Blue Jackets 2006 draft review

By Chris Leary

For the seventh straight season since their entrance into the NHL fraternity, the Columbus Blue Jackets made their first selection of the NHL Entry Draft in the single digits. Joining a half-dozen blue chip first round selections that have yet to backfire on GM Doug MacLean is Drummondville center Derick Brassard, a flashy playmaker who is looked at as the eventual partner up the middle with last year’s first round selection, Gilbert Brule. In targeting Brassard as the second first-round center taken in as many years, the Jackets are hoping that their top-six forwards for the future are now set to compete in the high-paced NHL game. Brassard fits that mold, as he is quick and dynamic on the puck and makes up for a lack of size with top-flight agility and disabling speed.

After locking up the current iteration of a franchise player in Brassard, the remainder of the draft was something of a mixed bag for the Jackets. With the draft heading to Nationwide Arena in 2007, MacLean may have been looking to make a splash in front of the home audience when he dealt the Jackets second-round selection to the Sharks for a package of picks that includes San Jose’s 2007 second round pick. While it’s never a bad idea to stock up on early-round picks, a wealth of attractive young defensive options were available at their spot in the second round, including highly-touted American rearguard Nigel Williams (who fell to Colorado over ten selections later in the second round). Considering that the Jackets opted to pursue several oversized defensive defensemen in the later rounds of the draft, it is a little perplexing that the Columbus think-tank did not take a flyer on a player with Williams’ upside.

From the third round on, the Jackets grabbed nine players, the majority of which carry with them large question marks (thanks mostly to injuries and lack of playing time in the past season). These question marks are not necessarily questionable picks, however, as many of these players were projected to go much higher in the draft. A good example is Lethbridge defenseman Ben Wright, who fell to the Jackets in the fourth round. Joining Wright on the blueline of the future may very well be Brassard’s hulking teammate in Drummondville, 6’5 defenseman Maxime Frechette. Tabbed by the Jackets in the fifth round, Frechette missed out on most of the past season with a debilitating shoulder injury that may very well have impacted his draft status.

The award for biggest enigma of the Jackets’ draft, however, goes to London goaltender Steve Mason. An imposing netminder at 6’3, Mason looked for all the world like a serious competitor for a shot at the NHL in part-time work for the Knights in 2005-06, and was the target of intense scrutiny by NHL scouts due to his combination of size and demeanor.

Ultimately, the success of the 2006 Blue Jacket draft class will be defined by the development of Brassard. As with every draft in the team’s short history, the high first-round selection has been ticketed for a spot on the marquee from the moment he donned a Jackets cap and jersey between MacLean and Gary Bettman. This year is no different, as Brassard is expected to eventually assume one of the top two spots at center for the Jackets once his internship in the OHL comes to an end, which, given the Jackets predilection for fast-tracking top prospects, may come as early as this October. Behind Brassard, however, the Jackets have picked up at least seven lottery tickets that may end up paying off down the road. If the hopes of Columbus fans are realized and this is indeed the last year they see the Jackets make their first selection in the single digits, MacLean chose a high-risk/high-reward draft strategy to end their chapter as an expansion team and begin their tenure as a perennial playoff contender.

Derick Brassard, C
First Round, Sixth Overall, Drummondville (QMJHL)
Born: 6-22-1987, Ht: 6’0, Wt: 172 lbs.

“Once he fills out he’ll be a heckuva player.”

While that statement could have easily been applied by Jackets GM Doug MacLean to their 2005 first round selection, Gilbert Brule, the man in charge was instead referring to fellow teen center Derick Brassard. MacLean made that prediction shortly after the Jackets added the flashy playmaker to a burgeoning corps of impressive young forwards with the sixth selection of the 2006 Entry Draft. And in a rapidly-accelerating NHL game that is still dominated by large forwards (only two of the top ten point scorers in 2005-06 measured under 6′ tall), additional size may be the only thing missing from a player that may very well be a No. 1 pivot in several years.

Considered something of a late bloomer in the QMJHL, Brassard turned in a fine rookie campaign in 2004-05 for Drummondville, accounting for 25 goals and 51 assists in his first real tour around the junior circuit. Those totals were good for second overall amongst all rookie scorers, just off the pace set by league leader Marek Zagrapan (Buffalo Sabres). As his birthday fell a handful of days after the deadline for eligibility to the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Brassard returned to the QMJHL this past season.

