Since the Columbus Blue Jackets first took to the ice back on October 7th, 2000 they have dealt with various recurring issues. Some of them on the ice, some of them off. One of those issues that has never been resolved is depth at the center position. You can also make the argument that the team has also dealt with never having high-end talent at the position.
Even now, in the team's 10th season, the depth of centermen throughout the organization is thin. That being said, there are finally glimpses of high-end talent, offering hope for the future. General Manager Scott Howson's first crack at improving the team's depth focused on rebuilding the defense pipeline, and now is the time for him to continue to improve the stable of pivots in the organization. We'll follow the same format that Matt used in his Goaltending Depth Check.
These are the players in the organization who are either playing for the Jackets, or in the AHL for the Springfield Falcons.
Derick Brassard - Brass is easily at the top of any Columbus depth chart. The 2006 first rounder has dealt with some bad luck since turning pro, entirely due to injuries. Every time he truly hits his stride, and cements himself as number one center, his season gets derailed by injury. Two seasons ago he started the season on fire, only to hurt his shoulder in an ill-advised fight with James Neal. This season, he was playing his best hockey yet alongside Rick Nash and Jakub Voracek before he took a puck off the hand and missed significant time. The good news is that he may return to action this evening. When healthy, he is the best center Rick Nash has played with, and Nash had his greatest success this season playing with Brass. He is a big part of the team, but in terms of high-end talent in the pros after him, things get dicey.
Antoine Vermette - Vermette is a very versatile player, but his strengths are his defensive play and faceoff ability. He also possesses the ability to dangle in a phone booth, but he has been unable to put it all together offensively on a consistent basis. He's a bit of a tweener, he can hang on a scoring line provided he is with talented wingers, but he would be underutilized in a checking role.
Samuel Pahlsson - Sammy is a specialist. He is one of the best pure checking pivots in the NHL. He is the anchor of a shutdown line, but don't look for anything significant offensively. Players like Pahlsson show their true value in the playoffs. With one more season after this one on his current contract, the time is running out to see what capabilities he truly has.
Derek MacKenzie - DMac is another tweener, but of a different variety. Before this season, he was an AHL all star, but he couldn't crack an NHL lineup. He is a high-energy player, with a nose for the net. This season coach Arniel finally gave him a full time NHL gig, and he has taken full advantage. When anchoring the energy line, he has been tenacious on the forecheck, and when moonlighting on a scoring line when Brass went down he showed some offensive pop. Long term he maxes out as a fourth line center.
Kyle Wilson - An under-the-radar signing this past summer, Willy was brought aboard to provide depth at the position and to anchor the top line in Springfield. He had a tremendous training camp however, and made the Jackets out of camp. He played in various situations with Columbus, mainly on the energy line. He proved his worth a handful of times this season, scoring big goals and getting two game winners in the shootout. A numbers game midway through the season saw him sent to the AHL, where he immedialty made an impact for the Falcons, before earning a callup last week to the Jackets. It's likely that if Brass returns Willy will be sent back down to the A, however. He remains a depth forward, a "first callup" sort of player.
Trevor Smith - Smith was acquired midway through the season to play up the middle for the Falcons when Mike Blunden went down with injury. Smith is a prolific AHL scorer, but you likely won't see him get any significant NHL ice time. If Wilson is in the AHL, the pair provides a lethal 1-2 combo at the AHL level. He remains a depth player.
Mike Blunden - As I mentioned above, Blunden has suffered an injury and has missed most of the season thus far. He was a favorite of former coach Ken Hitchcock, but is redundant in the organization with the "breakout" of MacKenzie and Wilson. He is an RFA at season's end, and I don't see him getting tendered a qualifying offer.
Ben Guite - Guite was another summer signing, and from the get-go his job is to mentor the young forwards in the AHL. He is Springfield's captain, and has provided some timely scoring for the Falcons. He isn't an NHL player, but has tremendous value in the AHL.
Trevor Frischmon - A heart and soul player, like Guite he is AHL material. He is mainly a checker at any level, and is a voice in the Springfield locker room and community. Like Blunden, he is a free agent at the end of the season and I don't see him being re-signed.
Ryan Johansen - I like to consider Johan to be the first step in Scott Howson's plan to rebuild the center position. Johansen is an extremely talented player who has the projectable size and skill to be a Joe Thornton type. Many considered him to be the best player at the most recent World Junior tournament, and The Hockey News has him rated as the second best prospect in the world, behind Los Angeles' Brayden Schenn. The Jackets have drafted two other centers with their first round pick in the past, one of course being Brassard and the other Gilbert Brule, who now plays wing with Edmonton. A future top six anchored by Brassard and Johansen is a tantalizing thought.
Michael Chaput - Chaput is the new guy, acquired in the Tom Sestito trade at the trade deadline. I watched Chaput play last week when his Lewiston squad was here in Halifax to play the Mooseheads. He was arguably the best player on the ice, creating many scoring chances and scoring a goal himself. He was strong in the faceoff circle, and wasn't afraid to muck it up, a trait not often seen in the QMJHL. Trading for Chaput, a third rounder last year, is another step taken by Howson to improve depth at center.
Matt Rust - This is where the great divide occurs. Johansen and Chaput are the only high-end centers in the system. Rust plays on a scoring line at Michigan, but isn't a sure thing at the pro level.
