Many fresh faces among Columbus Blue Jackets top 20 prospects

By David Hahn

Photo: Shutdown defender Dillon Heatherington did not need to score to make his presence felt at the 2015 World Junior Championships, where he helped Canada to a gold-medal finish. (Courtesy of Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Photo: Shutdown defender Dillon Heatherington did not need to score to make his presence felt at the 2015 World Junior Championships, where he helped Canada to a gold-medal finish. (Courtesy of Claus Andersen/Getty Images)


10. (8) William Karlsson, C, 7.0 C
Acquired via trade with Anaheim, March 2015

William Karlsson, the former SHL Rookie of the Year, has faced a number of challenges and roadblocks on the way to the NHL. He performed admirably for the Norfolk Admirals within the Anaheim Ducks system, and enjoyed the first 18 games of his NHL career where he was largely ill-prepared for the type of game the Ducks needed from him. He was part of the return in the James Wisniewski trade, and struggled after the deal, failing to register an AHL point in 15 games. Oddly enough, he made his Columbus debut and logged two points in three games.

It’s obvious the organization still has high hopes for Karlsson, and he will be among a number of players vying for an NHL job during training camp. Karlsson would thrive in a scoring role, though that is unlikely at this point. It’s questionable whether or not he can make the adjustments necessary to play lower in the lineup.

9. (7) Ryan Collins, D, 7.0 C
Drafted 2nd round, 47th overall, 2014

As steady as they come, Ryan Collins’ transition to college hockey went relatively smoothly. Honing his craft at the University of Minnesota, Collins showcased his defensive acumen thanks to his long reach, intelligence in the defensive zone, and overall simplicity. The United States National Team called upon Collins once again for the 2014-15 World Junior Championships, and while he looked out of place at times trying to keep up with the impressive speed at the tournament, he did not do anything to hurt the team.

Collins is headed back to Minnesota for his sophomore season. Any additional development with his offensive game would be a welcome addition, though not completely necessary for him to be considered for a contract down the road.

8. (NR) Michael Paliotta, D, 7.0 C
Acquired via trade with Chicago, June 2015

His name certainly wasn’t the most prominent in June’s seven player trade between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Chicago Blackhawks, but Paliotta is a polished product that replaces the void left over when Mike Reilly decided to leave the organization for Minnesota. Paliotta was a four-year letterman with the University of Vermont, consistently improving in multiple categories and quietly rounding into a quality and perhaps NHL-ready option.

More than just a throw-in, Paliotta will likely open the season in the AHL with Lake Erie. Should the results of his progression continue, he could very well be the first name that Jarmo Kekalainen calls upon when the big club requires a dip into their depth.

7. (6) Anton Forsberg, G, 7.0 C
Drafted 7th round, 188th overall, 2011

Looking back to 2011, Forsberg has come a long way from being a late-round draft choice. He participated in his first full season in North America last year, and was thrust into action right away. Forsberg had just three weeks in the AHL before he was recalled for the first of four appearances with the Blue Jackets. He was overmatched at the NHL level, but considering the small sample size and lack of time in the AHL getting used to day-to-day life as a professional, he should get a pass.

Forsberg is a technically sound goaltender, supplanted AHL veteran Scott Munroe and prospect Oscar Dansk as the starter at the AHL level last year. With Dansk taking a one-year sabbatical and Munroe retired, Forsberg will split time with Joonas Korpisalo in the AHL with Lake Erie.

6. (5) Dillon Heatherington, D, 7.0 C
Drafted 2nd round, 50th overall, 2013

The wait is finally over, as Dillon Heatherington is finally joining the Blue Jackets professionally. After 247 games in the WHL, all of them with the Swift Current Broncos, the chiseled shutdown defender appears ready to make an impact. Simply stated, there was nothing left to prove, as Heatherington plastered opponents and often looked like a man against boys in junior.

He will need to adjust to the speed of the game professionally, and work to realize his offensive ability enough to trust his instincts, exactly what time spent in a developmental league like the AHL provides. It would not be surprising at all to see him enjoy a short stint in the NHL, and should the team falter down the stretch or run into injury concerns again, the pipeline is now stocked to handle those issues thanks to Heatherington’s debut.

