That was the Blue Jackets’ best year yet. Vaulting from their previous 34-40-8 campaign and just 76 points (fourth-worst in the league), they earned the NHL’s fourth-highest point total with 108 and a 50-24-8 record landing their first playoff berth since 2013-14, tasting the postseason for only the third time in their 17-year history. Unfortunately the results mirrored those of three years ago with another first round elimination at the hands of eventual champs Pittsburgh, but there is much momentum and excitement on the ice in Ohio’s capital. Sergei Bobrovsky’s Vezina-winning 41-17-5, 2.06, .931 effort, John Tortorella Adams-worthy coaching, Nick Foligno taking Clancy and Messier honors, Cam Atkinson’s 35 goals highlighting a 62-point campaign, Seth Jones joining Atkinson and Bobrovsky as an All Star selection, and Zach Werenski mentioned as a Norris candidate have all shifted the Jackets into the NHL spotlight as 2017-18 approaches.
They face a few, mostly forward defections as power play specialist Sam Gagner skated west to Vancouver, Scott Hartnell returned to Nashville, William Karlsson got snapped up by Vegas in the expansion draft, and Brandon Saad along with goalie prospect Anton Forsberg were exchanged for dangerous winger Artemi Panarin and promising Tyler Motte. Kyle Quincey also took his forward depth to Minnesota, while Columbus inked former Wild depth pivot Jordan Schroeder.
This shifting scene on the front lines presents opportunity for the Jackets’ deepening prospect pool that, despite lacking a first round pick this June and 45th overall selection Alexandre Texier agreeing to center KalPa of the Finnish Liiga the next two years, offers promise. Here’s a look:
- Zach Werenski – Still technically qualifying as a prospect, Werenski proved a true NHLer in 2016-17 having what many consider the best rookie campaign in Blue Jacket history. As a first pairing next to Seth Jones some included him in the Norris conversation. He looks like an honest candidate in the near future. After the 23rd highest point total in NHL rookie blueliner history (11 goals, 36 assists) he was an extremely poised force as a 19-year-old. His 22 points on that brutally dangerous Columbus power play unit was ninth-best among defensemen. A franchise cornerstone.
- Oliver Bjorkstrand – Currently their best true prospect and a breakout candidate, bank on 22-year-old Bjorkstrand landing at least a bottom-six NHL role when camp concludes and ascending the Blue Jacket food chain before long. In limited duty with Columbus over the last two campaigns he’s registered 11 goals and 10 assists in 38 contests, all at even strength, and a plus-ten and shown flashes of offensive brilliance. With Sam Gagner, William Karlsson, and Scott Hartnell moving on, eyes and expectations will be on this Danish sniper to pick up the slack.
- Pierre-Luc Dubois – Last year’s third overall Entry Draft selection didn’t have the success expected in perhaps his final QMJHL campaign, registering 55 points in 48 contests between Cape Breton and Blainville-Boisbriand. One year removed from his 42 goal, 57 assist draft year with Cape Breton, Columbus may keep the uber-talented 19-year-old Dubois on their NHL roster which lacks proven pivot depth. If not, the 6-03, 209-pound, two-way power forward will return to juniors in Quebec.
- Sonny Milano – Milano has a royal opportunity to bring his crafty, quick game to the NHL in 2017-18. After a solid 18-29-47 offensive campaign with AHL Cleveland, and only 21-years-old, this looks an important year for the Massapequa, NY native with other prospects positioned to pass him at left wing on the org chart if he doesn’t prove he’s ready for an NHL leap. Milano’s become a bit more physical and addressed some concerns about his defense in minor league action, but would benefit from further improvement in both arenas.
- Tyler Motte – Motte moves not only from the Blackhawks’ organization, but likely graduates from the AHL to full-time left wing/center duty with Columbus, his chances improved with the Blue Jackets’ thinned NHL-tested forward ranks. Motte performed reasonably well while fighting off injury in 33 NHL Chicago contests early last year (four goals, three assists in 11:23 average minutes per game before AHL reassignment) including time on the Jonathan Toews line.