Kevin Lynch - A teammate of Rust at Michigan, Lynch serves as the checking center for the Wolverines. You don't often see checking specialists excel in the pros, so Lynch will need to carve a niche for himself at the next level.
Sean Collins - The Jackets took a flyer on Collins, a center playing at Cornell. It's unlikely that he will have an impact at the pro level, but he remains a player to keep an eye on.
As you can see, the additions of Johansen and Chaput were absolutely necessary. They are two important pieces in the future centerman puzzle. At the pro level Brassard, Vermette, Pahlsson and MacKenzie are a nice 1 through 4, with Wilson and Smith providing depth and AHL scoring. The depth at the amateur level is troubling, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Howson target multiple centers at the upcoming draft and through free agency. Here are some players to keep in mind:
Wilson and Smith are RFAs at season's end, but I think they have done a fantastic job and deserve to be brought back. I can see Blunden, Frischmon and maybe even Guite replaced however, here are some options:
Mike Zigomanis - Currently playing for the Toronto Marlies of the AHL, Zigomanis is a veteran who could replace Guite if he isn't brought back. He provides leadership and is a above-average scorer at the AHL level. He is a UFA at the end of the season.
Marc-Antoine Pouliot - He will be an RFA at the end of the year, but if he isn't qualified by the Tampa Bay Lightning he could be a solid signing. He provides offense at the AHL level and would provide and improvement in terms of depth over a guy like Blunden.
Jared Ross - Currently playing for the Chicago Wolves, he is a UFA at the end of the year and would be a solid option to replace Frischmon in the organization. He is a two-way player with AHL offense.
The chances of all three of these players being signed is slim, as they don't come cheap, even for AHLers. That said, if the name of the game is to improve depth at the position, these are three guys who would do just that.
If the season ended today, the Jackets would have the 10th overall pick in the draft. As I mentioned earlier, I believe that Howson will target centers (and for that matter, goaltenders-see Matt's post). Here are some options:
Jonathan Huberdeau - While many scouts believe he will be a top five pick, he strikes me as one of those players that may slip on draft day. He is a prolific QMJHL scorer for the best junior team in Canada. His high-end talent is sorely needed in the organization.
Zack Phillips - A more likely candidate at the ten spot, Phillips is a teammate of Huberdeau with Saint John. He has decent size and is more of a two-way threat.
Vladislav Namestnikov - We all know the Jackets` history of drafting Russians, but Namestnikov is already in North America, making an impact with the London Knights of the OHL. The Jackets do have success drafting Knights, see Nash, Rick and Methot, Marc.
Mika Zibanejad - You wouldn`t know it from his name, but Zibanejad is a Swedish center playing for Djurgarden`s junior squad. He has good size and has creeped up the draft rankings.
Ryan Strome - I have seen Strome`s name appear all over the ranking boards. Some have him top-10, others toward the end of the first round. Strome is having a strong year with Niagara of the OHL.
Second / Third Rounds:
Mark McNeill - A western boy playing for Prince Albert of the WHL, he is second on the Raiders in scoring. He may be a late first rounder, but if he is available in the second round the Jackets need to pounce on him. He has great offensive instincts.
Rocco Grimaldi - Other than having an awesome name, Grimaldi is having a great year, leading the USNTDP in scoring. He is another guy who could go in the first round. Given that he is college-bound, the Jackets could develop him slowly.
Victor Rask - Playing in the Leksand system, Rask is one of those players who scouts have been talking about for a while. He would add some flash to the organization.
Colin Jacobs - Unique in that he is from Texas, Jacobs is having a good year on a bad Seattle team. He can bulk up but has the frame to do so.
Daniel Cattenacci - He is an undersized center, but is scoring at more than a point-per-game for the Soo Greyhounds of the OHL. He also leads them in scoring.
Ryan Tesink - The third Saint John player that I am listing here, he is more of a defensive center but would certainly add depth.
Alan Quine - Quine joined the Peterborough Petes in a trade from Kingston this season. He's not the biggest guy int he world, but has offensive ability.
Joseph Cramarossa - A young player who is making an impact on a loaded St.Mike's team, he will be playing in the Memorial Cup as the Majors are hosting this year. This will give scouts plenty of chances to see him in action. He has average size but plays with snarl.
Tobias Reider - A German center playing for Kitchener of the OHL. He hasn't had quite the impact the Rangers had hoped for, but his offensive ability goes unquestioned.
Nick Cousins - Sitting second in scoring for The Soo behind Catenacci, Cousins is a pint-sized centerman with offensive ability.
Logan Nelson - Nelson is a rough and tumble pivot playing for Des Moines of the USHL. It would be nice to see more offense from him, but this late in the draft he has some intangibles that could prove valuable.
Overall the Jackets depth at center needs improvement. Brass and Vermette are a decent 1-2 for Columbus, but more points are needed from your top two centers. Wilson and Smith provide above-average depth at the AHL level, and the additions of Johansen and Chaput are a step in the right direction from an amateur point of view. It will be interesting to see what course of action Howson takes in improving the depth (and talent) at center, and who knows? Maybe he can surprise us by being in the mix for the big ticket free agent this season- Brad Richards.