Blue Jackets Top 20 prospects

By Chris Leary

The Columbus Blue Jackets have constructed a solid base of prospects. Suffused with developing talent along the blue line, an attractive set of young forwards led by the sixth overall pick of the 2005 draft, Gilbert Brule, and a small group of emerging goaltenders, including potential franchise netminder Pascal Leclaire, the Columbus front office may finally enjoy the luxury of adding to the NHL lineup from within the system, rather than continually seeking for answers through veteran help from elsewhere.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Gilbert Brule, C (-)
2. Pascal Leclaire, G (+2)
3. Alexandre Picard, LW (-1)
4. Dan Fritsche, C (-1)
5. Adam Pineault, RW (-)
6. Aaron Johnson, D (-)
7. Adam McQuaid, D (-)
8. Kris Russell, D (+5)
9. Joakim Lindstrom, LW (-1)
10. Geoff Platt, C (NR)
11. Ole Kristian Tollefsen, D (-3)
12. Daniel LaCosta, G (NR)
13. Kyle Wharton, D (-3)
14. Marc Methot, D (-2)
15. Trevor Hendrix, D (+3)
16. Tomas Popperle, G (-2)
17. Petr Pohl, RW (-1)
18. Tim Konsorada, RW (-8)
19. Steve Goertzen, RW (NR)
20. Arsi Piispanen, C (-2)

1. Gilbert Brule, C
First round, Sixth overall, 2005 Entry Draft, 5’11, 175 lbs.

In a word, electric. The marquee player currently in the Columbus system, 19-year-old center Gilbert Brule is primed to follow in the footsteps of blue-chip talents Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev into the spotlight. Thanks to an eye-opening pair of seasons with Vancouver of the WHL, which saw him record 64 goals and 147 points in just 137 games, the Edmonton native was targeted as a high first-round talent, on par with the select group of teenagers toiling in the shadow of Sidney Crosby. In spite of his drop out of the top five selections of the 2005 draft (Columbus grabbed him with the sixth pick), Brule’s steep upside was reason enough for optimism, which translated into an expectation of immediate dividends on the Nationwide ice.

Granted a roster spot out of training camp, Brule’s rookie campaign was abruptly curtailed in his first game as a professional in the Jackets home opener against Calgary. Thanks to a clean check by Calgary’s Roman Hamrlik, the explosive teenager suffered a fractured sternum which put him on the shelf for six weeks. Upon his return to the ice, Brule appeared tentative at times, and ended up posting a pair of goals and a pair of assists in six November appearances with the club. His second stint with the club ended with another severe injury, this time a broken right leg suffered against Minnesota on Dec. 1, a setback which would put him back in the infirmary into the new year.

When the Jackets reassigned Brule back to his WHL club on Jan. 18, the bittersweet closure to his rookie season was a disappointment. Especially in light of the huge impact felt across the league by other teenage phenoms like Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, the move back to Vancouver could have been a bitter pill for both Brule and the Blue Jackets to swallow.

Rather than dwelling on the missed opportunities of his brief NHL trial by fire, however, Brule has spent the past 45 days torching his WHL competition. In just 22 games with the Giants, Brule has managed to rip the twine 18 times while assisting on 13 other goals, remarkable totals that are only a small step up from his impressive 2004-05 campaign. Already honored as the WHL Player of the Week on February 20, Brule is at the forefront of a Vancouver squad that has a legitimate shot at a title run.

Given Brule’s reemergence as a top offensive threat over the past six weeks in the WHL, it seems that the youngster has been able to work past his injury-shortened experience in the NHL. Barring any further injuries, it would appear that Brule is ticketed for a return engagement at Nationwide Arena in the fall of 2006.

2. Pascal Leclaire, G
First round, Eighth overall, 2001 NHL Entry Draft

Next, but in a very different situation, is netminder Pascal Leclaire. The first goaltender selected in the 2001 draft, Leclaire appeared to be sent straight from central casting as a prototypical franchise goalie: tall, lanky, fiery-tempered Quebecois with an overflowing reservoir of innate talent and hockey acumen. Goalies usually take longer to develop into NHL regulars than forwards. Leclaire’s four-year internship on the shuttle between Syracuse and Columbus, however, has been a quixotic, befuddling journey, which has left the Jackets wondering what goaltender they have on their hands. Is it the franchise-caliber backstop they thought they were acquiring with the eighth pick of the 2001 draft? Or is it the inconsistent goalie who has spent the better part of three seasons playing below league-average hockey with Syracuse in the AHL?

