It may be hard to conclude that the Columbus Blue Jackets are in an enviable situation following missing the playoffs in four of the last five years, but Columbus may be setup to make a serious impact in the upcoming 2015 NHL Entry Draft.
The Blue Jackets have been led by General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen since early February in 2013, and his stamp has squarely been placed on the organization thanks to a series of trades and a change in draft philosophy. The trading of veterans like James Wisniewski and Jordan Leopold yielded additional picks in this draft, as did the Steve Mason deal.
Overall, Columbus has six of the first 70 selections in the draft, and may be able to return current NHL players for help on defense. They could also package some together to either add another 1st rounder or move up from 8th overall.
Kekalainen is on the record stating that he will take the best player available, and in one of the deepest drafts in years, that’s a strategy that could pay off in spades. This is a team that could be among the most improved, and with an arsenal of prospects and picks at their disposal, Columbus has the potential to be the talk-of-the-town this weekend.
Here is a look at where the organization stands and what to expect.
Top 10 Prospects:
1. Sonny Milano, LW
2. Marko Dano, C
3. Kerby Rychel, LW
4. Oliver Bjorkstrand, RW
5. Mike Reilly, D
6. Dillon Heatherington, D
7. Anton Forsberg, G
8. Ryan Collins, D
9. William Karlsson, C
10. Michael Chaput, C
The immediate organizational need is clearly on defense, where the team is lacking a go-to impact rearguard beyond Jack Johnson. The hot topic amongst Blue Jackets prospects is Mike Reilly, who may have contended for a job this fall. However, he is rumored to be heading elsewhere after exercising his right to become a free agent in favor of another organization, a shot in the arm for the team’s defensive depth. While prospects like Dillon Heatherington and Ryan Collins offer solid options moving forward, neither project as minute-eaters and true number-one defensemen. Quite a lot is expected of Ryan Murray, who has battled health issues and still has a bright future, but the team would be wise to select a high-end franchise caliber defenseman to compliment him moving forward.
With the big club, there is a current need for a top-four defenseman and a top-six forward, not unlike many other teams this time of the year. With a bevy of draft picks at their disposal and a deep group of prospects at a number of positions, Kekalainen could very well expend some of those in favor of current help for the big club.
In looking over the prospect pool, depth down the middle is one of the major strengths of the organization. The team asked Alexander Wennberg to play a regular shift and he responded wonderfully, earning the trust of the coaching staff as the season wore on. Marko Dano was among one of the most productive rookie forwards down the stretch, bringing fans out of their seats on a nightly basis with his electric playmaking abilities. In Plymouth, Sonny Milano was a lone bright spot and leading scorer on an abysmal team, and could profile as a winger in the AHL next year. After that, Columbus sports numerous centers that have moderately high ceilings and could still feature for the organization at some point.
Columbus sports a pair of high-end wingers as well, thanks to the record-breaking season that Oliver Bjorkstrand just had with the Portland Winterhawks. The WHL Player of the Year was a breakout star and cemented himself in the minds of Blue Jackets faithful who are hoping the former 89th overall pick surpasses many of those taken before him. Ahead of him on the depth chart sits Kerby Rychel, who is an interesting name to keep an eye on as a player who could return quite a bit. In his first professional season, Rychel posted a respectable 33 points in 51 AHL games. As he continues to adjust, it will be interesting to see if he can secure a full-time spot with the Blue Jackets as soon as next year.
One major weakness for the Blue Jackets is in goal, where a once deep group is thinning and void of any NHL-ready talent. At the top, Anton Forsberg performed admirably at the AHL level in Springfield, but was clearly outmatched when called upon for a handful of games at the NHL level. Beyond that, the trio of Oscar Dansk, Joonas Korpisalo, and Elvis Merzlikins are a long way away from the NHL. Once considered the future in net for Columbus, Dansk is heading in the wrong direction both statistically and on the map, as the Swede will be returning to Europe to hone his craft in 2015-16. Securing a top-flight goaltending prospect without the intrigue or questionable interest in playing for the team would go a long way towards shoring up one of the only weaknesses within the system.
One minor point of contention, and one that points to a success under the new management, is the fact that the club doesn’t have any significant role players within the organization. The team has drafted for skill no matter where they came in the draft, and as a result, do not have many bottom-six style forwards that excel at the finer points of the game. With the way the game is trending lately, that’s more of a compliment to the type of players employed and those that will excel under Head Coach Todd Richards.
With just two drafts under his belt, Kekalainen and company haven’t developed a specific tendency or acumen for doing one thing or another. The main item that stands out is their penchant for choosing skilled players, especially among forwards. Among the four first-round selections, all of them have been forwards and interestingly enough, both second round picks under the current staff have been defensemen.
Hockey’s Future Staff Mock Draft Results
8. Mikko Rantanen, RW, TPS Turku (Liiga)
The obvious conclusion to draw with this selection is the Finnish connection between Kekalainen and Mikko Rantanen, as the pair has been linked since he assumed control of the club. Rantanen has been at or near the top of the European rankings as listed by NHL Central Scouting, and for good reason, as the powerful winger blends a creative and explosive game all combined in a 6’4, 212 pound package.
Rantanen has been a consistent threat coming up through Finland’s junior system, and certainly has not shied away on the international stage. As a proficient protector of the puck, Rantanen uses his size and foot speed to dart in and out of traffic, creating havoc on most shifts. For as good as he is with the puck, Rantanen is responsible away from it and is certainly improving that aspect of his game.
Overall, Columbus has desirable assets and plenty of picks to re-organize their setup. One could make the argument that simply drafting one of the three best defensemen at eight would be solid, and no one would complain if the Blue Jackets came away with one of Noah Hanifin, Zach Werenski, or Ivan Provorov.
It will be an interesting weekend, where the team will look to take an active approach to ensuring that the cannon is firing deep into the playoffs.