Since Jarmo Kekäläinen took over the general manager duties for the Columbus Blue Jackets, the organization has shown a fondness for European prospects, particularly in the later rounds. The 2015 NHL Draft was a prime example of that when the Jackets went overseas for five of their nine draft picks, and given the success of some of those picks already it’s a trend that could be expected to continue.
The Jackets also selected NCAA-bound players with three selections in the past two drafts. Both options give the team flexibility and patience with regard to monitoring and developing their prospects. Interestingly enough, of the team’s 10 prospects who either played in Europe or the NCAA this season, only two are forwards, with the remaining eight being goaltenders or defensemen.
Tyler Bird, RW, Brown University (ECAC)
Drafted: 5th round, 137th overall, 2014
A 6’2, 202lb winger with underrated offensive instincts, Tyler Bird finished his sophomore season at Brown University with eight points in 31 games, up from four points in 27 games the year prior. Those numbers might look a little low, but it should be noted that Bird, in his second year with the team, was still one of the youngest players for Brown and primarily filled out a checking-line role for head coach Brendan Whittet. Two of the team’s top three scorers, Nick Lappin and Mark Naclerio, have already graduated and signed pro deals, meaning there will be greater opportunity for Bird next season.
And Bird has the capability to move up further in Whittet’s lineup. Prior to joining Brown in 2014-15, the Massachusetts native finished second in points (60) and first in goals (33) for Kimball Union Academy through 37 games. He also scored three of his six goals this season in Brown’s final six games, so he’ll carry momentum into his junior season.
Zach Werenski, D, University of Michigan (Big 10)
Drafted: 1st round, 8th overall, 2015
Big Ten Defenseman of the Year Zach Werenski was a stud on the blueline for the Wolverines and the United States World Junior team, which he captained, this season. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Werenski came off a 25-point freshman campaign and improved upon that in 2015-16 with 35 points through 36 games, which ranked third among all blueliners in the nation. Seven of his 11 goals this season came on the power-play and three were game-winners.
The 6’2, 214lb rearguard plays more like a smaller defenseman with great mobility, though that isn’t to say he doesn’t necessarily use his size effectively. But he’s adept at using that size without taking penalties—he recorded just 15 minors in two seasons for Michigan. It’s obvious that Werenski has done enough to warrant not only an NHL contract this summer, but also a chance to crack the Blue Jackets roster in 2016-17. He could return for his junior season for the Wolverines, but that seems unlikely.
Ryan Collins, D, University of Minnesota (Big Ten)
Drafted: 2nd round, 47th overall, 2014
Thought to be a bottom-pairing blueliner for the United States World Junior team, it was a somewhat disappointing season for Ryan Collins. The 6’4, 204lb defenseman had nine points in 32 games as a freshman last season, but recorded just four assists in 29 games this season and was a team-worst minus-four for the Golden Gophers. In January, he was a healthy scratch for the first time in his collegiate career.
All of Minnesota’s defensemen are eligible to return next season, meaning Collins will need to have a big summer and a strong start to 2016-17 to regain the trust of head coach Don Lucia.
Kevin Stenlund, C, HV71 (SHL)
Drafted: 2nd round, 58th overall, 2015
After a 17-game stint with HV71 last season, big-bodied Kevin Stenlund wasn’t able to find his comfort zone offensively this season, though he did stick with the team for most of the season, playing in 43 regular season games, where he had just two points. The 6’4, 201lb pivot projects more as a defensive, third-line center in the NHL, so the low point total isn’t a concern, especially because he also recorded 24 points in 17 games with HV71’s under-20 team.
Stenlund averaged a little more than eight minutes per game with HV71 in the regular season and they have kept him to that total in the postseason, where he had one goal in six games. His contract with the team expires next season so it’s unlikely he arrives in North America before the 2017-18 season. Another season getting acclimated in Sweden, close to home, will do him good, anyhow.
Oscar Dansk, G, Rogle BK (SHL)
Drafted: 2nd round, 31st overall, 2012
Before Joonas Korpisalo and Anton Forsberg became the relied-upon young goaltenders in the Blue Jackets organization, it was thought Oscar Dansk was close to a sure thing. Four years after his draft year, however, the big Swede is back in his home country, where he has in fact played quite well. Last year Dansk struggled mightily in the AHL and was sent to the ECHL and didn’t play much better, but has posted a 2.68 goals-against average and .910 save percentage in 36 games with Rogle BK this season.