The answer to that question is finally at hand. Now 23, Leclaire has earned a permanent spot as the rotation partner to incumbent starter Marc Denis in Columbus. With the franchise looking for a long-term answer between the pair in net, Leclaire’s internship in the minors appears to be at an end. In 23 appearances this season with the Jackets, Leclaire has seen his share of good nights and bad, which has resulted in a modest goals against average of 3.40 and a 6-11-2 record. Mirroring his AHL career, Leclaire has turned in eye-opening performances (such as his 43-save, 3-2 shootout win over Anaheim this past weekend) along with nights where his concentration seemed to escape him. Perhaps the leading indicator of the direction Leclaire may end up taking at the NHL level, however, is his .909 save percentage, which would rank him amongst the top 15 netminders if he had appeared in enough games to qualify.

At this juncture of his career with Columbus, Leclaire is in prime position to lay claim to the starting goaltender mantle for years to come. For a franchise still searching for that elusive first playoff berth, confidence between the pipes is essential. Within the next three seasons, if not sooner, the Jackets’ front office must decide if Leclaire has the makeup and ability to supplant Denis, or if their first foray into the world of high-end goaltending prospects has been a lesson in futility.

3. Alexandre Picard, LW
First round, Eighth overall, 2004 NHL Entry Draft

Perhaps the most enigmatic of the Blue Jackets No. 1 selections in the short history of the franchise, Quebec native Alexandre Picard is only now stretching his legs as a professional in his rookie season with Syracuse. Coming off of an impressive junior career with Sherbrooke and Lewiston of the QMJHL, during which he exhibited a strong physical game complimented by a scorer’s sense around the net, the Jackets have shown remarkable restraint in limiting the 19-year-old to experience in the AHL. While Picard earned a quick, two-game look with Columbus in November, the bulk of his current season has been spent between the top two lines in Syracuse, where he has accounted for 13 goals and 13 assists in 40 games.

The question for the Jackets is where, exactly, Picard fits into the broader picture. Eerily successful at turning their first round selections into valuable contributors on the Nationwide Arena ice, Picard is further away from making an impact with the club than any other of their top picks. Can Picard join fellow first-rounders Nash, Klesla, Leclaire, Zherdev and (eventually) Brule in Columbus? While he has never displayed enough talent to suggest that he will assuredly be a top-line wing, there is little to dislike in his makeup and progression with the Crunch this year. Given a little more seasoning in the AHL, Picard still projects as a second-line power forward with offensive upside for the Jackets, even if his own timetable is a bit longer than his predecessors in the system.

4. Dan Fritsche, C
Second round, 46th overall, 2003 NHL Entry Draft

The first true homegrown selection for Columbus when the Jackets made the Parma, Ohio native their second selection of the 2003 Entry Draft, center Dan Fritsche’s first extended taste of NHL action has posed more questions that it has answered. In 45 games with the Jackets this season, the 20-year-old pivot has not looked comfortable with the adjustment from the amateur ranks to the pro game, accounting for only three goals and five assists on the year. While his recent demotion back to Syracuse may be seen in some circles as a setback, the rapid advancement to the NHL may be more to blame than any deficiency in his game.

Following a junior career beset by injuries with Sarnia and London, Fritsche entered the 2005-06 campaign with a great deal of promise thanks to an impressive track record in the OHL. Assured a spot with the Jackets out of training camp, Fritsche spent the majority of the season rotating between the bottom two forward lines in the Jackets rotation. With his demotion, Fritsche will most likely receive a significant increase in both playing time and experience in critical game situations, something that was not readily available in a Blue Jacket lineup that suddenly finds itself with an outside shot at the franchise’s first playoff berth.

