(As part of our Depth Check series, we went a little outside the box and asked for a few guest pieces - here is the first, from regular commentor Dan Johns. Thank you, Dan! -Matt W.)
With the season winding down and the trade deadline in the rear-view, it’s time to take a look at what this team has on the outside for this desperation playoff push and into the future. We’ve already looked into the Net-minders and Pivots, so now on to the most populous position on the club, the Wingers.
Let’s start with what is already up at the Big League level, line by line…
Nash is here to stay thanks to his recent contract extension. I’ll not waste too many words on him, because I can sum him up in three words. Elite. Scorer. Leader.
Voracek is improving bit by bit. His game has been on the uptick every year. He’s starting to look more like the guy the BJ brass saw when they drafted him. A tough playmaker with deft stick-handling and a nose for the net. If he could just improve his shot accuracy and continue to play tough in the corners, we’re looking at Jaromir Jagr Light.
Line 2: R.J. Umberger, Kristian Huselius
I know, I know, Matt Calvert is the second winger on this line right now, but we’ll get to him later. I have to think that a healthy Huselius would be back to skating on Vermette’s right hand. Juice is an interesting player. He’s one of the verterans on this squad and has been consistent throughout his career. The guy is a true playmaker and solid asset, but should the young guns mature, he’d make a very good trade chip to help fill a need.
R.J. Umberger. What can I say about the guy? It’s hard not to get all man-crush here. Let me just sum it up this way, R.J. Umberger does what needs to be done… always. Need a goal? He’ll crash the net. Need a boost? He’ll drop the gloves. Need a sandwich? The man does amazing things deli meats. I may have made that last one up, but knowing Umby’s passion and will to succeed, he’d at least run out to Subway for you.
Line 3: Derek Dorsett, Scottie Upshall
Derek Dorsett is my favorite agitator this team has had since the days of David Ling. He can skate, he can pass, he can hit, he can fight. What he lacks in statistics, he makes up for in energy. He’s a guy who’s not afraid to sacrifice his own well-being for the good of the team.
Scottie Upshall has been nothing short of awesome since coming over from Phoenix. Sure we lost our last Original Jacket, but we gained a guy with great speed and a real nose for the net. He battles, he moves the puck, and he twicks the twine. Were he two inches taller and twenty pounds heavier, he’d have made Ken Hitchcock happier than any battle re-enactment ever could. As it is, though, Upshall will just have to settle for being a perfect fit for Scott Arniel’s fast, attacking philosophy. Count on Scott Howson to make a strong play to re-sign Upshall to a multi-year deal.
Line 4: Jared Boll, Ethan Moreau/Chris Clark
We all knew that Jared Boll could fight, but what’s become apparent of late is that he has multiple talents. The guy can skate and score too. While he doesn’t get many chances to do either on the Fourth line, he capitalizes on those he gets. We all miss Jody Shelley, but I don’t think anyone should have a problem with Boll being our enforcer while helping contribute to the offensive attack.
Moreau and Clark are both solid veterans. While neither has brought much to the score sheet, they provide positive influences on the young guys and are solid in their position. While neither one is hindrance on the ice, they don’t provide much of an extra boost. Both can be considered expendable come Silly Season.
The Intangible: Matt Calvert
We all love him. The kid has a heck of a shot and some fleet feet. He’s got the energy and speed of a Twenty-one year old. Which is good, considering that he is twenty-one. The reason I didn’t put him with a line is because, who knows where he’ll line up? Even after Huselius’s return, I see The Calvery staying in this lineup and bumping someone else. Who draws the short straw and on which line Matty lands is still to be decided.
Now let’s take a look at the prospects. we’ll start with a few guys from Springfield, then move on to those in Juniors and those dedicated college students.
Easily the most intriguing player in the system right now, Filatov is also the most irritating. Is he Nikolay Zherdev, or is he a slower-blossoming Steven Stamkos? There’s no doubt the talent is there, we all remember the hat-trick, and we’ve seen the way he carries the puck. Now we just need to see some consistency. The jury’s still out on Niki, but it’s close to being a hung jury.
Once thought of as a promising prospect, Mayorov has failed to get any offense going in his three years in the system. While he’s managed at least 30 points in each pro season, those numbers are third-line at best and would likely translate to only 20 or so in the NHL.
In his debut pro season, Kubalik is leading the Falcons in scoring. At 20 years of age, this guy has a lot of upside and it’d be wrong to think he won’t improve over the next few years. Look for Kubalik to make it up to the big show as a top 9 guy sometime in 2012, possibly as more than just a fill-in.
Kana hasn’t shown much offense in his pro career, and doesn’t look to be a scoring threat anytime soon. His solid frame could make him a serviceable checking-line winger, but as the Jackets are heavy on those types of players, don’t expect to see this guy anytime soon.
Not much to say about Neuber. He’s a tough-guy with very little scoring touch. As long as Boll and Dorsett are around, Neuber will remain in the minors, where he’s seen only a handful of games in his young pro career.
There’s some talent to be mined in Springfield, but outside of Filatov and Kubalik, no one appears to be able to provide an immediate spark. The Blue Jackets also have rights to some guys in Juniors and College. Let’s have a look at them.
