Despite a horrendous start to the 2015-16 campaign that the team simply couldn’t recover from, a number of young players received quality playing time with the Blue Jackets this season and get to continue their seasons now. It might be hard to hear for a fanbase that was expecting playoffs this season, but a bright future in Cleveland means good things for the Columbus Blue Jackets. A deep playoff run builds crucial experience for young players and instills winning habits. But beyond the pro level, the organization has had impressive prospect performances at both the junior and amateur level, as well as overseas.
Hockey’s Future makes an annual tradition of handing out some awards to the young men who have the potential to make a positive difference for this franchise.
Not exactly blessed with a ton of skill, big-bodied Josh Anderson has shown a strong work effort in his two years as a pro and he was rewarded this season with 12 games in Columbus, where he scored his first career goal and added three assists. Despite not recording a point-per-game in junior with the high-powered London Knights, the former fourth round pick finished fourth on Lake Erie in scoring with 36 points in 55 games and was second on the team in points-per-game. Anderson, who also led Lake Erie in penalty minutes with 108, rarely takes a shift off and could compete for a roster spot in Columbus next season. For now, the gritty Anderson leads Lake Erie in scoring in the Calder Cup playoffs, with five goals and seven points in six games.
Hardest Shot: Oliver Bjorkstrand, RW, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)
Bjorkstrand doesn’t have a traditional hardest shot in the sense that his slapshot can reach 100 miles an hour, but the Dane can flat-out shoot the puck. His wrist shot is easily the best among Blue Jackets prospects as it comes off his stick with a great amount of force and his aim is deadly accurate, as evidenced by his goal totals over the past few seasons.
In his rookie season with the Lake Erie Monsters, Bjorkstrand finished tied for third on the team in scoring with 15 goals in just 48 games and scored on 11 per cent of his shots. He also scored four times in 12 games for the Blue Jackets late in the season. In his final two seasons of junior with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, Bjorkstrand scored 142 goals in a combined 166 regular season and playoff games. He is at a point-per-game pace with three goals for Lake Erie in the playoffs.
Best Defensive Prospect: Zach Werenski, D, University of Michigan Wolverines (Big 10)
The Blue Jackets have quite a few defense prospects who might see time in the NHL, but none are similar to Zach Werenski. The 18 year old, who recently signed with the Blue Jackets, is an offensive defenseman with size (6’2, 214 lbs) and a smooth skating stride which can make up for any missteps he might take on the ice. A product of the U.S. National Development Program, Werenski joined the NCAA ranks a year early and still finished his two-year stint at the University of Michigan with 61 points in 71 games. He was named the Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year this season.
Fastest Skater: T.J. Tynan, C, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)
Tynan has been a consistent point producer at every level of hockey. He recorded at least 28 points in each of his four seasons at Notre Dame and has topped 40 points in both of his first two seasons with Columbus’ AHL team (Springfield in 2014-15 and Lake Erie this past season). A big factor in Tynan’s offensive ability and point production is his skating, notably his speed and ability to control the puck. The 24 year old playmaker finished third on Lake Erie in scoring this season with 42 points and led the team in assists with 36. He was an AHL all-star and competed in the puck control relay for the Western Conference.
Prospect of the Year: Zach Werenski, D, University of Michigan (Big 10)
Not only did Werenski stand out against the Blue Jackets group of defense prospects this season, he was the obvious choice for the team’s Prospect of the Year. On the international stage, he was a clear standout for bronze medalists Team USA at the 2016 World Juniors and made the tournament All-Star squad.
In addition to being the Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year and a first team All-Star, Werenski was also named to the USCHO second all-star team. And despite his Big Ten champion Wolverines failing to make the Frozen Four, Werenski was huge down the stretch, recording 14 points in the team’s final seven games. After signing with the Blue Jackets, he scored his first goal as a pro – an overtime winner – on April 9th against Rochester. Werenski has not slowed down in the playoffs, with six points in six games. It all bodes well for the eighth pick of the 2015 Draft.
Breakout Player for 2016-17: Sonny Milano, C, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)
American center Sonny Milano might be hard-pressed to make the Blue Jackets out of camp next season and if he is returned to Lake Erie there’s no doubt he is in line for increased production. The 19 year old played 52 games with the team this year in his first season as a pro and recorded 29 points. He was a lot more noticeable after returning from the World Juniors and carried that momentum through to the end of the season – seven of his 13 goals came in his last 16 games. The former first round pick has a chance to lead the Monsters in scoring next season if he progresses as expected.
Most Improved Prospect: Markus Nutivaara, D, Karpat (Liiga)
Blue Jackets General Manager Jarmo Kekäläinen might have a steal with his seventh round selection in the 2015 NHL Draft. Nutivaara turned 20 two weeks before the draft and had already been passed over in consecutive years, but the Jackets took a flier on the defenseman anyway, even with his two points in 35 regular season games. Nutivaara was much more noticeable in last year’s playoffs, recording six points in 16 games and something must have clicked as this year he finished tied for second among Karpat’s defensemen in scoring with 22 points in 50 games.
Overachiever: Daniel Zaar, RW, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)
It’s always a question as to how players who have had success overseas are going to handle the grind of the North American game and schedule and that was no different with first-year forward Daniel Zaar, who spent the past three seasons bouncing between the SHL and Sweden’s second-tier league. With Lulea last season, Zaar recorded 27 points (9 goals, 18 assists) in 55 games and as Lake Erie’s primary offensive option this season he had 43 points in 68 games, finishing second on the team in points and leading the team in goals with 21. He far surpassed expectations and it will be interesting to see if he can replicate that success next season.
Underachiever: Ryan Collins, D, University of Minnesota Golden Gophers (Big 10)
Big-bodied blueliner Ryan Collins had a promising freshman season with the University of Minnesota in 2014-15, playing in 32 games for the team and recording nine points. He was expected to build upon his freshman year this season and contend for a spot on the United States World Junior team, but neither happened. Instead, Collins was a healthy scratch at times for the Golden Gophers, had just four assists and was a minus-four, which was worst among the team’s defensemen. With a number of key departures, the opportunity is there for Collins to seize more minutes and responsibility next season.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Kerby Rychel, LW, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)
Depending on how the Blue Jackets handle Kerby Rychel, he could become a valuable asset for the organization. The rugged winger played in 32 games for the Blue Jackets this season and 34 with Lake Erie. He was inconsistent at times in Columbus, but showcased his high energy level and ability to get in on the forecheck effectively. He had nine points with the team before being sent down at the NHL trade deadline. It was rumored that Rychel requested a trade during the season and that idea could be revisited in the offseason, but it would be wise for the Blue Jackets not to rush anything. Rychel, the Jackets’ 2013 first round pick (19th overall), was a prolific scorer in junior and has an impressive 57 points in 85 AHL games over the past two seasons.
Prospect of the Month
Despite his team finishing fifth out of 12 teams in the Swiss National League, Elvis Merzlikins, who turned 22 in April, carried Lugano all the way to the league finals with stellar play. Lugano lost in five games to SC Bern, but Merzlikins recorded a 2.31 goals against average and .940 save percentage in the postseason. The Latvian had a 2.76 goals against average and .922 save percentage in the regular season. He has continued his confident performance into the IIHF World Championship for Team Latvia, winning a point in the first game with a 40-save performance against Team Sweden and carrying a .926 save percentage in the early going.