Given that Fritsche was pushed into an extended role in Columbus with very little seasoning in the minors, the recent demotion back to Syracuse may end up being a positive in his development as an NHL-caliber player. Fritsche has shown enticing flashes of talent throughout his amateur career, so the talent appears to be there. He’ll look to close out the year with the Crunch in a positive light, and should be able to return to the Jackets again in the fall.

5. Adam Pineault, RW
Second round, 46th overall, 2004 NHL Entry Draft

Arguably the best power forward prospect in the organization, Massachusetts native Adam Pineault is developing into the physical offensive package the Jackets thought they had acquired when they made him their second pick of the 2004 draft. Measuring in at an impressive 6’2 and 208 lbs. for a 19-year-old, Pineault has enjoyed a solid sophomore campaign with an impressive Moncton Wildcats lineup. Joined by fellow Columbus prospect Philippe Dupuis, as well as Vancouver’s top prospect Luc Bourdon, the Wildcats have rolled off 46 wins on the season under former NHL head coach Ted Nolan’s tutelage.

In just 48 games this season, Pineault has already eclipsed his numbers from what was an impressive debut for the Cats in 2004-05. On the year, he has found the net 26 times (including a hat trick this past weekend against Acadie-Bathurst) and accounted for 26 assists, good for sixth on the team. Just as importantly, Pineault has continued to develop his physicality, which can be seen statistically in his 88 penalty minutes (also good for fourth on the team).

At this stage of his career, there is little to dislike in Pineault’s game. A regular contributor on one of this season’s success stories in the QMJHL, he has continued to progress as a power forward. Already blessed with the tools necessary to succeed on an NHL line, the time spent with Moncton can only help to further hone Pineault’s craft. If his game transitions to the professional level as expected, it is not difficult to project that Pineault will earn a shot with the Jackets as early as the 2007-08 season.

6. Aaron Johnson, D
Third round, 85th overall, 2001 NHL Entry Draft

In a system filled with an intriguing set of developing prospects on the blue line, 22-year-old defenseman Aaron Johnson has been the first to earn an extended audition with the big club. One of the most familiar faces on the Syracuse-to-Columbus shuttle, Johnson has earned his way back into a Blue Jacket uniform thanks to a steady all-around performance with the Crunch over the majority of the current season.

Seen as a powerful offensive presence with Rimouski of the QMJHL when Columbus selected him as a teen in 2001, Johnson has steadily improved over his three seasons in the AHL and 34-game NHL career to date. On the current season, the Nova Scotia native has recorded five goals and 24 assists in 49 games with the Crunch, while managing to find a seat in the penalty box an average of 2.5 minutes per contest. These numbers are not surprising, as they mirror Johnson’s performance over his previous two seasons in Syracuse, which might help explain why Johnson has found himself in the AHL for most of the season.

Following a 29-game tryout with the Jackets in 2003-04, it would have appeared that he was destined for a regular shift in Columbus. The fact that Johnson has managed to make the best of the situation and work his way back to Nationwide last week has to be viewed as a positive step in his development. With the talent percolating upwards through the ranks behind him, Johnson needs to continue his development into an NHL regular sooner rather than later.

7. Adam McQuaid, D
Second round, 55th overall, 2005 Entry Draft, 6’3, 197 lbs.

Toiling away in the shadow of highly-touted prospect and defensive partner Marc Staal (NYR) on a competitive Sudbury lineup, defenseman Adam McQuaid has quietly continued his development into an NHL-caliber rearguard. Selected by the Blue Jackets in the second round of the 2005 draft thanks to an enticing package of size (McQuaid has yet to fully fill out his 6’3 frame) and sound tactical defensive play, the 19-year-old has all the earmarks of a prototypical defensive defenseman. Currently winding down his third full season in the OHL, McQuaid’s contributions don’t manifest themselves on the scoreboard (just three goals and 12 assists in 57 games this season) but rather on the ice. On his way towards another season with a plus/minus over 30, the Prince Edward Island native has rounded into an upper echelon defenseman in the OHL.