And what a season it was. Improving significantly on the modestly-impressive point totals in his first lap around the QMJHL, Brassard potted 44 goals and set up 72 of his teammate’s goals in 58 games for Drummondville, which placed him among the league leaders in both categories. The statistical manifestation of his improving talent was not lost on the hockey intelligentsia, as Brassard’s draft stock rose dramatically over the course of his sophomore campaign. Shooting up draft boards thanks to an eye-opening package of offensive finesse and speed, the Hull, Quebec native went from being projected as a mid-to-late first round pick entering the 2005-06 season to one of the top ten prospects in the world by the NHL Scouting Combine.

The harsh media spotlight cast on prospects with the steep upside of Brassard intensified as the season wore on. A member of the Canadian side at the Under-18 World Championships in April of 2005, Brassard just missed the cut for the 2006 team in December. Viewed in some quarters as an indication that he had reached the plateau of his abilities, Brassard instead used the missed opportunity as incentive to work even harder towards developing his abilities to the fullest on the ice, an effort that was not lost on the QMJHL, which awarded him the Mike Bossy Trophy as the league’s best NHL prospect at the end of his stellar 2005-06 campaign. In addition, Brassard was invited to participate in the NHL Prospects Game, an indication that he had begun to leave an impression on NHL scouts and executives.

When the time came for the Blue Jackets to make their choice at the sixth selection of this June’s draft, many thought the decision came down to Brassard and Everett center Peter Mueller (PHO), an oversized forward from the WHL. In essence, the Jackets were looking at the choice between the prototypical NHL power forward which dominated the league over the past decade, and a more creative, offensively-gifted center with a quicker first step that would appear to be the model for the “new” NHL. Looking towards the future, the Jackets opted for creativity over size and made Brassard the natural compliment to last year’s sixth overall selection, Brule.

For a franchise with a history of rushing top-end prospects through the system and into extensive minutes at Nationwide, patience with the development of young players has not always been high on the priority list. Now entering the second half of their first decade as a franchise and still searching for a legitimate run at a spot in the post-season, that patience may be in short supply when it comes to the short-term future for Brassard. With the team’s decision to rush Brule right into the lineup last October (a decision which may have contributed to the series of severe injuries suffered by the youngster), Brassard may be given every chance in the Jackets 2006 training camp to earn a spot with the bug club.

“That (fast-tracking Brassard into the NHL) is getting ahead of ourselves,” MacLean said on draft day. “We just want to see him in our development camp. We like him a lot, but right now with (Sergei) Fedorov and Brule and (Manny) Maholtra and (Alexandre) Svitov and (Danny) Fritche we’ll just be patient and see what happens.”

Columbus fans were afforded the opportunity to see Brassard suit up with his future Jacket teammates at the team’s Prospect Development Camp this past weekend, and he did not disappoint. Playing alongside the future of the franchise like Brule, Adam Pineault, Geoff Platt, and Kris Russell, Brassard held his own with the big young guns of the franchise in what was essentially a four-day session of pond hockey. Granted, a series of limited-contact drills and scrimmages provide an extremely-limited window through which to draw any conclusions, but Brassard lived up to his advance billing with an impressive package of speed and offensive creativity. At the same time, there is room for improvement with any teenaged hockey player, and Brassard is no different.

“Well, strength is the one big thing,” MacLean said when asked if there was any specific need areas that Brassard needs to address in the coming months. “He’s growing into his body. He’s a young kid that is still immature body-wise.”

Steve Mason, G
Third Round, 69th Overall, London (OHL)
Born: 5-29-1988, Ht: 6’3, Wt: 186 lbs.

Sometimes you know the player you want and you make sure to grab him regardless of the spot in the draft. Such may have been the case for the Blue Jackets at the 69th pick in the third round, when they made 18-year-old Steve Mason the third North American goaltender selected in the Entry Draft. Something of an enigma entering the draft, Mason spent the majority of his rookie campaign in the OHL watching Sabre prospect Adam Dennis turn in a solid campaign for the impressive London squad. Provided with a chance to start towards the end of the season, Mason lived up to the hype which inevitably coalesces around a goaltender with his size and potential with a 54-save performance off the bench on February 17th in a 4-1 win for the Knights. In12 games on the season, Mason posted a 5-3-0 record, with a 2.66 goals-against and .931 save percentage on the year. Those numbers include an impressive run (due to injury) with the Knights in the playoffs, where Mason went 4-0 with 2.80 goals-against through London’s run to the Memorial Cup tournament.

