wants his USA charges to play more of a pressure game at this year’s WJC, a style that is already familiar to Collins.
“Coach Wilson’s focusing on making sure the ‘D’ are up in the play, so if there’s a turnover or a chance to pinch and hold the puck in the zone, obviously we want to keep possession,” Collins explained. “That’s similar to the way that we play at Minnesota, and it’s a style that I like.”
Aside from the obvious team goals and self improvement, Collins indicated some specific areas that he would like to address in the 2015-16 campaign.
“Like we were talking about earlier, obviously I want to implement a little more offense in my game, kind of round my game off more than last year, have a little more confidence,” Collins said of the individual parts of his game he would like to improve. “Just as far as the team goes, be a leader and show the example for the nine incoming freshman that we have.”
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