2016 NHL Entry Draft Recap: Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead
From the moment the 2016 NHL Entry Draft began, rumors were swirling around the Blue Jackets, and GM Jarmo Kekalainen and his staff made some very unexpected moves through the weekend. We've got a look at what the Jackets came away with after a very busy couple of days.
Ever since the Jackets found themselves moving up to 3rd overall in the NHL draft lottery, there was a strong sense of excitement for the draft weekend. Would the club pick up one of the Finnish wingers making headlines all year? Could they find a way to trade up for Auston Matthews? Or some kind of complex manuever that saw the team trade down, but get assets or cap relief that left them coming out ahead when all was said and done?
The possibilities seemed endless, but everyone "knew" that the Jackets would end up walking away from this draft with a young impact forward who might be contributing as soon as next season.
As it turns out, that could still happen, but not in the way anyone expected...
1st Round: Rumors, Surprises, and Confusion
From the start of the first round on Friday Night, the Jackets were making headlines after reports from TSN's Bob MacKenzie and other hockey pundits that 2014 first round pick was on the move, though Aaron Portzline was quick to follow up that nothing was confirmed by Milano or the club, and the rumor was quickly joined by reports that Sergei Bobrovsky might be available as well, heightening the feelings that some major shakeups could be on the way.
That uncertainty continued through the opening of the Draft, with Toronto doing the completely expected thing and drafting Auston Matthews, while Winnipeg followed the script by snagging Patrick Laine.
With the hockey media still trying to chase down rumors, there was a long moment of anticipation as the Jackets sent their pick into the Central Registry, and fans in Columbus and around the hockey world waited for Jarmo (or more precisely, director of scouting Ville Siren) to walk to the podium and announce the pick.
The collective wisdom said this "had" to be Jesse Puljujarvi, but as it turned out, the Jackets tossed the script and firmly took their own path, drafting Pierre-Luc Dubois with the third overall pick.
To their credit, the Jackets made it clear that Dubois was "their guy" from day 1, and that they see a bright future in the organization for the young centerman based on his skills, style of play, and exceptional work ethic.
Unlike the expectations for Puljujarvi, who went to Edmonton with the fourth overall pick, Dubois wasn't expected to be ready to make the jump to the NHL next season, but Jarmo made it clear that wasn't his priority - he wanted the right player, not the right now player.
The stunned (and in many cases angry) reactions from fans have begun to cool, and reports that many teams had called Edmonton to look at trading up to #4 if Dubois had been available have made it clear how desirable this pick really was, even if it came as a big surprise, and to his credit, Jarmo has built a strong reputation for evaluating and developing talent. There's every reason to give him the benefit of the doubt...but it's still a gamble, and one that could cost the GM his job if Dubois fails to pan out.
From that point on, the Jackets were relatively quiet for the rest of the first round, but rumors continued to swirl through the end of the evening, when Jarmo shut both the Bob and Milano rumors down with firm denials.
2nd Round: Going Deep
Though a few trades were made before the second round kicked off on Saturday morning, the Jackets stood firm and waited patiently for their 2nd round selection at #34, where they again made a move that confused many observers, selecting defenseman Andrew Peeke from the USHL. Peeke is a big bodied puck mover, who plays a two way game, but sees himself as a "defense first" guy, which could bode well for the future, but it may be some time before we see him reach the NHL, as he's committed to play for Notre Dame, and could easily play out his NCAA career before making a decision about going pro.
The confusion of reaching down for Peeke, particularly with talent like Alex DeBrincat, Chad Krys, and Boris Kachoul still out there (among others) was palpable, especially since the Jackets had a smaller than normal pool of picks in this year's draft, but the team insisted that they saw him as a potential first round pick when evaluating talent.
3rd Round: The Meteor Man
From the third round and beyond it can often be difficult to get a good impression of the players being selected if you're not a professional scout, but the pick of Vitaly Abramov, last season's Rookie of the Year in the QMJHL, and survivor of a meteor strike back in his native Russia. A fast, skilled winger, there are some concerns about his size, but on the other hand he could be the next Cam Atkinson type player for the Jackets - lots of scoring wrapped up in a tiny package.
Abramov was thought to be a 2nd round or better talent by quite a few scouts. You have to think this pick could be one of the bigger steals of this draft. I really do like this deal, the more I think about it. Here's hoping it plays out as well as we believe.
With no picks in the 4th or 5th rounds, things went quiet while more and more players came off the board, and finally the Jackets were back in it.
6th Round: Filling the pipeline
With two picks left in the draft, Columbus made a move to add to the team's goaltending pipeline, grabbing another NCAA commit, Peter Thome. Though no relation to the former Indians slugger, Thome was a strong performer in the NAHL, and will play one season for Omaha in the USHL before heading to the University of North Dakota for the 2017-2018 season, giving him some time to develop. At this late in the draft there are no guarantees, but it's interesting to see Justin Goldman, head of The Goalie Guild pointing out some interesting connections with the Blue Jackets and North Dakota, and putting it out there that Thome is one of his former prep students. It certainly doesn't hurt Thome to have some excellent teachers, and it could give him an edge when he's ready to look at beginning a hockey career.
7th Round: Last Man Out
The Jackets would grab one last forward with the 185th pick, selecting Swiss LW Calvin Thurkauf, currently putting up some decent numbers for Kelowna in the WHL.
With just five picks, Jarmo & Co did a reasonably good job of addressing the team's needs for the future, providing a strong Centerman who could be NHL ready in the near future, two scoring wingers, a long term D prospect, and a goaltender who may be ready to make an impact in a few years. Though they didn't address some of the more immediate concerns, such as opening cap space or the possibility of trading Scott Hartnell or another heavy contract to open room for some of the young talent in Lake Erie, they did have one last surprise as the second day of the 2016 draft came to a close.
One More Thing....
News broke almost immediately after the end of the 7th round that Columbus had completed a deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs, sending Kerby Rychel to the GTA in exchange for former Pittsburgh draftee Scott Harrington, and a conditional 5th round pick in next year's draft should Harrington be claimed off waivers next season.
Harrington had a pretty unimpressive start in the AHL before suffering a season ending shoulder injury, but he's had the damage surgically repaired and completed his rehab, so we should get a look at what he can do when he arrives in Columbus for training camp. If nothing else, we have the potential for one extra pick next year if he fails to stick with the main club and gets plucked from the wire, and with a little luck he'll be looking to make an impact in Lake Erie to prove that last year was a fluke.
It's not much value for Rychel, the former 1st round pick, but after the well was badly poisoned by his poor start under Todd Richards, and the much publicized trade demands early in the year, it's at least some value for a player who was looking to get a fresh start elsewhere, and a chance for both teams to hopefully get something of value.
Next the team must look to free agency, and more importantly, to taking care of their own business - most notably RFA Seth Jones, who was supposedly "close" to a new deal on Friday, but even though he was in Columbus for the draft party at Nationwide Arena, nothing was announced by either side.
It's entirely possible that an agreement in principle was reached, but the team needs to clear cap space before it can be formally completed, which makes the lack of moves on that front even more disappointing after watching teams like Florida and Detroit move several pieces around to acquire cap relief.
If nothing else, this weekend made it clear that the front office will stick to their guns regardless of what conventional wisdom and the hockey intelligentsia "expect" them to do. Now we need to see just what those plans will unfold into as the summer continues, and how that will shape this club's future over the next few years.