Blue Jackets Top 10 Prospects
1. Gilbert Brule, C
2. Pascal Leclaire, G
3. Alexandre Picard, LW
4. Dan Fritsche, C
5. Adam Pineault, RW
6. Aaron Johnson, D
7. Adam McQuaid, D
8. Kris Russell, D
9. Joakim Lindstrom, LW
10. Geoff Platt, C
The 2005-06 campaign was the best season in Columbus Blue Jacket history. Following an abysmal start to the year that saw the team stumble out of the gates with a 9-25-1 mark, the Jackets found their sea legs after the turn of the new year and played above league-average hockey down the stretch. By the close of the season, Columbus had set franchise marks for wins (35) and points (74), and the Nationwide faithful were treated to a team-record 23 victories on home ice. The Jackets now stand astride a crossroads in the franchise’s history, as the effort over the second half of the season has many Columbus fans thinking playoffs in the near future. While not an entirely unreasonable expectation, the team on the ice desperately needs to plug several gaping holes in the lineup to force the postseason door open, and the manner in which these problems are addressed will determine how much longer fans will need to wait to see the Jackets play in May.
In a word, goals. The 2005-06 season may have been a tale in two parts for the Jackets, but the common theme throughout was a glaring inability to consistently put the puck in the net. As the tempo and pace of the “new” NHL increased dramatically in 2005-06, Columbus remained as ineffectual in the offensive end as they had been before the work stoppage. In 2003-04, the Jackets averaged 2.16 goals per game (good for 29th in the league), a mark which improved in appearance but not in reality, as their increase to 2.62 goals per game this past season was only good for 28th in the entire league. Those totals can be deceptive, as the 2003-04 mark included a healthy Rick Nash for the entire campaign, which implicitly suggests that the remainder of the team marginally improved on offense this past season.
While it is apparent that the Jackets have glaring deficiencies in the offensive zone, the question that needs to be asked is how best to address this critical lack of offense. Having cashed in their past four first-round picks on forwards would suggest that the organization’s preference would be to resolve the issue internally. Given the unquestioned success of Nash, the upward development of Nikolai Zherdev, and the eye-opening performance turned in by Gilbert Brule in the WHL this past spring, the Jackets may not be far off. Ultimately, this trio is expected to form the core of the offense for the next half-decade, spread between the first two lines and supplemented by David Vyborny (essentially the team MVP over the first five years) and role-player veterans.
The team will continue to flounder on the ice, however, unless they figure out a clever way to add a veteran 35-goal scorer without sacrificing any of their tangible assets. As that might not be possible, the franchise is banking on the development of Zherdev into a 30+ goal scorer to compliment Nash, who has accounted for two of the four 30-goal efforts in the franchise’s five-year history (the other two courtesy of the departed Geoff Sanderson). Toss in the expected improvement of Rostislav Klesla and Duvie Wescott in the offensive zone and the wealth of offensive-minded defensemen at the high end of the system, and it becomes clear that the Jackets needs on offense are most likely to be solved in-house. This solution would therefore come about with the pieces already in-hand, periodically supplemented by the addition of a league-average forward, like the Manny Malholtra’s and Jan Hrdina’s of the world.
Since the answers on offense are most likely under contract to Columbus already, what the team desperately needs in the system is NHL-caliber defensive prospects and checking forwards. The presence of defense-first veterans like Adam Foote and Trevor Letowski notwithstanding, the Jackets desperately need more physicality and defensive acumen throughout the system. It can be viewed as something of an indictment that this system has not produced much in the way of effective all-around forwards (outside of the high-end young guns), but five years may be too small a time frame to develop these types of NHL-caliber players. The end result of this situation, however, can be seen in the healthy amounts of ice time devoted to Hrdina (over 17 minutes per game, fifth among forwards) and Letowski (over 16 per game, sixth among forwards), ideally third and fourth-line players who are forced into larger roles due to a lack of young forwards in the system with NHL-ready capabilities at both ends of the rink.
The same type of situation is getting played out at the back end. The core quartet of Foote, Klesla, Bryan Berard and Ron Hainsey provide a sound base to build from, but the system lacks any high-end defensive defensemen. To take nothing away from an intriguing set of prospects that include Kris Russell and Aaron Johnson, the fact remains that the team on the ice would benefit profoundly from the addition of another sound, tactical veteran presence to go with Foote.
This is a surprisingly mobile, surprisingly sound, and surprisingly good defensive unit that has played at or near league-average hockey over the past several seasons, when healthy. Only two defensemen managed to appear in more than 65 games last season (Radislov Suchy and Wescott), a fact which seriously hampered the consistency of the defensive unit in 2005-06. The core of the defense is still attractive: a healthy Berard returns a true quarterback to the power play, Foote remains a sound defensive tactician and a rock around which to break the opposition’s top line, Klesla is looking for all the world to be the type of defenseman franchises are built around, and the pair of Wescott and Hainsey improved as the season wore on and the injuries mounted. The system does have a plethora of skilled, offensive-minded blueliners to look to down the road, including the aforementioned pair of Johnson and the extremely intriguing Russell.
