In a system top-heavy on talent spread across the Columbus, Syracuse and Dayton benches, the next crop of juniors looking up the ladder are reflective of an organization in transition. Coming into the 2006-07 season, only three of the Jackets top 20 prospects were bound for the Canadian junior ranks, most notably the sixth overall selection of the 2006 Entry Draft, Derick Brassard. This situation is more reflective of the overall depth of talent percolating up through the system and not an indictment of the club’s inability to pinpoint and develop junior talent. In fact, the expected graduation of a sizable number of players this coming season will propel several intriguing juniors into the spotlight over the coming months, including a handful of players who have already turned in impressive autumn performances.
The arrival of teen phenom Gilbert Brule from the west coast this year should not be the last major impact felt within the Jacket system from the WHL, thanks in large part to Medicine Hat rearguard Kris Russell. The reigning WHL Defenseman of the Year, Russell has continued to improve on an already-stellar amateur career and currently leads all WHL defensemen in points scored, and is already ahead of his eye-opening career pace with 17 goals and 20 assists in just 31 games played. The former blue line partner of top-flight Chicago prospect Cam Barker, Russell is expected to once again claim his spot on the Canadian junior team for the upcoming World Junior Championships. A sign of just how highly-respected his offensive game has become with the Tigers might be his inclusion with the likes of Scott Niedermayer and Brad McCrimmon in a recent web poll on the WHL home page entitled Who is the Best Defenseman in WHL History? A feisty, determined on-ice leader who is entering his second campaign as captain of a top-flight Tiger lineup, Russell appears to be rounding into the type of player ideally suited for the fast-tempo game now played at the NHL level, and can be expected to earn a look on Nationwide ice at some point in the next 16 months.
The rapidly-ascendant game of Kris Russell is not the lone reason for optimism in the Jacket system out west, as four more Columbus prospects call the left coast home this season, including Russian import Kirill Starkov. Making his North American debut with Red Deer, the teenager burst out of the gates and has posted 18 goals and 15 assists in his first 31 games with the Rebels. Something of an enigma in the system for several years, Starkov is only now showing his long-rumored offensive prowess, and should need a decent amount of seasoning in the juniors before making strides towards an audition at the professional level.
As impressive as Russell has been this season, the long-term needs of the organization call for the development of top-end defensive defensemen, and the pair of Lethbridge’s Ben Wright and Prince George’s Jesse Dudas might provide answers. Of the two, Wright was considered the better prospect coming into the 2006-07 season, and the lanky rearguard has not disappointed. Adding an improving offensive presence to what has been a solid, physical game in his own end, Wright has drawn consideration as one of the best defensemen in the western circuit, and was seen in many circles as a steal by the Jackets at the 113th spot in the 2006 draft.
Dudas, on the other hand, has drawn far less attention, thanks in large part to an injury-riddled amateur career that is just now finding him healthy and productive along the Cougar blue line. With a pair of goals and 10 assists to go with 35 penalty minutes in just 14 games this season, Dudas is only just starting to establish himself again on WHL ice. Given his injury history, it appears likely Dudas will need to turn in at least two healthy campaigns in the WHL before proceeding upwards into the professional ranks.
Joining Russell in the Medicine Hat lineup and the Blue Jacket system is forward Derek Dorsett. Just shy of his 20th birthday, Dorsett has continued to show a solid two-way physical game (12 goals and 23 assists already on the season) accentuated by a penchant for driving opponents to distraction with his aggressive style of play. Cast in the mold of a Matthew Barnaby, the Tigers assistant captain appears to be in line for promotion to Syracuse in 2007.
The big story for Columbus in the Q this season has been Brassard’s shoulder. The sixth overall selection in the 2006 Entry Draft, the 19-year-old phenom has been on the shelf following shoulder surgery and is expected to miss the majority of the 2006-07 season. In his absence, Moncton forward Matt Marquardt has continued to round into a strong physical presence on the wing. Coming off an impressive rookie campaign with one of the best teams in junior hockey last season, Marquardt has shown steep improvement in his offensive abilities this year, tallying 22 goals and 14 assists in just 33 games this season. A late-round selection, the former pupil of Islander head man Ted Nolan appears on the verge of a breakout sophomore campaign with the Wildcats, which should propel him into the minors come October of 2007.
