Hello, all! As is tradition, The Hockey News Future Watch issue has hit my mailbox and that means it’s time for the annual State of the Prospect Pool. The Blue Jackets were sixth last year after being second in 2014 but they have bounced back into the top three this season. The Jackets ranked third behind only Arizona and Buffalo.
Of the Jackets top 10 prospects, four rank in the magazine’s top 75 prospects. Here are the Jackets top 10 prospects with top 75 rank in a parenthesis.
1. Zach Werenski (6)
2. Sonny Milano (33)
3. Kerby Rychel (61)
4. Oliver Bjorkstrand (73)
5. Gabriel Carlsson
6. Paul Bittner
7. Joonas Korpisalo
8. Elvis Merzlikins
9. Josh Anderson
10. Dillon Heatherington
The only issues I have with these rankings are minor. I think Gabriel Carlsson is a little high for a prospect the magazine says will be in Sweden for at least the next two seasons (except for possibly some AHL time when Linkoping’s season is over). I’m not sure when the rankings were set in stone, but I’m guessing Joonas Korpisalo would be a little higher had the list included his run with the Jackets in totality. Additionally, I have a slight issue with Paul Bittner being on the list. I think he’s a top prospect but he has missed so much time this year, maybe put him in ninth and move everyone else up one.
Contract-wise, for the first time in a few years, it seems like the Blue Jackets have very few prospects they need to make decision on. The Jackets need to make a decision on 2014 fourth round pick Julien Pelletier and seventh round pick Olivier LeBlanc. Of these two, I think LeBlanc is the only one that should get a contract. Olivier has been a top d-man on two Q teams and has served as a captain and an alternate captain the last two seasons. As for Pelletier, he’s on his third team since being drafted and he hasn’t got back to the high scoring ways of his draft year (but he’s getting close this season).
Another pick that needs to be signed is 2014 third round pick Elvis Merzlikins. Elvis is a special case due to being drafted as a 20 year old. That gives the CBJ only two years to sign him instead of the usual four. Elvis would seem to be a no brainer to be signed in my opinion especially after the season he is having this year. An interesting wrinkle? According to an article I found this summer, it appears that if Elvis is signed he would need to be loaned back to Lugano – not that he really would have a spot in North America next season anyway.
As for players already under contract, Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen and Assistant GM Bill Zito (who manages the Lake Erie Monsters) should have a fairly easy summer as their are only six free agents currently on the Monsters roster, and most of them are biggies. Three are among the top Monsters top points earners including leading scorer Michael Chaput, All-Star TJ Tynan and fourth leading scorer Alex Broadhurst. Top scoring D-man Michael Paliotta is another player who will be looking for a new contract in the off-season. Last but not least among the must signs is goaltender Anton Forsberg even if it seems he will be the backup in Lake Erie next year with Joonas Korpisalo’s emergence.The final prospect whose contract is up is Lukas Sedlak who has been a third or fourth liner most of his career. Lukas could be brought back, but, if that happens I bet its only a one year deal.
As for next year the only rookies in Cleveland could be Blake Siebenaler and Paul Bittner but both could play as 20 year olds with their respective CHL teams. That could be the better option with so much of the current Monsters team being under contract and most still on their ELCs.
As for where Jackets’ prospects will be next year, Kole Sherwood should be back in London and see an increase in ice time. I think Kole has the skill to play in Lake Erie but London is really the better option with Lake Erie being pretty much set at forward.
Keegan Kolesar, despite being signed, should be back in Seattle and be one of the Tbirds’ go-to guys especially if Islanders 2015 first round pick Mathew Barzal sticks on Long Island (which he almost did this season).
Sam Ruopp is having a career year in Prince George and will be back with the Cougars next season making him the first ever three time captain for the franchise. He will also be one of the Cougars three 20 year olds.
In the NCAA, Tyler Bird and Ryan Collins will be juniors next season. Tyler should see an increase in ice time; he came on strong at the end of the season and picked up points in four of the Bears last seven games including three goals. Tyler’s six goals are second most among returning players. As for Ryan Collins, next year can only be better for him. After being a constant in the Gophers first 18 games, he played in only nine of the Gophers final 17 games. Not helping Ryan is that every Minnesota Dman is returning next season.
Over in Europe, Gabriel Carlsson and Kevin Stenlund are guaranteed to be back in Sweden and hopefully each receiving more ice time, especially Kevin. Gabriel should get a look with the Tre Kronor for the World Juniors that will be held in Canada next year.
I’m not sure where Oscar Dansk will play next year. Going off this translated article, Oscar is more than willing to return to Rogle.
In Finland, Markus Nutivaara will be going into his NHL contract season on a team that is currently preparing for its run at a third straight Liiga title. Veeti Vainio is in a bit of a strange situation – the Blues was bad this year, finishing last in Liiga, while also struggling with money troubles. So unless the CBJ and some CHL team work out some backdoor deal to bring Veeti over. If he is signed, he could be in Lake Erie but well, see above.
In Switzerland, Elvis Merzlikins as mentioned above needs to be signed, and if so he’ll need to be loaned to Lugano and be the Panthers starting goaltender, just hopefully not starting every game.
In Russia, Vladislav Gavrikov will be back with Lokomotiv and should rank amongst the trains top four next season.
Next year should be the time the CBJ have to make a decision on Markus Soberg and Peter Quenneville. Markus should be back in Norway playing for ex Jacket Espen Knutsen. As for Peter, I’m not sure where Peter will be – possibly back in Cincinnati with the Cyclones or maybe in Lake Erie.
Now as for what I think the CBJ should focus on in the draft, well, with all this winning lately (eye twitches) I haven’t focused on many players since we don’t know where we’ll be picking. Right now my first pick is Olivier LeBlanc’s teammate and seventh ranked North American Skater, Pierre-Luc Dubois. He’s a 6’3 power forward who put on a show at the Top Prospects game in Calgary. As for a draft overall I think the CBJ prospect pool could use an infusion of skill along with somehow getting more draft picks (we only have five for this year right now). Another thing I’d like to see the Jackets focus on at the draft – a goalie. I’ve said I’m not one of those “you draft a goalie every year” people; but, picking one that could be deemed “a project” wouldn’t be a bad idea. At the moment according to tankathon.com, the Jackets have a 23.5% chance of picking in the top three and a 7.5% of picking first overall. If Columbus doesn’t get the first, second, or third overall pick, they will immediately fall to somewhere in the six through nine range all depending on how the draft lottery shakes out.
One more note that is informational really: depending on if Pelletier and LeBlanc are signed and what happens at the draft, the CBJ could not have a drafted prospect in the QMJHL for the first time since the 2013-14 season.
Well folks, I thank you for reading this. We’re getting into the fun time of the year as teams are either in the playoffs or getting ready for them. I’ll be back soon with my top 20 list along with the usual weekly recaps.