The spotlight cast on Staal can only be seen as a positive for McQuaid, who has been allowed to get a taste of the NHL limelight without the trials that are attendant with top-prospect status. Already possessed of NHL-level size, a couple more years of strength conditioning at the amateur level and in the minors seem likely to fill McQuaid out into a reliable physical presence on the blue line. As all of the signs this season have been positive, McQuaid’s path to the NHL remains on an upward course.

8. Kris Russell, D
Third round, 67th overall, 2005 Entry Draft, 5’10, 160 lbs.

When the Columbus Blue Jackets selected Medicine Hat defenseman Kris Russell in the third round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, the common thinking around the league was that the diminutive Russell did not possess the requisite size to succeed in the NHL. If he were only several inches taller and 25 pounds heavier, went the party line, then he would be an easy first-round selection. The intangibles, drive, determination, and tools were all there — if only he were bigger.

Therefore, it was the Jackets good fortune that other teams bypassed Russell, because they may have found a long-term solution on the blue line to go with Klesla and company. Blessed with an uncanny hockey sense and that most sought-after of intangibles – grit — Russell has spent the past several months adding to his impressive amateur resume. Again teamed with Chicago’s top prospect Cam Barker on the Tiger blue line, Russell has contributed 12 goals and 28 assists in 49 games this season, on par with an impressive 26-goal, 35-assist campaign last season, totals which rank him among the top defensemen in the WHL two years running. In between, Russell managed to turn in a strong performance with Barker for Team Canada at the World Juniors in Vancouver this past winter, where he contributed a goal and three assists in Canada’s six-game march to the gold medal.

The future seems incredibly bright for Russell. While there has been an undercurrent of chatter suggesting that he may eventually move to the wing as a professional, for now he continues to hone his craft as one of the top defensemen in the WHL. Laboring in the shadow of the harsh spotlight cast on defensive partner Barker, Russell has gained significant insight into what is expected from a top-tier NHL prospect. If his game continues to develop at the current pace, it won’t be too long before he has first-hand experience.

9. Joakim Lindstrom, LW
Second round, 41st overall, 2002 Entry Draft, 6’0, 185 lbs.

Just signed by the Blue Jackets this month, the 22-year-old native of Skelleftea, Sweden has enjoyed a solid sophomore campaign this season with the Syracuse Crunch. On the season, the former product of the MoDo system has recorded nine goals and 26 points in 36 games, and has received consideration for player of the week honors thanks to a much improved two-way game. This improvement earned Lindstrom a three-game look in Columbus, which confirmed that the technically-sound Swede needs a little more time in the AHL before making a serious run at a permanent spot with the Jackets.

Lindstrom’s road to Syracuse has been fraught with pitfalls since Columbus made him their second pick of the 2002 draft, including a failure to receive clearance from the Swedish Hockey Federation to depart for North America following his 2004-05 season with MoDo. Now a regular fixture in Syracuse, Lindstrom has begun to develop into the type of two-way forward the Jackets originally envisioned. Seen as an eventual checking-line forward with offensive upside, Lindstrom’s offensive output has started to trend upward since the holidays, recording four goals and 10 assists over the past 15 games. Perhaps even more impressively, however, he has run off a string of 18 consecutive games without posting a negative plus/minus rating, further evidence of his continued improvement on the defensive side of the ledger.

At this stage of his career, Lindstrom has all the earmarks to be an effective third-line wing at the NHL level. While this type of ceiling has to be somewhat lower than that envisioned by the Jackets when they selected him in the second round, Lindstrom appears ideally suited to be the type of role player a successful NHL lineup relies upon in key situations. A prominent role in Syracuse’s run towards the AHL playoffs is in Lindstrom’s immediate future, an experience which should only increase his hockey acumen and suitability for the NHL.

10. Geoff Platt, C
Unrestricted free agent, 5’9, 171 lbs.

Far and away the most improbable prospect to get the call from Columbus this season, center Geoff Platt has gone from an undrafted free agent to a regular shift on the wing with NHL vets Sergei Fedorov and David Vyborny in the span of a handful of months. Now back with Syracuse after an extended 15-game look in Columbus, Platt is a bonus in the Blue Jacket organization, and seems destined for another shot at the big club.

