Blue Jackets Top 20 prospects

By Chris Leary

After spending several seasons looking outside of the organization for answers at key positions, the Columbus Blue Jackets can finally rely on a deep cadre of intriguing prospects in the push towards the franchise’s first trip to the post-season. Beginning this October with the expectation that Gilbert Brule and Pascal Leclaire will make the transition into the NHL and assume responsibility for two critical spots in the lineup, the Jackets can be expected to fashion the core of the NHL lineup from the prospects already in the system. In addition to Brule and Leclaire, defenseman Aaron Johnson will be provided every opportunity to earn a regular shift with the third defensive pairing, and it would be a surprise if at least one of a number of solid young wing prospects does not impress early with the Syracuse Crunch and force his way onto the Nationwide Ice. And that does not even include this past season’s first-round selection, center Derick Brassard out of the QMJHL, who exudes the kind of intangibles that increase the potency of his speed and on-ice vision.

While this may very well be the deepest and most talented group of prospects in the system at any single time in the history of the franchise, the investment of high-round selections on most of these players means that there should be a significant impact made by several before the Jackets celebrate their ten-year anniversary. Ultimately, it will come as a shock if this group does not produce the core of the franchise for the next decade, an assertion which has led Columbus management to tailor the composition of the franchise around the development track of several of these prospects, especially Leclaire. For a franchise still searching for that first elusive spot in the playoffs, the current group of prospects should have a profound influence on that quest.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Gilbert Brule, C
2. Pascal Leclaire, G
3. Derick Brassard, C
4. Adam Pineault, RW
5. Alexandre Picard, LW
6. Aaron Johnson, D
7. Ole Kristian Tollefson, D
8. Geoff Platt, C
9. Kris Russell, D
10. Joakim Lindstrom, LW
11. Daniel LaCosta, G
12.Tomas Popperle, G
13. Adam McQuaid, D
14. Marc Methot, D
15. Kyle Wharton, D
16. Phillipe Dupuis, C
17. Petr Pohl, RW
18. Steve Mason, G
19. Trevor Hendrikx, D
20. Steve Goertzen, RW

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

In what has become an annual rite of autumn, the Jackets have another top-tier prospect ready to make a splash on Nationwide Ice in 2006-07. Following in a continuum established by Rick Nash, Nikolai Zherdev and Rostislav Klesla, 19-year-old phenom Gilbert Brule is expected to make a seamless jump into the NHL and onto the cover of the media guide. The difference, however, is that Brule is seen as an integral component of a playoff-caliber team now, and might not be granted the same amount of elbow room as previous prospects with Columbus.

There’s no question that Brule has the type of raw physical ability that transfers well onto the NHL ice surface. After a pair of freak injuries ended his brief trial-by-fire with the Jackets last season, the sixth overall pick of the 2005 draft returned to Vancouver of the WHL. Brule turned what some observers saw as a demotion back to the amateur ranks as a chance to prove that his internship outside of the NHL is at an end. Turning in what has to be one of the more impressive runs in recent memory, Brule tallied 39 goals and 29 assists in just 45 games between the end of the regular season and Vancouver’s march to the WHL crown. In the process, the talented youngster added significantly to his personal trophy case with a slew of awards, including being named the MVP of the WHL playoffs.

Already numbered among the handful of top candidates for the Calder Trophy in 2006-07, Brule is being counted on by Columbus management to step into a main role as a top-six forward this season. As he is expected to earn regular ice time with NHL-caliber finishers like Fredrik Modin and Rick Nash, Brule has every opportunity to make a serious run at the Calder, and contribute to the Jackets first legitimate run at a post-season berth.

2. Pascal Leclaire, G
First Round, Eighth Overall, 2001 NHL Entry Draft, 6’2, 185 lbs.

As critical as Gilbert Brule is to the future success of the Columbus franchise, no one player is expected to deliver more towards a Blue Jacket drive towards the playoffs as Pascal Leclaire. Initially selected as the top goaltender in the 2001 draft class, the Jacket front office has patiently waited for Leclaire to develop into the franchise goalie the team always expected would unseat Marc Denis. With the latter now ticketed as the main man in the nets for Tampa Bay, the wait is over on Leclaire, who must now assume the mantle of starting goaltender.

