season, three defensemen, four forwards and one goaltende
Entering the season, the Columbus
Blue Jackets had grand expectations of competing in the playoff race late into
the spring. Instead, Columbus suffered through numerous injuries and had their
depth severely tested. Due to their poor performance early in the season, the
organization’s focus shifted from making the playoffs to evaluating the team’s
future talent. As a result, thirteen rookies made appearances on the Blue
Jackets roster this season, two defensemen, ten forwards and one goaltender.
The following is an overview of the performance of the 2003-2004 rookie class.
Nikolai Zherdev, D (Age 19) – Nikolai Zherdev was the only rookie to earn a
permanent spot in the Blue Jackets lineup during the 2003-2004 season. The
offensive dynamo, selected fourth overall in the 2003 draft, joined the team in
early December after leaving his Russian club, CSKA, without their consent.
CSKA filed a complaint with the International Ice Hockey Federation, but
Columbus and the NHL argued that everything was done in accordance with the
existing IIHF transfer agreement. The NHL allowed Zherdev to play pending an
arbitration hearing scheduled for late February. Zherdev was cleared at the
hearing and allowed to complete the season with Columbus.
As the only Russian on the roster, and unable to speak
English, Zherdev struggled early with Columbus while playing on a checking line
with Manny Malhotra and Kent McDonell. His remarkable skating and puck handling
skills were evident immediately, but he was having a difficult time picking up
his defensive responsibilities and was taking shifts off occasionally. Zherdev
was also prone to trying to do too much himself and taking retaliatory
penalties, but his pure offensive ability made him a threat to score any given
shift, and therefore too valuable to leave on the bench. His play matured as he
gained experience and became better accustomed to the North American style. A
trade for Russian centerman, Alexander Svitov, provided a major boost to
Zherdev was at his best on the power play, where he had
extra ice to work his magic. He added the ability to skate the puck into the
offensive zone to the Jackets power play and was relied upon to create scoring
opportunities form the sidewall. His poise and precision with the puck often
drew extra defenders to him, creating additional space for his linemates.
Zherdev found new life after his case was settled by the
arbitrator. He was cleared to continue playing in Columbus and the issue of his
unfulfilled military obligations never was presented by the Russian officials.
Zherdev was arguably Columbus’ best player during the late stages of the
season. He scored seven goals and wracked up 11 assists along with a +3 rating
in the final 18 games. Zherdev had a career performance March 21st
against Vancouver when he scored two goals and two assists and was named first
star of the game. On the season, Zherdev scored 13 goals, 21 assists for 34
points in only 57 games played. He scored five power play goals and
surprisingly wracked up 54 minutes in penalties. Despite missing the first
quarter of the season, Zherdev tied with Todd Marchant as Columbus’ third
leading scorer. Zherdev also represented Columbus in the Young Stars game
during the All-Star break. Zherdev’s progress will be heavily counted on next
season, if the Blue Jackets are to become a team capable of competing for a
Kent McDonell, RW (Age 25) – Prior to the season, McDonell was deemed one of
Columbus’ most NHL-ready prospects. At 6’2” and 205 pounds, the rugged right
winger has NHL size and plays a solid up and down game, but he didn’t win a
roster spot during training camp. Instead, he was recalled five games into the
season and scored his first NHL goal against Nashville on October 18th. After
playing three games a year ago, McDonell was recalled on four separate
occasions this season. He scored only the one time and recorded two assists in
29 games. He averaged over 10 minutes a game, mostly in a checking capacity on
the third or fourth lines. McDonell proved to be a hard worker, but there were
too many nights where his energetic play didn’t translate into offensive
production. In need of size on either of their scoring lines, the Jackets
experimented with him on the right wing of the Marchant – Sanderson line, but
McDonell doesn’t seem to possess the offensive skills to finish scoring his
chances or the vision to serve as a playmaker. McDonell’s future rests as a
high energy, physical, presence on the fourth line.
Aaron Johnson, D (Age 20) – When a rash of injuries struck the Jackets
blueline, Columbus scrapped their plans to bring the young rearguard along slowly.
Regarded as a gifted offensive rear guard coming out of the QMJHL, Johnson was
to spend his initial pro season honing his defensive skills in the AHL. When he
excelled early in Syracuse, Columbus was forced to accelerate his development.
Johnson made his NHL debut December 2nd against the Anaheim Mighty
Primarily, the young defenseman was paired with Anders
Erickson and utilized as the third unit. The duo also patrolled the backend on
the second unit power play, although Johnson was as apt to be standing in front
of the net as manning the point. Johnson’s offensive flair added an element to
the Blue Jacket’s defense that was sorely lacking. The rookie made the typical
mistakes expected of a young defenseman, but showed great maturity in never
allowing a mistake to alter his game, even when it resulted in a goal against.
