Blue Jackets Top 20 prospects

By Chris Leary

The 2006-07 season was meant to be a defining one for several top-tier prospects in the Columbus lineup. Entering the year with high expectations for the team in general and in particular teen phenom forward Gilbert Brule and potential franchise netminder Pascal Leclaire, years of drafting atop the first round was expected to produce a solid young core that would coalesce and advance towards the team’s first-ever playoff berth.

Fast forward to April of 2007, and the organization has again missed the postseason by a significant margin, thanks in no small part to the below-average play of almost all of the franchise’s first-round talent. The overall failure of former top-ten selections Nik Zherdev, Rostislav Klesla, Leclaire and Brule to contribute significantly towards a winning season was a strong mitigating factor in the demise of the 2006-07 Jackets, and may end up being the spark which ignites dramatic change in the Columbus front office.

The palpable disappointment of another losing season, however, obscures what appears to be a deep set of rising young talent who bode well for the future of the organization. Few teams in the NHL could have promoted four of their top seven prospects, including two former first-rounders, and returned as impressive a group of prospects as currently grace the top ten spots on the organizational depth chart. The positive outlook, shared by many, of the organization’s future entering the 2006-07 season has survived the recent promotions and should actually increase as several members of the new top 20 list begin to force the spotlight in their direction. As a result, there is every indication that the young talent beginning to coalesce within the Columbus and Syracuse locker rooms has gained significant depth, a situation which greatly increases the odds of the organization assembling the critical elements of a playoff-caliber team from within the system.

Of particular note within the system are a trio of top-tier CHL prospects: last year’s first-round selection and teen phenom Derick Brassard, reigning WHL Defenseman of the Year Kris Russell, and the newly-minted top goaltender in the OHL, 18-year-old Steve Mason. Each has garnered accolades for strong performances in the junior ranks this past season, and it should come as no surprise that all three are currently integral components of amateur clubs still alive deep into the playoffs. While Brassard was an obvious choice with the sixth overall selection in the 2006 draft, Russell and Mason were tabbed in the third round of consecutive drafts, and each has displayed a talent level far above their original draft position.

In fact, for perhaps the first time in the short history of the franchise, the front office deserves credit for mining real talent out of the later stages of the NHL draft. The counterweight to this praise is, obviously, the predominantly lackluster performances turned in by their various high first-round draft picks, Rick Nash being the notable exception. It is tough to find fault with the scouting department when a player like Gilbert Brule does not quickly transfer his impressive skill set to the NHL game. It is the later rounds where NHL organizations have a much larger degree of latitude to explore a variety of options across several leagues, and the contributions of these players are often an indication of the strength of an organization’s scouting staff. Seen in that light, the extended ice time devoted to formerly-unheralded prospects like Geoff Platt and Marc Methot in Columbus this season combine with the advancement of play seen from Russell and Mason to suggest that the efforts of Blue Jacket scouts are starting pay real dividends to the organization.

The question now for the front office becomes how best to handle what is fast becoming a logjam of young, upwardly-mobile talent spread between the Columbus and Syracuse benches. The Crunch already project out to be one of the few teams in the AHL which can sport two top forward lines composed entirely of young prospects, and that will likely hold true even if Brassard pushes Brule for playing time at Nationwide, as many suspect he may. The landscape along the blueline is equally crowded with prospects, especially with the approaching graduation of Russell into the professional ranks and the eye-opening performance of Methot at the end of the season in Columbus.

While the disappointing early returns from the Brule experiment may sway public opinion against advancing top-end talent like Brassard and Russell quickly into the NHL, it was the handling of 2004’s first rounder Alexandre Picard that should make people nervous.  A developing power forward who has never really established the upper-level type of game expected from a top-10 selection, Picard spent a significant portion of his 21-year-old season sitting at the end of the Columbus bench. What appeared to be a competitive audition with a Blue Jacket lineup again playing out the string turned into a lengthy stay on the bench, eventually seeing him lose playing time to a host of prospects and ending the season with an average of just over 7 minutes of ice time in his final five games.

With the sheer volume of talent lining up for spots in the organization, Picard’s unfortunate situation has the potential to become the norm. While a good problem for an organization to have in some respects, the front office will have its hands full over the next few years sorting out the real NHL-caliber talent from the fool’s gold, a task which will go a long way towards determining how much longer the Blue Jacket faithful need wait to watch playoff hockey in Nationwide.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Derick Brassard, C
2. Kris Russell, D
3. Alex Picard, LW
4. Adam Pineault, RW
5. Geoff Platt, C
6. Joakim Lindstrom, LW
7. Marc Methot, D
8. Steve Mason, G
9. Adam McQuaid, D
10. Kirill Starkov, RW
11. Tomas Popperle, G
12. Daniel LaCosta, G
13. Matt Marquardt, RW
14. Tommy Sestito, RW
15. Derek Dorsett, RW
16. Ben Wright, D
17. Philippe Dupuis, C
18. Jared Boll, C
19. Trevor Hendrikx, D
20. Petr Pohl, C

1. Derick Brassard, C
First round, sixth overall, 2006
Age 19, 6′, 172 lbs.

Assuming the mantle of de facto top prospect in Columbus with the graduation of Brule and Leclaire to the big club, offensive dynamo Derick Brassard is now the future of the franchise up front. Selected by the Jackets with the sixth overall pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, the teen phenom has only recently returned to the ice after suffering a severely-separated shoulder prior to the 2006-07 season. Resuming his role as the top playmaker with Drummondville of the QMJHL, Brassard has proven to be every bit the high-end prospect he was prior to the injury. After rolling off an impressive 25 points in the final 14 games of the Voltigeurs season, Brassard has set a blistering pace in the playoffs with 8 goals and 12 assists in just 10 games, drawing rave reviews along the way. 