With nothing left to prove in the minors, Leclaire is being counted upon to backstop the Jackets and guide the team’s fortunes for the next decade. While his track record in the minors and as an amateur has not been particularly stellar, Leclaire has shown marked improvement in his technique and composure in the net over the past two seasons, highlighted by an impressive .911 save percentage in 33 games for the Jackets last season (good for 15th in the NHL on the year). If he can manage to maintain that level of ability in the net, the organization can tighten up the defense in front of him which should lead to less rubber being thrown at him (the Jackets were again abysmal in shots and scoring chances allowed) and, theoretically, a move in his goals-against back towards the league average. What Leclaire cannot afford to let happen is for his mental toughness to slip back into the patterns he has displayed in the past, when he would follow up an impressive effort with a sub-par outing. There can be no off nights in the NHL, and Leclaire will need to harness his talent and his mental durability if he is to lay firm claim to the starting job in Columbus.

At this point, the Jackets have placed almost all of their eggs in Leclaire’s basket, and it will be up to him to show that their faith in him has not been unwarranted. The departure of Denis and rawness of the goaltending prospects behind him in the system means that Leclaire will be given every chance to establish himself as an NHL goaltender in a relatively competition-free environment, which has essentially been the norm since he was selected in the first round of the draft back in 2001. If there is a comparison to be drawn with Leclaire, it may very well be fellow Quebecois backstop Jean-Sebastian Giguere, a goalie of similar stature who took some time to develop before growing into his large frame and asserting himself as a top NHL goaltender. Interestingly, Leclaire is roughly the same age as Giguere was when he positioned himself as the top netminder in Anaheim, and the Ducks rode his play as a 25-year-old to the Stanley Cup Finals. If the Jackets are ever going to enjoy a similar change in fortune in the near future, it will most likely be predicated on the development of Leclaire.

3. Derick Brassard, C
First Round, Sixth Overall, 2006 NHL Entry Draft, 6’, 172 lbs.

For the second straight year, the Blue Jackets watched as the player they dearly coveted fell into their laps at the sixth spot of the draft. One year after crossed fingers helped land Gilbert Brule in Columbus, Doug MacLean’s magic held true once again as impressive QMJHL center Derick Brassard was there for the taking with the sixth selection of the draft.

The winner of the QMJHL’s Mike Bossy Award (given to the player seen to be the best NHL prospect in the league) after an eye-opening sophomore campaign with Drummondville, Brassard shot up draft boards over the second half of the 2005-06 season, garnering a good deal of attention from NHL scouts and executives. Coming off of an impressive rookie campaign with the Voltigeurs in 2004-05 (where he accounted for 25 goals and 51 assists in 69 games), Brassard’s results increased dramatically this past season. In just 58 games, Brassard tallied 44 goals and 72 assists, totals which placed him among the league leaders and atop the leader board in points-per-game.

Now added into the future mix up front for the Jackets, Brassard has the potential to develop into another jewel for a team that already has several throughout the organization. Given a chance to showcase his skills in front of the Columbus faithful at this summer’s Prospect Development Camp, Brassard looked every bit the high-end first round pick, flying across open ice and displaying a playmaker’s touch on the puck. Gifted with great vision and pace, the Hull, Quebec native is now seen as an eventual partner up the middle with fellow phenom Brule in what may end up being a fierce attack in Columbus come 2010.

With such steep upside, it will be incredibly tempting for the Blue Jacket front office to rush the process and give Brassard a chance at making the big club coming out of camp. While the pair of severe injuries suffered by Brule in a similar situation last year may be a mitigating factor against that type of move, it should be noted that the physical game employed by Brule stands in sharp contract to Brassard, who creates space through speed and agility and is far less likely to bang in the corners or gain separation through contact. In the more wide-open NHL, Brassard may actually be given the chance at making an impact sooner rather than later, although another year at the amateur level would not necessarily hurt.