While he may not have picked up all of his assignments, Johnson’s defensive
game was also better than advertised. He worked extremely hard in his zone and
was willing to engage in physical battles in front of the net and in the
corners. As he continues to progress, his work ethic and natural ability will
translate to better defensive zone coverage. Johnson’s surprisingly mature play
will likely assure him of a roster spot going into next season.
Dan Fritsche, C (Age 18) – Columbus’ second round pick in the 2003 draft
surprised everyone by making the team out of training camp. He signed a savvy
entry level contract that required the Blue Jackets to keep him on the roster
through the first twenty games of the season before they could option him back
to his junior club, the OHL’s Sarnia Sting.
The young Ohio native centered the fourth line consisting of grinding
wingers Jody Shelley and David Ling or Kent McDonell. Fritsche scored his first and only goal of his career November 20th
in a 3-0 win against the Detroit Red Wings in Columbus. Overall, Fritsche played 19 games and was a
healthy scratch for nine others before he was first loaned to the gold- medal
winning United States National Team for the Under –20 Tournament in Finland and
then to the Sarnia Sting for the remainder of the season. While with the Blue
Jackets, Fritsche score just the one point, added 12 penalty minutes and earned
a –5 rating. In his brief professional tenure, Fritsche proved to be a tireless
worker, threw his body around and was a tenacious forechecker. Unfortunately
for Fritsche, the Jackets struggled early and then coach Doug Maclean elected
to ice a more experienced lineup. Fritsche should have an opportunity to make
the team next season, but with the additions of Manny Malhotra and Alexander
Svitov, he may have to bide his time in Syracuse.
Tim Jackman, RW (Age 22) – Jackman nearly earned a roster spot coming out of
training camp, and he didn’t have to wait long before making his NHL debut. His
first call up came on December 20 against the Minnesota Wild. He was scoreless
in two games before being returned to the minors. Through the course of the
season, Jackman would be called up a total of six times, totaling 19 games. He
scored one goal, two assists and picked up 16 penalty minutes playing nearly
ten minutes a game. He moved up and down the lines and was perhaps most
effective on a speed line with Todd Marchant and Geoff Sanderson. Jackman improved
with each call up, and added a big, physical presence on the right wing,
something the Jackets desperately lacked. He also saw limited time on the
second unit power play, using his big frame in front of the net.
He was solid along
the boards and in the corners, but was prone to taking untimely penalties away
from the puck and was slow to pick up defensemen cutting to the net. Jackman
should compete for a full time position with the team next season.
Mark Hartigan, C (Age 26) – Hartigan was signed in the summer of 2003 as a
free agent to add depth to the organization. When Andrew Cassels went down with
a broken foot in January, Hartigan was given a chance to earn a spot in the
line-up. The crafty center played nine games and was a healthy scratch for two
others. He scored a power play goal and added three assists averaging over 16
minutes a game. Hartigan showed decent chemistry with Nash, especially with the
man advantage, but he was a bit of a liability in the defensive zone. Hartigan
played with a physical edge at times, but was too often late coming back on the
backcheck and won only 40 percent of his faceoffs.
Jeremy Reich, LW (Age 25) – Reich was one of the first players to ever sign
on with the Blue Jackets. Originally drafted in the second round by Chicago in
the 1997 draft, Reich signed as a free agent in May of 2000 and has been a
mainstay in Syracuse ever since. The gritty winger made his NHL debut January
21st versus St. Louis and recorded an assist in his first game.
Reich played a total of eight games during his initial call up with the Blue
Jackets recording one assist and 20 penalty minutes, including two forgettable
fighting majors. Reich was also recalled for the final game of the season, a
gritty 4-1 win against Detroit. He was held off the score sheet but provided
over seven minutes of high energy play.
On a team noted for being soft, Reich added an element of grit and
nastiness. The checking line winger was always looking for the punishing hit
and was aggressive on the forecheck. Unfortunately for Reich, below average
skating will limit his opportunities with Columbus.
Greg Mauldin, LW (Age 21) – Mauldin might have been the most surprising
rookie to skate with the Jackets this season. The speedy left winger entered
the year as a junior with Massachusetts-Amherst. He left school after the
Minutemen failed to earn an at large bid in the NCAA Frozen Four Tournament and
skated the final six games of the NHL season with the Blue Jackets on an
amateur try-out contract. Mauldin saw third line action and averaged nearly
eight minutes a game. He registered six shots on goal, four penalty minutes and
finished with a respectable –2 rating. In his NHL debut, Mauldin appeared
nervous and very tentative on the ice, but he improved each game and showed
glimpses of his tremendous speed and explosive offensive ability that might one
day earn the Boston native a regular spot in the line-up. Mauldin was assigned
to the Syracuse Crunch following the conclusion of the NHL season and signed a
multi-year contract on April 19th.
