While the Columbus Blue Jackets have had a very strong prospect pool for the past few years, their farm team has struggled, failing to make the playoffs in the last three seasons. Last year, the club began a partnership with the Springfield Falcons after having their farm team play out of Syracuse for ten years. The Falcons posted a record of 35-40-2-3, finishing fifth last in league-wide standings.
The team featured some promising young talent, but injuries and NHL call-ups played a vital role in their tough season; not to mention, the Falcons blue line was filled with young and inexperienced – though promising – defenders. The Falcons need improvements in every aspect if they are to be a playoff team this season, but with added depth both up front and on the back-end, and the maturation of younger players, they should be a more competitive team.
Up front, the Falcons will be relying on veteran AHL players and promising youngsters. GM Scott Howson made several organizational depth signings in the off-season; moves that are likely to benefit the Falcons much more than the Blue Jackets.
For the past few seasons, the Blue Jackets lacked high-scoring veteran AHL forwards; instead, the bulk of the goal scoring had been left to rookies and younger players still trying to learn the nuances of the game. This off-season Scott Howson seemed to address the issue, bringing in Alexandre Giroux and Martin St. Pierre who have respective AHL career highs of 103 and 99 points. Giroux spent 2010-11 in the Edmonton Oilers organization, recording 78 points in 70 games for the Oklahoma City Barons, while St. Pierre is returning to North America after bouncing around in Europe last season. Both players will likely play top-line minutes for the Falcons, giving the team their most potent offensive threats in recent memory.
One of the most impressive young forwards on last year’s team was Thomas Kubalik. He’ll begin the year in Springfield, and while he isn’t expected to last the full season, he should provide solid offensive contributions along to go along with his improving physical play. Cam Atkinson, who spent the past three seasons racking up points at Boston College, will be expected to chip in offensively as well, especially if injuries occur or Kubalik earns an NHL call-up earlier than expected. He registered five points in five games with Springfield at the end of last season and had an impressive training camp with Columbus; expectations are that he’ll have the same type of impact that Matt Calvert had on the Falcons last season. He will begin the season in Columbus mostly due to injuries, so unless he has a great offensive showing, he’ll likely see the majority of the season in Springfield. Another rookie that should see significant playing time is Oliver Gabriel, though it’ll likely be on the third or fourth line in a forechecking role. He is eligible to be sent back to junior to play as an overager, however.
A trio of AHL veterans – Nicholas Drazenovic, Dane Byers, and Ryan Russell – will be counted on to provide secondary scoring and physical play. Byers recorded 25 points in 48 games for the Falcons last year, while Russell and Drazenovic came to the organization as off-season acquisitions.
While the Falcons offense will likely be led by older, more experienced players, their defense consists of a cast of younger, but talented and promising blueliners. Former first round pick John Moore will begin his second straight season in the AHL and will likely get first-pairing minutes and play in all situations. He’ll not only be expected to contribute more offensively but will also be expected to lower last season’s team worst minus-27. Cody Goloubef, also entering his second year with the Falcons, should also see an increase in ice-time and expectations.
The club will likely receive contributions from rookies Anton Blomqvist and Dalton Prout this season, but it is not inconceivable that both spend some time in the ECHL given the glut of defensemen in the Blue Jackets organization.
A trio of veterans will also be featured on the Falcons back-end: Nick Holden, Brent Regner, and Aaron Johnson. All three are also candidates to spend time in Columbus if any significant injuries arise, but they’ll likely spend the majority of the year as key clogs on the Falcons blue line. Both Holden and Regner are in the final year of their contracts; they’ll both need to make improvements if they are to remain with the organization past this year.
The Blue Jackets have not had a promising goaltending prospect play in the AHL since the early days of Dan LaCosta, and after several years of mediocre goaltending, the organization hopes that Allen York can provide the Falcons with steady play between the pipes.
Curtis Sanford is expected to provide veteran experience to York, but will likely be with Columbus for the first few weeks of the season due to the injury to Mark Dekanich. Beyond Sanford, the organization has Paul Dainton, an undrafted rookie, to back up York.
Rob Riley will be returning for his second season as coach of the Falcons. He coached last year’s team to a 35-40-2-3 record, but that record reflects a lack of offense and goaltending more so than it does his coaching. Former NHLers Brad Larsen and Nolan Pratt are Riley’s assistants. Their combined playing experience should be an asset for young players on the Falcons.
The past three seasons, a seemingly fringe-type prospect has established his self at training camp. The last two were Thomas Kubalik and Matt Calvert, and this year it was Cam Atkinson. The diminutive winger scored two goals and added two assists in the pre-season, and for the time being, has secured a spot on the Blue Jackets. Once the team is fully healthy, Atkinson is the obvious choice to go to Springfield with his two-way contract, but for now, he’ll get every opportunity to showcase his talent at the NHL level.
After Atkinson, the Blue Jackets opening night lineup will likely feature two more rookie forwards: Ryan Johansen and Maksim Mayorov. Johansen scored two goals in the pre-season after having an impressive showing at the Traverse City rookie tournament, while Mayorov registered four points. Johansen’s complete game was also impressive; his play made it clear that he has nothing left to learn in junior. Likewise, Maksim Mayorov seems to have finally made the proper adjustments and improvements in his game; he asserted himself physically and looked a lot more dangerous offensively.
On the blue line, David Savard had a great camp, and will at least begin the season in Columbus. He scored a goal and added three assists in the pre-season, and will be expected to be continue such contributions if he is to stick in the NHL. He looked sharp on the power-play and will likely skate on one of the team’s power-play units, at least until James Wisniewski returns.
Other than Johansen, none of the Jackets’ junior-aged prospects received a great deal of playing time. However, Boone Jenner stood out in his time at camp, and even managed to score a goal in the team’s first pre-season game.