As they prepare to enter their sixth training camp in franchise history, the Columbus Blue Jackets find themselves firmly amidst the most pronounced youth movement in the team’s short history. For the first time since the team’s inception, the talent at the NHL level appears capable of competing for a chance to host a playoff game in Nationwide Arena. The front office is relying on the top end of the current system to significantly augment the nucleus of the team that has been coalescing over the past three years, with the most profound expectations placed on goaltender Pascal Leclaire.
With the offseason decision to part company with the face of the franchise in net, Marc Denis, for a solid veteran presence on the wing in Fredrik Modin, the starting mantle was implicitly passed onto Leclaire’s shoulders. With the increased expectations after six years that this team will be able to develop a playoff-caliber core, Leclaire will be expected to maintain his solid save percentage posted in his extended look with Columbus, while improving his goals against and, most critically, won-loss record as the defense is strengthened in front of him. The tightrope being walked in Leclaire’s development track hinges on the health of the defense in front of him. It is extremely difficult to win NHL games while allowing over 33 shots per game, as the Jackets managed last year, finishing 28th out of 30 teams in that category for the third year in a row. If the defense in front of him cannot significantly improve over what has been an extremely poor track record since 2001, Leclaire may be in the unenviable position of taking the heat for a porous defense. Beginning this week in training camp, the audition ends for good, and Leclaire must lay claim to the starting job and not look back.
In addition to Leclaire, the system is now expected to produce solutions for critical positions at both ends of the ice, a situation which appears to have been orchestrated by the manner in which the front office has constructed the team over the past six years. If everything works to plan, this year will inaugurate what will be, essentially, a new era in the fortunes of the franchise, a transition that will ultimately depend on how much of the current talent in the system can define the core of the team with Rick Nash and, perhaps, Nikolai Zherdev. The confluence of several different streams of talent will make this training camp the most intriguing in the history of the franchise.
The Once and Future Kings
It’s a rare occurrence for an organization to host the debut of a pair of high-end talents concurrently, the Jackets are in position to get that chance soon with both Gilbert Brule and Derick Brassard. Both youngsters are possessed of that deadly combination of innate hockey sense and talent, and each is being looked at as a future impact player at the NHL level.
For Brule, the future is now. Coming out of training camp last year as a surprise addition to the roster, a pair of severe injuries derailed his NHL premiere, landing him back in the WHL with Vancouver. And then, magnificence; in 45 games between the regular season and the playoffs with the Giants, Brule netted 39 goals and 29 assists, and looked for all the world like the premier prospect the Jackets quietly thought they had at this time last year. Brule’s exclamation point to bring his amateur career to a close was a 16-goal effort in the playoffs that earned him the honor of Playoff MVP for the WHL.
All but guaranteed a spot with the big club entering camp, Brule will be afforded every opportunity in camp to earn his way into a significant spot between NHL-caliber finishers. With as much riding on his ability to transition his vast array of skills from the WHL to the NHL as there is on Leclaire’s maturation into the starting job in net, Brule is expected to lay claim to a key role behind Sergei Fedorov up the middle. If even a small amount of the hockey acumen of Fedorov rubs off on Brule, the Jackets may finally have the star at center ice that the franchise needs to consistently compete for the postseason.
And in the on-deck circle is freshman Brassard. The sixth overall selection for the Jackets in this past June’s entry draft, Brassard is expected to quickly progress through the system and find a spot with Columbus as early as this winter. Those plans may have suffered a significant setback with Brassard’s recent injury, a dislocated shoulder which may keep him on the shelf into the new year. If everything goes right in his rehabilitation, Brassard may be in the same position one year hence that Brule now find himself in.
Just behind the pair of Brule and Brassard, fellow wings and 2004 draft alums Alexandre Picard and Adam Pineault are both looked at as future answers for different roles on the outside. The first and second round selections for the Jackets in 2004, the pair have grown into players with completely disparate skill-sets that are inextricably linked by their draft circumstance. Along a franchise continuum of one marquee player per draft, there are increased expectations that one of these two promising youngsters will push his way into the Nationwide picture as early as this year.
Of the two, Picard is the most likely candidate to see significant ice time coming out of training camp. The eighth overall selection of the 2004 draft, Picard is strong on his skates and has a sterling track record as a dangerous offensive threat in juniors. His talent around the net was manifest in a 15-goal rookie campaign in 45 games with Syracuse last year, which stands in stark contrast to his inability to make the scoresheet in a 17-game audition with the Jackets last year. It is worth noting, however, that the youngster suffered from bouts of vertigo last season and was only afforded an average of 9:08 minutes of ice time per contest, which is barely enough to get comfortable on NHL ice. Picard will be given every chance to earn a spot with the big club come October, but the organization may be better served by placing him on a top scoring line in Syracuse and allowing him to continue to learn how to create space and finish at the professional level.
