It has been a disastrous beginning for the Columbus Blue Jackets, who started the season without a win through their first seven games before dismissing Head Coach Todd Richards in favor of John Tortorella. Changes to the personnel also happened, as the team shifted bodies around to try and get out of the predicament.
That said, General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen made a significant number of moves this offseason, including one major trade that shook up the foundation of the franchise. There are a number of newly drafted prospects that entered the prospect pool, and their addition resulted in a shift on the depth chart.
The Blue Jackets still boast one of the strongest systems in the NHL, and a number of these new faces are now competing professionally for the first time. The very core of the team has taken on a new identity, as players like Kerby Rychel, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Sonny Milano, and Michael Paliotta lead the way.
The newest addition to the left side of the ice within the Blue Jackets organization, Paul Bittner, is also among the largest. At 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, Bittner is an intimidating presence and is only just learning how to properly use it. His real growth will come this fall, where Bittner will be relied upon to provide offense for the Portland Winterhawks without the help of fellow Blue Jacket’s prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand.
With the change in AHL affiliation from Springfield to Cleveland, the Lake Erie Monsters franchise becomes the newest affiliate and one reason why Rychel won’t be racking up as many frequent flyer miles. Rychel was recalled on a few occasions last year, and has already spent time at both levels this year. Rychel is a budding power-forward with plenty of offensive upside, and should continue to make the quick trip between Cleveland and Columbus this year.
Rychel will be joined at Lake Erie by Markus Hannikainen, who is in the midst of his first year in North America following a 46-point season in Finland. He’s not expected to crack the Blue Jackets lineup right away, but could provide depth down the road.
In a little less than one calendar year, Julien Pelletier is playing for his third QMJHL team. Now with the Sherbrooke Phoenix, he has quite a bit of improving to do just to get back to his previous career-high point total of 50. He had a down year last season, but is off to a nice start and could be a nice piece for Sherbrooke.
Oslo, Norway native Markus Soberg is currently on the shelf after having surgery to repair a hernia. His rough-and-tumble nature makes it imperative that he completely recovers, and the Windsor Spitfires are patiently awaiting his arrival.
Columbus is blessed with a number of prospects that could find their way to the NHL this year waiting in the wings in the AHL. Among them, Sonny Milano is the most talented, and also the most risky. Milano is a supremely talented player with the puck, but will need to correct some deficiencies away from the puck. While it’s undecided what forward position he will play moving forward, there’s almost no doubt that Milano will be a big part of the World Junior Championships playing for the United States.
Already in the NHL, William “Wild Bill” Karlsson has showcased above-average skating ability and a penchant for tenacious forechecking, and is quickly becoming a fan favorite. His NHL point totals will never be gaudy, but he’s the type of player that can chip in here and there while being a reliable option at both ends of the ice.
Built from a similar mold, Columbus boasts a number of two-way centers lining up in Lake Erie – Alex Broadhurst, Michael Chaput, Lukas Sedlak, and T.J. Tynan. In particular, Broadhurst and Tynan offer a more offensive look, while Chaput and Sedlak project as capable bottom-six penalty killers. It’s possible that one player from his group separates himself from the pack, but it’s unlikely that this group would make a long-term impact in the NHL.
Kevin Stenlund returned to Sweden this year and is expected to make more of an impact playing for HV71 in the SHL. Early results were not promising, as the youngster failed to register a point and subsequently was recently loaned to HC Vita Hasten of the Allsvenskan. The move should afford Stenlund more playing time and an opportunity to regain some confidence in order to salvage his season.
Due to the logjam of forwards in Lake Erie, Peter Quenneville was sent down to Cincinnati of the ECHL. On an AHL-contract, the former Brandon Wheat Kings captain will have to impress with the Cyclones in order to climb up the depth chart.
After back-to-back seasons with at least 100 points, Bjorkstrand will breathe some fresh air into the Blue Jackets system. Bjorkstrand excelled at every level he played at last year, including the WJC’s—where he guided Denmark to its first ever win in the tournament. The WHL Player of the Year in 2014-15 is making the transition to professional hockey, and is one of the most important names to keep an eye on this year.
