The 2002-2003 regular season for the Columbus Blue Jackets ended less than a month ago. There are parts of four months remaining before Jacket fans will begin to fill the Nationwide Centre to watch the Jackets in exhibition action.
A month removed from the regular season, and already the youth in the Jackets system is getting geared up for another year. The Ice Haus, a practice facility of the Columbus Blue Jackets is alive with action. The sounds of pucks ringing off posts, boards and glass can be heard. The smell of sweat is in the air. Better yet, the sight of various Jacket prospects can be seen running through drills of agility, strength and speed, all done voluntarily in the attempt to be able to contribute to the Jackets in the not-so-distant future. This is a voluntary camp, one of many camps planned at two-week intervals.
Watching over the Jackets prospect is none other than former Jacket Kevin Dineen. Dineen, still with the organization after retiring early in the 2002-2003 season, played 129 games for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Dineen is currently playing the role of developmental coach throughout the system.
Among those already hitting the ice include Jacket fan favourite Rick Nash. Nash, who at 18 years of age finished up his first professional season in Columbus, is already looking to get a jump on his Calder-nominee season of 2002-2003. Nash, who will likely finish behind St. Louis standout Barrett Jackman for the Calder, had an impressive season in his own right, registering 39 points in 74 games played. Among those 39 points, Rick managed to bury the puck behind opposing netminders on 17 occasions.
Joining Nash was temporary teammate Kent McDonnell. Although McDonnell only spent three games with the big club, McDonnell could really see some serious time with the big club next season, especially with the head start he’s getting already. McDonnell spent the majority of his year with the Jackets AHL affiliate Syracuse Crunch. In 72 games with the Crunch, McDonnell registered a respectable 14 goals, complimented by 24 assists for 38 points. McDonnell is one of the few Jacket prospects that has a legitimate shot at opening the season in a Jackets jersey.
McDonnell needs not feel shy on the ice, as a plethora of teammates are currently at his side, getting ready for the upcoming season. Mike Pandolfo is one of these. The hulking 6’3″ forward was acquired on draft day in 2002 in a deal that saw Columbus swap their 20th overall pick for the 30th overall pick. Pandolfo, an alumni of Boston University, is in definite need of this kickstart. In his first season as a professional, Pandolfo struggled offensively, finding the back of the net a measly nine times, and complimenting nine other goals, for a total of 18 points in 74 games. In all fairness, Pandolfo is better known for his defensive abilities (such as winning Hockey East’s Best Defensive Forward for the 2001-2002 season). Here’s hoping he’ll round out his game and improve his skating, getting on track for a better second season.
Yet another teammate of McDonnell and Pandolfo was also present, as the practice facility at the Nationwide Arena has a distinctive Crunch flavour, only this time with a Bomber twist. Former Kamloops Blazer product Tyler Sloan has also been on-hand for these practices/workouts. The defenseman, signed as a free agent in October of 2000, split duties between the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch and the ECHL’s Dayton Bombers. In 14 games with the Bombers, Sloan registered 3 points on the strength of a goal and two assists, and amassed 22 penalty minutes. With the Crunch, Sloan played in 39 games, registering two goals and one assist, complementing his 46 minutes in penalties.
Tim Jackman, the Jackets 2nd round selection from 2001 was also spotted on the ice. Jackman also turned pro this season, leaving Minnesota State University early and opting to play with the Syracuse Crunch. Jackman had an interesting first season, playing over 37 games for the first time in his career. Undoubtedly Jackman was tired at seasons end, yet he’s already back on the ice, conditioning for next season. Jackman played in 77 games for the Crunch, scoring nine times and adding 7 helpers for a total of 16 points.
A fellow non-draftee free agent signing is also in attendance. Formally of the Guelph Storm, Andrew Penner saw his junior career end at the hands of the Kitchener Rangers in this years OHL Playoffs. Penner, signed in September of 2001, will start his professional career with either the Syracuse Crunch or Dayton Bombers, though the latter seems to be the most likely candidate. In his final year in junior, Penner finally established himself as one of the top starters in the Ontario Hockey League. Posting a 21-21-7 record in 2002-2003, Penner set career highs in games played with 52, wins with 21, saves with 1298, save percentage with a .905 and a goals against average of 2.76. The dedication shown by Penner to get himself in Columbus to work on his game just weeks after having his junior career ended shows tons of character from this young netminder.
While on the subject of netminders, the most intriguing Jacket prospect is also on hand for these workouts. Syracuse Crunch goaltender Pascal Leclaire has been front and centre in these workouts, described as a shooting gallery for goaltenders. Leclaire fell under heavy criticism for his performance in his first professional season. His lacklustre performance with the Crunch may have Jackets brass a little worried with their 8th overall selection in 2001. However, one must remember that goaltenders are a long-term project, and very rarely is one able to step into the professional game and excel immediately. While Leclaire’s stats leave something to be desired, with a 3.56 GAA and an .890 save percentage, the dedication shown by Leclaire to get his game back to where it was at the beginning of the season is reason enough to instill confidence in the young netminder.
Despite worries of Jacket fans around the country and continent, dedication like this out of Jacket prospects may deflect concerns about the impact from Jacket youth in the near future.