Given the extremely small sample size from which to judge Mason’s potential, the Jackets must have picked up on the steep potential of an oversized goaltender with quick reflexes and surprising maturity at such a young age. And it was not just the Jackets who were paying attention to the flashes of brilliance displayed by Mason; 15 other NHL teams interviewed him at the scouting combine, and rumors swirled that Mason was targeted as a third-round selection by a number of teams. The Jackets may have had the inside edge, as Mason is a product of the impressive youth developmental program in Oakville, Ontario, which produced the current Blue Jacket goaltending coach and former NHL standout netminder Rick Wamsley (as well as NHL players Doug Gilmour and Adam Graves and fellow 2006 Columbus selection Nick Sucharski). Wamsley and the Jacket scouting staff made a point of following Mason after the Blue Jacket director of amateur scouting, Don Boyd, witnessed Mason’s 52-save performance in person.

Heading back to London for the 2006-07 season after a quick look-see in Columbus practice blues as a participant at this past weekend’s Blue Jacket Prospect Development Camp, Mason will have every opportunity to prove he can effectively handle a full-time role with one of the better teams in the OHL. While the four-day prospect camp was another small sample from which to draw any definitive conclusions, Mason acquitted himself well as the youngest member of the three goaltenders invited to take part (with Tomas Popperle and Daniel LaCosta rounding out that trio). If he can show the form over a full OHL season that he displayed in limited action this past year, the Jackets may have found another young goaltender to throw into the mix in several years behind Pascal Leclaire.

Tommy Sestito, LW
Third Round, 85th Overall, Plymouth (OHL)
Born: 9-28-1987, Ht: 6’4, Wt: 209 lbs.

When Blue Jacket management checked in on the development of last year’s fourth round selection, Jared Boll of the Plymouth Whalers, their attention must have been drawn to Boll’s Whaler teammate Tommy Sestito. Checking in at an imposing 6’4, 209 lb. physical forward, Sestito developed into a solid two-way forward in 2005-06, showing enough improvement in his overall game to earn the Most Improved Player award on the Plymouth team. That improvement, when combined with his impressive frame, was enough to catch the Jackets attention as they made him their third round selection in the 2006 Entry Draft.

Of all the selections made by Columbus on draft day this year, Sestito’s path to the NHL may be the most dependent on the development capabilities of the organization. With a slight 10 goals and 10 assists in 57 games this year (which was a marked improvement over his rookie campaign with the Whalers), it is apparent that he has a long way to go in the development of his offensive capabilities (potting less than a goal per five games in the OHL is a negligible accomplishment). As with several of their selections this year, however, that great intangible of size is already there; the organization has to teach him how to develop an NHL-caliber offensive game, not how to play up to his 6’4 size. Already possessed of a tough demeanor and physicality, Sestito has the makings of a solid checking-line forward down the road. Still, this is a project pick, and one who will be long in development.

Ben Wright, D
Fourth Round, 133rd Overall, Lethbridge (WHL)
Born: 3-18-1988, Ht: 6’2, Wt: 189 lbs.

For the second time in as many years, the Blue Jackets targeted an overlooked WHL defenseman in the middle rounds of the draft. Joining the 2006 WHL Defenseman of the Year Russell in the Jacket system is Lethbridge rearguard Ben Wright, who was selected by Columbus in the fourth round. In the case of both players, initial rumors of an early-round selection dissipated on draft day as both fell into lower rounds. While the cause of the slip for Russell has everything to do with size, the reasons behind Wright, who has caught the attention of many western scouts, is much more intangible. An intelligent, diligent stay-at-home defenseman with a strong work ethic and attractive technical package, the Foremost, Alberta native still needs to bring his skating up to the level of the rest of the package, which might be a leading indicator as to why he fell.

Ultimately, the selection of Ben Wright begins to address a glaring deficiency in the Jacket system. With a cadre of young, mobile offensive defensemen already spread across all levels within the organization, the lack of real NHL-caliber defensive defensemen in the system has been overlooked in favor of acquiring and developing skill forwards. While he may still be several years off from so much as a tryout role with Syracuse, the fact that the Jackets identified the need for this type of player in the system, and were able to address the problem through the selection of three defensive defensemen in the draft is an indication that the organization is on the verge of drafting to address specific needs, and not trying to build a franchise from the ground up anymore.

Robert Nyholm, RW
Fifth Round, 129th Overall, IFK (Finnish Junior League)
Born: 3-7-1988, Ht: 6’1, Wt: 194 lbs.