4. Adam Pineault, RW
Second Round, 46th Overall, 2004 NHL Entry Draft, 6’3, 204 lbs.

A big, physical power forward with an eye-opening, heavy shot, Holyoke, Massachusetts native Adam Pineault has been better than advertised when the Jackets selected him in the second round of the 2004 Entry Draft. After spending his last amateur season working under the tutelage of new Islander head man Ted Nolan on an impressive Moncton squad, Pineault seems ready to explode into the AHL and continue along what appears to be a steep ascent towards an NHL career. The strong winger capped an impressive two-year run with the Wildcats by pacing the team in the post-season run to the Memorial Cup Tournament, netting 15 goals and 10 assists in 26 games against the best amateur competition in Canada.

Scoring goals in bunches is not unusual for the physically-imposing Pineault. In 116 games for Moncton over the past two years, Pineault has potted 55 goals and kicked in 50 assists, totals which place him atop the leader board for one of the better offensive teams in the Q over the past two years. The time spent under Nolan may have been a significant contribution towards his development into a top-tier NHL prospect, as the work ethic espoused by Nolan should have found fertile ground in not only Pineault, but fellow Columbus prospect Phillipe Dupuis.

As with any young power forward, there will most likely need to be a transition period between the amateur and professional game, and the physicality of the AHL game will be an anvil upon which Pineault should be hammered into NHL shape. If his offensive game transfers to the AHL (which, given his NHL-caliber shot and deft touch around the net, should be a foregone conclusion), Pineault may force his way into the NHL picture much sooner than might be advisable for a player of his size and demeanor. A few years spent growing into his large frame and establishing himself in the AHL may eventually pay huge dividends in Columbus.

5. Alexandre Picard, LW
First Round, Eight Overall, 2004 NHL Entry Draft, 6’2, 190 lbs.

A difficult player to project in the Columbus system, left winger Alexandre Picard’s obvious hockey sense and skill-set combines with his selection as the eighth pick in the 2004 draft to place him amongst the top prospects for the franchise. While he has done nothing to indicate otherwise in his first year at the professional level, Picard’s game has yet to develop dramatically in any particular area, an observation which has left many to speculate that he will not return on the investment of a top-ten selection in the draft.

The question ultimately is exactly what type of player Picard will grow into as he continues to develop in the AHL. The Quebecois forward was a solid offensive force in his final two amateur seasons with Lewiston in the OHL where he led the Maineiacs in goals both years, posting an impressive 79 goals and 86 assists in 134 games. Even more importantly, Picard’s scoring touch did not disappear in the post-season, as he contributed a dozen goals in 15 playoff games with Lewiston. Those gaudy numbers strongly suggest that Picard’s eventual contribution at the NHL level will be as a sniper, a role into which he began to develop with Syracuse this past year. The results were, however, nowhere near as glamorous, but still impressive for a rookie, as he netted 15 goals and set up another 15 in 45 games with the Crunch. His high upside around the net led the Jackets to promote him into a 17-game audition at Nationwide, where he looked the part of a rookie advanced over his head, failing to register a single point. The lack of scoring may, however, be a direct correlate to the sparse playing time afforded the rookie on the big club, where he averaged only 13 shifts and just over 9 minutes of ice time.

While there has been nothing disappointing in the progression of Picard in his first year out of the junior circuit, the bar will always be set higher for first round picks, and raises dramatically when considering top-10 selections. Taken on his current merits alone, Picard is an attractive young player with a solid all-around game and the intangibles that suggest he may push his way into an NHL lineup at some point over the next two years. In an organization that has rarely been off the mark with their first round selections, however, a future as a dependable second or third line two-way wing is not exactly in the same continuum as the franchise’s other first round selections. Given the chance to further develop on the top line with Syracuse this season, Picard still projects as a second-line power forward with offensive upside for the Jackets.

6. Aaron Johnson, D
Third Round, 85th Overall, 2001 NHL Entry Draft, 6’1, 191 lbs.

Poised to become the first defenseman of significance to graduate out of the Jackets system in several seasons, 23-year-old Aaron Johnson has positioned himself as the first in line for a permanent promotion to Columbus. An offensive defenseman cast more in the mold of the quick, technically-sound European rearguards that have come even more into vogue in the “new” wide-open NHL, Johnson has been developing into a solid presence at the point over the past two years between Syracuse and Columbus.