Coming off of an impressive rookie campaign with the Voltigeurs in 2004-05 (where he accounted for 25 goals and 51 assists in 69 games), Brassard’s results increased dramatically as a sophomore in 2005-06. In just 58 games, Brassard tallied 44 goals and 72 assists, totals which placed him among the league leaders and atop the leader board in points per game. Thanks in large part to his performance and eye-opening offensive package, the winner of the QMJHL‘s Mike Bossy Award shot up draft boards over the second half of the 2005-06 season, garnering a good deal of attention from NHL scouts and executives.  Possessed of NHL-caliber vision and pace, the Hull, Quebec native is projected as an eventual partner up the middle with fellow phenom Brule in what may end up being a fierce attack in Columbus come 2010.

As with the aforementioned Brule, the big question mark for Brassard’s continued development is health. While the shoulder separation that cost him much of the 2006-07 season can be seen as a fluke injury, severe injuries of this sort early on in a player’s development arc may be a harbinger of problems down the road. The latest one for him was not the first in his relatively short career at the amateur level. As Brassard’s game relies on speed and the ability to create space through vision and agility, the nimble pivot may not need to add significant upper-body mass to survive at the NHL level, but a little more leverage could not hurt at this point in his career. If he can remain healthy, Brassard has as much raw talent as any NHL prospect, and will be given every chance by the organization to earn his way onto Nationwide Ice over the next 12 months.

2. Kris Russell, D
Third round, 67th overall, 2005
Age 19, 5’10, 177 lbs.

Arguably the top defenseman in the WHL over the past two seasons, Medicine Hat’s Kris Russell has done nothing to counter the assessment that the Blue Jackets got a steal at the 67th spot in the 2005 Entry Draft. An exciting, intelligent blueliner who appears possessed of NHL-caliber hockey sense and on-ice vision, Russell is in line to succeed Dion Phaneuf of the Calgary Flames as a two-time winner of the Bill Hunter Trophy as top defenseman in the WHL. Currently leading the circuit in defenseman scoring, with 11 points in 10 playoff games while captaining the Tigers title run, the fiery teenager appears primed for a determined run at a professional career this coming autumn, and might be the best offensive defenseman prospect in the history of the franchise.

If Russell develops into a top-end NHL regular, the antecedents of that success will have been obvious from his amateur resume. When Columbus tabbed Russell as their third-round selection in the 2005 draft, the 17-year-old was considered too small for an NHL career, and was somewhat hidden by the spotlight cast on defensive partner and top-flight prospect Cam Barker of Chicago. Two years later, Barker has graduated into the Blackhawks NHL lineup and Russell has developed into one of the most accomplished and respected Canadian juniors. Coming off of a stellar 2004-05 campaign which saw him finish among the league leaders in defensive scoring and earn acclimation as the Bill Hunter winner, Russell stepped up his already impressive game, leading the league in goals by a defenseman with 32 in just 59 games. Stepping out of the shadow cast by Barker, Russell assumed the mantle of team captain and displayed strong leadership in leading the Tigers to the second-best record in the league. A critical role with each of the past two gold medal-winning Team Canada squads at the WJC tournament further highlights Russell’s on-ice ability and hockey acumen.

With nothing left to prove in his amateur career, Russell will graduate into the professional ranks after he attempts to help guide the Tigers towards a Memorial Cup championship. While a title would be a fitting crowning to an outstanding junior run with Medicine Hat, the best may very well be yet to come for the exciting blueliner. All will depend upon Russell’s ability to translate his impressive skill set to the professional game, which has been the norm for players who have posted a similar track record in the WHL. Should Russell indeed capture another Hunter Trophy as top defenseman in the circuit, he will join a very short list of multiple winners which includes NHL veterans Phaneuf, Glen Wesley, and Nolan Baumgartner. While no guarantee of NHL success, Russell has progressed into the top defensive prospect in the system and should be afforded every opportunity to be groomed into a valuable NHL commodity.

3. Alex Picard, LW
First round, eighth overall, 2004
Age 21, 6’2, 190 lbs.

A high-energy forward who has yet to develop an NHL-caliber skill set after 40 games with the Jackets, Quebecois forward Alexandre Picard is still trying to show the abilities that earned him the eighth overall selection in the 2004 entry draft. On the merits of his high draft position alone, Picard has regularly featured atop the prospect lists for a Columbus organization stocked full of high-end prospects over the past several years. His apparent failure to make a mark at the NHL level, with a lone point to his credit in those 40 NHL appearances, may speak more to the manner in which the organization has treated the lanky winger’s development than a true indication of his potential.

