Blue Jackets 2001 draft evaluation

By Chris Leary

In just their second crack at the parsing the wheat from the chaff, the Columbus Blue Jackets managed to acquire two of their current top five prospects in the system, including their first potential franchise goaltender in Pascal Leclaire.

Columbus’ 11 draft picks in 2001 have logged a total of 118 games in the NHL (average of 11 games per pick), a statistic which should be tempered by the fact that Leclaire and defenseman Aaron Johnson are only just now beginning their NHL careers. Ultimately, however, the Jackets 2001 draft will turn on the fortunes of Leclaire, and after five years in the system, the lanky backstop now has the opportunity to seize the reins in net and guide the fortunes of this franchise for years to come. What he makes of the opportunity will most likely dictate the direction of this team as they enter the second half of their inaugural decade in the NHL.

Pascal Leclaire, G
First Round, Eighth Overall, Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)
Current Status: NHL Player
NHL games played: 35

Any assessment of the Blue Jackets’ 2001 draft will begin and end with the success of goaltender Pascal Leclaire. The first netminder selected in the 2001 draft (a year after Rick DiPietro went first overall to the Islanders and the year before Kari Lehtonen went second overall to Atlanta), Leclaire is only now realizing the potential that attracted Columbus to the Quebec native. The Jackets passed on Kootenay goaltender Dan Blackburn (who ended up going to the Rangers at No. 10) to tab Leclaire as the future of the franchise in net.

Five years later, and there is still no conclusive answer to the enigma that is Lecalire. After several seasons of league-average hockey in the AHL, he was finally given an extended audition in Nationwide Arena in the 2005-06 season. Appearing in 33 games on the season for the Jackets, Leclaire mirrored his AHL career, looking like a franchise netminder at times and seemingly lost at others. Ultimately, his final stat line on the season is misleading; a pedestrian goals against (3.23) and sub-par record (11-15-3) hides an eye-opening .911 save percentage, which would place him among the top half of the league.

So which path lies ahead of Leclaire? There’s certainly enough talent and upside here to suggest that the Jackets were entirely correct in their choice of the Leclaire over Blackburn, as the overall trend in his game has been a marked improvement with more ice time and experience at every level. His substandard goals against in his first real lap around the league may be far more indicative of the current state of the Blue Jacket defense than an indictment of Leclaire’s ability to succeed at the highest level. His save percentage (which, relative to the league is consistent with his improved performance in the AHL over the past two seasons) is certainly a leading indicator that Leclaire may eventually make Marc Denis expendable. But the Jackets were not intending to take a place-holder in net with their second first-round pick in franchise history, they were hoping to land the starting goalie for their eventual first playoff game.

If his performance continues along the same upward track displayed in the AHL, Leclaire may join Rick Nash, Nikolai Zherdev, and Rostislav Klesla across the marquee as a face of the franchise.

Tim Jackman, W
Second Round, 38th Overall, Minnesota State University (NCAA)
Current Status: NHL prospect
NHL games played: 27

A big, strong physical wing, the Jackets made Tim Jackman their second selection in the 2001 draft in the hopes of developing his offensive skills to compliment what appeared to be a healthy package.

Coming off an impressive 2003-04 campaign, which saw him score 23 goals in his sophomore tour of the AHL and appear in 19 games with the Jackets as a power forward on the second and third line, Jackman appeared to be pointed directly towards a longer look with the big club. Thanks to the lockout, however, Jackman returned to Syracuse in 2004-05 and appeared to regress significantly from the gains made the previous season, dropping to 14 goals in nine more games.

Those 19 appearances with the Jackets in 2003-04 would be his only appearance in Columbus, as Jackman would spend the last 12 months passing through the Phoenix and Los Angeles systems. In an eight-game stint with the Coyotes this past season, Jackman continued to look like a player in need of a serious increase in NHL acumen to earn so much as a journeyman career in the senior circuit. That he managed to involve himself in three fights over those nine appearances may suggest where his career is ultimately headed, but at this point, though even that projection could be optimistic.

Kiel McLeod, C
Second Round, 53rd Overall, Kelowna Rockets (WHL)
Current Status: NHL prospect
NHL Experience: 0

Beyond the story of Pascal Leclaire in the 2001 draft are the missed opportunities of the second round. Fort Saskatchewan native Kiel McLeod, after failing to sign a contract with the Jackets, was inked by the Phoenix Coyotes to a free agent contract in June of 2003. After a pair of relatively successful seasons with Phoenix’s AHL affiliate in Utah (which saw him record 20 goals and 23 assists in 150 games), the imposing the 6’6 giant was dealt to the Philadelphia Flyers last December for former top prospect Eric Chouinard. While his 2005-06 campaign saw his offensive game fall off the table with just a pair of goals and three assists in 62 games between Utah and the Philadelphia Phantoms, McLeod is still only 23 years old, and the physical package he brings to the table is extremely intriguing. While he may no longer project as the imposing offensive presence his rather successful amateur career hinted at, McLeod remains a legitimate prospect if his skills can catch up to his size in the Philadelphia system. Ultimately, however, McLeod represents a missed opportunity for the Blue Jackets.