Following an up and down OHL career that saw him bounce between three clubs while still managing to post an impressive 45 goals for Erie last season, Platt was passed over by every NHL team in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. While he displayed a deft scoring touch throughout his amateur career, Platt’s lack of size was enough to scare away all 30 NHL teams. Opting for a contract with Atlantic City of the ECHL, Platt quickly raised eyebrows in Columbus after he was extended a courtesy nod for the Blue Jackets at a rookie tournament in Traverse City, Michigan. Coming completely out of nowhere, Platt led the tournament with seven goals in four games, again displaying the offensive upside originally showcased in Erie.

His meteoric rise continued after the Jackets assigned him to Syracuse, where he found the back of the net 14 times in his first 19 games in the AHL. Thanks to that effort, he received the call to join Columbus in December, where he received a wealth of positive experience in his short 15-game stint with the Jackets, which saw him tally five assists but fail to post a goal on 29 shots.

For many players, a demotion back to the AHL after an extended taste of the big show can be demoralizing. In Platt’s case, however, the fact that he has even been given a real shot at an AHL job, let alone an NHL shift, would have come as a miracle just five months ago. Now back in Syracuse, Platt has a chance at eventually working his way back onto the NHL ice. In 38 games with the Crunch this season, he has tallied 18 goals and 19 assists, putting him among the rookie leaders on the season. The future seems very bright for Platt, and additional seasoning in the AHL can only be viewed as a positive for his future chances at returning for good to Nationwide Arena.

11. Ole Kristian Tollefsen, D
Third round, 65th overall, 2002 Entry Draft, 6’1, 187 lbs.

If there is one thing the Blue Jackets have in spades within their system, it is sound tactical defensemen with slight offensive upside. Oslo, Norway native Ole Kristian Tollefsen may be the poster boy for this type of prospect. Currently honing his craft for the Syracuse Crunch, Tollefsen may be the most workmanlike defensemen of the seven on this list.

A veteran of the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL, the 21-year-old Tollefsen first attracted the attention of scouts as an amateur in his native Norway. Playing for Lillehammer, the rearguard turned in a fantastic performance midway through his last season on the eastern side of the Atlantic for Team Norway at the World Junior Championships. That performance set the stage for Columbus’ selection of Tollefsen in the third round of the 2002 draft and eventual jump over to the North America. To his credit, Tollefsen has shown steady improvement in his two seasons with Brandon and last two years with Syracuse of the AHL. While not able to assert himself in a meaningful way at the offensive end with any consistency, his sound defensive game has improved to the point where Tollefsen has a legitimate chance at landing a spot on an NHL blue line.

A sound defensive tactician, Tollefsen appears pointed towards an extended audition with the Blue Jackets at some point over the next two seasons. In order to successfully make that transition, however, he will have to maintain a high degree of defensive consistency, as the wealth of rearguards in the system could seriously threaten Tollefsen’s chances at a regular gig in the NHL. At this point in his career, he has as good a chance as any of the defensemen on this list to eventually secure a spot in Columbus, and should be ready to make the jump within the next 16 months.

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

Challenging defenseman Kris Russell for most pleasant surprise over the last four months in the Blue Jacket system is no mean trick, but 20-year-old Daniel LaCosta appears up to the task. Coming off of an appearance in the OHL All-Star game, the reward for a spectacular 2005-06 campaign, LaCosta appears ready to assume the mantle of top goaltender in the Jacket system held for the past several seasons by Leclaire.

After four seasons of league-average goaltending, first for the Owen Sound Attack and then the Barrie Colts, LaCosta had begun to slip off the radar, thanks in large part to a pedestrian game that did not markedly improve over 111 OHL appearances. While he managed to roll off a winning record over that span, his goals against average and save percentage consistently hovered near the league median in a part-time role with both Owen Sound and Barrie. Fast forward to February 2005, and LaCosta has played his way into the starting job in the Colt net, and has spent the better part of this season reestablishing his qualifications for a legitimate shot at an NHL career. In 45 games this season, LaCosta has ranked among the top five netminders in the league, posting a 26-13-1 record with a 2.51 GAA and .918 save percentage.

