The Future Between the Jackets Pipes

By Aaron Vickers

If there is one aspect that cannot be knocked in the Columbus Blue Jackets organization it is the fact that they are able to build a strong foundation both on the back end, and between the pipes. General Manager Doug MacLean cannot be knocked for not building up a solid future between the pipes for the Jackets organization. There is only one problem: Where are they all going to go? There certainly isn’t room for everyone at the professional level, and there are endless scenarios, and I will try to tackle a few of them for you. First off, lets meet our contestants:

Contestant #1 is Repentigny, PQ native Pascal Leclaire. Selected with the 8th Overall pick in the 2001 draft by the Jackets, the expectations on Leclaire are to be the next ‘great French-Canadian tender’. Leclaire lead the Canadian Junior team to a silver-medal showing at the 2002 World Junior Championships, and was named top goaltender at the tournament. However, during the regular season with the Montreal Rocket of the QMJHL, Leclaire failed to put up impressive numbers, finishing the season with 15-23-4 record with a 3.29 GAA and a .895 SV%.

Contestant #2 takes us closer to central Canada, with the OHL’s Andrew Penner. Penner, in his third season in the OHL and his first with the Guelph Storm after being dealt midway through the season, set career marks in Games Played with 54, Wins with 22, GAA with a 3.22 mark, and SV% with .896. Penner received the nod in the playoffs after splitting time with fellow tender Dwight LaBrosse, and continued the trend with Guelph in the Memorial Cup. In the playoffs, Penner put up almost identical numbers as he did in the regular season.

Contestant #3 places us almost as far west as you can get. Kelowna Rockets goaltender Shane Bendera is the third goaltending prospect that the Jackets have the pleasure of being under contract. Bendera is best known for his 2001 Memorial Cup performance with the Red Deer Rebels. Bendera backstopped the Rebels to their first ever Memorial Cup Championship. This season, Bendera was dealt to the Kelowna Rockets where he continued his steady play. In 50 games this season, Bendera registered a 2.48 GAA, a .912 SV%, and compiled a 24-14-11 record between Kelowna and Red Deer. Bendera was also a finalist for the 2002 Canadian Junior Team, only to lose the job to duo Pascal Leclaire and Olivier Michaud.

Now, lets take a look at the goaltending situation the Jackets currently have at the NHL level. The Jackets have the experienced veteran in Ron Tugnutt and the young stud in Marc Denis. One of them could be moved either this season or next for Pascal Leclaire to move up in the future. While the obvious move would be to deal the aging Tugnutt who is slowly becoming a backup to Denis, moving Denis might be more beneficial to the organization. Keeping Tugnutt gives the Jackets and Leclaire (or whoever can make it to the big dance first) someone to mould the rookie tender into someone ready to compete at the pro level. Also, Denis would bring back a bigger return, someone who could step in with an immediate impact.

With Leclaire in the NHL, this frees up a roster spot on the Jackets farm team, the Syracuse Crunch. The Crunch already have a goaltender by the name of JF Labbe on the farm, who is aged 30. He has been a career minor-leaguer and will stay that way. He could be the perfect mentor for, say, a former Memorial Cup Champion by the name of Shane Bendera. In my opinion, Bendera would not benefit from playing with the Dayton Bombers of the ECHL. With Bendera splitting time and learning the ropes with one of the best in the AHL, his development should flourish.

With Leclaire in the NHL with Tugger, and Bendera in the AHL with Labbe, where does that leave Penner? Simply put, Penner isn’t the same quality a prospect as Leclaire, or even Bendera for that matter. Penner would be best suited in the ECHL where he could develop his skills against East-Coast shooters. Penner would not likely be ready to face AHLers quite yet, and would benefit most from another season in the OHL as an overager, or in the ECHL where there would be little pressure on him.

Everything up until this point depends on two things, the trading of either Marc Denis or Ron Tugnutt.

If the Jackets were not to deal either goaltender, we’d most likely see the duo of Labbe and Leclaire in the AHL, with the former first rounder getting the majority of the playing time over the 30 year old career-AHLer. Bendera would obviously be pushed back, and would start next year in the ECHL. For Bendera, he’ll flourish under stronger competition, whereas Penner needs, in my opinion, more time to adjust to better shooters.

The best case scenerio is to deal Marc Denis and bring in a top 6 forward or top 3 defenseman. Denis can fetch this, especially when there are other NHL teams without a good young goaltender who is ready to step up full-time. By dealing Denis, a spot for Leclaire is opened up on the big club, to be shown the ropes by veteran Ron Tugnutt (in a similar fashion to Richter-Blackburn for the Rangers). In the AHL we have Shane Bendera learning the professional trade from AHL 2nd Team All-Star JF Labbe. Who better to learn from than one of the top goalies from the AHL. This leaves Penner, who’s future in the organization seems bleak considering who is ahead of him in the depth charts, with the Dayton Bombers of the ECHL with Greg Gardner, who spent the 2001-2002 season with the Syracuse Crunch.

This is the problem every GM dreams of, too much goaltending talent. How a goaltender develops and what they develop into is most unpredictable, and it never hurts to have an abundance of talent. Whatever Doug MacLean chooses to do with his goaltending situation and prospects, the odds are he will not be kept up at night worrying about his goaltending for a very long time.