There are a number of Columbus Blue Jackets prospects off to fast starts in junior hockey. Among them, Paul Bittner is trying to adjust to life without fellow Blue Jackets prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand in Portland. Kole Sherwood is an underrated addition to the London Knights lineup, and Olivier LeBlanc is an exciting prospect plying his trade in Cape Breton.
Plenty more prospects are working on their game and trying to earn professional contracts, while a number of older players are helping to guide the team’s AHL affiliate to success as we take a look at the best performers during the first quarter of the season.
Blake Siebenaler, D, Niagara IceDogs
Acquired: 3rd round (77th overall), 2014
When Blake Siebenaler first joined the Niagara IceDogs after leaving the USHL in 2013, he brought an energetic, offensive-minded game to the team. Since then, Siebenaler has become a more well-rounded defenseman under the tutelage of Head Coach Marty Williamson. Already possessing one of the hardest shots in the OHL, Siebenaler posted back-to-back 30-point seasons, but something is out of place this year. Perhaps due to a tweak in the IceDogs system, or the fact that he has been utilized on a top pairing with Vince Dunn (STL), his goal production is way behind pace. He has all the tools to succeed in the OHL, and this year has been a give-and-take of strategic development and carefully executed game planning.
Kole Sherwood, RW, London Knights
Acquired: Signed as a free agent, July 2015
With an offseason recruiting class that included Toronto Maple Leafs prospect J.J. Piccinich and talented NHL draft-eligible skaters Matthew Tkachuk and Max Jones, it’s been London Knights forward Kole Sherwood that has been the most consistent. An Ohio native, Sherwood grew up playing in the Blue Jackets junior program and now lines up for one of the most powerful franchises in the OHL. Willing to do just about anything for the benefit of the team, he has added a physical element to the Knights, and has done the dirty work for his linemates. Through the first two months of the season, Sherwood has eight goals and 12 assists, proving to be a trustworthy option for a team that has high aspirations.
Markus Soberg, LW, Windsor Spitfires
Acquired: 6th round (165th overall), 2013
It’s a rare occurrence in junior hockey these days when a European player is given a roster spot as a 20-year-old overage player. Rather than cutting him loose, the Windsor Spitfires opted to have Markus Soberg return to the team after posting 30 points in 61 games last year. Facing a difficult injury situation due to a hernia, Soberg had offseason surgery to correct the problem and got a late start to the year. With a number of established players ahead of him in the lineup upon his return, Soberg has had difficulty finding chemistry. With four points in nine games, Soberg hasn’t been productive for a team that prides itself in their work ethic.
Olivier LeBlanc, D, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles
Acquired: 7th round (197th overall), 2014
One of the most exciting defenseman competing in the QMJHL this year is Olivier LeBlanc, who is now in his fourth season in the league. The former Saint John Sea Dogs captain was dealt to Cape Breton in early January, and this year has been the team’s marquee defender alongside partner Loik Leveille. LeBlanc is already halfway to his career-high point total of 34, and has developed incredible chemistry with Detroit Red Wings prospect Evgeny Svechnikov on special teams. Able to play in many different situations, LeBlanc is well on his way to a career year. He was rewarded by his inclusion on Team QMJHL during this month’s CHL Canada Russia Series.
Julien Pelletier, LW, Sherbrooke Phoenix
Acquired: 4th round (107th overall), 2014
With plenty of hockey left to play, Julien Pelletier is hoping to avoid long stretches of inconsistent play for a team expecting a lot from him. After a disappointing October, one where he was held scoreless in eight of 13 games, Pelletier is starting to show signs of life in November. A five game point streak kicked off a change of pace for the shifty and efficient forward, capped off by a two goal, two assist performance in a 4-1 victory over Shawinigan.
Paul Bittner, LW, Portland Winterhawks
Acquired: 2nd round (38th overall), 2015
With fellow Blue Jackets prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand no longer on the right side of the ice, Paul Bittner’s adjustment to being the go-to guy in Portland has been a polarizing story. Bittner, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound power forward, has been given additional offensive responsibilities and began the year off with a bang. Now that teams have had time to make adjustments, Bittner has seen an increase in talent opposing him, and offense has been difficult to come by. With just two goals in his last 13 games, Bittner’s production is way behind his career average, but despite the supposed setback, the team is still scoring and Bittner has been helpful away from the puck.
Keegan Kolesar, RW, Seattle Thunderbirds
Acquired: 3rd round (69th overall), 2015
It might have taken three years to see on a consistent basis, but Keegan Kolesar is breaking the mold and becoming an offensive powerhouse. Known for his pugilistic tendencies, Kolesar was a surprising third-round pick of the Blue Jackets in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. Columbus stretched their draft board and went for Kolesar, a hard-nosed winger that has found himself in unfamiliar territory this year. Currently sitting eighth in overall league scoring with 15 goals and 16 assists, the Blue Jackets might just have themselves one of the WHL’s breakout stars.
Sam Ruopp, D, Prince George Cougars
Acquired: 5th round (129th overall), 2015
One of the team’s steadiest performers over the last two years, Prince George Cougars defenseman Sam Ruopp has been a positive influence on a young blueline. After helping the Blue Jackets prospects to a Traverse City tournament victory, his 2015-16 campaign has been an up-and-down affair. Among the hardest hitters in the league and most feared defenders, Ruopp has been challenged to do more with the puck this year with mixed results. He certainly won’t be found rushing the puck coast-to-coast, but his influence on the game, especially in the offensive zone, must improve if the Cougars want to break through a long stretch of mediocrity.
Top Performing Non-Junior Prospects
Outside of junior hockey, there are a number of notable prospects off to quality starts. William “Wild Bill” Karlsson is trying to stick with the Blue Jackets for a full season, and is bringing an energetic brand of hockey to the team. Fellow rookies Josh Anderson and Kerby Rychel both have had stints with the team in support roles. Rychel in particular was playing quality hockey with the Lake Erie Monsters, the team’s new AHL affiliate, and had four goals and seven assists in 10 games before his recall.
One of the younger teams in the AHL, the Monsters also happen to be among the best, sitting in second place in the Central Division with a 10-3-0-2 record. Contributing to their success are T.J. Tynan and Alex Broadhurst, who both recently surpassed the 10-point mark just a handful of games into the season. Not too far behind them, one of the team’s most exciting prospects, Sonny Milano, has three goals and four assists in 15 games as he adjusts to life in the AHL.
Prospect of the Month: Joonas Korpisalo
Expected to be the full-time starter, Anton Forsberg has played well enough to win, but is falling behind statistically to rookie netminder Joonas Korpisalo, the Blue Jackets Prospect of the Month. Forsberg finished 3-1 in the month of October, including two one-goal-against performances against Iowa and Manitoba. Not to be trumped, Korpisalo responded with a pair of shutouts against the same foes, including one rare performance where he unfortunately conceded in a shootout loss but was statistically awarded with his second shutout. Korpisalo finished the month with a 1.58 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage. This competition will be one to watch moving forward as Korpisalo pushes for additional playing time.