Viewed as a skilled offensive winger as a junior with Lewiston of the QMJHL, Picard has developed a competent two-way game in his abbreviated two years of play at the AHL level. In 68 games spread over the past two seasons in Syracuse, Picard accounted for 26 goals and 32 assists, totals which, while not eye-opening, appear consistent with the type of player Picard appeared to be as a junior.

Still only 21, the organization felt confident enough in Picard’s developing talent to promote him into the Jacket lineup each of the past two years, including a 23-game run to close out the regular season with Columbus. While the single point and 20 shots recorded by Picard this year with the big club are disappointing, the youngster has not yet been afforded the luxury of regular ice time to develop his craft. Averaging less than eight minutes of ice time and 12 shifts per game, Picard has been a bit player in the lineup, regularly working on the fourth line with a variety of linemates. While noted for his highly-energetic style of play in that limited ice time, there has been little apparent interest to work Picard into the lineup, as evidenced by his overall lack of ice time and complete absence from any of the Jackets’ special teams squads.

As one of the least-utilized components of the Jacket lineup, the question becomes if the 21-year-old would be better served with consistent ice time to further develop in Syracuse, as opposed to a regular seat at the end of the Columbus bench during the majority of each game and the entire third period. The early returns on his AHL experience are a positive indicator and strong counter-weight to his NHL results. As his all-around intensity and hustle have yet to earn him regular ice time, Picard may have to take a significant step forward in his offensive capabilities and force head coach Ken Hitchcock’s hand. Ultimately, until he is afforded the opportunity to play a full season with regular ice time at either the AHL or NHL level, Picard’s potential will remain just that, potential.

4. Adam Pineault, RW
Second round, 46th overall, 2004
Age 20, 6’3, 204 lbs.

A developing power forward who is only beginning to grow into his large frame, right wing Adam Pineault turned in a solid, if somewhat unspectacular, rookie campaign as a professional with Syracuse this past season. Coming off of an impressive junior career with Moncton of the Q, Pineault’s 12-goal, 16-assist freshman season in the AHL can be viewed as a slight disappointment, especially in an organization that has not been acutely unable to develop NHL-caliber wings within the system. It is just as probable, however, that Pineault is firmly within the development arc for players of his size and talents.

Considered something of a project when the Jackets grabbed him after an uninspiring freshman season with Boston College, Pineault developed a strong offensive game in two seasons with Moncton. The Holyoke, Massachusetts native’s 65 goals and 60 assists in his 116-game Wildcat career suggest an emerging offensive talent, while his successful two-year internship under current Islander head man Ted Nolan may be an indication of a determined player possessed of a strong work ethic. An eye-opening 15-goal performance during Moncton’s 2005-06 Memorial Cup run is further evidence of Pineault’s character and on-ice competence.

Whereas fellow 2004 draft class alum Alexandre Picard has been promoted, perhaps hastily, to Columbus, Pineault was afforded the opportunity to spend the entire 2006-07 season on a regular shift with Syracuse. Still a youthful 20, Pineault has the time to develop the strength to go with his large frame at the AHL level, which should only accentuate his emerging offensive abilities. An extended audition in Blue Jackets 2007 training camp this September is most likely on Pineault’s immediate horizon, although further seasoning with Syracuse should be expected.

5. Geoff Platt, C
Unrestricted free agent, 2005
Age 21, 5’9, 171 lbs.

In some respects, the 2006-07 season marked a turning point in the developing NHL career of undersized pivot Geoff Platt. An unrestricted free agent signee of the Blue Jackets after being overlooked in the 2005 entry draft, Platt rose from obscurity in the USHL to earn playing time at the NHL level as an unheralded 20-year-old. This past season saw a continuation of the positive strides made in his rookie season, with his four-goal and five-assist performance in 26 games somewhat obscuring his audition on the second line and extended power play role. While that alone has made for an impressive story, the real tale of this past season has been Platt’s transformation from a longshot underdog making it through to the big show, into a viable option as an NHL regular.

In a system stocked full with high-end talent acquired at the top of the first round of the NHL draft, Platt is a complete anomaly. Hampered in the eyes of NHL scouts, due largely to his smallish frame, Platt went undrafted in the 2005 draft in spite of what should have been an eye-opening 45-goal season with Erie as a teenager. The confident rookie translated that scoring touch into an impressive 30-goal campaign in his first year as a professional with Syracuse in 2005-06, which earned him a 15-game audition in Columbus and made him the rare player to jump all the way from the USHL to the NHL in a single season.

The 2006-07 season was more of the same for Platt at the AHL level, as he returned to the Crunch for most of the campaign and maintained the consistent goal-scoring pace he established as a rookie. In 50 games with Syracuse, Platt recorded 27 goals and 20 assists, which paced a poor Crunch squad in goals and finished runner-up to team leader Joakim Lindstrom in assists. Overlooked for the big club coming out of training camp, Platt worked his way back onto Nationwide Ice and made the most of the opportunity in 26 games, highlighted by a three-point performance on Mar. 17 centering a line with Rick Nash against the Kings. While averaging just over ten minutes of ice time per game, thanks in large part to head coach Ken Hitchcock’s decision to shuffle Platt off and on the fourth line, Platt was able to show enough offensive acumen and drive to earn a continuing role on the power play.