Adam Pineault is a different story altogether, and this may be the year he earns separation from his more highly-touted classmate. A naturally-gifted scorer with a heavy shot and creative flair, Pineault exudes the kind of talent that makes people see 30-goal seasons down the road. As with fellow Jacket prospect (and equally fast-rising) Philippe Dupuis, Pineault interned last year with new Islander head man Ted Nolan, and as such was mentored under the type of demanding system which often fosters the mental and physical endurance to sustain an NHL career. Add in the inherent talent, and it is no wonder why Pineault’s timetable has increased over the past 12 months. While it’s far too early to tell at this stage of his development where he will eventually shake out in his first year at the professional level, he may very well wind up in Columbus by the end of this season on a permanent basis.
One of the more hotly-contested battles that may begin to develop at this year’s camp will be the competition for the No. 2 spot in the Jacket net behind Leclaire. The opening salvoes in that war were fired in the prospects development camp this past summer, with the trio of Tomas Popperle, Daniel LaCosta, and Steve Mason all displaying the potential to grow into NHL-caliber goaltenders.
Of the three, Popperle is expected to be the first in line to challenge for the backup role, a projection that is predicted on the expectation that his development curve will continue upward on this side of the Atlantic. While his transfer to the German Elite League this past season represented a small backslide in competition, especially after an impressive rookie debut backstopping David Vyborny and Sparta Praha, the 21-year-old remained on top of his game and turned in another season of excellent performance. Should he exhibit that same level of skill early on, there will most likely be a desire to advance him along quickly. Most likely ticketed for Syracuse, Popperle’s technique and composure during training camp will be revealing as to the direction of his career arc.
Popperle may be afforded the first shot at an NHL audition, but Daniel LaCosta may not be far behind. Coming off of an eye-opening senior season in the OHL that saw him finish among the league leaders in most categories and earn a spot in the All-Star Game, LaCosta will probably head to Dayton and begin his professional career with a wealth of playing time in the ECHL. Given the need to provide sufficient experience to both Popperle and LaCosta in the professional ranks, it would appear that the two will be juxtaposed in the system for the next several months. LaCosta has the upside to steal the spotlight away from the European frontrunner, but his development track may necessitate a bit more seasoning in the minors first.
And the Future of the Franchise
The wealth of talent percolating up through the system may be the deepest in the history of the franchise. A pair of defensemen, Aaron Johnson and Ole Kristian Tollefsen, figure to be on the radar screen for spots in Columbus this season. In Johnson’s case, the technically-sound blueliner is expected to challenge for a spot on the third defensive pairing with Columbus, and Tollefsen will most likely be the first in line with Syracuse as the season progresses. Behind them, a number of attractive defensemen are on the cusp of their professional careers, highlighted by WHL Defenseman of the Year Kris Russell. The smooth rearguard has developed into a savvy player at both ends of the ice while maintaining his head quarterbacking both the power play and the penalty kill. While he may be a long shot to make the club coming out of camp, Russell may be the most intriguing prospect outside of the top 5 in the system.
Up front, a number of prospects will behind the big four of Brule, Brassard, Pineault and Picard will be provided the chance to audition for third and fourth line roles with the Jackets. Prominent among these is Geoff Platt, a lightning-quick center who transitioned his offensive prowess from the OHL into an eye-opening 30-goal rookie campaign with Syracuse last year. While his offensive game may not progress as dramatically to the NHL level, his agility and pace may be enough to secure him a role in the “new” NHL.
If Platt begins the year with Syracuse, he may be joined on a line with Joakim Lindstrom, another forward in the mix for the back end of the Columbus bench. Another player coming off an impressive season with the Crunch, Lindstrom is a veteran of the Finnish hockey proving grounds that is MoDo and does appear to possess the ability to develop into a solid two-way NHL forward, the type that playoff-caliber teams fill out their third and fourth lines with.
Going deeper still, a number of prospects are expected to make an impression in training camp before eventually getting reassigned back to juniors or on the Dayton-Syracuse shuttle. Of note, center Philippe Dupuis and defenseman Marc Methot will each get an opportunity to impress at camp, and each has an opportunity to advance their ticket in line with solid performances around the NHL veterans.
Sun, September 17th: Nashville Predators @ 6pm
Tue, September 19th: Buffalo Sabres @ 7pm
Thu, September 21st: Nashville Predators @ Memphis, Tennessee 8pm
Fri, September 22nd: Chicago Blackhawks @ 7pm
Sat, September 23rd: at Chicago Blackhawks @ 8:30pm
Sun, September 24th: Carolina Hurricanes @ 6pm
Fri, September 29th: at Carolina Hurricanes @ 7pm
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