Joining him in Lake Erie, Josh Anderson and Daniel Zaar are both going to start the season a little late after suffering injuries in training camp. Anderson brings a unique physical presence to any team, and Zaar is beginning his first season in North America after a successful 2014-15 with Lulea of the SHL. With a projection that mirrors Anderson’s, Nick Moutrey is also a rookie in the AHL and brings a similar brand of hockey to the table. After four consistent years at the University of Minnesota, Seth Ambroz is hoping to cultivate success as he attempts to break into the Monsters lineup on a daily basis.
In junior hockey, Kole Sherwood has a new team this year and will be spending it with the London Knights, who brought in a number of talented American skaters in the offseason. Early indications are promising, as the Ohio native is among the Knights leading scorers. Early results are also positive for Keegan Kolesar, who has added a new offensive dimension in Seattle of the WHL to go along with his gritty play style.
Playing for Brown University, the only way to go is up for Tyler Bird. Entering his sophomore season, Bird is hoping to improve from a two goal, two assist freshman year. He will compete with Brown in a four-team tournament in Belfast, Ireland in late November.
Heading into the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, the Blue Jackets felt they had a deficiency on the blueline and opted to select six new defenders. The cream of the crop was Zach Werenski, who despite rumors that he was going to play junior hockey, returned to the University of Michigan for a sophomore season. Also taken in the first round is Swedish defenseman Gabriel Carlsson, who plays a safe and consistent defensive game. Carlsson is currently suiting up for Linkoping’s SHL team and their SuperElit team, soaking up all the icetime he can get.
From there, the team has a number of players who are on the verge of the NHL roster playing for Lake Erie. The best of the bunch is Paliotta, who was acquired with Brandon Saad in this summer’s blockbuster trade. Paliotta is fresh off being named Hockey East’s Best Defensive Defenseman as captain of the Vermont Catamounts.
From there, the club has a number of two-way defensemen that are going to compete for playing time and hope to catch the eye of the big club when the need arises. Dillon Heatherington figures to be the first name considered, largely due to his draft pedigree and consistent, four-year career with Swift Current of the WHL. Austin Madaisky added a surprisingly effective offensive game last year, and could be a key underrated returnee this year. The largest defenseman in the system is Oleg Yevenko, who at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds is an advanced-level prospect who has plenty of room for growth this year.
With one player in each of the CHL’s three leagues, the Blue Jackets boast an underrated group in Blake Siebenaler, Sam Ruopp, and Olivier LeBlanc. Siebenaler has one of the OHL’s hardest shots, and is soaking up all the icetime he can handle playing for the Niagara IceDogs. Ruopp is back in Prince George as team captain, and is a big reason why the team is over .500 for the first time in over two calendar years. Making a similar impact for his team is LeBlanc, who has been an assist machine for Cape Breton and could potentially be a part of Canada’s WJC team this holiday season.
Finishing off this group is a duo of intriguing European prospects. Former Russian U20 WJC captain Vladislav Gavrikov began the year playing nearly 18-minutes per night for Lokomotiv in the KHL, but sustained an injury and will be out for the next month or so. Having similar success on the ice, Markus Nutivaara has been a puck-moving rearguard for Karpat in Finland. He has already tripled his production from last year, and could potentially finish as one of the top scoring defensemen in Liiga.
With a widely varied group of goaltenders in the system, the 2015-16 season will be critical in separating the contenders from the pretenders. With Sergei Bobrovsky playing a strong majority of the games, it will take an injury or a bad year by longtime veteran Curtis McElhinney if Anton Forsberg is going to play again in the NHL.
Forsberg appeared in 30 games at the AHL level last year and performed admirably, but didn’t translate that success in the NHL when called upon. He will face stiff competition in Lake Erie from Joonas Korpisalo, who finally arrived in North America and through two games has yet to give up a goal, earning two shutouts and the trust and respect of his teammates in the process.
Formerly considered the future in goal, Oscar Dansk departed for home and preferred to spend the season in Sweden with Rogle BK of the SHL. The experiment has paid early dividends, as Dansk is statistically among the top-five in the league in both goals-against average and save percentage through his first 11 games.
Another netminder who has an uncertain NHL future is Elvis Merzlikins, who is back with HC Lugano in Switzerland and is getting the majority of the starts this year. To date, he has posted the best numbers of his career and will hope his strong start carries over through the entire season as the year grinds on.