With their 5-4 win April 18 to the Dallas Stars, the Columbus Blue Jackets ended their fifth straight season below .500, and more importantly on the outside of the postseason party looking in. That’s the bad news, which should be expected from a fledgling NHL expansion franchise. Running concurrent with that annual disappointment, however, is a yearly dose of great news in the form of an impact rookie. From David Vyborny’s impressive debut in the Jackets inaugural season, through a succession of strong rookie campaigns by Rostislav Klesla in 2001-02, Rick Nash in 2002-03, and Nikolai Zherdev in 2003-04, the future core of the franchise has provided reason for hope amidst what has been a lengthy bout of growing pains for the Columbus faithful.
It should therefore come as little surprise that the second-tier showing by the Jackets this past season was highlighted by the debut of another potential franchise player in 23-year-old goaltender Pascal Leclaire. The first true No. 1 netminder promoted out of the Columbus system, Leclaire got his feet wet with two appearances in the 2003-04 season before spending the lockout year fine-tuning his craft with Syracuse of the AHL. While he started the current campaign on the red-eye between Syracuse and Columbus, Leclaire settled in with the big club in early December and spent the rest of the season alternating with Marc Denis in the Blue Jacket net. In 33 appearances with Columbus this season, Leclaire posted an 11-15 record, with a 3.23 goals against average and a .911 save percentage, the latter placing him in the top half of the league.
And just what did Leclaire show in his first lap around the NHL circuit? In a typical NHL season, Leclaire’s performance would have been enough to merit consideration for inclusion on the all-rookie team. This season was a different animal altogether, as the otherworldly debut of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin were matched in goal by the outstanding rookie efforts of Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Miller, and Antero Niittymaki. Holding up Leclaire’s numbers to those produced by that trio is slightly unfair, given the defensive efforts turned in by the teams in front of them. A better comparison to be made would be with past upper-tier rookie goaltenders, a continuum that Leclaire fits in with nicely. While a losing record and a goals-against hovering around 3.50 are not impressive numbers by themselves, those numbers should be tempered by the realities of tending net for an expansion franchise that has yet to come within sight of a playoff berth. His relatively-high save percentage stands in sharp contrast to his other numbers, and that statistic is, ultimately, one of the primary measuring sticks for assessing the effectiveness of a netminder.
Following the end of the Jackets season, Leclaire returned to Syracuse as the Crunch advanced into the AHL playoffs, a move designed to provide Leclaire with more ice time in high intensity situations. Heading into next season, it seems apparent that the Jackets will give Leclaire every opportunity to stake his claim to the number one spot in the Nationwide net. With the 28-year-old Denis still under contract for next season, the possibility remains open that the Blue Jackets may elect to hand Leclaire the starting job by moving Denis in a trade over the next four months. Given that Leclaire was a high first-round pick in their second entry draft, this is the career path Columbus expected him to follow, albeit at a slightly slower pace than they most likely hoped five years ago.
As has also been the case in the history of the Jacket franchise, the eye-opening rookie performance by a potential standard-bearer was joined by another impressive debut from a second-tier prospect. This past season it was Czech native Jaroslav Balastik that supplied the solid compliment to Leclaire’s impressive debut. The 25-year-old Czech made the jump across the pond in 2005-06 and quickly moved into the Blue Jacket lineup. Coming off of two consecutive seasons as the top goal scorer in the Czech Elite League, Balastik rose as high as a spot on the second line with countrymen Jan Hrdina and David Vyborny in his first year in the NHL. While Balastik managed to account for a dozen goals and 10 assists in 66 games, by the end of the season he was alternating between the third and fourth lines and seemed to lack the requisite speed for a sustained role in the NHL. His skills around the net notwithstanding, Balastik will need to make serious strides in his skating ability if he hopes to be anything more than a role player with Columbus next season.
Where Balastik was not necessarily on the radar of many Columbus fans entering the 2005-06 season, a pair of young centers most definitely were. Both Dan Fritsche and Gilbert Brule made their debut in the Blue Jacket colors this season, and the culture shock of moving from the amateur ranks onto the professional ice were felt in different ways by each. For Fritsche, the Jackets second round pick of the 2003 Entry Draft, his rookie campaign was a hard lesson in the pace of the NHL game. In 59 games spent mostly on the fourth line, Fritsche recorded six goals and seven assists, numbers which appear consistent with the player Danny Fritsche currently is, not the player he may eventually be. Promoted quickly through the system after an injury-shortened amateur career, Fritsche may need a good deal more ice time in order to mature into the player the Jackets envision. His demotion back to Syracuse in the latter half of the season is a move in that direction, but he’ll have to show significant gains to make his way back to the Jackets.
Where Danny Fritsche’s story becomes more complicated with a demotion out of Columbus, Gilbert Brule’s demotion may be the precursor to a dramatic 2006-07 season. The sixth overall pick of the 2005 entry draft, Brule was considered in many circles to be a darkhorse candidate for the all-rookie team, thanks to an attractive package of speed, offensive prowess, and toughness. The latter of those three, however, was put to the test in his all-too-brief first look with the Jackets, as a pair of severe injuries limited Brule to only seven games with the club. In that short time with the Jackets, Brule managed to score twice on 11 shots, and added two assists in limited action. With his demotion back to his amateur club, the Vancouver Giants of the WHL, Brule dispelled any doubts about his talent and steep potential with an impressive end of the season run into the playoffs. It seems likely that the Gilbert Brule era in Columbus will begin in earnest this coming October.
The most unexpected debut of the season may have been that made by forward Geoff Platt. A relatively-unheralded player who exhibited a deft goal-scoring touch in the OHL, Platt went undrafted in 2005 and signed a one-year contract with the Jackets after a brief run in the ECHL. While he only managed five assists and 29 shots in his brief 15-game tryout with the big club, Platt continued to display his offensive abilities in the AHL over the remainder of the season. The fact he managed to make the jump to the NHL in 2005-06 has to be seen as a positive indication of his potential, but he most likely needs quite a bit more seasoning in the AHL before he gets another extended shot at an offensive role with Columbus.
As with most NHL teams this season, the brighter lights of impressive rookie campaigns from what amounts to two years worth of rising stars obscures the more muted debuts of lesser-known prospects. For the Jackets, another five players made their first appearance in the NHL, combining for 27 games played and zero points. Amongst this group are several top-end prospects in the system, including forward Alexandre Picard (17 games played), center Joakim Lindstrom (three games played), and defensemen Ole-Kristian Tollefsen (five games played) and Joe Motzko (two games played). Of this bunch, Picard had the highest upside, but will most likely need additional time in the AHL to return on the Jackets’ investment of the eighth overall pick of the 2004 draft.
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