A big, strong native of Helsinki, Finland, right wing Robert Nyholm is the type of skilled Finnish forward who might be able to make the jump across the pond. While the cognitive aspects of the game are still very much a work in progress for Nyholm, he has shown flashes of an explosive first step and an intense, attacking style that has opened a number of eyes on this side of the Atlantic. After first making a splash on the international scene with impressive performances at several tournaments (most notably as an underage player at the 2004 Under-18 Four Nations Cup), Nyholm has continued to hone his craft with the junior team in the IFK Helsinki program, where he accounted for 11 goals and 9 assists in 39 games.

In the near-term, Nyholm will most likely remain in Finland and attempt to earn a spot with the professional IFK side, which would seem to be a foregone conclusion with his continued development and selections to the Finland Under-18 Junior squads. At the same time, Nyholm’s CHL rights were secured by the Kingston Frontenacs with the 42nd pick of the recent CHL Import Draft, which does suggest that Nyholm’s opportunity to develop within a North American system is as attractive and immediate as staying home in Finland.

As with most of the other prospects selected in the later rounds of the NHL draft, the next few years will go a long way towards determining if Nyholm has a future in the NHL. While the opportunity to jump into the CHL with Kingston would seem to be the best alternative towards making a run at an NHL career, Nyholm could follow the path of many of his countrymen and fashion a productive hockey career in his native land, supplemented by regular consideration for the national team. If Nyholm suits up in the Frontenac’s black and yellow in 2006 or 2007, it will be evident which goal he is pointed towards.

Nick Sucharski, LW
Fifth Round, 136th Overall, Michigan State (CCHA)
Born: 11-15-1987, Ht: 6’1, Wt: 188 lbs.

Of the trio of players selected by the Jackets in the 2006 Entry Draft who missed a significant portion of last season with injury, left wing Nick Sucharski’s predicament was the least severe from a hockey standpoint. While the effects of the mononuecleosis Sucharski dealt with this past year can linger for several months after the initial diagnosis, the teenager was still able to log 36 games in the Michigan State green and white during his freshman campaign. In those 36 games, Sucharski managed to find the back of the net twice (both game-winners, interestingly) and set up seven of his Spartan teammates’ goals, modest numbers which may be the lingering effects of the virus.

A product of the impressive youth development program in his hometown of Oakville, Ontario that produced fellow Blue Jacket draftee Steve Mason, Sucharski was considered one of the more attractive offensive prospects in the Ontario Provincial Junior A Hockey League. While that offense has yet to consistently manifest itself with the Spartans, a year removed from the debilitating illness will be telling as to his future potential for a shot at the NHL. Any serious talk along those lines is still premature, as he still has three years to play with the Spartans before any decision has to be made by the organization.

Maxime Frechette, D
Fifth Round, 142nd Overall, Drummondville (QMJHL)
Born: 5-9-1988, Ht: 6’5, Wt: 200 lbs.

Completing the Drummondville daily double, the Jackets selected a player at the opposite end of the body type spectrum from Brassard when they made his Voltigeurs teammate Maxime Frechette their third pick in the fifth round. Measuring in at a healthy 6’5, Frechette’s continued growth into that lanky frame was curtailed for much of the 2005-06 season by a severe shoulder injury, which limited him to only 13 games on the year. It was that injury that may have contributed to his relatively late selection in the draft (he was the last player over 6’4 selected in the draft), as yet another prospect spiraled down the draft boards and into the Jackets’ lap.

With limited playing time (a 50-game campaign in 2004-05 with Drummondville, and 13 appearances after returning from the shoulder injury), Frechette is difficult to project at this stage of his career. His defensive abilities in 2004-05 were sound enough to earn him one of the 40 invites to Canada’s Under-18 Selection Camp for the Junior World Cup in July of 2005, but the shoulder injury forced him to withdraw early from the camp. While he did not show many lingering effects of the injury upon his return to the Voltigeurs this past winter, losing almost an entire year of development and growth on the ice may be as much of a concern moving forward as another injury to the shoulder. Ultimately, however, Frechette’s career track will probably be defined by his ability to utilize his large frame.

Jesse Dudas, D
Sixth Round, 159th Overall, Lethbridge/Prince George (WHL)
Born: 3-31-1988, Ht: 6’1, Wt: 214 lbs.