The remarkable progress exhibited this season by LaCosta can only be viewed as a huge positive for the Blue Jackets. With the permanent graduation of Leclaire up to Columbus looming, the goaltending situation in the system was completely up in the air entering this season. Thanks to LaCosta, the Jackets now have a legitimate candidate to eventually inherit the backup job to Leclaire in Columbus. Should LaCosta exhibit the same degree of improvement upon his entrance into the professional ranks, his track to Columbus may be faster than anyone could have imagined just six months ago.

13. Kyle Wharton, D
Second round, 59th overall, 2004 Entry Draft, 6’3, 185 lbs.

Cast in the mold of a quick, offensively-mobile rearguard, Ottawa native Kyle Wharton has slowly been developing into a valuable asset in the system. Currently at the third OHL stop over his four seasons in the league, Wharton was acquired to solidify a Guelph Storm team with aspirations at a playoff run this year.

Originally targeted by the Jackets on the strength of a solid game at both ends of the rink, Wharton has yet to truly distinguish himself on the attack. Over the past four seasons, he has posted a total 18 goals and 60 assists in 184 games, highlighted by his six-goal, 21-assist effort over 45 games with Sault Ste. Marie and Guelph this season. Perhaps more importantly for his ultimate development as a defenseman, Wharton’s physical game has started to come around, which can be seen, literally, in a significant jump penalty minutes, from 22 last season to 76 over the current campaign.

While not the most polished defenseman currently in the Columbus system, Wharton has displayed enough raw talent to suggest that he will eventually develop into a challenger for a role on the Blue Jacket blue line. In the near-term, Wharton will most likely finish out his amateur career with Guelph before graduating to an extended internship with either Dayton of the ECHL or Syracuse of the AHL.

14. Marc Methot, D
Sixth round, 168th overall, 2003 Entry Draft, 6’3, 193 lbs.

One of the better defensive defensemen currently in the Blue Jacket system, Marc Methot is only just entering the start of his internship with the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL. A product of the OHL London Knights, the 20-year-old rearguard distinguished himself as a defensive specialist in his three-year tenure with the Knights. While his offensive game was very much secondary to a much more polished package defensively, Methot proved to be a rock for a spectacular London squad that captured the 2005 Memorial Cup. The dependable blueliner even earned a spot in the 2004-05 OHL All Star Game, in spite of a relatively pedestrian offensive game that saw him tally only four goals and 12 assists in 67 regular season games.

Methot graduated straight to the Syracuse blue line this season, and has appeared in 45 games to date. It has been a learning experience for the rookie, and it is to be expected that his potential to graduate to the Nationwide Arena ice will only be accentuated with additional time in the AHL.

15. Trevor Hendrikx, D
Seventh round, 201st overall, 2005 Entry Draft, 6’2, 190 lbs.

You might not get a second chance to make a first impression, but in the case of Trevor Hendrikx, the Blue Jackets did get a second chance at a rapidly improving blueliner. Originally selected in the ninth round of the 2003 Entry Draft by Columbus, the Montreal native was seen to possess good size and a developing defensive game, but only attracted attention due to his physicality and pugilism. Racking up over 200 penalty minutes in 63 games during his third season with the Peterborough Petes in 2003-04 did little to dispel that assessment.

His 2004-05 campaign came as a revelation. Over the course of the regular season, his overall game dramatically improved, highlighted by a jump in offensive production as he posted a career-high 15 goals and 33 assists in 68 games for the Petes. Perhaps even more impressively, he cut his penalty minute total in half, indicative of a shift away from the role of a heavy to that of a well-rounded rearguard. Hendrikx followed that up with an impressive playoff performance, accounting for five goals and seven assists in Peterborough’s 14-game march into the post-season. Columbus re-acquired the defenseman with their last pick of the 2005 Entry Draft.

The current season has seen Hendrikx continue to refine his improving defensive play, while remaining atop the OHL leader boards with seven goals and 40 assists, good for sixth among defensemen in the league. His all-around contribution to the team has paced the Petes to the top of the league standings entering the final stretch of the regular season. Given a second opportunity in the Blue Jacket system, Hendrikx seems to now be on track for an extended tryout in Dayton or Syracuse.