Aaron Johnson, D
Third Round, 85th Overall, Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL)
Current Status: NHL player
NHL games played: 55

Their first pick in the third round may end up being a strong dose of redemption. A solid offensive defensemen with the requisite speed to succeed in the new NHL, Johnson earned his second tour of duty with the Jackets in 2005-06. Following a heady AHL career which saw him work his way onto the All-Star squad in 2004, Johnson was tabbed as a potential NHL regular, a role which he assumed by the end of the 2005-06 season. While he may have only contributed a pair of goals and six assists in 29 games with the Jackets this season, Johnson worked his way into a regular shift, averaging 14 minutes of ice time over the last 10 games of the season.

Coming out of the 2005-06 season, Johnson ranks as a clear top 10 prospect in the system. At this stage of his career, Johnson seems destined for an expanded role with the Jackets, and an opportunity to continue his development into an NHL regular.

Per Mars, F
Third Round, 87th Overall, Brynas IF Gavle (Swedish Elite League)
Current Status: NHL bust
NHL Experience: 0

Another physically-imposing forward selected by the Blue Jackets in the 2001 draft, Swedish teen Per Mars never made a tangible impact on this side of the pond after an unimpressive three-year stint in the Swedish Elite League. In fact, his only hockey experience in North America was a 44-game tour of the USHL with the Lincoln Stars in the 2002-03 season, when he recorded nine goals and nine assists in 42 games. Following the Stars nine-game playoff run in the spring of 2003, Mars slipped off the hockey radar and has not suited up in professional hockey on either side of the Atlantic since.

Cole Jarrett, D
Fifth Round, 141st Overall, Plymouth Whalers (OHL)
Current Status: NHL prospect
NHL games played: 1

Selected in the fifth round of the 2001 draft by the Jackets on the strength of several impressive offensive seasons with Plymouth of the OHL, Cole Jarrett ended up signing a free agent contract with the New York Islanders in 2003 and has remained with the Isles since. In three seasons with Bridgeport of the AHL, Jarrett has been a league-average defenseman, but has not displayed any evidence of an NHL-caliber game and does not rank as one of the top prospects in the Islanders system. Despite a brief one-game look with the Islanders in their season finale against Philadelphia on April 18, Jarrett appears destined for a career as an AHL regular, with very little potential to ever earn a regular shift in the NHL.

Justin Aikins, W
Sixth Round, 173rd Overall, Langley Hornets (BCHL)
Current Status: NHL bust
NHL Experience: None

After his selection by the Blue Jackets in the sixth round of the 2001 entry draft, Aikins opted to pursue his academic career with the University of New Hampshire. In four full seasons with the Wildcats, Aikins was a solid presence on the wing, recording 27 goals and 76 assists in 153 NCAA games. Following his graduation from college, Aikins began his professional career this past season in the ECHL, appearing first in 10 games with the Columbia Inferno before moving to the Long Beach Ice Dogs. His rookie campaign can be seen as a success, as he posted 20 goals and 39 assists in 67 games between coasts, and appeared as a rookie in the ECHL All-Star game. Aikins has a long road ahead if he can even be projected as an NHL prospect, and it seems likely that he is, at best, a league-average AHL forward.

Artem Vostrikov, C
Sixth Round, 187th Overall, Tolyatti Lada (Russian Super League)
Current Status: NHL bust
NHL Experience: 0

Something of a reach when the Jackets selected him in the sixth round, Artem Vostrikov has yet to consider making a jump from Russia to North America. After six seasons bouncing between the different levels of the Russian hockey system, Vostrikov has yet to display any NHL-caliber skills, which is evidenced on the ice by relatively low point totals between the Super League and High League. He may have finally washed out after an 11-game 2005-06 season in the High League, where he failed to post a single point. It seems highly unlikely that Vostrikov will pursue a career in North America.

Raffaele Sannitz, C
Seventh Round, 204th Overall, Lugano (Swiss Nationalliga A)
Current Status: NHL bust
NHL Experience: 0

An intriguing European prospect following a successful junior career in the Swiss National League and with Team Switzerland at the World Juniors, Sannitz’s game failed to transfer to North America. In a 55-game appearance between Syracuse and Dayton in 2004-05, Sannitz did not make much of an impact, recording six goals and three assists in 53 games with the Crunch. Sannitz returned to Switzerland for the 2005-06 season, a move which would seem to suggest that there is little chance at a sophomore campaign in the Blue Jackets system.

Ryan Bowness, RW
Eighth Round, 236th Overall, Brampton (OHL)
Current Status: NHL bust
NHL Experience: 0

Ryan Bowness, the son of NHL head coach Rick Bowness, enjoyed an admirable OHL career with Brampton and Oshawa between 2000 and 2004. Given a tryout with the San Jose Sharks following his amateur career, Bowness failed to impress and spent the 2004-05 season with St. Mary’s University. As he did not make an appearance in a professional or amateur uniform in 2005-06, it would appear that the clock has run down on Ryan Bowness’ chances at a career on the ice.

Andrew Murray, C
Eighth Round, 242nd Overall, Bemidji State University (NCAA)
Current Status: NHL prospect
NHL Experience: 0

It is a rare trick to mine any value out of the lower rounds of the draft, so when Andrew Murray turned in a solid rookie campaign with the Syracuse Crunch this past season, the physical forward brought a smile to many faces. A gritty player who uses his size to his advantage, Murray parlayed a successful NCAA career into an extended look with the Crunch, and is now in position to develop his game one step below the NHL. While it may be a reach to project a significant role at the NHL level at this stage of his career, his size and physical package may eventually force Columbus to give Murray an extended look with the big club.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.