Blue Jackets Top 10 Prospects
1. Derick Brassard, C
2. Kris Russell, D
3. Alexandre 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
The 2006-07 season was expected to represent a turning point in the fortunes of the Columbus Blue Jacket franchise. Coming off of the most successful season on the ice in the short history of the team, the influx of both improving young talent (especially Pascal Leclaire and Gilbert Brule) and experienced NHL help was projected by many to propel the Jackets into playoff contention. Instead, the team stumbled in the first two months of the season and never really got back on track, finishing the campaign with only 73 points, a new coach, and the first major front office house-cleaning in franchise history.
With the departure of the primary architect behind the organization, former general manager Doug MacLean, and addition of playoff-hardened head man Ken Hitchcock behind the bench, the Blue Jackets enter Year 7 at the first true crossroads in the short history of the franchise. Now the only NHL franchise to never lace up its skates in the post-season, the Jackets host this year’s entry draft at perhaps the least opportunistic time possible, as the on-ice product cannot wait another four years for the organizational talent pool to pay dividends. With a new management team expected to critically assess the key components left from the previous regime, the absence of any emotional attachment to struggling former first-round talent like Nikolai Zherdev and Leclaire would suggest that mediocrity will no longer be tolerated on draft position alone.
The elements are still there, however, for this franchise to take a big step forward and compete for a playoff spot as early as this coming season. The defensive effort continued to improve under Hitchcock in 2006-07, as evidenced by the eye-opening effort turned in by Finnish netminder Fredrik Norrena, who managed to post the first winning record by a goaltender over a full season in the history of the franchise. If Hitchcock can find a way to generate consistent offense out of a pool of talent that includes Brule, last year’s first-round pick Derick Brassard, Geoff Platt, Alexandre Picard, Joakim Lindstrom, and Adam Pineault, the burden placed on the two-way vets may be lightened enough that the Columbus offense may actually find an identity.
As mentioned prominently in last year’s Blue Jacket draft preview, the fortunes of the Jackets once again suffered from a severe lack of firepower up front. Once again, the Columbus attack finished near the bottom of the league, as the team regressed from the meager 2.62 goal-per-game pace of the 2005-06 season to 2.39 per contest this past season. With only two players managing to post over 20 goals on the season (led by Rick Nash’s underwhelming 27 tallies), the strides made on defense were undone by a porous attack that actually regressed from a poor 2005-06.
Given another substandard year in the offensive zone, what this organization continues to desperately need is NHL-caliber finishers up front. The development arcs for Nash and Zherdev were expected to produce a pair of consistent 30-goal wings, who could then be complemented by consistent second-line production from NHL vets like Fredrik Modin, Sergei Fedorov and David Vyborny. While Nash displayed flashes of the brilliant form many expect will propel him into the league’s elite, Zherdev appeared to sleepwalk through his 71-game season, mustering a mere 10 goals, only four of which came after the turn of the new year. Brule, considered by many a legitimate dark-horse candidate for the Calder last year after a scorching amateur career, experienced a normal rookie campaign for a player of his age.
The continuing struggles of Zherdev (and to a much lesser degree, Nash) to find a consistent NHL game forced more of the offensive burden on the rest of the forward lines, which exposed the lack of NHL-ready depth up front. The answers may already be in the system, with Brule expected to continue his development as a sophomore, a cadre of young power forwards lurking in the minors, and last year’s top pick Brassard eyeing a jump to Nationwide as soon as his burgeoning talent allows. The fact remains, though, that the Jackets need a great deal of help up front, and until a corner is turned with the top two scoring lines, the franchise will never experience hockey in May.
For all the disappointment with another post-season miss for a franchise and fan-base starved for success, the 2006-07 season was witness to the continued development of significant pieces within the organization.
At the top, the defensive game displayed by the Jackets over the course of the season provides cause for optimism that this team will eventually round into playoff-caliber form. In what represents a seismic shift in overall team defense, the Jackets held opponents to a meager 28.6 shots per game, good for 10th in the league. To put that total in perspective, the Jackets had averaged over 32 shots allowed per game over the past four seasons. While an average of four shots allowed per game may not appear to represent a dramatic change, those shots appear to have made a profound difference as the Jackets goaltending posted a league-average 2.98 goals against, after years of well-below-average results in net.
