Rychel and Milano lead arrival of reinforcements in Columbus

By David Hahn
Photo: Sonny Milano was outstanding during his only season of major junior hockey, racking up 68 points in 50 games (22 goals, 46 assists) for the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers. (Courtesy of Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire)

Photo: Sonny Milano was outstanding during his only season of major junior hockey, racking up 68 points in 50 games (22 goals, 46 assists) for the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers. (Courtesy of Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

The Columbus Blue Jackets have slowly amassed a logjam of prospects at multiple positions, and the 2015-16 season represents a coming of age for a young group that has largely grown up together. The organization moved its AHL affiliate just two hours north in Cleveland, proof that some of the little things like travel time and personal instruction matter to the organization, players and personnel alike.

Those little things matter on the ice, too, where the team has multiple openings in Columbus left open, presumably for a young player to step in and earn it. Kerby Rychel is making a pretty good case for one of those spots, so too is Sonny Milano. Others are looking to establish their professional identity, while others simply are looking to earn their first chance outside of their junior, amateur, or college teams.

Pro

Top Prospect
Sonny Milano, LW, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)

Sonny Milano gained a following after posting his trick shot video prior to his draft year, but scouts fell in love with what they saw on the ice, too. After finishing his brief CHL career with the Plymouth Whalers, Milano spent a few weeks in Springfield to close out the season. His electric offensive ability is unmatched in the organization’s prospect pool, and he will likely begin 2015-16 with the Blue Jackets newly minted AHL affiliate, the Lake Erie Monsters in Cleveland, Ohio.

Milano already possesses many of the traits that will eventually help him transition to the NHL, but the team would be wise to let him continue to develop in the AHL along with fellow CHL graduate Oliver Bjorkstrand, while calling upon more polished prospects like Rychel and Josh Anderson for the big club.

Bounceback Prospect
Alex Broadhurst, C, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)

Hockey sometimes has a funny way of teaching lessons about life, just ask Alex Broadhurst. Only fifteen games into the 2014-15 season, Broadhurst found himself without a goal and then was knocked out of competition for four months thanks to a broken arm. The setback was an eye-opener for Broadhurst, who reportedly changed his habits away from the rink and looked reinvigorated upon his return, finishing the year with 14 points in 29 games with Rockford.

Broadhurst was part of the Brandon Saad trade, and is looking for a fresh start with Columbus. He looked solid in prospect camp and appears primed for a potential top-six role to begin the season. Hoping to prove he’s more than just a throw-in, Broadhurst has real potential and a fresh start should help him rekindle his development.

NHL-bound Prospect
Kerby Rychel, LW, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)

The Traverse City Prospect Tournament is a yearly tradition that offers prospects a chance to earn an invitation to their respective organization’s main roster training camps. Kerby Rychel skipped the line and went straight to the front with his performance at this year’s version, helping the Blue Jackets win their second consecutive tournament championship. He looked downright dominant at times, and was clearly among the best forwards at the event. The performance alone won’t secure a roster spot, but will go a long way towards doing so—especially if his momentum snowballs into training camp.

Junior

Top Prospect
Paul Bittner, LW, Portland Winterhawks (WHL)

There’s a lot to like about Paul Bittner’s game, and after a 71 point regular season with the powerhouse Portland Winterhawks, Bittner will head back there to prove that he is more than just the product of quality linemates. Bittner spent last season to the left of Nic Petan (WPG) and fellow Blue Jackets prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand, two highly talented offensive players.

It remains to be seen if Bittner can produce without those two, and the 2015-16 season offers an opportunity to answer those questions. Like most young prospects, he needs to work on being more consistent every night, but at this point he has shown enough to be the top junior prospect in the Blue Jackets system.

New Team in 2015-16
Kole Sherwood, RW, London Knights (OHL)

New Albany, Ohio native Kole Sherwood caught the eye of Columbus Blue Jackets General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen not far from home and just a quick drive away from Columbus while playing for the Ohio Blue Jackets U18 team. Sherwood then shined during the Blue Jackets prospect development camp and earned his entry-level contract. There was a bit of speculation regarding where Sherwood would spend the 2015-16 season, but his NHL contract ensured him that the NCAA was out of the picture and he signed with the London Knights of the OHL. The junior league will be a great test for Sherwood, who prepared himself by suiting up for a handful of games during the Traverse City tournament.

