It was announced earlier today that the Jackets had come to terms on an entry-level contract (ELC) with 2013 first round pick Alexander Wennberg.
Wennberg was the last of the three Columbus first round picks from last year's draft to sign his ELC. He joins Kerby Rychel and Marko Dano in a trifecta of immensely talented and versatile forwards. After a run of disastrous drafting (more on that later) it would seem that the hiring of Jarmo Kekalainen and restructuring of the scouting staff has led to the Jackets finally hitting home runs with their draft picks.
The Big Four from 2013
Wennberg played the past season in the Swedish Hockey League (formerly the Swedish Elite League, still the top league in Sweden) and added goal scoring to his existing curriculum vitae as a playmaker. Wennberg has all of the tools to be an excellent complement to Ryan Johansen. There's a real temptation to compare Wennberg to fellow Swede Nicklas Backstrom of the Capitals, but that could lead to unfair expectations. The fact remains however, that both Wennberg and Backstrom are noted playmakers with excellent vision and hockey sense. If the Jackets can get anything close to Backstrom, the combination of Johansen and Wennberg up the middle would be among the best in the NHL.
Rychel is an interesting- and ongoing-story. He was drafted with the first round pick acquired from the Rangers in the Nash trade, so he'll always have added expectations from Columbus fans. He started the season with the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL- a team owned and managed by his father, former NHLer Warren Rychel. With the Spits about to embark on a retooling, Warren traded his son to the Guelph Storm- a team with grand visions of an OHL championship and berth in the Memorial Cup. Fast forward to today- Rychel the younger put up an impressive 51 points in 31 regular season games for the Storm, adding an additional 32 points in 20 playoff games en route to the OHL championship they had envisioned when adding the gritty winger. The Storm take to the ice for their first Memorial Cup round-robin game Saturday afternoon. He'll likely be back in the OHL next season.
Dano was drafted out of the KHL, where he spent a bulk of this past season. It's a damn tough league for young players, and Dano's offensive numbers reflected that. One major takeaway from his time in the KHL however, was the fact he was playing against men. After signing his ELC, he made the move to North America, where he was signed to a special player contract by the Jackets' afiiliate in Springfield. Though the Falcons were bounced from the AHL playoffs earlier than expected, Dano was a contributor and did not look out of place. He'll need more AHL seasoning, but his two-way play with a willingness to muck it up is something to look forward to.
These three players represent just the first round haul from last June's draft. The Jackets look like they may have struck solid gold in the third round with Danish winger Oliver Bjorkstrand of the WHL's Portland Winterhawks. With my hometown Halifax Mooseheads in last year's Memorial Cup, I was able to see a lot of Portland, and Bjorkstrand was one of the most noticeable players on the ice. He is so gifted offensively, and though he is slight of frame, he is elusive and an absolute threat to put up points. Seeing him drafted by the Jackets so "late" in the draft made me think immediate steal, which is of course ridiculous, but he's done nothing but impress since draft day. Portland was again a powerhouse WHL squad, with Bjorkstrand finishing third in league scoring with 50-59-109 in 69 games played. En route to the WHL final, he led the WHL in playoff scoring with 16-17-33 in 21 games. The Winterhawks were eliminated in game seven of the WHL final, but Bjorkstrand's season was incredible. Also of note is the fact that Bjorkstrand helped his Danish homeland win the B pool of the World Juniors, meaning they move up to the big tournament next season. He was helped by Halifax's Nikolaj Ehlers, a sure-fire first rounder in June, and my personal (read:homer) pick for the Jackets, if he's still available.
Looking Back (and Forward)
The 2012 entry draft has already bore serious fruit, thanks to Ryan Murray, taken second overall. To think, I was in the Yakupov camp. Murray was the Jackets' steadiest defenseman, at 19 years old, and was one of the main reasons James Wisniewski was able to have such a terrific regular season. In the second round, the Jackets took Oscar Dansk, who just completed an up-and-down year for the OHL's Erie Otters. His numbers would suggest that he had an elite season, which is true-mostly. The last few weeks of the regular season and into the playoffs were difficult for him, but next year the Otters-led by Connor McDavid- should be among the OHL elite. Dansk was terrific at the World Juniors, and has the makings of a home-grown backup for Sergei Bobrovsky in a few seasons. Also taken were goaltender Joonas Korpisalo, who is looking to finally stick with a club for more than a few games but still has serious potential; Josh Anderson, a two-way forward who's back in the Mem Cup with London, after a solid season where he played with Team Canada at the World Juniors; and two prospects needing contracts- Daniel Zaar and Gianluca Curcuruto. Zaar's got an NHL shot, and I'd love to see him signed, but he and Curcuruto's future with the Jackets seems up in the air.
Even 2011 has potential to be impactful as well.The Jackets' first pick was in the second round, where they took Boone Jenner. Boone was of course, a stud pick. Next up was T.J. Tynan in the third round, who was only just recently signed after completing his collegiate career with Notre Dame. The jury is still out, but he could be a player. Mike Reilly in the fourth round looks like a potential steal (I see another Torey Krug, myself), while Seth Ambroz and Lukas Sedlak still need more time to develop. Goaltender Anton Forsberg, taken in the final round of the draft, has already been signed and is in the AHL. I'm very excited about this kid.
Prior to 2011 however, it's ugly.
The Dark Draft Years
The 2010 draft saw the Jackets take Ryan Johansen fourth overall. That's the good news. The bad news is that the next four picks are either no longer in the organization or out of hockey all together. Austin Madaisky bounced between the AHL and ECHL this past season, and though Martin Ouellette seemed to finally figure it out in Maine, he's no sure thing to get a contract. Dalton Prout in the sixth round has proven to be a shrewd pick.
The only signed players from the 2009 draft are David Savard (fourth round- great pick) and Thomas Larkin (AHL-ECHL train).
Going back one more year, the 2008 is known for unearthing Matt Calvert and Cam Atkinson in the later rounds, while Nikita Filatov in the first round was a complete disaster. Cody Goloubef has spent some time in the NHL, but the rest of the picks are horrendous.
There's no point in looking back any further than this. Outside of Rick Nash, the drafting has been horrific, and the number one reason the Jackets have taken so long to be competitive.
It's not lost on me that any of the players I've promoted in this post can fizzle and earn the "bust" tag. I get it. The guys I've highlighed seem different. They aren't as risky, they have already achieved major success in their brief careers, and they fit the Blue Jackets mold.
The team is well-stocked for the future. If you were to point out a deficient area, it could be the blueline. Outside of Reilly and 2013 second rounder Dillon Heatherington, the defense prospect pool could use a boost. The Jackets are armed with the 16th overall pick next month, but in a year light on defense prospects, I'm of the opinion that the team should take the best avaiable player, and in this draft, it's likely going to be an impact winger.
With the team ready to take the next step, these are the young guys who will be part of the core of the future squads that earn even more success. Led by Ryan Johansen, Nathan Horton, Sergei Bobrovsky, Brandon Dubinsky, a bevy of versatile two-way forwards, along with a defense that's greater than the sum of its parts, the 2013/2014 squad gave the league a taste of what the Jackets could be. Add players like Wennberg, Rychel, Dano, Bjorkstrand, Dansk, Anderson and players taken next month, and you've got the making of a contender.