While he has not been a consistent scoring threat since his junior days with Rimouski of the QMJHL, his agility and intelligence in the offensive zone has been a pronounced strength of his game. In 175 games with the Crunch over the past three seasons, Johnson has netted 17 goals and assisted on 73 others, totals which may not be a good indicator of his potential to contribute offensively at the NHL level. As those numbers have consistently placed Johnson in the top handful of defensemen on the team, it may very well be that his offensive game has expanded into the role provided to him.

With his graduation into a regular spot on the last pairing in Columbus on the near horizon for the 2006-07 season, the potential Johnson has shown as a top option in the defensive rotation in Syracuse will need to translate quickly to the NHL game, especially on a team that has visions of a first-ever playoff spot in the near term. Johnson, more than any other defenseman in the system, finds himself at the confluence of opportunity and translatable skill-set, as the more free-flowing style of play which dominated the NHL game this past season plays right to the primary strengths of the lanky rearguard. If he can hone his defensive techniques at the NHL level, there is no reason that Johnson should not eventually assume a role as a top-four defenseman on an NHL club over the next half-decade.

7. Ole Kristian Tollefsen, D
Third Round, 65th Overall, 2002 Entry Draft, 6’1, 187 lbs.

A two-year regular with the Syracuse Crunch, Norwegian defenseman Ole Kristian Tollefsen has quietly honed his craft in the AHL in preparation for an extended look with the Blue Jackets. Tollefsen, a sound tactician in his own end and a reliable, if not awe-inspiring, presence at the point in the offensive zone, does not turn in many dramatic, game-changing performances. Playing to his strengths, Tollefsen has developed into a solid, mobile rearguard who can now be looked at as a realistic option in Columbus as a seventh defenseman. While he will most likely never be a consistent contributor on the scorer’s sheet, his sound defensive abilities are what has made Tollefsen into an attractive option for the Jackets.

Now 22, Tollefsen enters his third season with the Crunch as one of the top two defensemen on the team, relied upon to provide direction on the backcheck and regularly logging significant ice time on the penalty kill. A regular in the top 10 prospects over the past several years, the development of several younger defensemen in the system has crowded the blueline and made the upcoming season a critical one for Tollefsen’s future with the organization. Ultimately, Tollefsen needs to lay claim to a regular spot in Columbus at some point over the next two years, as players like Kris Russell and Marc Methot will not hesitate to force the door open themselves. While another season spent directing the blueline in Syracuse can only help in his development, both on and off the ice, the time is fast approaching when Tollefsen will need to earn an extended role at the NHL level.

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

How often does a player who began a season as an undrafted free agent find himself on NHL ice by season’s end? Rocketing down the road infrequently taken, center Geoff Platt rose from completely obscurity in 2005-06 to force his way into the back-end of the top ten prospects in the system. A former 40-goal scorer in the OHL, Platt was overlooked by every NHL team in the 2005 Entry Draft, as most considered his lack of stature a severe impediment to furthering his hockey career past the amateur level. Platt quickly raised eyebrows in Columbus, however, after he was extended an invitation by the Jackets to participate in last year’s rookie tournament in Traverse City, Michigan. Surprisingly, Platt led the tournament with seven goals in four games, again displaying the offensive upside he originally showcased for Erie in the OHL.

On the basis of his impressive showing in the rookie tournament, the Jackets saw enough to sign Platt to a contract and assign him to Syracuse. In what may have been as propitious a personnel decision as sending Brule back to the WHL, the Jackets made the right call on Platt, who turned in one of the best rookie campaigns of the AHL season. In 66 games for the Crunch, Platt scored 30 goals and added 35 assists (good for fifth in goals and sixth in points amongst rookies in the circuit), totals which are directly in line with his production at the OHL level but not expected from a player of his stature. What’s more, Platt’s combination of touch around the net and breakout speed and agility now appear to be as attractive the “new” NHL as his size was unattractive just 12 months ago. While a brief 15-game stint with the Jackets this past season was not as productive as the organization hoped, Platt’s meteoric rise through the system is a strong indication that the strides shown in the AHL might be a harbinger of what he can do at the NHL level. Platt is expected to return to Syracuse for the 2005-06 season, and if he can prove that his rookie campaign was no fluke, he should be in line for a second opportunity to win a permanent spot on the third line in Columbus within the next two years.