Offensive Breakout
Blake Siebenaler, D, Niagara IceDogs

If Blake Siebenaler has anything to say about it, the Niagara Ice Dogs are going to be a terror for opposing teams to handle this year. Niagara boasts a deep and veteran-laden defense corps, and the tandem of Siebenaler and Vince Dunn (STL) project as two of the top-scoring defensemen in the OHL this year. Siebenaler, in particular, has one of the hardest and most accurate shots in the league, and he unleashed that last year to the tune of 12 goals and 37 points. With increased responsibility and a tougher, older team ahead of him, there’s reason to believe Siebenaler may break out next year to eclipse his previous point totals.

Amateur

Top Prospect
Zach Werenski, D, University of Michigan (Big Ten)

It was clear that the Blue Jackets coveted a defenseman heading into the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, the question was which one was going to fall to them. Enter Zach Werenski, the Blue Jackets newly minted top prospect. Werenski blends a potent brand of offense with an effective and ever-competitive, abrasive attitude on defense as one of the more polished defenders for his age.

Despite speculation that Werenski was going to join the United States defectors with the London Knights of the OHL, Werenski remains committed to the University of Michigan. Columbus will be tempted to keep him this year, but another season as a go-to guy under the tutelage of Red Berenson will be beneficial for his development.

Unsigned for 2015-16
Ryan Collins, D, University of Minnesota (Big Ten)

Ryan Collins is entering his sophomore season at the University of Minnesota, who already deployed him in a variety of roles as a freshman. After earning the trust of his coaching staff early on, Collins started to feel more comfortable with his increased role and responsibility, and will look to carry that momentum into the 2015-16 season.

Minnesota has high hopes for Collins, who figures to be trusted with even more icetime this year. In addition, Collins is a likely candidate to return to the World Junior Championships with the United States team, one year removed from being a steady influence on the team’s blueline.

Europe

Top Prospect
Gabriel Carlsson, D, Linkoping HC (SHL)

Another player tied to the World Junior Championships is Gabriel Carlsson, a monster defenseman who went 29th overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. Columbus traded up with the Toronto Maple Leafs to take the punishing, 6-foot-4 defender who projects as a solid, if unspectacular defensive defenseman. He competed during the summer’s development camp, but returned to Sweden to get a head start on the 2015-16 SHL season. He figures to play full-time for Linkoping HC, a perennial championship contender.

Carlsson has some work to do in order to bulk up and fill out his frame further. Despite reports to the contrary, Carlsson opted to stay at home and work towards an NHL contract by playing for Linkoping, who can offer more icetime than the AHL.

Bounceback Prospect
Oscar Dansk, G, Rogle BK (SHL)

Once considered the future of the team in goal, Oscar Dansk proved how volatile the position can be with a less-than-stellar 2014-15 campaign. Dansk struggled in the AHL and was eventually moved to the ECHL, where the numbers didn’t get much better. He’s looking to push the reset button on his career by returning home to Sweden, where he will compete in the SHL with Rogle BK. He’s already earning fans and rave reviews with his 33-save performance against Frolunda, perhaps a positive sign that this venture is going to pay off. The move back to Sweden is a risky one for Dansk, but if he can regain his confidence and mental strength, Dansk might be back over in North America as soon as 2016-17.

First Year Pro
Kevin Stenlund, C, HV71 (SHL)

With less than eight minutes per night, Kevin Stenlund produced only one goal in 17 games in SHL competition last year. Still the youngest player on the roster, Stenlund is going to spend another season playing with the junior and senior teams. He’s a poised, physical player in the mold of many bottom-six talents. Stenlund has displayed a penchant for timely and highlight-reel quality goals playing in the SuperElit, but has yet to translate those skills to the SHL. Despite the trouble, Stenlund has received praise from his coaches and appears ready to appear in a more prominent role during the 2015-16 season. In addition, Stenlund should get a look for Sweden’s World Junior Championship squad, which would be a big boost for his confidence and maturation.