Projected as a mid-round selection, 18-year-old defenseman Jesse Dudas slipped to the Blue Jackets in the sixth round thanks in large part to a debilitating leg injury that kept him off the ice for the majority of 2006. The Alberta native suffered from a calcium deposit on his upper thigh, a condition which was diagnosed after the Prince George Cougars acquired the youngster from Lethbridge in November of 2005. Forced to the sidelines for the remainder of the season, Dudas was finally able to return for the NHL Combine. An impressive workout performance there, coupled with the attention paid by several NHL teams (15 of which interviewed him), raised Dudas’ stock enough to project a selection somewhere between the third and fifth rounds.

The smallest of the three defensemen selected by the Blue Jackets in 2006, Dudas still has a large frame, impressive upper body strength, and sound technical abilities in the defensive zone. The biggest question mark is also the most likely reason he fell all the way to the sixth round — any season-ending leg injury at this young an age is a significant concern for future development. At this point, it is far too early to gauge what type of rearguard Dudas will develop into. If all goes well with his recovery and he can improve on the form he displayed pre-injury, the Jackets have not only a potential steal, but a great comeback story to boot.

Derek Dorsett, RW
Seventh Round, 189th Overall, Medicine Hat (WHL)
Born: 12-20-1986, Ht: 6′, Wt: 176 lbs.

A key cog up front on a Medicine Hat team that featured fellow Columbus prospect Russell, Derek Dorsett is the kind of gritty forward who drives the motor of the best teams in the CHL. While 25 goals and 23 assists in 68 games during the regular season for the Tigers was not overly impressive, Dorsett kicked his game up a notch in the playoffs, recording eight goals to lead the Tigers in their 13-game trek through the post-season. The offensive touch he displayed in his sophomore season in the WHL was a plus, but a much more indicative statistic as to the type of game played by Dorsett was his league-leading 279 penalty minutes (almost double his closest teammate).

Cast in the mold of Matthew Barnaby, who made an NHL career out of a determined, aggressive, physical game built onto a similar frame (six feet and around 185 pounds), Dorsett will need to continue to add upper body strength and wear his heart on his sleeve to have a realistic shot at the NHL. Twenty years ago, a player with Dorsett’s skill-set and sheer doggedness would be in line for a healthy NHL career with continued development. In today’s NHL landscape, however, the Saskatchewan native will need to improve on many fronts to get so much as a look on the Nationwide ice. With significant improvement, Dorsett seems tailor-made for a lengthy career in the AHL.

Matt Marquardt, LW
Seventh Round, 194th Overall, Moncton (QMJHL)
Born: 7-19-1987, Ht: 6’2, 222 lbs.

A value selection at this point of the draft, left wing Matt Marquardt is a big, strong power forward who is just beginning to find the requisite speed to go with his size. After being named the CJHL rookie of the year in 2004-05, the Ontario native passed over offers from the NCAA and his native OHL clubs to sign on with Moncton of the QMJHL. In what can best be described as a prescient career move, Marquardt’s decision paid off as he logged regular shifts on a surprising Wildcat squad that powered its way into the Memorial Cup. Playing under the demanding watch of new Islander head coach Ted Nolan, Marquardt was given every opportunity to develop his skating and offensive prowess in the wide-open QMJHL while still effectively applying his oversized frame.

“Marquardt’s a big guy that slipped through the Ontario Hockey League’s draft,” former Moncton coach Ted Nolan said at the draft. “He was a big kid, he understands, he skates. Once he gets used to the pace in junior, (where) he gets better and better every game, he should be a fine player.”

On the season, Marquardt scored 16 goals in 68 regular-season games (good for 11th among rookies on the year) and notched another six between the QMJHL playoffs and the Memorial Cup. Entering his sophomore campaign with Moncton, Marquardt will be expected to assume an increased role with the graduation of several high-end prospects from the team. He still has a long road ahead in his development outside of his imposing physical package, and there needs to be continued improvement in his skating if he is to have an outside chance at a shot in the NHL.

“He has NHL size, an NHL shot,” Nolan said of the youngster. “He just has to work on the other parts of his game, which every kid his age has to work on. He’s a real fine player. “

“I bring a big frame, I’m a big guy and I like to throw my weight around and create momentum and some energy for our team,” Marquardt told Hockey’s Future at the NHL draft when asked to describe his main attributes. “I have a pretty good shot, so I’m pretty good around the net. There’s not too many big body guys on our team, I’m one of the few. Whenever I get the chance to throw my weight around, it’s a big boost to our club.”

The size is undeniably there; how Matt Marquardt figures out to apply that physical presence will determine if the Jackets luck at mining value out of the closing moments of the draft continues.

Kevin Forbes, Dustin Nielson and Glen Jackson contributed to this article. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.