9. Kris Russell, D
Third Round, 67th Overall, 2005 Entry Draft, 5’10, 160 lbs.

Kris Russell is Mr. Intangibles. A fiery competitor with superb vision in both ends of the rink, Columbus’ third round selection of the 2005 draft has the makeup and composure of a first round talent, and the attributes that dropped him out of the top two rounds of the draft one year ago (namely, size) has become markedly less critical in the “new” NHL. His all-around abilities and talent on the blueline have not gone unnoticed, as Russell followed up an impressive junior campaign with Medicine Hat of the WHL and a regular turn with Team Canada at the World Juniors by filling his cabinet full of some impressive hardware: the Brad Hornung Trophy for Most Sportsmanlike Player in the WHL, the Bill Hunter Trophy as Top Defenseman in the WHL, and the CHL’s Gatorade Sportsman of the Year.

The collection of awards and honors does not, of course, tell the whole story. Teamed with fellow top prospect Cam Barker (CHI) on the Tiger blueline, Russell has excelled at both ends of the rink and on the stat sheet; over the past two seasons, Russell has potted 40 goals and 68 assists in 127 regular season games for Medicine Hat. As with players of his makeup, however, Russell stepped up his already-impressive game down the stretch, and was an integral cog in a Tiger squad that advanced deep into the WHL playoffs. In 13 post-season games this past spring, Russell contributed four goals and eight assists while manning the helm on the blueline.

Slated to return to Medicine Hat for one more lap around the WHL and most likely in line for another turn with Team Canada at the World Juniors, Russell has little left to prove at the amateur level. An exciting player to watch, Russell’s lack of size has not stopped him from playing a physical game against much larger players. With his innate agility and vision, however, it is expected that Russell will develop into a high-end two-way defenseman, and may very well be the most talented rearguard in the system right now. Given the upside he has shown over the past two years, it is difficult to imagine that Russell will not advance up the prospect board for the Jackets and eventually challenge for an integral spot with the big club in the next several years.

10. Joakim Lindstrom, LW
Second Round, 41st Overall, 2002 Entry Draft, 6′, 185 lbs.

Something of an elder statesman in a system suffused with young talent, MoDo veteran Joakim Lindstrom has finally positioned himself on the cusp of the NHL. After several years of waiting on the right paperwork to make the jump over to North America, Lindstrom parlayed a brief tour with Syracuse at the end of the 2004-05 season into a regular shift on the top two lines with the Crunch this past season. As one of several impressive newcomers to the AHL, Lindstrom looked the part of the prototypical two-way European forward, logging critical minutes as the season progressed and posting 14 goals and 29 assists in 64 games.

Headed back to Syracuse to start the upcoming season as a top-six forward with the Crunch, Lindstrom will most likely earn a longer audition than the three-game look-see he was given in Columbus this past year. In an ideal world, Lindstrom’s overall game will transfer into a spot as a role player with the big club at some point in the coming months, which would provide him an opportunity to learn first-hand from the professionalism and solid game practiced by fellow Swede Frederik Modin.

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

In a system that has managed to promote only one netminder of any significance since the inception of the team, 20-year-old Daniel LaCosta has advanced himself to the head of an impressive incoming class of goaltenders behind Leclaire. LaCosta, who was ranked sixth among North American goaltending prospects when the Jackets nabbed him with the 93rd selection of the 2004 draft, inked a three-year contract with Columbus this past May that indicates his internship in the minors will begin this autumn.