Petr Straka - Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL)
After a strong rookie season in the Q, Straka has had an underwhelming year. After missing some time, he has still managed a respectable 25 points in 38 games. But one has only to look at draft-mate Ryan Johansen’s stats to see what a good year in Juniors looks like. Straka has the size to make it the NHL, but look for him to get some seasoning in the minors before he’s ready for the bigs.
Dalton Smith - Ottawa 67's (OHL)
Like Straka, Smith’s offensive numbers are down from last season. Dalton continues to excel in a two-way game though. He’s got the feistiness of a Derek Dorsett, but controls the puck better. We’ll see what he’s made of once he breaks into the minors.
Cam Atkinson - Boston College (Hockey East)
Atkinson has continued his offensive ways for the Eagles, leading his team in scoring for the second straight season. A small guy at only 5’08", he’s not a stranger to the tough and tumble play of East Coast college hockey, and he‘s held up well. We Jackets fans can only hope that he turns out to be a poor man’s Patrick Kane.
Jake Hansen - University of Minnesota (WCHA)
Hansen is a sturdy depth player player for the Golden Gophers. After graduating, he’ll likely have a shot in the minors, but he’s probably not a good bet to make it to the show.
Trent Vogelhuber - Miami University (CCHA)
Vogelhuber has been a part of some great Redhawks hockey teams, and has contributed a career high 20 points to this year’s squad. Like Hansen, he’s a likely depth player at the minor league level, and little more.
Now, on to the potential free agents the Jackets may look for in the market. I’m going to focus on the younger guys, because you never know what wily veteran will be signed as a one-year rental.
So, here are some names to keep an eye on once free agency begins.
Thought we’d start out with a controversial one. I know, we’ve all seen this movie already, and it wasn’t nearly as good as the hype. However, after his struggles and benchings this year, Zherdev could come at a pretty good discount. With the rumors of his difficulties, it’s also possible he goes unsigned,. That would make him even more interesting as a camp invitee, where you won’t have to commit to him until you see what he’s got. Maybe a young, aggressive coaching staff will turn out to be what he’s needed all along to realize his potential. No doubt about it, the guy does have skills, and plenty of years left on those young legs.
He’ll be coming off a big injury (torn ACL, sprained MCL), and may not be entirely ready come training camp. He’s a good buy though if he’s only going to miss the first month or so. Frolov has been a solid scorer throughout his career and puts up very good numbers for a second line winger. Signing Frolov would free up Huselius to be traded for a scoring D-man or a high draft pick.
Like Frolov, Jokinen is a sound second line contributor. More a playmaker than goal scorer, he plays much the same game as Antoine Vermette. The biggest influence Jokinen could bring is something this team sorely needs… success in the shootout. After all, I know we’re all a bit sick and tired of leaving a point on the ice night after night.
He played his college hockey in-state with the Miami Redhawks, so he knows how to play in Ohio. Jonesy won’t light up the stat sheet, but he’s basically a younger version of what the Jackets have now in Ethan Moreau. He was team Captain at Miami, and plays a good two-way checking game.
The Jackets have seen a good deal of Vrbata due to his play in the West with Phoenix and Chicago the past few years. A vital cog in that enigmatic Coyote machine, he’s a lock for 40 points a year. Despite his team’s ups and downs, he’s a consistent player and provides strong play nearly every night.
Before summing the postion up, I’ll throw you a couple of names and stat lines to look for come Draft day should Scott Howson decide to go wing in the early rounds. It seems that the top wingers all seem to be playing in North America, so we‘ll not need a jaunt overseas. I’d go in depth, but I’ve not had the chance to see these guys play outside of highlight videos. Pay close attention to Ty Rattie, though, because he’s currently playing with Ryan Johansen, and pre-existing chemistry is always a good thing.
Gabriel Landeskog, Kitchener (OHL), LW
2010-2011: GP-51; G-36; A-29; P-65; PIM-61; +30
Matt Puempel, Peterborough (OHL), LW
2010-2011: GP-55; G-34; A-35; P-69; PIM-49; -33
Brandon Saad, Saginaw (OHL), LW
2010-2011: GP-57; G-27; A-28; P-55; PIM-45; +11
Seth Ambroz, Omaha (USHL), RW
2010-2011: GP-47; G-20; A-19; P-39; PIM-78; +4
Tomas Jurco, Saint John (QMJHL), RW
2010-2011: GP-58; G-31; A-24; P-55; PIM-17; +45
Ty Rattie, Portland (WHL), RW
2010-2011: GP-64; G-28; A-48; P-76; PIM-55; +20
So folks, there’s a long look at where the Blue Jackets stand at the LW and RW slots. At least six, possibly of the guys in the current lineup look to be there again next year. It will take some impressive play from the younger guys, or possibly a trade, to see much changing in the offseason.
With little open room, expect the Jackets to allow their guys to mature and get used to the pro game in Springfield for a while. There’s not much need to try and rush anyone in anymore. Now the Jackets can let guys grow up. No more ego-inflating early call ups and automatic spots in the top six. In this system, you have to earn it… and keep earning it. Isn’t that right, Mr. Filatov?
The wing position seems to be the soundest on the team right now, but that doesn’t mean the Jackets can stand pat. They need to keep funneling in young talent and sign a veteran or two to help keep the guys in line, either in Columbus or Springfield.
But let’s face it, this group led by Rick Nash, is the least of the team’s worries at the moment.