16. Tomas Popperle, G
Fifth round, 131st overall, 2005 Entry Draft, 6’1, 187 lbs.

Arguably the most pronounced enigma within the Columbus system, Czech native Tomas Popperle caught the attention of North American scouts after an impressive debut with Sparta Praha of the Czech Extraliga. Thrust into the starting job midway through the 2004-05 season, Popperle made the most of the opportunity, registering a 15-9-1 record and leading the circuit in goals against (1.58 average) and save percentage (.949). While those gaudy numbers were enough to attract notice, it did not hurt Popperle’s cause that fellow Czech and Blue Jacket stalwart David Vyborny manned the forward lines in front of the rookie netminder.

Inked to a three-year contract by the Jackets on August 29, 2005, Popperle made the trip to Ohio for an extended look with the big club in training camp. He made his North American debut in a relief appearance against the Chicago Blackhawks in a preseason game on Sept. 25, surrendering a pair of goals on 20 shots over the final two periods of the game. Popperle was promptly sent back overseas on Oct. 3, and eventually found himself backstopping Eisbaren Berlin (Berlin Polar Bears) of the German DEL. He has appeared in 27 games with the club, which features several ex-NHL players including Denis Pederson and Drake Berehowsky.

The decision to send Popperle back to Europe was most likely indicative of a desire to allow for continued development through consistent ice time, rather than an indictment of his long-term potential. It is difficult at this juncture of Popperle’s career to adequately assess where he fits into the larger goaltending picture in the Blue Jacket system. A tantalizing prospect, the flashes of brilliance which Popperle displayed behind Vyborny with Sparta Praha are enough reason to be optimistic about his eventual ability to make an impact on this side of the pond.

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

Following the path established by fellow Czech exports Jiri Fischer and Ales Hemsky, 19-year-old Petr Pohl is currently making the most of his North American internship in the QMJHL. Coming off of back-to-back seasons on a deep, talented Gatineau Olympiques squad which won the 2004 Memorial Cup, Pohl was acquired by Acadie-Bathurst Titan in the offseason.

The shifty winger has continued to hone his offensive game over the first half of the 2005-06 campaign, while beginning to assert himself physically for the first time on this continent. In 45 games this season, Pohl has come close to matching his full-season totals in two seasons with the Olympiques, compiling 19 goals and 36 assists on the year for Titan. Surprisingly, Pohl has also been ticketed for 44 penalty minutes this season, a far cry from consecutive years of 16 PIM’s with Gatineau. This marked increase may be the statistical evidence of an effort to round out his overall game, which has relied solely on speed and agility up to this point.

After two and a half seasons of regular action at the amateur level, it’s too early to come to a meaningful conclusion. While this season has seen a slight increase in his offensive game, and the addition of a much more physical presence on the wing, there is still a long road ahead before Jacket fans can expect to see Pohl on the Columbus ice.

18. Tim Konsorada, RW
Sixth round, 168th overall, 2002 Entry Draft, 6’0, 195 lbs.

If there is a specific player archetype the Blue Jacket system has cornered the market in, it is the rugged, gritty two-way forward with endless reserves of hustle. Add in a dash of scoring flair, and you end up with Tim Konsorada.

One of the top scorers in the WHL as an amateur with the Brandon Wheat Kings, Konsorada capped off an impressive junior career by finishing fourth in the league in 2004-05 with 85 points. The Lamont, Alberta native has continued to improve over the first half of the current campaign, his debut in the professional ranks. Opening the 2005-06 season with Dayton of the ECHL, Konsorada showed enough talent in his 29 games with the Bombers to earn a quick promotion to Syracuse. In his brief stint with Dayton, the first-year converted center accounted for nine goals and 28 points in 29 games, solid numbers which were complimented by a sound physical game in his own zone and on the forecheck. While still adjusting to the heightened pace of the AHL game, Konsorada has only begun to find his footing with Syracuse, netting two goals over the past 15 games since his promotion.