Of the trio of aspirants to the soon-to-be abdicated throne of top goaltending prospect in the system, LaCosta brings the most quantifiably above-average track record to the competition. A four-year veteran of the competitive OHL, the Newfoundland native’s amateur career has been marked by steady improvement from an already-sound base, which culminated in a brilliant 2005-06 campaign with Barrie. His 36-win, six-shutout, 2.55 GAA and .915 save percentage effort in backstopping an impressive Colt team into a playoff spot placed him amongst the top five goaltenders in every meaningful statistical category. LaCosta’s efforts did not go unrecognized, as he was selected to participate in the OHL All-Star Game and honored as the OHL Goaltender of the Week in the last moments of the season.

With his ticket clearly punched for a lengthy assignment in either Dayton or Syracuse for the 2006-07 season, LaCosta has secured himself a spot in the race for the No. 2 spot in Columbus over the next several years. If he can mirror at the professional level the marked development he exhibited over his amateur career, he should maintain his trajectory towards a shot at an NHL career.

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

While LaCosta may have the lengthiest resume amongst the goaltending trio behind Leclaire in the system, Czech goaltender Tomas Popperle may have the early edge at an extended tryout for the backup spot in Columbus. Following an very good two-year run in top European leagues over the past two years, Popperle is preparing to make the jump across the pond and into the rotation in the Syracuse nets to start the 2006-07 season.

Something of an enigma in the system at this stage of his career, Popperle needs to demonstrate in Syracuse that the talent he displayed against NHL-caliber competition in Europe can effectively translate to the North American game. In two seasons between the top Czech and German leagues, Popperle has been nothing short of brilliant, posting both an eye-opening goals against and, perhaps even more importantly, a gaudy save percentage. He should be given every opportunity to develop his technique as a primary element of the goaltending rotation with the Crunch, but will need to continue to improve to hold off what will most likely be a hard-charging LaCosta. Popperle, however, will be afforded the first crack at developing into the reliable backup the organization needs behind Leclaire in Columbus

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

In a system that finally sports an intriguing collection of blueline talent, 21-year-old defenseman Marc Methot may be the first to follow Aaron Johnson onto Nationwide Ice. The former OHL All-Star has opened eyes with both the organization and the fan base in just his first lap around the professional circuit with Syracuse, highlighted by an impressive showing at the Blue Jackets Development Camp this past summer. While his solid defensive play was evident against the top prospects in the organization, Methot displayed a surprisingly heavy NHL-caliber shot that may hint at a developing facet to his all-around game.

With his freshman season now behind him, Methot can concentrate on furthering his chances at an audition with the big club in 2006-07. Barring injury, it seems likely that the Ottawa native will be given significant ice time in the physical AHL for the entire season. If the potential Methot displayed this summer becomes manifest in the next year, the Jackets may have mined a gem in the declining stages of the 2003 draft.

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

A solid presence on a Sudbury blueline which also boasts highly-touted defensive prospect Marc Staal (NYR), rearguard Adam McQuaid has been slowly growing into the type of intelligent physical presence the Jackets have been lacking out of the system. The second-round selection of the Jackets in the 2005 draft, McQuaid placed himself squarely on the Columbus radar thanks to already-imposing size coupled with sound tactical instincts in the defensive zone, and has done little to dissuade the notion that he will eventually fill out and earn an extended look at the NHL level. Should he work his way through the system, it will be due entirely to his defensive game, as the deft play and presence around his own net is not mirrored in the attack. Given an increased role in the offensive game, McQuaid may disprove this observation.

Returning for his senior season in the OHL with the Wolves in the fall, McQuaid should be provided the opportunity to further hone his defensive abilities while likely being asked to assume an increased role in the leadership of the Sudbury team on the ice. With the imminent graduation of team captain Staal, McQuaid is in an ideal situation to capitalize on what will be the final leg of his amateur career before being thrown into the physically-demanding mix in Dayton or Syracuse. What he does with the opportunities directly in front of him will go a long way towards determining if McQuaid’s ranking amongst the top ten prospects in the system is prescient.