- Vitaly Abramov – In his second year with Gatineau, the 5-09, 170-pound Abramov earned the QMJHL’s MVP award registering 46 goals and 107 points (top in the league) in 66 contests. His 76 penalty minutes were also an added bonus for multi-cat speculators. After an additional seven-point (one goal and six assists), seven-game playoff run, the 19-year-old Russian wing joined AHL Cleveland landing a goal and three assists in four games. As he’s under CHL contract, and under 20, he’ll either break camp with the Blue Jackets or return to Gatineau. Having proven his worth in juniors with 84 goals and 113 assists in 129 contests over the last two campaigns, an NHL role isn’t out of the question.
- Joonas Korpisalo – Korpisalo is the clear number two in net. While maybe not the league’s top backup he has a solid resume punctuated by his 16-11-4, 2.60, .920 campaign as a 21-year-old replacing Bobrovsky and his balky groin (as well as then primary backup Curtis McElhinney) during Columbus’ downtrodden 2015-16. Last year was dicier for him including long inactive stretches with Bob working 63 games. “Korp” got in just 14 NHL contests as second in command for the year’s final months with a 7-5-1, 2.88, .905 line.
- Gabriel Carlsson – Carlsson’s a defense-first blueliner at 6-04, 192-pounds who uses his extended reach, smarts and mobility to excel at slowing opponents. Selected 29th overall in 2015, Carlsson will angle for a full time NHL role after crossing the pond following three campaigns and 92 contests with Linkoping HC of the Swedish Hockey League. He impressed in limited Stanley Cup postseason play last year averaging nearly 11 minutes as a bottom pairing in five contests against the Penguins. He also skated in two late regular season NHL contests and three with AHL Cleveland.
- Calvin Thürkauf – Thürkauf, Columbus’ final 2016 Entry Draft selection as an overage prospect, shot up the rankings during last year’s 33-goal, 37-assist WHL Kelowna campaign, topped off with eight goals and 13 assists in the Rockets’ postseason run to the Western Conference Finals. Captaining the 2017 Swiss U20 WJC squad featuring Nico Hischier certainly drew greater attention to his growing offensive game. He inked a three-year entry level deal with the Blue Jackets during the tournament and will likely open 2017-18 with AHL Cleveland. Prior to last year, Thürkauf did not profile as a scoring dynamo though he did land 18 goals and 27 assists in 2015-16 while exerting a physical presence on Kelowna’s checking lines and making his points mainly by plowing past and though opponents towards the net. As he makes the jump to stronger competition in the pros, we’ll see if his game diminishes or if his playmaking skills and smarts help him adjust.
- Markus Hännikäinen – Regularly trekking between AHL Cleveland and the Blue Jackets last year, Hännikäinen strengthened his cause for an NHL roster spot with two goals (including a game-winner against Norway) and one assist in the recent 2017 IIHF World Championships for Team Finland. Off-season relocations of Sam Gagner to Vancouver and William Karlsson to Vegas elevates the 24-year-old Hännikäinen’s chances to extend upon his 2016-17 ten-game Columbus stint. Fired a Cleveland-high 177 shots last season, averaging 3.11 per contest. Now is the time for him to take a leap forward. With 107 career AHL contests under his belt featuring 26 goals, 31 assists, a promising, heavy shot and clutch offensive and defensive performances, the Monsters’ alternate captain and top goal-scorer with 19 last year (also tops on the man-advantage with six) needs to prove himself soon or risk branding as an NHL fifth-liner. His knack for stealing the puck might play well in a bottom-six role should NHL points not come easy. Hännikäinen’s two-year deal runs through 2018-19.