For the other Blue Jacket prospect currently interning in the Q, the path to the NHL may be a bit longer than Marquardt’s. Another late-round selection in the 2006 draft from Drummondville, defenseman Maxime Frechette needs time to grow into his massive 6’5 frame before seriously competing for a spot in the pros. Limited so far in his amateur career by a severe shoulder injury, Frechette’s appearance in 28 of the Voltigeurs games this season is an accomplishment, even if his inability to put his name on the scorer’s sheet is not. Still only 18 years old, Frechette has several years ahead in the Q to add the muscle and dexterity that would accentuate his already-imposing size.
Of all the impressive performances turned in by Columbus prospects in the early going of the 2006-07 season, the most eye-opening may very well be the early returns on London netminder Steve Mason. Considered to be something of a project when the Jackets tabbed Ontario native with the 69th selection of the 2006 draft, Mason has looked the part of a top-flight NHL goaltending prospect this season. The second-year backstop has turned in a 19-win, 2.90 goals-against and .924 save percentage effort, totals which place him amongst the league leaders in each category. His exemplary efforts have not gone unnoticed, as evidenced by his nomination, along with Kris Russell, onto Team Canada’s selection camp roster for the 2007 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships. Going into the current season, the big question concerning Mason was whether all the potential and confidence evident in his brief dossier would manifest itself in a full-time role with London. As the answer appears to be a resounding yes, the next question for the 18-year-old is whether he can sustain this performance over the course of an entire season and into the playoffs, while trying to earn a spot on his nation’s most prestigious junior team.
The other member of the Blue Jacket top 20 currently suiting up in the OHL, defenseman Adam McQuaid, has developed into a solid two-way defenseman in his final season at the junior level. Coming off a positive experience along the blue line with top prospect Marc Staal last season, McQuaid has been asked to assume more of the responsibility for leadership in the defensive zone, a role which should benefit his continued progression towards the professional ranks. The fact that he has already set a career high in goals scored with his fourth marker of the year is an indication that his future path towards the NHL will depend primarily on his defensive technique and physicality, which actually meshes well with the current composition of the organization.
For the remaining three Jacket prospects in the OHL, forwards Tommy Sestito, Jared Boll, and Robert Nyholm, the strides shown in other quarters have not been as pronounced in 2006-07. Given the stellar showing turned in by the likes of Mason, however, the performances of this trio would have to have been profound. Of the three, Plymouth’s Sestito and teammate Boll have been the most prolific, with Sestito’s 14 goals and 10 assists in just 25 games just edging out Boll’s 10 goals and 12 assists in 27 games with the Whalers this season. In both instances, those totals suggest an upward turn in the offensive prowess of each, the continuance of which is an absolute necessity for either to have a realistic shot at a sustained role in the professional ranks. As for Nyholm, the Finnish import made the jump across the pond in the off-season, and has turned in a solid rookie effort with seven goals and 11 assists in 29 games this season with Kingston. Another prospect with a long road ahead towards a professional career, Nyholm appears to have translatable skills that may develop on North American ice.
With the recent invitations of Russell and Mason to the Team Canada selection camp for the upcoming World Junior Championships, the organization can be rightfully proud of two of their most recent third-round selections. As mentioned earlier, the imminent graduation of several long-time residents of the top 20 prospect list will push several junior players upwards onto the list, and it appears likely that Wright, Starkov and Marquardt are the three most likely candidates for promotion onto the list. All eyes, however, will be on Brassard, who is expected to return in time for the playoffs and should get a long look regardless come the Jackets 2007 training camp. At this point, though, the most exciting Blue Jacket prospect in the Canadian junior ranks has to be Russell, who has a legitimate chance at bringing home another shelf full of WHL hardware by season’s end and should be raising eyebrows in Nationwide as early as October of 2007.
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