5. (NR) Gabriel Carlsson, D, 7.5 C
Drafted 1st round, 29th overall, 2015

Nearing the end of the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft, the Columbus Blue Jackets had extra picks and an obvious need to continue to add to their defense pool. It was a perfect storm, as the Toronto Maple Leafs were in the mood to deal, and Kekalainen pulled the trigger—trading the 34th and 68th overall selections to move up and take Gabriel Carlsson. The Swedish defender stands at 6’4, has tremendous hockey sense, and projects as a future shutdown defenseman.

After the draft, Carlsson admitted that he needed to bulk up, and will continue his development back home playing for Linkoping. There, he will likely split time between the junior and SHL squad, and should be a lock to secure a spot on Sweden’s World Junior team.

4. (4) Oliver Bjorkstrand, RW, 7.5 C
Drafted 3rd round, 89th overall, 2013

Success has followed wherever Oliver Bjorkstrand has gone, and the 2014-15 season topped off a fantastic junior career. Bjorkstrand was named the WHL Player of the Year following his 63 goals, 55 assist regular season. He truly became one of the WHL’s most dangerous players, able to score in a variety of fashions, no matter the defense in front of him. He also shined on the International stage, leading Denmark to their first Top Division victory and highest finish ever in the tournament.

Bjorkstrand was a prolific scorer at the junior level, and will be a hot topic in Columbus. His ability to skate, unleash a wicked and accurate shot, and his vision to setup teammates will make it hard for the Blue Jackets to keep him in Lake Erie all season.

3. (2) Sonny Milano, LW, 7.5 C
Drafted 1st round, 16th overall, 2014

Most casual fans will recognize Sonny Milano from his trick-shot videos, but he finally started to change the perception in his first season in the OHL. You can forgive Milano for not living up to lofty expectations out of the gate, as he had a difficult time finding chemistry in Plymouth. With relocation rumors looming all year, the team never got their footing and Milano had to be a one-man show at times. He certainly has the ability to do things on his own, but it’s his improving trust and use of his teammates that was an encouraging step in his development.

Now a member of the Flint Firebirds, Milano can focus on the task at hand without any distractions. His insane individual skill will be relied upon, and it will be interesting to see if he can begin to fulfill his full potential. In addition to another year in the OHL, he should be a top-line forward for the United States during the World Junior Championships.

2. (3) Kerby Rychel, LW, 7.0 B
Drafted 1st round, 19th overall, 2013

Kerby Rychel had an eye opening season in 2014-15, the first of his professional career. He scored seemingly at will in junior, and had a difficult time adjusting to the pace and physicality of the AHL. Rychel finished the year with 12 goals and 21 assists in 51 games, but the bigger story was that Rychel became a role player when the goals weren’t going in for him. He doesn’t have overwhelming size, but his interest in using it expanded.

For all intents and purposes, the road for Kerby Rychel to make it to the NHL full-time took a hit when the team acquired Brandon Saad, which pushed a number of players down the depth chart—enough to block Rychel. Despite trade rumors, Rychel is still with the Blue Jackets and will be given all the icetime he can handle with Lake Erie. With his versatility and ability to play anywhere in the lineup, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get more than just a cup of coffee with Columbus.

1. (NR) Zach Werenski, D, 8.5 C
Drafted 1st round, 8th overall, 2015

Heading into the 2015 NHL Draft, it was no secret that Columbus was going to draft a defenseman. After not finding a taker to allow them to move up, a franchise-caliber defender fell into their lap anyway. Zach Werenski was one of the top defensemen in college hockey, who was under the tutelage of the legendary Red Berenson at the University of Michigan. His nine goal, 16 assist regular season ranked him first among true freshman defensemen. His worth can be measured by his understanding of the game and its nuances in all three zones.

Despite speculation that he would defect to the OHL like a number of high-quality players from the United States have done, Werenski remains committed to Michigan and will return there for his sophomore season. It’s tempting for the club to sign and employ Werenski immediately, but another year in college hockey will allow him to settle into a routine and continue to develop his skills in a wonderful environment.

Follow Dave Hahn on Twitter via @DHahnHockey

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