The season he had doesn’t erase the poor play he showed in his first year as a pro, but it’s a start at rebuilding his career into one with some NHL potential. Dansk is still just 22 years old and is still signed to an NHL deal through next season.
Elvis Merzlikins, G, Lugano (Swiss-A)
Drafted: 3rd round, 76th overall, 2014
The Blue Jackets took a chance on 20-year-old Swiss goaltender Elvis Merzlikins in the third round of the 2014 NHL Draft and it appears to have paid off. He has been a star between the pipes in the past two seasons for Lugano and has played some of his best hockey down the stretch this year for the team.
Merzlikins posted a 2.76 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage in a career-high 46 games for the team this year and led his team to the league finals with a tremendous playoff performance, where he had a 2.32 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage. In the semi-finals against Servette, Merzlikins won three overtime games, including back-to-back 3-2 and 4-3 overtime wins to close out the series. The Latvian’s contract with the team expires at the end of the playoffs.
Gabriel Carlsson, D, Linkoping HC (SHL)
Drafted: 1st round, 29th overall, 2015
In his first full season in the SHL, Carlsson has provided Linkopings with some steady defense in 45 games while contributing nine points and a plus-four rating. Carlsson has primarily played on the team’s third pairing, averaging just under 12 minutes per game, though he became a more trusted option toward the end of the season. In the first half of the season he played under 10 minutes quite frequently, but in the second half, he played more than 14 minutes in 10 different games. In the team’s final postseason game, Carlsson played a season-high 18 minutes.
The 6’4, 183lb rearguard also played in seven games for Sweden’s World Junior team and recorded three assists. Carlsson’s contract with Linkoping expires at the end of next season and it’s unlikely he comes to North America prior to that.
Vladislav Gavrikov, D, Yaroslavl Lokomotiv (KHL)
Drafted: 6th round, 159th overall, 2015
The Jackets took a chance on Russian defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov, who was twice passed over, in last June’s NHL draft. It was an interesting selection, given that the 6’3, 205lb mobile defender played in just 16 games with his hometown Yaroslavl Lokomotiv in 2014-15 (he captained the team’s junior program, however). This season Gavrikov was a fixture in the Yaroslavl lineup, playing in 43 games and recording seven points, while owning a plus-17 rating.
Still, he was sixth in scoring amongst the team’s defensemen, but it was a season of growth and a good sign for the late-blooming rearguard, who averaged 16:24 of icetime this season. Yaroslavl rotates their defensive pairings fairly equally, a good sign for Gavrikov who is signed through 2016-17.
Veeti Vainio, D, Espoo Blues (Liiga)
Drafted: 5th round, 141st overall, 2015
Vainio has yet to turn 19 but the 6’2, 181lb defenseman played 30 games with the Blues this season, recording four assists and racking up 47 penalty minutes. He was also loaned to KeuPa HT, a second-tier team, where he recorded five points in six games.
Of course, he was primarily used on the Blues’ bottom pairing this season, but he’ll likely be given greater opportunities moving forward. At lower levels he has been an effective point producer; in 2014-15, he led the Blues U20 team’s defensemen in scoring with 44 points in 42 games, which was 24 points more than the team’s second-leading producer from the back end. His contract with the Blues expires this season, but he’ll likely return next year or he could play with Jokerit in the KHL, which drafted him in 2014. Vainio will also be a candidate to play for Finland’s World Junior team.
Markus Nutivaara, D, Karpat (Liiga)
Drafted: 7th round, 189th overall, 2015
Like Gavrikov, the Blue Jackets took a chance on Nutivaara, who was passed over in three consecutive NHL drafts before Columbus made him a seventh-round pick last June. Perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, he followed his two-point campaign in 2014-15 with 22 points in 50 games for Karpat this season, finishing the regular season as the team’s third-highest scoring defenseman.
Nutivaara also had five points in six playoff games and it is clear he has gotten much more comfortable in Finland’s top league. The smooth-skating rearguard is signed with Karpat through the 2017-18 season.
Prospect of the Month: Anton Forsberg
March was a big month for goaltender Anton Forsberg and one that was much needed. The Swede has been overshadowed by Joonas Korpisalo this season, but with the Blue Jackets AHL affiliate, Lake Erie, needing a strong goaltending performance down the stretch to stay in the playoff hunt, Forsberg has answered. The 6’2, 176lb netminder was mediocre this season, but in March posted a 5-2-1 record with a 1.67 goals-against average and a .938 save percentage in nine appearances. He also had two shutouts in the month.