Heading into their third National Hockey League season, the Columbus Blue Jackets had certain expectations. Some of these were met, and some of these expectations fell short. Likewise, certain expectations were placed on prospects in their development heading into the season. Some of these were met, and some of these expectations fell short. Taking a glimpse at the successes and shortfalls of prospects in the Columbus Organization may show some surprising results. Working from the goaltenders out, here are the ups and downs of Jacket prospects this season…
The Downside: Jackets goaltending prospect Pascal Leclaire(ranked 36th on HockeyFuture’s Top 50 Prospect List) became a professional this season. Unfortunately, it appears that he brought his junior game with him. Although that statement may seem unfair, Leclaire has had troubles adjusting to the professional game. Although splitting time with fellow goaltending prospect Karl Goehring, Leclaire found himself on the bench more and more as the season progressed. A goals-against-average of 3.56 and a sub-.900 save percentage are somewhat discouraging statistics. Although the argument can be made that the Syracuse Crunch have one of the weaker defensive cores in the American Hockey League, Goehring had no problem putting up solid numbers. To further end Leclaire’s season on a down note, he suffered a season ending, yet minor, knee injury.
The Upside: It would be wrong to talk about Leclaire’s struggles without talking about Goehring’s successes. Goehring, in his 2nd season of professional hockey (the first spent mostly with the Dayton Bombers) was selected to represent the Crunch at the American Hockey League All-Star Game. And why not? With a 2.71 goals-against-average, coupled with a save percentage of .913. Goehring emerged as the starting goaltender for Syracuse despite having to go up against the organization’s top prospect in Leclaire, who would get every opportunity to establish himself between the pipes. Congratulations to Karl Goehring, on a very successful season.
The Downside: Continuing with the goaltending trend, Dayton Bomber netminder Shane Bendera was recently sent home for the season. The East Coast Hockey League tender was sent home by the Bombers, with agreement from the Columbus Blue Jackets. Problems on and off the ice lead Bomber coach Greg Ireland to request that Bendera be sent home to ponder his hockey future. On the ice, Shane was having a fairly successful first professional season. On a struggling Dayton team, Bendera had a record of 13-19-5 with a 2.84 goals-against-average and a .900 save percentage. Outside of game situations, Bendera was described as lazy in practice, and often showed up late. It’ll be interesting to see if Bendera is invited to camp next season (which I have no doubts he will), but how he performs.
The ‘Tweener: Ole-Kristian Tollefsen had too much of an eventful season to not give him a mention here. In his first season of North American hockey with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League, Tollefsen emerged early as a dynamic young blueliner for the Wheat Kings. His crisp-passing and ability to mix it up made him an instant fan favourite. His strong play early was solid, and even participated in the World Junior ‘B’ Championships for his native Norway. However, with all of the ups faced by Tollefsen, injuries have brought his season down. Whiplash, a laceration to his forearm, a concussion, a separated shoulder, and a bruised hand have limited Tollefsen to 43 games in his first junior season.
The Upside: Midway through the season, 25 year old prospect Duvie Westcott received a call-up. With an injury riddled back-end, Duvie, along with fellow call-ups Paul Manning and Derrick Walser, got a chance to showcase his skills, and for the most part took advantage of it. Westcott, who was named to the American Hockey League All-Star Game along with Goehring (although did not play because of an injury), managed to crack the Jackets line-up as a regular, impressing Jacket fans with his combination of finesse and feistiness. Westcott, when in the lineup, played significant minutes, averaging 18:21 a game. Offensively, Duvie was not awe-inspiring, but it was his defense that has stood out the most. In 37 games, Duvie was a stingy –4, on a club that boasted a Rick Nash –28 and Ray Whitney –25 (although please consider Westcott played 37 games, while Nash and Whitney played 72 and 79 games respectively). Although anything but a lock for the club next season, a spot on the blueline is his to lose.
The Downside: Just as Westcott was able to establish a spot for regular duty on the Jackets blueline, Derrick Walser was not. Despite being able to showcase his great offensive prowess, Derrick Walser has spent just as much time in the American Hockey League this season. Walser, who jumped out of the gate hot to begin the season, was at one point the leading rookie defenseman in points. It was short lived when Walser was returned to the Crunch because of his inability to control the play in his own end. Though making an appearance in 51 games, Walser couldn’t average more than 15 minutes a game. Should Walser round out his defensive game, which seems less and less likely, he’ll find a spot with the Jackets. If not, he’s a career minor-leaguer.
The Upside: Rick Nash. Need I say more? For the sake of the article I’ll go about doing that, but for Jacket fans, all you need to do is mention the word Nash and a smile comes across their face. Nash will garner some Calder Trophy support this offseason, based on his 17 goals and 37 points as an 18 year old. His folly, a –28 rating, worst on the club, worst among rookies, and second worst in the league (in good company with Tim Connolly, Ilya Kovalchuk and Wayne Primeau). Nash has dominated at times, and he’ll only get better and better. Looking towards next season, Nash will definitely see more than 13:54 minutes a game, his average this season.
The Downside: Kiel McLeod. Need I say more? The reverse-Nash effect applies here. Most Jacket fans are aware of Kiel McLeod, and it is not for positive reasons whatsoever. Despite having a very successful junior season with the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League, the Jackets organization has never been more down on McLeod. Struggling to reach a contract agreement, General Manager Doug MacLean has publicly stated that he will not be able to reach terms with McLeod and his agent if their demands do not come down(which they aren’t), making Kiel an unrestricted free agent July 1st. The 6’5 centre was not dealt at the trade deadline, however there probably wasn’t much of a demand for a 20 year old who is turning down an offer of $1.9 Million over 3 years with a $750 Thousand signing bonus. In fact, MacLean offered McLeod a McHappy contract, that would’ve been the highest paid entry-level contract for a 2nd round draft selection.
The Upside: The Jackets 6th Round Selection in the 2002 Entry Draft may very well turn out to be a gem. With that pick, General Manager Doug MacLean et al managed to select Brandon Wheat King forward Tim Konsorada, who quickly emerged as a leader on Brandon this season, both offensively and off the ice. On the ice, Konsorada has been utilized in every situation of the game. Even strength, on the top line, shorthanded, on the second line, quarterbacking the powerplay, you name it, Konsorada has done it this season. He finished up with career high’s in every offensive category, including 22 goals and 70 points.
The Downside: In the offseason, the Jackets added forward Donald MacLean to the fold via free agency, who was presumably going to start off the season with the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League. MacLean didn’t get in any games this season with the Jackets after leading the American Hockey League in points last season with 87, including 33 goals. MacLean did, however, manage to get 17 games in with the Syracuse Crunch, and showed some promising results. Don managed to score 9 times in those 17 games, and added nine helpers. Here’s hoping for a healthy season in 2003-04.
The Upside: Since it is never good to leave things on a downside, I’d like to officially nominate everyone’s favourite Jacket prospect, Andrej Nedorost, an upside. To put it simply, Nedorost has put together all the tools in his arsenal, and will have every opportunity to crack the lineup next season. Nedorost clearly has the talent to move up to the next level, even though the statistics do not overly reflect this. He was even called the Crunch’s most talented player by an undisclosed teammate.
All in all, it was an up-and-down season for Jacket prospects. Some players busted out, while others simply just busted. Some had seemingly endless success while others couldn’t shake out of old habits. What will the 2003-04 season bring for these players, as well as others hoping to make an impact.