The most improbable of prospects, Platt has begun to carve a niche out for himself on the NHL roster, thanks in large part to his speed, agility, and obvious offensive abilities. A few words of caution sounded by management concerning Platt’s all-around game suggests that the undersized center would be well served to further refine his defensive game. Should he be able to apply his speed and agility in a defensive capacity, Platt may develop into a Derek Roy-type player and an integral component of a playoff-caliber compliment of forwards in an NHL lineup.

6. Joakim Lindstrom, LW
Second round, 41st overall, 2002
Age 23, 6′, 185 lbs.

The leading scorer on what was a disappointing 2006-07 Syracuse Crunch squad, Swedish wing Joakim Lindstrom is rapidly approaching a crossroads in his North American career. In his second full season at the AHL level, Lindstrom continued to display the proficiency on the attack that made him a second-round selection in the 2002 draft, tallying 22 goals and 26 assists in 50 games with the Crunch. Rapidly approaching his 24th birthday, however, the graduate of the acclaimed MoDo system in his native Sweden will need to force his way into the Blue Jacket lineup to prove that the progress shown on the AHL ice can translate to the faster NHL game.

Another forward given a short audition with the Jackets this past season, Lindstrom’s nine games in the Columbus lineup were accentuated by an extensive look at the end of the season. Earning over 12 minutes of ice time over four of the team’s final five games, Lindstrom began to draw assignments on the second power-play unit, but still seemed timid and perhaps a bit overmatched by the pace of the NHL game. The fact that he did earn the time from the frugal Hitchcock, however, suggests that the organization is hopeful that the 23-year-old will continue to develop into a third-line wing with offensive upside.

At this stage of his career, Lindstrom’s capabilities in the offensive zone are his most NHL-ready skills, which suggests that he will need to continue to score if he is to earn a regular role with the big club. If not, the AHL is filled with competent veteran goal scorers that ultimately become the solid foundation behind the top prospects that cycle through the circuit. Lindstrom still has enough potential to suggest that he will develop into a consistent 20-goal scorer at the NHL level. While another 50 games in Syracuse cannot hurt, Lindstrom will need to step up soon if he hopes to earn the critical ice time at the NHL level to further advance his career. He should get every opportunity in this September’s training camp to prove he belongs at Nationwide.

7. Marc Methot, D
Sixth round, 168th overall, 2003
Age 21, 6’3, 193 lbs.

If the best performance in a starring role by a rookie defenseman with the Jackets in 2006-07 could be awarded to Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, then 21-year-old Marc Methot was clearly the runner-up. Parlaying a solid sophomore campaign with the Crunch into an extended 20-game audition in Columbus this past season, the former OHL All-Star opened eyes at Nationwide with a high level of competency in his own zone and the type of developing NHL-caliber defensive acumen that hints at a real future as a top-six defenseman.

A former sixth-round selection, little was expected of the Ottawa native as a teenager with the London Knights of the OHL. Four solid seasons with the Knights, which culminated with a Memorial Cup Championship, was the springboard to an equally-sound rookie debut as a professional in 2005-06 with Syracuse. While not noted for possessing a wealth of offensive talent, Methot has always shown a dependable and intelligent game at both ends of the ice, and is not a liability in the offensive zone. His strengths, however, are evident around his own net, as Methot is a confident and strong player on defense and has been a compliment to the various defensive partners paired with him in the organization over the past two years.

To say that his debut performance over the last month of the season in Columbus was a revelation might actually be an understatement. Displaying a defensive package above his original draft position and age, Methot continually earned regular even-strength ice time and became a dependable penalty kill option, eventually eclipsing more highly-touted prospect Aaron Johnson in the lineup at the close of the season. Finishing off the year with a +5 plus/minus, four assists and 12 shots, Methot proved to be one of several bright spots, along with Tollefsen, in a lineup that expected much from other high-end rookie prospects entering the season. Possessed of a heavy shot, Methot is a competent player in the offensive zone and should continue to develop that part of his game over the coming years.

At this point in his career, Methot seems likely to earn a spot with the Jackets coming of training camp with a chance to continue his progression into a dependable and consistent top-four defensive defenseman for Columbus. Still a youthful 21, Methot may end up seeing time at Syracuse again before earning a permanent spot with the big club. If the strides made over the first 20 games of his NHL career are any indication, however, the Jackets may have found a compliment to Tollefsen along the blueline for many years to come.

8. Steve Mason, G
Third round, 69th overall, 2006
Age 18, 6’3, 186 lbs.

In some respects, the 2006-07 season was projected by many to be the coming-out party in the organizational net, with top-tier prospect Pascal Leclaire set to graduate into a permanent role with the big club and the combination of rookies Tomas Popperle and Daniel LaCosta expected to compete for the main job in Syracuse. In hindsight, all the signs were there that 18-year-old netminder Steve Mason was the real gem of the bunch.