15. Philippe Dupuis, C
Fourth Round, 104th Overall, 2003 Entry Draft, 6’, 195 lbs.

A lanky, playmaking center with a nose for the net, Philippe Dupuis has begun to round into form as a potential option up the middle in a system that is top-heavy in quality pivots but surprisingly thin in the bottom tier. After three itinerant seasons on three different teams in the QMJHL, Dupuis landed in Moncton prior to the 2005-06 season in what may have been a most propitious move in the Laval native’s development.

Working under the hard-driving eye of head coach Ted Nolan and alongside fellow Jacket prospect Pineault, Dupuis turned in his best year as an amateur. Regularly displaying a knack for creating space and placing his linemates in a position to finish, Dupuis, for the first time, looked like a legitimate NHL prospect with a well-rounded game to complement his nose for the net. While he may have been at the upper end of the Q as far as age is concerned, Dupuis paced the Wildcats with 32 goals and 76 assists in 56 regular-season games, a pace he maintained in guiding Moncton through the QMJHL playoffs and into the Memorial Cup Tournament.

Most likely headed for an extended opportunity to prove himself in the professional ranks with Syracuse, Dupuis will be afforded every chance to work alongside NHL-caliber finishers, including former linemate Pineault. At this stage of his career, Dupuis will need to continue to develop his all-around game if he is going to end up having an impact at the NHL level. While even that possibility seemed remote as late as last summer, the strides made this season and the advice imparted by Nolan may be the stepping-stone Dupuis needed to boost himself back into the long-term picture in the organization.

16. Kyle Wharton, D
Second Round, 59th Overall, 2004 Entry Draft, 6’3, 185 lbs.

As Kyle Wharton’s career in the OHL drew to a close this past spring, the lanky teen made a departing statement as to his ability to deliver in the clutch. Coming off of a difficult season that saw him move from the Soo over to Guelph with a slight increase in his offensive production and overall game, Wharton stepped into a critical role on a Storm team that advanced deep into the OHL playoffs. In 15 games, Wharton tallied four goals and eight assists, good for seventh in defensemen scoring in the post-season. Perhaps even more importantly, Wharton proved to be a strong asset along the blueline, logging important minutes while maintaining his career playoff scoring average.

A tall, lanky mobile rearguard, Wharton was seen as the type of defensive prospect who has the potential and intangibles to eventually quarterback an NHL power play. While the gaudy point totals one would prefer from a second round offensive defenseman in an open league like the OHL have yet to materialize, the agile Wharton has continued to progress his technique in his own zone. What can be hoped for as he graduates into the minors this coming autumn is that the strides made on the backcheck will continue to progress, and that his innate agility and touch in the offensive zone will not inversely decrease as he grows into his tall frame. Headed for an extended internship with Dayton and Syracuse, the abundance of equivalent or more advanced defensive prospects around Wharton in the system means that he will have to progress significantly in the next few years to earn a shot with the NHL club.

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

Another in a long line of Czech natives to find a spot in the Jacket system, right wing Petr Pohl has made a smooth transition into the North American game since entering the QMJHL as a 17-year-old in 2003. A steady performer in the offensive end, Pohl has quietly been developing a sound two-way game that may serve him well when he graduates into the minors this autumn with Dayton.

Quick on the puck and already possessed of NHL-caliber speed, Pohl will need to assert himself physically as well as on open ice to fulfill the high potential many see in him. While he consistently filled the stat sheet over his three years in the QMJHL (averaging 25 goals and 33 assists over a 70-game season), his game did not markedly improve upon his transfer to Acadie-Bathhurst Titan this past season.

Now 20, Pohl will be afforded every opportunity to grow into a dependable two-way forward in a franchise that will increasingly need consistent third-line role players as the Jackets improve into a playoff-caliber team. Even if everything breaks in his favor, there are still several more years and many minor-league rinks between Pohl and an opportunity at a consistent role in Columbus.

18. Steve Mason, G
Third Round, 69th Overall, 2006 Entry Draft, 6’3, 186 lbs.

Something of an unproven commodity with only 16 games of experience in the OHL, goaltender Steve Mason was nonetheless one of the most intriguing netminders available in the 2006 Entry Draft. Selected by the Jackets in the third round on the strength of a concerted scouting effort in Mason’s rookie campaign backing Adam Dennis in the London net, the Ontario native attracted a good deal of attention from several NHL clubs, which is a testament to his attractive combination of size, technique and intangibles.

