Blue Jackets 2005 draft preview

By Phil Laugher

Columbus Blue Jackets Top 10 Prospects

1. Nikolai Zherdev, F
2. Pascal Leclaire, G
3. Dan Fritsche, F
4. Alexandre Picard, F
5. Adam Pineault, F
6. Aaron Johnson, D
7. Sergei Mozyakin, F
8. Ole Kristian Tollefsen, D
9. Joakim Lindström, F
10. Arsi Piispanen, F

The Columbus Blue Jackets have proven to be one of the better drafting squads in recent years, particularly putting their early picks to good use. Out of the first five drafts in Columbus history, three of their first picks are currently major contributors in Columbus (Klesla, Nash, and Zherdev), one is on the cusp of making the big club (Leclaire), and one is tearing up the junior ranks (Picard). Self-reliance stemming from building from within appears to be the mantra for Doug MacLean and Company heading into the future. After a few seasons of stopgap players serving as leaders for their young core, the youngsters are beginning to emerge as the leaders on the Blue Jackets roster.

There is little reason to doubt that Columbus can once again strike gold with their No. 6 selection in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. Their track record in regards to the use of early picks is as of yet unblemished.

Team Needs

The needs of the Blue Jackets in the short-term depend largely upon which players they choose to buy out in the frantic week ahead of the draft. There are many veteran players who played key roles in the past couple of season, who are earning beyond what the current market deems they’re worth.

With names such as Luke Richardson and Scott Lachance being bandied about as likely buy-out candidates for Doug MacLean, there is the potential for there to be a serious dearth of defensive-minded defensemen in the Columbus organization, both at present and in the future. While Klesla is very competent in his own end, the oft-injured defenseman cannot do it all himself. The addition of Radoslav Suchy will help take the burden of defensive responsibility wholly off of Klesla’s shoulders. It will be the responsibility of MacLean and the scouting staff to find cheap, efficient defensive-minded blueliners, should this be the path they choose in retooling in a post-lockout world.

There are also potential buy-out victims in the forward core — first and foremost being centerman Andrew Cassels, who has played key minutes and contributed greatly in the past several seasons. The potential departure of Cassels definitely leaves Columbus without a first-line centerman. They do have a few options in the minors in Manny Malhotra and Alexander Svitov, though they are unproven in key roles and have underachieved in the past. Though talented, Danny Fritsche, too, is not ready for such a big role at such a young age, and at presents seems better suited for second line duty in the future. A bona fide first-line centerman to complement Nash and Zherdev, whether through free agency or the draft, is a necessity.

Organizational Strengths

Columbus is loaded with potential top-flight offensive talent. The offensive expertise of Nash and Zherdev is already apparent at the highest level, and it is likely that these two offensive dynamos will only get better with age. Both are barely 20 years old, and yet are already elite talents and franchise players that could very well be at the top of the NHL scoring leaders until 2020. Prior to the 2004 draft, offensive depth on the wings was also a bit of a problem, but the addition of 40-goal QMJHLer Alexandre Picard and American Adam Pineault helped remedy those concerns. Accompanied by the potential for further maturing and contributions from the still-improving Fritsche, Svitov and Malhotra, and the potential offensive ability of Columbus’ young forwards is on the rise. Throw veterans David Vyborny, Todd Marchant, and perhaps Geoff Sanderson into the mix, and Columbus should not have any problems filling the net for the next several years.

With this skill also comes physicality. Nash has a large frame and is not afraid to use it. Picard and Pineault bring to the table a mix of agility, offensive acuity and aggression. Malhotra and Svitov also bring size to the center position.

Organizational Weaknesses

Though Columbus possesses a wealth of solid prospects, they have a dearth of these prospects at many key positions. First and foremost is the problem of a lack of top-flight defense-first defensemen in the system. While Ole-Kristian Tollefsen is a very solid, physical defensive prospect, he is the only player along those lines that is expect to make a sizeable impact for the Blue Jackets in the future. Aaron Johnson and Kyle Wharton have great offensive upside and the potential to be integral members of the Blue Jackets power play in the future, however their defensive play often leaves a bit to be desired. One or two potential stay-at-home defensemen with a physical edge is something that Columbus needs to add in the near future if they wish to have an all-around defensive unit built from within.

A bona fide first-line centerman is something that Columbus has to look at in the near future, as their present candidates are on or nearing the wrong side of 30, with few options available in their system.

Of lesser immediate concern is Columbus’s goaltending situation. Columbus’s goaltenders may be small in number, but they are large in quality. Marc Denis is still relatively young but has seen a lot of minutes between the pipes in Columbus, and Pascal Leclaire is his highly touted, capable – and likely – heir apparent. Beyond these two young netminders, there is a definite lack quality goaltending prospects, and quantity, in the Blue Jackets system. In their five-year history, Columbus has only drafted three goaltenders. Goaltending depth is something for MacLean to look at remedying, though it is a less pressing issue than bolstering the defense and finding a playmaking pivot.

Draft Tendencies

There is no definitive regional pattern in terms of Doug MacLean’s selection. He has had no problem heading across the Atlantic to make a selection, as more than 40 percent of Columbus’ draft picks in the last five years have been selected out of Europe, a near equal number as compared to the number of Canadians selected. However, in regards to positional selections – though the numbers are relatively consistent between forwards and defensemen – MacLean has leaned more towards forwards in the early rounds than defensive specialists. Of their 11 selections in the first two rounds of the draft, Columbus has selected eight forwards, two defensemen, and one goaltender. Until last year, with the selection of Kyle Wharton 59th overall, Klesla was the only defenseman chosen by MacLean with a top 60 selection.

After the first few years of drafting the best player available for Columbus, Doug MacLean seemed to switch to filling holes in the 2004 draft by selecting Picard and Pineault to bolster the offensive ability on the wings. Like last year, this year’s draft will also likely see Columbus filling holes, though it is quite possible, selecting sixth, that the best player available may also fill one of Columbus’s more pressing needs.

Though defense is a more pressing need for MacLean and the Blue Jackets, their track record has shown them to be tentative in taking blueliners early in the draft. Given the likelihood that in selecting sixth Jack Johnson will already be off the board, it is probable that Columbus will select a forward with their first selection for the fourth straight season. Columbus, in picking sixth, will likely have the luxury of not only filling an important hole, but also in being able to select the player with the best potential upside available at the time.

Player most likely to be taken with first selection (Hockey’s Future staff mock draft result): Anze Kopitar, C, Sodertalje Jr. (SWE)

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.