An unknown quantity when the Jackets tabbed him with the 69th overall selection in the 2006 entry draft, thanks in large part to the scouting efforts of former Blue Jacket goaltending coach and fellow Oakville, Ontario native Rick Wamsley, Mason turned in a spectacular 2006-07 season in his first full year as a junior with the London Knights of the OHL. The Jackets may owe the departed Wamsley a debt of gratitude, after watching the true enigma entering the season on the organization depth chart set an OHL record for wins en route to capturing OHL Goaltender of the Year honors earlier this week.

The Jackets were quietly excited about landing Mason in the third round of last year’s draft, based on only 16 games of experience at the junior level, but even they could not have predicted the stellar breakout campaign posted by Mason in his first lap around the circuit. Mason posted an eye-popping 45-13-4 record, thanks to an impressive .914 save percentage and 3.20 goals against. While the latter figure appears a bit high, Mason faced over 2300 shots (one of the highest figures in the league) and still managed to break the OHL record for wins by a goaltender. Along the way, Mason’s emerging abilities were acknowledged by the league, earning top player honors for the month of November and player-of-the week down the stretch at the end of the regular season.

A fiery competitor whose game appears to rise to the occasion, Mason has advanced to the point where he will be seriously considered for the top spot in net this winter at the WJC’s for Team Canada. In fact, his invite to the 2006-07 Team Canada camp may be a positive harbinger of things to come for the intense competitor. While it may be several seasons before Jacket fans see Mason competing for time in the Nationwide net, Mason already appears to be one of the top goaltending prospects in the history of the franchise and the sky appears to be the limit for the burgeoning teen phenom. Should he work his way into a starring role in the Team Canada net this coming winter, it’s time for Jacket prospect watchers to get really excited about another third-round selection playing far above his draft position.

9. Adam McQuaid, D
Second round, 55th overall, 2005
Age 20, 6’3, 197 lbs.

The second-round selection of the Jackets in the 2005 draft, oversized defenseman Adam McQuaid has remained a fixture on the Jacket prospect radar thanks to his attractive combination of size and defensive acumen. A key component of a strong Sudbury blueline in his fourth year as a junior, McQuaid will soon be graduating out of the OHL and will need to develop into his large frame in what is shaping up to be a competitive and deep corps of rearguards in the organization at training camp this autumn.

Overshadowed on a competitive Sudbury squad by a number of attractive NHL prospects, including fellow defenseman and top New York Ranger prospect Marc Staal, McQuaid has shown significant growth in his offensive capabilities, posting career highs in goals (9) and assists (22) this past season. McQuaid matched Staal for the team lead in plus/minus on the blueline, and another 100-minute season in penalties attests to his physicality.

In many respects, McQuaid has enjoyed a similar career to that of fellow Jacket prospect Methot, a player who has opened eyes in the organization thanks to impressive size matched with defensive acumen. Even though the club expended a second-round pick on McQuaid, the front office would be ecstatic to see him at the same place Methot is now in two years time. McQuaid should be provided every opportunity to hone his craft and develop an NHL-caliber presence in the defensive zone in the coming year with Syracuse, and will need to show significant progress to separate himself in the deep pool of blueline talent in the organization. The second-round billing only goes so far, and the next 24 months in his development will be critical towards defining his role within the organization.

10. Kirill Starkov, LW
Sixth round, 189th overall, 2005
Age 19, 6′, 195 lbs.

The good news coming out of the WHL for the Blue Jackets this past season was not limited to the continued ascent of defenseman Kris Russell, as European import Kirill Starkov turned in a dazzling debut in his first year of North American competition. After spending most of this past year atop the rookie scoring leader board and eventually finishing second in goals scored by a freshman in the circuit with 34, Starkov should likely be locked into a contract by Columbus before the clock runs out on the Jackets opportunity to sign the newly-naturalized Danish citizen.

Long considered a potential steal as a virtual unknown when the Jackets reached for him with a sixth-round selection in the 2005 draft, Starkov’s transition across the ocean as a teenager was eased by his role this past season on a line with top-tier Phoenix prospect and fellow Euro phenom Martin Hanzal. Starkov’s impressive point totals as a rookie (34 goals and 37 assists in 71 games) were eclipsed by Hanzal, as each player fed off the other and adjusted to the culture of North American hockey while pushing Red Deer into an improbable run at a title. With the elimination of the Rebels at the hands of the powerful Medicine Hat squad (quarterbacked, coincidentally, by fellow Jacket prospect Russell), Starkov returned to Denmark, a country he has called home since moving out of Russia at the age of four.

It is difficult at this point to ascertain the ceiling of Starkov’s skills. While his impressive point totals from his rookie campaign in the tough WHL suggest that the best is yet to come, the obvious playmaking abilities of linemate Hanzal naturally temper that assessment. While another year in the WHL would appear to be of benefit in his adjustment to the North American game, his expressed dissatisfaction with the controlled environment in the Canadian juniors (which stands in sharp contrast to his European career) is an indication that he will be exploring his options this offseason. Looking for an opportunity to showcase his talent for the big club, Starkov has shown interest in signing a contract with Columbus and earning an audition in training camp come September.