Mike Pandolfo, LW (Age 24) – Pandolfo was acquired by the Blue Jackets in a
2002 draft day deal with Buffalo that sent the 20th pick overall to
the Sabres for Pandolfo and the 30th overall. The 6’3” left wing was
expected to compete for a roster spot, but he struggled through training camp
with a chest injury and gained valuable experience down in Syracuse. Prior to
the 2003-2004 season, Pandolfo injured a shoulder, which set him back once
again. He struggled in the first half of the season in Syracuse, but came on
strong after the All Star break. When
injuries and a three game suspension to the Jacket’s enforcer, Jody Shelley,
depleted the Columbus roster, Pandolfo finally got the call.
Pandolfo slid into Shelley’s position on the left side of
fourth line and provided respectable defensive coverage and a strong presence
on the forecheck. In his three game audition, Pandolfo averaged slightly over
eight minutes a game. He failed to register a point, but the former Hockey East
Defensive Forward of the Year was given ice time late in the game when the
Jackets were protecting a lead. Pandolfo could compete for a roster spot next
season as a defensive specialist, but is more likely to shuttle from Syracuse
when the need arises.
Brad Moran, C (Age 25) – Moran signed as a free agent with the Jackets in
June of 2000. He received a brief taste of the NHL during the 2001-2002 season
but wasn’t called on last season. Moran was given another opportunity when
Andrew Cassels was knocked out of the line-up with a broken foot. In two games,
Moran averaged ten minutes of ice time and earned a career high 15:08 in a come
from behind effort against the New Jersey Devils on January 27th. In that game,
Moran centered Rick Nash and David Vyborny on the first line and saw ample
power play time. He registered his first and only two NHL points, a goal and an
assist and had four shots on goal. Ironically, while Moran was having the best
performance of his NHL career, Columbus acquired center Alexander Svitov in a
trade with Tampa Bay. Moran was relegated to the fourth line the next game
against Nashville and returned to Syracuse after the game. Moran will have to
prove he is capable of playing well in a checking role or he will be relegated
to playing only as an emergency replacement.
Joe Motzko, LW (Age 24) – Motzo made his NHL debut on February 2nd
in Phoenix. He was called up to add depth on the left side when Rick Nash was
sidelined with a bruised foot. Signed as a free agent out of St. Cloud State
during the summer of 2003, Motzko was expected to spend the season adjusting to
the pro game with Syracuse. His immediate success with the Crunch was rewarded
with a brief two game stint with the Jackets.
Motzko played respectably utilizing his speed and forechecking abilities
to disrupt the opposition’s transition game. He was used on the third and
fourth lines in a checking capacity and his ice time was limited to under eight
minutes a game, most of that coming in the first two periods. Motzko will
likely return to Syracuse for one more season before he is really ready to
challenge for a roster spot.
Zenith Komarniski, D (Age 25) – On October 30th, Komarniski was
acquired from the Vancouver organization in a trade for Sean Pronger.
Komarniski was assigned to Syracuse and was viewed as added insurance due to
the mounting injuries on the Columbus Blue line. He received a three game call
up in early January but did not see any game action. He was recalled again in
late February for another three game stint. Komarniski played February 25th
in a loss to Chicago. He was solid in his debut, playing a simple, physical
game. Unfortunately for the veteran defenseman, he suffered a facial injury,
which prevented him from dressing the next two games. He was recalled a third time
for the March 24th game against Minnesota. Again, Komarniski played
an effective, defense first game. In the two games played, Komarniski earned an
even plus/minus rating, took one shot on goal and did not register a point or
penalty minute. Komarniski’s played a conservative style, and proved himself
capable of serving as an injury replacement when called upon.
Pascal Leclaire, G (Age 21) – The former first rounder made his NHL debut in
Phoenix on February 21st. In his first start, Leclaire flashed
moments of his raw athletic ability, making several brilliant saves. His
movements were extremely quick and he challenged shooters with his lightning
fast glove hand. He was poised and kept his play simple, rarely leaving the
crease to play the puck. It appeared that Leclaire would be rewarded for his
solid play but late game
defensive zone breakdowns led to two quick goals for Phoenix and a loss for
Leclaire. Leclaire started the following game against San Jose, registering 34
saves on 38 shots in another road loss. With his solid play for Syracuse and
his two game audition, Leclaire will likely challenge for the role of Marc
Denis’ backup next season.