Headed back to assume the starting mantle in London for the 2006-07 season, Mason already acquitted himself well in front of the organization during the Blue Jackets Prospect Development Camp. Placed into a rotation with the two other primary candidates to eventually spell Leclaire in the Columbus net, Popperle and LaCosta, Mason showed the poise and technical ability that drew interest from 15 NHL front offices at the 2006 draft combine. With a full amateur career in his immediate future, it will be several years before Mason will have an opportunity to make an impact at Nationwide. He should remain, however, firmly on the radar for the second decade of the franchise four years down the road.

19. Trevor Hendrikx, D
Seventh Round, 201st Overall, 2005 Entry Draft, 6’2, 190 lbs.

Another improving defenseman in a system that looks to have an intriguing future along the blueline, Montreal native Trevor Hendrikx has made an impression as a key component of a talented Petersborough club, and not just with the gloves off. Hendrikx first caught the eye of the Jackets in the ninth round of the 2003 draft, thanks in large part to his strong physical presence in the defensive zone and a willingness to mix it up with any dance partner. It was that tendency towards physicality that may have led to Hendrikx not signing on with the Jackets and re-entering the draft in 2005, when the Columbus corrected the oversight and again used a late-round selection to acquire the lanky blueliner.

Over the course of the past two seasons, Hendrikx’s game has continued to improve by leaps and bounds at both ends of the rink. Already an imposing physical presence in his own end, Hendrikx developed a potent offensive package that has earned him a wealth of ice time with the Petes. Since the fall of 2004, Hendrikx has tallied 24 goals and 80 assists in 128 regular-season games, totals which place him at the top of the defensive board in the OHL. Even more impressively, his offensive acumen has not disappeared in the post-season, as evidenced by 10 goals and 17 assists in 33 playoff games over the last two years. His increased role in critical situations for Petersborough has seen an inverse decline in his penalty minutes, as the team has recognized that his talents are better suited on the ice than in the penalty box.

Undoubtedly ticketed for a spot in either Dayton or Syracuse in 2006-07, Hendrikx has a real opportunity to work his way up the organizational ladder as, perhaps, the most complete package on the blueline in the system. If his offensive game does not disappear at the professional level, he may end up being the best option outside of the top 10 to make an impact in three years with the big club. And should Hendrikx’s development crest in the minors, there is no shortage of sparring partners ready and willing in the AHL to give him an opportunity to become a fan favorite in Syracuse.

20. Steve Goertzen, RW
Eleventh Round, 225th Overall, 2002 Entry Draft, 6’2, 201 lbs.

An 11th round selection in the NHL draft is, inherently, a long shot to have any tangible impact at the NHL level. Therefore, when Steve Goertzen’s four-year odyssey in the Columbus system culminated with a 39-game audition on Nationwide Ice this past year, those long odds had been eclipsed.

In light of the steep slope Goertzen had to scale into the NHL, it is difficult to find fault with the slight effect he had in a Jacket uniform. While the Alberta native failed to make his presence felt in the scorer’s ledger, the paucity of ice time afforded to Goertzen limited his ability to grow onto the NHL ice surface. In his 39 games this past season with Columbus, Goertzen finished 28th on the team in average ice time (a mere 8:31 per game) and averaged only 12 shifts per contest. Some of those minutes were spent as an extra physical presence on the penalty kill, as evidenced by his 1:48 average ice time per game shorthanded (good for seventh amongst forwards on the team).

In the absence of an increased amount of ice time at the NHL level, it will be extremely difficult for Goertzen to grow into and secure a regular shift with the Jackets. Ultimately, Goertzen will need to maintain his drive and determination on the shuttle between Syracuse and Columbus to earn another extended audition at an NHL job. His ice time on the penalty kill may be an indication that he could develop into a fourth-line role player on an NHL bench, but, just like over the course of his professional career, he will need to carve a spot out himself.

Honorable Mention

Kirill Starkov, C
Greg Mauldin, C
Andrew Murray, LW

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