11. Tomas Popperle, G
Fifth round, 131st overall, 2005
Age 22, 6’1, 187 lbs.

For the first time in franchise history, the Blue Jackets have to sort out a logjam of high-end prospects in the Syracuse net. While the 2006-07 season did not produce astounding results for freshman Czech netminder Tomas Popperle, the 22-year-old’s debut performance in North America reaped a solid return on the investment of a fifth rounder two years ago.

The more accomplished of the pair of rookie goaltending prospects who saw time in the Crunch net in 2006-07 (Daniel LaCosta being the other), Popperle turned in an up-and-down season. Posting a slightly-below-league-average effort with a .904 save percentage and a 2.85 goals against, the Czech émigré looked solid at times, especially in a series of consecutive appearances down the stretch as the Crunch made a late-season, and ultimately futile, run at a playoff spot. The rigors of a full North American campaign did not appear to exact a heavy toll on the youngster, as his best performances came in a 9-2-1 March as the entire team improved and Popperle maintained a consistent level of performance.

Entering the 2007-08 season, Popperle will again be thrown into a mix of goaltenders for the backup spot in Columbus and the starting job with Syracuse. Given the talent around him in the system, Popperle will need to sharpen his overall abilities if he is to eventually advance out of the AHL and into the Nationwide equation. The fact that he showed real progress in his first season on this side of the pond is a leading indicator that his talent level and competitiveness may continue to improve as he gains more ice time in the AHL. Most likely destined for a real dogfight with LaCosta for playing time in Syracuse next year, what should be fierce competition should go a long way towards determining if Popperle can develop into the next great Czech goaltender in the NHL, or remain the competent AHL-level netminder he has already proven himself to be.

12. Daniel LaCosta, G
Third round, 93rd overall, 2004
Age 20, 6’1, 186 lbs.

Playing the role of Robin to Tomas Popperle’s Batman in the Columbus organization this past season, former OHL All-Star netminder Daniel LaCosta turned in an enigmatic freshman effort shuttling between Dayton and Syracuse. The 20-year-old opened many eyes in the organization after posting shutouts on consecutive nights in early February, which earned him AHL Player of the Week honors and a spotlight onto his overall performance. The ability displayed in those games were counter-balanced by well below-league-average play throughout the season after his promotion to Syracuse, 

A four-year veteran of the OHL coming into the 2006-07 season as a rookie with Dayton of the ECHL, LaCosta showed enough potential in his 13-game stint with the Bombers to earn promotion, in spite of a disturbing .874 save percentage and 3.45 goals against.  He carried that inconsistent play with him up a level, posting a .894 save percentage in 19 games, which is suggestive of his overall inconsistency in the AHL when his three shutouts are taken out of the equation. To his credit, he found his form again as the Crunch played out the string at the end of the season and displayed the kind of ability that suggests he will give Popperle a real run at the top spot in Syracuse in 2007-08.

Ultimately, the jury is still very much out on LaCosta’s potential. Twenty is a very young age from which to establish the NHL suitability of a goaltending prospect, and the two-year edge Popperle holds on LaCosta may be a determining factor in playing time with Syracuse this coming autumn. Something of a late bloomer at the junior level, LaCosta may take a bit longer to mature at the AHL level, which seems appropriate given his age and the burgeoning wealth of talent at the position within the organization. He may eventually develop into an NHL-caliber goaltending talent, but at this point in his career several more years of internship with Syracuse seems likely before that can be effectively determined.

13. Matt Marquardt, LW
Seventh round, 194th overall, 2006
Age 19, 6’2, 222 lbs.

Entering the 2006-07 season, burgeoning power wing Matt Marquardt was considered a mid-tier prospect, having been selected in the seventh round of the 2006 NHL entry draft. With the departure of several high-end prospects to a variety of AHL destinations and headman Nolan to the NHL, Marquardt was expected to perhaps plateau in a less-intense environment. Instead, the offensive prowess hinted at as a rookie blossomed in his sophomore season, as Marquardt registered an eye-opening 41 goals to pace the Wildcats. Suddenly, the player former mentor Nolan described as being possessed of "NHL size (and) an NHL shot" is rounding into the type of talent that should challenge for playing time in the professional ranks in several years time.

Already the type of imposing physical presence on the wing who fills highlight reels in Moncton, Marquardt is a pure banger. Coming off a workmanlike freshman campaign on a high-octane Moncton squad which hustled its way into the Memorial Cup, not much was expected of the hulking teen outside of continued physicality at both ends of the ice. A 16-goal rookie effort was considered a fine debut, but it was his continued hustle and strength at both ends of the rink that attracted the attention of NHL scouts. While his 41-goal sophomore output should be viewed within the context of the wide-open OHL, the absence of high-end talent in the new-look Moncton lineup under veteran NHL head coach John Torchetti suggests that the progress shown this year was not a mirage. 