19. Steve Goertzen, RW
Eleventh round, 225th overall, 2002 Entry Draft, 6’2, 201 lbs.

Playing in an organization that is constantly searching for effective answers on the bottom two forward lines, right wing Steve Goertzen was not the most obvious choice for an extended stint in a Blue Jacket uniform. Entering the 2005-06 campaign, the Alberta native was ticketed for another season honing his all-around defensive game with Syracuse of the AHL.

To the surprise of many, however, Goertzen was called up by the Jackets in mid-October in what became an extended trial by fire. Over the course of the next four months, he earned a regular spot in the Columbus lineup, providing a steady dose of energy and grit in a defensive role. Appearing in a total of 39 games, Goertzen failed to record a point, contributing instead with his sound defensive game and hustle. His rookie season in Columbus was cut short just this past week, as Columbus sent Goertzen back down to Syracuse, perhaps to continue gaining valuable ice time over the upcoming Olympic break.

Where does Goertzen ultimately factor in to the Columbus equation? The mere fact that the 21-year-old leapfrogged much more highly valued prospects to earn a regular shift on the Blue Jacket forward lines is a testament to his grit and determination. While he may never find an NHL-caliber offensive game to match his defensive prowess, regular ice time in the NHL at the age of 21 can only help in his development.

20. Arsi Piispanen, C
Fifth round, 138th overall, 2003 Entry Draft, 6’3, 163 lbs.

Perhaps the least illustrious of the five European prospects highlighted on this list, Finnish center Arsi Piispanen has continued to develop with JYP Jyvaskyla of the SM-Liiga. The slender pivot originally attracted the eye of NHL scouts as a junior in the Jokerit Helsinki system, where he was seen to possess an array of offensive tools that hinted at possible greatness down the road. While not considered an exceptionally strong skater or overly physical, Piispanen compensated with a deft playmaker’s touch that belied his lack of experience, and an intensity and drive that earned him a continuing spot for the Team Finland Under-18 and Under-20 squads. It was thanks to those intangibles and a strong work ethic that Piispanen was given the captain’s letter for Team Finland at the 2005 World Junior Championships, where he failed to record a point in six games.

Transferred to JYP prior to the 2004-05 campaign, Piispanen recorded a pair of goals and 10 assists in his rookie season as a regular in the top tier of Finnish hockey. Perhaps more importantly, the developing youngster was given the chance to play with NHL veterans Steve Martins (currently of the Ottawa Senators) and Duvie Wescott, the latter of whom Piispanen could eventually meet up again with in Columbus. Piispanen has continued to show improvement during his sophomore campaign, and has already eclipsed his rookie point totals with seven goals and seven assists in the first 43 games this season.

Still in the developmental stage of his fledgling professional career, it seems likely that Piispanen will remain in Finland for at least one more season before considering the jump across to the North American minors. If he can add significant size onto his lanky frame, Piispanen has displayed a skill-set that lends itself to the more wide-open NHL game. The answer to that question appears to still lie several years into the future.

Missing the Cut

Mike Ayers, G – Thought to be past his prime at the age of 25, Mike Ayers has turned in an impressive run over the past month with the Syracuse Crunch in his second professional season, culminating in recognition last month as the CCM Vector/AHL Player of the Week award after turning aside 102 of 103 shots in a three-win week. Ayers backstopped the University of New Hampshire to a pair of Frozen Four appearances in his four-year collegiate career, and has shuttled between the ECHL and AHL since turning pro in autumn of 2004. Originally selected by the Chicago Blackhawks in the sixth round (177th overall) of the 2000 draft, Ayers has never been considered a challenger for an NHL job, but his performance over the past month for Syracuse has been a real eye-opener.

Philippe Dupuis, C – Already an accomplished scorer in the QMJHL (34 goals in just 62 games last season for Rouyn-Noranda), the Laval, Quebec native has stepped up his game with the surprise Moncton Wildcats. Under the tutelage of former NHL head coach Ted Nolan, Dupuis has turned in an impressive performance, leading the Wildcats in points with a 28-goal, 65-assist performance that is almost a half point better than his 84-point 2004-05 campaign. It’s hard not to be impressed by the strides made by Dupuis, who may have taken the gritty, hard-nosed style preached by Nolan to heart. Expect to see the 20-year-old firmly on the Columbus radar within the next two seasons.

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