Kevin Stenlund – Stenlund is a growing factor in the Jackets’ pivot plans. Initially considered a second round reach by many, the physical and cerebral Swedish playmaker upped his game significantly in 2016-17 totaling 13 goals and seven assists in 48 SHL contests with H71, adding ten points (four goals, six assists) in their title-winning 16-game postseason run. Stenlund excelled on the HV71 J20 SuperElit squad the previous campaign, with 24 points in 17 games, but couldn’t find his scoring touch in limited ice time against more experienced SHL completion with just two points in 43 games. His large frame compliments a no-nonsense approach that generates abundant quality, close-range scoring chances for himself and linemates. A highly skilled puckhandler that eschews the fancy stuff. Stenlund could stand to increase his acceleration as speedier NHL play potentially approaches, but his combination of grit and offensive skill may take the 20-year-old far.
Kole Sherwood – Hailing from suburban Columbus, Sherwood’s a fun player to watch with a shoot-first approach and penchant to slam towards the net regardless of the size or muscle of obstacles. He’s constantly in motion with a presence that disrupts defenses to positive effect. Tons of grit and determination, he signed a three-year entry level deal in 2015 with the Blue Jackets as an older OHL prospect. After a 33-goal, 52-assist 2016-17 campaign with 60 penalty minutes in 60 OHL Flint contests, adding four goals and an assist in five playoff games, he joined AHL Cleveland for two games near season’s end. Sherwood’s 85 points was ninth-best in last year’s OHL, and 292 shots on goal trailed only Ryan Mantha, Alex DeBrincat and Jason Robertson. Fired an amazing 13 shots in two separate contests last year. Made an impressive offensive showing in this summer’s Blue Jackets’ Development Camp, held at his youthful hockey haunt next to Nationwide Arena, the Ice Haus.
Matiss Kivlenieks – Kivlenieks’ 2016-17 campaign was perhaps the USHL’s all-time greatest in net. At 20-years-old and a league rookie, he was named the USHL's Player and Goaltender of the Year and to the First All-Star Team after leading the league in wins (with a 36-7-4-2 record), GAA (1.85), SV% (.935), tying for tops in shutouts with five, and ending second-best in total ice time (2,991 minutes). His year’s goals-against and save percentage were both second-best for a single campaign in USHL history. Kivlenieks signed a three-year entry-level deal with Columbus, and will either begin 2017-18 with Minnesota State-Mankato or in the pro ranks likely at AHL Cleveland.
Sam Vigneault – At 6-05, 203-pounds, Vigneault has the size to eventually man the middle for Columbus. His promising two-way game honed during three Clarkson University campaigns should translate well to AHL Cleveland this fall, as he forgoes his final year of NCAA play to turn pro on a two-year entry-level contract. Following the 2016-17 college schedule, Vigneault skated in 16 Monster contests potting a goal and four assists. His Clarkson career may presage a future scoring uptick with 30 goals and 45 assists in 106 collegiate contests, leading the squad with 36 points in 39 games last year.
Paul Bittner – The AHL has not been easy for Paul Bittner. The 2015 Entry Draft’s 38th overall selection registered just three points as a rookie, all assists, in 31 Cleveland contests. After a four-year, 78 goal and 68 assist run with WHL Portland, including a point-per-game draft year, such a great drop is concerning for the 6-04, 214-pound power forward. Columbus brass will hope this was just a case of the yips and that greater production follows.
Vladislav Gavrikov – At age 21 the 6-03, 214-pound Gavrikov still has plenty of time to become an NHL defenseman but chances decrease as he becomes more established in the KHL. Columbus selected the big Russian defenseman 159th overall in the 2015 draft but he’s yet to play for or sign with a North American squad. After a recent trade to SKA St. Petersburg, and subsequent two-year deal, he’s expressed a desire to stay with the KHL and to play in the Olympics which of course he would not be able to do under an NHL deal.
John Ramage – It’s a stretch to call 26-year-old Ramage an NHL prospect at this point in his career. While he provides valuable blue line experience at the AHL level, his upside is limited and growing even more so with Columbus’ growing stable of young defensemen. His 2016-17 campaign featured four goals, 21 assists and 67 penalty minutes in 69 Monster contests. With only two NHL contests on his resume, he’ll likely wear the A sweater again for Cleveland in the final campaign of his two year deal.
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