Headed back to Moncton to finish out his amateur career in 2007-08, Marquardt will need to continue to develop his physical, grinding game in preparation for what will most likely be an extended audition in the AHL in two years’ time. While the offensive acumen displayed by Marquardt in his sophomore campaign has been a pleasant surprise, his eventual role at this point in his career projects to be a third or fourth line grinder with offensive upside. Not bad for a seventh round selection, and the potential is there if his skating and agility continues to progress.

14. Tom Sestito, LW
Third round, 85th overall, 2006
Age 19, 6’4, Wt: 209 lbs.

With a surprising 42 markers in 60 regular season games for the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL, forward Tom Sestito displayed enough talent to suggest that the Jackets investment of a third-round selection was not in vain.

A teammate of fellow Blue Jacket prospect Jared Boll in a competitive Plymouth lineup, Sestito improved dramatically at the offensive end of the ice in what was essentially his third season as an amateur. Flourishing within a deep and competitive pair of forward lines with the Whalers, the 19-year-old leveraged his 6’4 frame in the offensive zone and displayed a scorer’s touch not previously manifest in his junior career. Primarily attractive in the 2006 draft as a result of his imposing size and skating ability, the offensive strides have to be a pleasant surprise for the organization. Sestito has not lost his scorer’s touch in the playoffs, finding the back of the net six times (including a hat trick) in eight playoff games for the Whale.

The obvious question, however, is whether the marked improvement manifest on the scorer’s sheet is indicative of real development, or evidence of an older, experienced player taking advantage of the space created by a deep forward corps. While Sestito may have ended the season as the top goal scorer in the entire Columbus organization, those 42 goals barely cracked the top 20 in the wide-open OHL. Improving on that blistering goal-scoring pace in the postseason can be viewed as a leading indicator that Sestito has, like fellow power forward Matt Marquardt, begun to develop an offensive skill set to compliment his NHL-caliber size and physical presence. Consecutive seasons of over 130 penalty minutes suggests that Sestito is not shy about asserting himself physically at both ends of the rink, and continued growth into his large frame can be expected over the next several years. Given another year of continued improvement in his final lap around the OHL next season, it is not too far a stretch to see Sestito challenging (or combining with) Marquardt and Derek Dorsett for regular playing time on the fourth line in Columbus come September of 2009.

15. Derek Dorsett, RW
Seventh round, 189th overall, 2006
Age 20, Ht: 6′, Wt: 176 lbs.

The strong, intense backbone of a highly-successful Medicine Hat lineup that also features fellow Blue Jacket prospect Russell, right wing Derek Dorsett has continued to display a physical, grinding game that belies his seventh round selection. Turning in the most productive scoring season of his amateur career, Dorsett has begun to develop a more complete skill set that, if further refined in the minors over the next two years, might pay real dividends for the Jackets.

Once again pacing the talented Tiger lineup in penalty minutes in his third year with the team, a situation which came as no surprise given Dorsett’s well-known (and grudgingly-regarded by opponents) style of play. A born instigator on the ice, Dorsett parlayed the space provided by his aggressiveness into the best offensive season of his career. Displaying a playmaking touch not evident in his early junior career, Dorsett finished third on the team in points with 19 goals and 45 assists in 61 games. Injured in the playoffs, Dorsett is just now getting back into the lineup as the Tigers stand poised to advance towards another shot at the WHL Eastern Conference Championship, and a potential run at a Memorial Cup berth.

Expected to advance along with teammate Russell into the professional ranks of the Columbus organization in 2007, Dorsett is much more intriguing prospect than his seventh-round status would indicate. The gritty 20-year-old should join Marquardt in what will likely be an intense several years of physical, banging hockey in Syracuse over the next few years. If the progress made in his offensive game this past season can be translated to the AHL level, the fierce banger will most likely open eyes within the organization. For now, he joins with top-tier prospect Russell to provide Jacket fans an intriguing reason to monitor the fortunes of the Medicine Hat Tigers in this season’s WHL playoffs.

16. Ben Wright, D
Fourth round, 133rd overall, 2006
Age 19, Ht: 6’2, Wt: 189 lbs.

A dependable defenseman still developing into an NHL-caliber prospect, Lethbridge’s Ben Wright turned in a solid sophomore campaign in the WHL this past season. Selected by the Jackets in the fourth round of the 2006 draft, two rounds lower than the draft position projected by many for the lanky teen, Wright appears destined for an extended audition in Syracuse by the autumn of 2009.

This past season was one of growth at both ends of the ice for Wright, with a marked improvement shown on the scorer’s sheet with 10 goals and 37 assists, totals which made him the leader in scoring along the blueline for the Hurricanes.  An intelligent stay-at-home defenseman with a strong work ethic and attractive technical package, the Alberta native’s increase in offensive output was indicative of an overall rise in his skating and agility.

Headed back to Lethbridge in 2007, Wright will need to continue his development arc to earn ice time along what is shaping up to be a crowded Syracuse blueline in several years time.

17. Philippe Dupuis, C
Fourth round, 104th overall, 2003
Age 22, 6′, 195 lbs.

The junior linemate of fellow Jacket prospect Adam Pineault, center Philippe Dupuis experienced growing pains in his debut season as a professional between Syracuse and Dayton. An accomplished scorer as an amateur with Moncton of the QMJHL, Dupuis got lost in the shuffle of prospects in Syracuse lineup that featured four of the top ten prospects in the system.