As sound as the current core of the defense is, the key pieces up front right now are indispensable. The trio of Nash, Vyborny and Zherdev, while not a line unto themselves, are critical components to the top two forward lines on the team. Behind them stand several high-end prospects that match favorably with any other system in the league (outside of Pittsburgh). Brule is, perhaps, the jewel of that crown, an extremely talented teen with a near-limitless amount of offensive potential that projects as an eventual first-line center.
The situation in the net can be viewed as a strength, thanks to the continued efforts of Marc Denis and the strides made by Pascal Leclaire. Each turned in what has to be considered at least league-average performances, considering the injuries to the defensive corps in front of them led to a heavy workload in the nets (as evidenced by Leclaire finishing third and Denis fifth in the NHL in shots against per start). The front office is hoping that Leclaire will make Denis a redundancy sooner rather than later, which would allow them to market Denis to any of a number of teams that need help in the nets. The eventual goaltending situation behind Leclaire has several attractive possibilities already in the system, as Tomas Popperle and Daniel LaCosta may both end up competing for the backup spot in Nationwide over the next several years.
While it has been fashionable for the past few years to view the Jackets’ offensive talent as a strength, as pointed out above, the potential has yet to manifest itself team-wide on the ice. Several factors mitigate that statement (including serious injuries to Nash and Brule), but the results are difficult to argue against. What this organization is strong in is offensive potential, but even that potential basically amounts to four high-first-round selections, Vyborny, and whatever is left in Fedorov’s tank. Projecting a significant offensive contribution from a player like Jason Chimera or Letowski is the kind of wishful thinking that can lead a team back to the top of the first round of the draft. This team needs to do significantly better than three 20-goal scorers, and the only way to arrive at that destination is either to add from outside the organization or wait on the development of the youngsters. It’s not hard to discern a future, three years distant, when the Jackets are rolling out a healthy offensive package focused around a sextet of high-end forwards. Right now, however, there’s significant room for improvement behind the obvious answers provided by Nash and Zherdev.
Another weakness is defensive depth. The current core of the defense, focused around Berard, Foote, Hainsey, Klesla and Wescott, led what amounted to a league-average defensive effort by the Jackets. Foote and Berard are critical to the team’s success in the short-term, but they both missed a significant portion of the 2005-06 season thanks to the injuries that come from having to log serious amounts of ice time past the prime of their careers. There is not, however, a large, intimidating stay-at-home prospect in the system behind Klesla that could lighten their load. Eventually, the team will have to navigate the pricey waters of veteran defensive free agents, as there is not much in the way of NHL-caliber defensive help on the way already in the system, and none apparently available at the sixth pick of this year’s draft. If this team improves as dramatically as their fans hope in year six, the likelihood of the Jackets again picking in the single digits of the draft evaporates, and they will be forced to seek the eventual successors (with Klesla) to Berard and Foote from outside the organization.
Taking something of a “best player available” approach in the first round of the NHL draft has paid off in spades for the Blue Jackets over their first six drafts. The current and future core of the franchise has been mined at the top end of the first round, and the front office deserves healthy praise for making the right choices (which is a more difficult task than it would appear to be on the surface). Of their initial six first-round draft choices (all selected with the ninth pick or higher), Nash, Zherdev and Klesla are already key contributors on the Nationwide ice, Leclaire has shown enough talent and room for growth at the NHL level that he is going to be given every chance at being the franchise’s face in goal, and Brule and Alexander Picard are both realistically expected to have a significant impact in Columbus over the next 24 months. Discerning a pattern in these selections is a difficult proposition, as the Jackets have appeared to select players based on their upside, regardless of their origin or any attempt to address specific team needs.
As successful as the Jackets have been in the early stages of the draft, the results obtained from the later rounds still leaves significant room for improvement. Mining gold out of the lower rounds is a difficult assignment for all 30 teams, but the Jackets have been acutely unlucky in developing NHL-caliber prospects outside of their first round selections. While there are a number of post first-round prospects littered throughout all levels of the system, a Dan Fritsche or Adam Pineault would have to make significant strides towards becoming an NHL regular before the Jackets could claim any tangible success outside of the first round. That scenario is entirely within the realm of possibility, but has just not happened yet.
Hockey’s Future mock draft result: Derick Brassard, C, Drummondville. At the sixth selection of the draft, there will not be a difference-maker on defense that can come close to the upside of the plethora of forwards available. The Jackets selection will most likely come down to a decision between Brassard and Minnesota native Peter Mueller, and Brassard projects as another steep-upside offensive playmaker that would slot in nicely behind Brule in several years. Columbus has not been wrong yet at this stage of the draft, and it’s hard to see either player not panning out in the long run. Right now, give the slight edge to Brassard, as he appears to fit better into the new style of play in the NHL.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.