Overall, the Blue Jackets improved at managing the game within their own zone, thanks both to several impressive performances along the blueline as well as in net. The defensive corps grew into a cohesive whole over the course of the season, highlighted by a solid return-to-form campaign from veteran defenseman Anders Eriksson and the unexpected emergence of rookie Ole-Kristian Tollefsen. The 23-year-old Norwegian eclipsed fellow rookie Aaron Johnson over the course of the season, the latter of whom was projected to provide a dependable two-way presence on the third defensive pairing. The continued development of both should dovetail nicely with the expected leap in performance from the franchise’s first-ever draft selection, Rostislav Klesla. Throw in a group of impressive young defensemen percolating upward through the system led by fast-rising Medicine Hat defenseman Kris Russell, and the situation along the blueline should provide the backbone for the Ken Hitchcock-era Blue Jacket lineup.
The improvements seen throughout the defensive corps in 2006-07 helped foster an advantageous landscape in the net, a situation that was capitalized on not by the presumptive franchise goaltender in Leclaire, but instead by Finnish import Norrena. Brought in with the expectation of challenging for the backup job in the Nationwide net, Norrena laid claim to the starting job in December and never looked back. The 33-year-old NHL rookie far exceeded expectations, posting the first winning record in franchise history and finishing the season with a 24-23-3 record and an impressive 2.78 GAA and .904 save percentage. For Leclaire, a season-ending knee injury postponed the battle for the starting job until this autumn’s training camp, at which time the inconsistent 24-year-old will need to show real development in his game. In the event that Leclaire fails to impress yet again, he will leave the new general manager with a tough decision to make on a foundering remnant of the previous regime.
The future options for the organization in net do not end with Leclaire and Norrena. Both Tomas Popperle and Daniel LaCosta made their professional debuts in the minors in 2006-07, and showed enough promise to suggest that additional seasoning in the AHL may produce challengers to the Leclaire/Norrena debate in a few years time. The most impressive debut in 2006-07, however, was the impressive campaign turned in by the last year’s third-round selection, 18-year-old Steve Mason. In his first full lap around the OHL with London, Mason broke the OHL record for wins in a season with 45, despite facing over 2300 shots on the year. Expected to be in the mix for Team Canada net at this winter’s World Junior Championship, Mason may very well be the home-grown franchise goaltender the organization has been desperately waiting for.
As pointed out in Team Needs, the Jackets have yet to figure out how to maintain a league-average offensive attack, after another performance which ranked near the bottom of the league in 2006-07. Managing to end a season without a 30-goal scorer is an indictment of the efficacy of the current talent up front, and a stinging indictment that this organization has not been able to identify, cultivate and eventually promote NHL-caliber forwards, either through the draft or free agency. Expending top-ten first-round selections in five of the past seven years on forwards and still not being able to put more than a pair of 20-goal scorers on the ice in 2006-07 may have been the ultimate causal factor behind the dramatic turnover in the organization this past year. The fact of the matter is that there is real talent throughout the system, with players like Brassard, Brule, Picard, Platt and Pineault all looking like potential factors in the success of the 2010 iteration of the Blue Jackets. Until then, however, Hitchcock desperately needs real, NHL-caliber help up front, and with a new management group in place, the answers may originate from outside of the organization.
While the immediate needs up front cannot be addressed in the near-term through the upcoming draft, the organizational depth chart below Columbus still lacks a true top-two defensive defenseman. The decision to focus exclusively on forward talent in the first round of the last five entry drafts has left the organization with a wealth of potential fifth and sixth defensemen. The strides made by Tollefsen and Syracuse blueliner Marc Methot suggest that the defensive corps will deepen over the next few years, but the most profound impact will most likely be made by Kris Russell, who has exhibited a tenacious two-way game, but is not suited to eventually assume the role currently anchored by Adam Foote.
With the transfer of power to new GM Scott Howson, the manner in which the front office tackles the NHL entry draft may also experience a shift in approach. While another disappointing season may force a reassessment along these lines, the irony is that the fruits of the scouting department’s effort under MacLean is finally starting to produce tangible results throughout the system.
It is in the later rounds where the scouting department of an organization really shines, and the Jackets have been increasingly successful at identifying real value in the mid-rounds of the NHL entry draft. A number of non-first rounders made an impact this past season, and the expected development of both Tollefsen and Aaron Johnson along the Blue Jacket blueline should be a feather in the scouting department’s cap. The organization also deserves credit for tabbing Russell and Mason in the third round of the last two drafts, as both players have displayed a level of play far above their draft position.
Hockey’s Future staff mock draft result: Keaton Ellerby, D, Kamloops Blazers (WHL). With most of the big-name forwards coming off the board prior to the Jackets position at No. 7, a defenseman with Ellerby’s combination of size and raw talent would be too hard to pass on. Given that the organization has not addressed the blueline in the first round since grabbing Klesla fourth overall seven years ago and in light of the wealth of young forwards crowding the lineup in both Columbus and Syracuse, adding a potential top-four defenseman would appear to make sense.
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