There are no stage appearances, orchestrated sweater donning or extensive interviews today at the NHL Draft in Florida. Instead, the 30 General Managers have their heads down, their phones fully charged, and are prepared to select 180 young prospects, more or less, in record time.
Day 1 turned out as a profitable one for the Blue Jackets, albeit a frustrating one. Efforts to move up in the draft were stymied by Arizona's insistence on a huge return for the #3 overall pick, and the #4 through #7 slots were unlikely targets, as they were all held by Eastern Conference competitors. The best shot appeared to come as New Jersey readied its pick for #6, which they used for offensive threat Pavel Zacha, but to no avail. Still, the Blue Jackets got their top tier defenseman in Zach Werenski. Most observers put little gap between Werenski, Noah Hanifin and Ivan Provorov, and the obvious Columbus need was on defense.
The pleasant surprise came as Round 1 wound down, when the Blue Jackets sent the #34 and #68 picks to Toronto in exchange for their #29, and used that to select big Swedish blue liner Gabriel Carlsson. That solidified the defensive pipeline, and laid the foundation for more to come.
The Blue Jackets were also stymied a bit by the rather bizarre behavior of the Boston front office, who let defenseman Dougie Hamilton go to Calgary for three draft picks, despite apparently having better offers from some Eastern Conference clubs, including Columbus. They then shipped Milan Lucic to Los Angeles, ending up with picks #13, #14 and #15. Conventional wisdom had them using that bounty to grab the #3 slot, but that did not happen. When their chance did come, they underwhelmed most observers in their selections.
When the dust cleared, there were several supposed first rounders still available, some teams yet to appear on the board, and the potential for a lot of movement. Here we go, round by round. (Columbus starting picks in parenthesis)
Round 2: (38, 58)
San Jose trades up from 39 to lead off the round, and uses it to take Jeremy Roy. We also get confirmation that Eddie Lack goes to Carolina for 3rd round picks this year and next. Not much return there. Toronto used the pick they got back from Columbus at 34 to select Travis Dermott from Erie -- a mobile defenseman.
In an intriguing deal for Blue Jackets fans, Anaheim traded James Wisniewski to Carolina for goalie Anton Khudobin. We knew the Ducks were not enamored of Wiz, and now we know precisely how much. With Wisniewski coming to the Metro, Columbus fans will have the chance to cheer or boo, as the spirit moves them.
With the #38 pick, the Blue Jackets take Paul Bittner, a big. talented forward from the Portland Winterhawks. We pegged him as a late first/early second round pick, and it's a very nice pickup for Columbus at the #38 slot. He'll need a bit of development time, but already has NHL size. It continues the Portland Winterhawk trail to Columbus, following Ryan Johansen and Oliver Bjorkstrand. The Blue Jackets get deeper and deeper at forward. Setting up for a trade?
Speaking of trades, the Rangers surprised most by packaging Carl Hagelin , the 59 and 179 picks to Anaheim for Emersn Etem and the #41 pick. With Nash rumored to be on the block as well, some curious changes in New York Meanwhile, Dallas acquired the rights to Antti Niemi from San Jose for a 7th rounder (BTW. poor marks to NHL Network for their Round 2 coverage.) Still not done, the Rangers then sent Cam Talbot to Edmonton for the 57th, 79th and 184th picks, also sending the #209 pick to the Oilers.
At the #58 slot, Columbus drew from Sweden once more, selecting big center Kevin Stenlund. With 6'3", 205 pound size, superb puck handling skills and a great hockey mind, Stenlund is a nice pick-up at this point in the draft. He scored at a point-per-game pace at the Super-Elit level before running into some injury issues. However, he has all of the tools to be a solid contributor at the NHL level, given a bit of time.
So, Round 2 brought more depth at forward to the Columbus roster. With no 4th round pick, I'm thinking goalie in Round 3. Let's see what happens.
Round 3: (69)
With the #69 pick, the Blue Jackets returned to the WHL, taking Seattle Thunderbirds' winger Keegan Kolesar. Kolesar is characterized as a tenacious forward (think Brandon Dubinsky), with considerable offensive upside. He was 19-19-38 in his initial season in the WHL, which bodes well going forward.
Three consecutive forwards in rounds two and three. I'm still thinking the club needs more goalie depth. We shall see.
No change here, and no new sigificant deals in the offing, either. Some indication that the rumored trade of Kevin Bieksa to San Jose may have gone off the rails. Opportunity for the Blue Jackets?
Round 5: (129, 141)
At #129, Columbus picks Sam Ruopp -- another WHL prospect, this time from the Prince George Cougars. A defenseman with a big frame (6'4"), but at only 179 pounds, needs a lot more mass. He wore the "C" in St. George this past season, and has shown a well-rounded game while in the "W". A solid pick to beef up the defenisive stable.
Returning to Scandanavia at the 141st pick, Columbus took Finnish defenseman Vetti Vainio, another big (6'2") player who has worked his way up the Finnish leagues. We have to rely on Jarmo Kekäläinen's inside knowledge here, but suspect this may be one of those "sleeper" picks. Rumored to have a big shot, great skates, but needs defensive work. Only time will tell.
John Davidson made an appearance on NHL Network during the round, expressing seemingly genuine pleasure over the draft thus far, and painting a very positive portrait of the pipeline. Two picks to go.
Round 6: (159)
With their penultimate pick, the Blue Jackets nabbed yet another defenseman, this time Russian blue liner Vladislav Gavrikov. Yes, he has size (6'2", 194), but has also demonstrated a sound all around game. Playing with the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl organization, he has steadily climbed the ladder, and was voted Best Defenseman at the World Junior Championships this year. He shares a hometown with Artem Anisimov, so should have no trouble fitting in, should he join the organization. He has not played hockey in North America, so his development path will be interesting to watch. A slightly risky pick suitable for Round 6.
Round 7: (189)
With their final pick, the Blue Jackets selected Markus Nutivaara, a 21-year-old defenseman who is "only" 6'1". As a relatively older player, he adds a touch of maturity and experience to the draft class Did the FInnish Connection make another score here? We shall see.
Wrapping It Up
The Blue Jackets accomplished their goals with this draft. They shored up the defensive pipeline with a likely star in Werenski, and a number of potential NHL regulars. With Bittner, another legitimate scoring forward is in the fold. You'd be hard pressed to point to any obvious "misses", given their position.
It was somewhat surprising that no help in goal was found, but we'll see what happens with the existing pipeline. In the meantime, the logjam at forward remains, and the need for immediate defensive help is there. That seems to add up to a trade, but there are free agents also available (Green, Sekera). With free agency just four days away, the answers are likely to come sooner than later.
All in all, a good two days for the Columbus front office. Time will be the judge. Stay tuned.