As Dupuis was forced to fight for playing time as a rookie against the likes of Platt, his 9 goals and 10 assists in 48 games with the Crunch are respectable, especially within a lineup that failed to make the postseason. Coming off of a 100-point effort and impressive playoff run with an impressive Moncton squad in his final amateur season, however, those totals are tangible evidence that Dupuis failed to make a substantial mark in his first lap around the AHL. A regular linemate again of Pineault during different stretches of the Syracuse season, neither player appeared to benefit from the reunion and both may be best served by working with what is fast becoming a deep set of prospect forwards in the AHL.

With playing time at center in Columbus and Syracuse only getting more scarce, especially with the expected promotion of No. 1 prospect Brassard, Dupuis will need to force the organization’s hand himself. A competent player at both ends of the ice, the 22-year-old still has an opportunity to step up his game in his sophomore AHL campaign. At this point, Dupuis will need to carve out a consistent and productive role in Syracuse before he can seriously be considered for an extended audition in Columbus. 

18. Jared Boll, RW
4th round, 101st overall, 2005
Age 20, 6’1, 190 lbs.

Playing in the shadow, both figuratively and literally, of the more highly-regarded Blue Jacket prospect Sestito on a competitive Plymouth club, right wing Jared Boll is prepared to make the jump into the minors as a depth forward this coming autumn.

A steady two-way forward more noted for his physical game and abilities on the backcheck, Boll improved at both ends of the rink in his overage sophomore campaign in the OHL this past season. While his 28 goals and 27 assists were both career highs for the 20-year-old, the 198 penalty minutes are a better indication of the type of player Boll projects to be.

This autumn, Boll will need to force his way into a spot with Syracuse or accept a role with Dayton of the ECHL. While it is difficult to project Boll as anything more than a grinding AHL regular, players with his package of skills occasionally find themselves able to capitalize at being in the right place at the right time and hustling their way onto the back end of an NHL bench. At this point, Boll will need to show marked improvement and a healthy dose of luck to appear on the Columbus radar in a significant way.

19. Trevor Hendrikx, D
Seventh round, 201st overall, 2005
Age 21, 6’2, 190 lbs.

Another imposing physical presence in a system that currently finds itself stocked full of similar players, defenseman Trevor Hendrikx spent his first year as a professional learning the ropes with a competitive Dayton squad in the ECHL. Selected in the later stages of the NHL draft by the Jackets, Hendrikx was unable in his first season to force his way up to Syracuse of the AHL, an indication that the potential many saw in Hendrikx as a junior has not translated quickly to the pro game.

Coming off an intriguing amateur career with a deep and talented Peterborough team in the OHL, Hendrikx appeared to have taken a significant step forward in his development over his final year with the Petes. Adding a real offensive game to his strong physical play in his own zone, the Russell, Ontario native seemed to eclipse the pugilistic role which defined his early junior career. While posting five goals and six assists to go with 88 penalty minutes in his rookie campaign with Dayton are consistent with a low-round selection adjusting to the pace of the professional game, Hendrikx will need to develop significantly at both ends of the ice if he is to earn real playing time with Syracuse this coming season. With the surplus of blueline talent circulating through the Crunch lineup of late, Hendrikx may be destined for another lap around the ECHL, which is probably not the best situation for his continued development. There’s still talent here, however, and it will be up to the aggressive Hendrikx to make the same type of step forward as a professional that he did as a junior last year.

20. Petr Pohl, RW
Fifth round, 133rd overall, 2004 Entry Draft
Age 20, 5’11, 185 lbs.

The other notable debut this past season with Dayton was the rookie campaign of Czech transplant Petr Pohl. An above-average offensive playmaker in the QMJHL since coming over to North America as a 17-year-old, Pohl’s freshman season was similar in many respects to that of Hendrikx, who also debuted to little fanfare in Dayton.

Whereas the imposing Hendrikx was not expected to produce results on the scorer’s sheet as a rookie, however, Pohl’s eight-goal, 25-assist effort represents something of a disappointment to the organization. A quick, agile forward who appeared to possess a soft touch on the puck as a junior, Pohl was lost in the shuffle on an overachieving Dayton lineup and never forced the front office to consider an extended promotion to Syracuse. A short one-game appearance with the Crunch, however, may be a harbinger of the organization’s expectation as to Pohl’s destination in 2007. While he should get a chance in training camp to showcase his talents, at this stage of his career Pohl will need to improve significantly in all facets of his game to earn ice time amongst many higher-end prospects expected to spend time on the top two forward lines in Syracuse this season.

Missing the Cut

Jesse Dudas, D
Robert Nyholm, RW
Nick Sucharski, LW
Arsi Piispanen, C

Graduated

Pascal Leclaire, G
Aaron Johnson, D
Ole Kristian Tollefsen, D
Gilbert Brule, C
Curtis Glencross, LW
Andrew Penner, G

Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future.  Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.