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Ranking Jarmo Kekalainen’s draft classes

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There are some hits and some misses

2018 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

We’re less than two weeks away from the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, so I thought it would be a good time to look back at past results from the tenure of general manager Jarmo Kekalainen.

Too Early To Tell

No one has reached the NHL yet from the 2019 and 2020 draft classes, but that isn’t unexpected. Most were later round picks which require several years of development.

Yegor Chinakhov, the surprise first round selection in 2020, has signed his entry level contract and will likely split time between Cleveland and Columbus next season. Tyler Angle (7th round, 2019) made his Cleveland debut this year and was a point per game player. It would not surprise me if he made his NHL debut at some point next season. Dmitri Voronkov (4th round, 2019) had a strong playoff in the KHL this season, but will remain over there for at least two more seasons.

The Rankings

#6: 2014

Best pick: Elvis Merzlikins (3rd round, #76)
NHLers: Sonny Milano (1st round, #16)
Never reached: Ryan Collins (2nd, #47); Blake Siebenaler (3rd, #77); Julien Pelletier (4th, #107); Tyler Bird (5th, #137); Olivier Leblanc (7th, #197)

2014 was the first draft to feature Jarmo’s hand-picked group of scouts, led by Ville Siren. Merzlikins was a good find in the third round, though it took five years before he came over to North America. He has shown flashes of star potential in his two seasons, but not enough consistency.

Sonny Milano has played 131 NHL games, including 116 for Columbus, but only five first rounders from that class have played fewer. 35 players in the entire class have scored more goals than his 22.

Day 2 picks are lottery tickets so the odds are against one making the league. That being said, you hope to get an NHLer from one or two each year. Five of the seven picks of this class failing to reach the NHL in seven years demonstrates why the prospect pipeline has looked thin.

#5: 2013

Best pick: Oliver BJORKSTRAND (3rd, #89)
NHLers: Alexander Wennberg (1st, #14); Marko Dano (1st, #27)
Out of the league: Kerby Rychel (1st, #19); Dillon Heatherington (2nd, #50)
Never reached: Nick Moutrey (4th, #105); Markus Soberg (6th, #165); Peter Quenneville (7th, #195)

This draft was Jarmo’s first, but was run with the scouting staff built by previous GM Scott Howson. With the team holding three first round picks this year, one hopes they’ve learned lessons from the three firsts in this class. Wennberg is an established NHL center, despite some ups and downs in his performance. Dano has been a journeyman AHL/NHL tweener. Rychel was a big, fat bust.

BJORKSTRAND was such a great pick that it redeems the class somewhat. Heatherington and Collins over these first two classes preview a trend of whiffed second round picks.

#4: 2016

Best pick: Pierre-Luc Dubois (1st, #3)
NHLer: Andrew Peeke (2nd, #34)
Out of the league: Vitaly Abramov (3rd, #65); Calvin Thurkauf (7th, #185)
Never reached: Peter Thome (6th, #155)

The Dubois story had an unhappy ending here, but the first three seasons proved that he was the right selection. Peeke shows promise, though struggled to earn playing time in his second pro season. Thurkauf spent the COVID year in Switzerland but could be back. Abramov is returning to Russia after failing to stick in the Ottawa lineup. Jarmo flipped him for a few months of Matt Duchene, and that appears to have been worth it.

#3: 2018

Best pick: Kirill Marchenko (2nd, #49)
NHLers: Liam Foudy (1st, #18); Veini Vehvilainen (6th, #173)
Never reached (yet): Marcus Kalberg (3rd, #80); Tim Berni (6th, #159); Trey Fix-Wolansky (7th, #204)

It has only been three years, so arguably too early to judge this class, either. The class only accounts for 27 NHL games, but it gets a boost due to the potential it still holds. I think this is best represented by Kirill Marchenko. The power winger dominated the lower levels in Russia and has held his own in the KHL. He had 15 goals in 41 games this season, plus another three in the playoffs.

Size concerns dropped Fix-Wolansky to the seventh round, but he has been able to make his mark in the AHL. He scored 12 goals in 43 games in his first full season, and while he was limited by injuries in 2021, he scored nine points in his nine games.

Berni was supposed to come to North America, but COVID changed those plans. He could give Cleveland’s blue line a boost next season. Foudy bounced between Columbus and Cleveland in 2021 but needs to step up and be a Blue Jackets regular next season.

#2: 2017

Best pick: Alexandre Texier (2nd, #45)
NHLers: Emil Bemstrom (4th, #117)
Out of the league: Jonathan Davidsson (6th, #170)
Never reached (yet): Daniil Tarasov (3rd, #86); Kale Howarth (5th, #148); Carson Meyer (6th, #179); Robbie Stucker (7th, #210)

Texier leads the class with 87 games played, but his real claim to fame is seven points in 18 playoff games. Bemstrom has a wicked shot that has served him well in Europe but has yet to be fully unleashed in the NHL.

Tarasov could end up being the gem of the class, and could end up in the Columbus goalie rotation as soon as this fall. Local boy Carson Meyer had a big season in his pro debut, with 20 points in 26 AHL games in 2021.

#1: 2015

Best pick: Zach Werenski (1st, #8)
NHLers: Gabriel Carlsson (1st, #29); Kevin Stenlund (2nd, #58); Keegan Kolesar (3rd, #69); Vladislav Gavrikov (6th, #159); Markus Nutivaara (7th, #189)
Never reached: Paul Bittner (2nd, #38); Sam Ruopp (5th, #129); Veeti Vainio (5th, #141)

2015 was a draft which had both quantity and quality. When Nutivaara was healthy in 2019-20, or when Carlsson played this season, half of the Blue Jackets’ blue line were from this one class.

Stenlund looks good enough to be at least a reliable bottom six center. Kolesar (traded by Columbus for the pick used on Texier) got to contribute in the playoffs this year as a fourth liner for Vegas.

Conclusions

In previous breakdowns, we noted that Jarmo was successful at getting multiple NHL contributors per class, but that he struggled to find those impact players in the early rounds outside of the top 10. What other lessons can we take heading into this draft?

  • Quantity and Quality. With nine picks heading into the weekend, getting just two impact players won’t cut it, even if they are on the elite end. This needs to be more like 2015 than 2013.
  • Patience. Don’t expect to see any of this year’s picks in 2021-22. Most of the “best picks” in these rankings took over two years playing elsewhere before becoming regular contributors for the Blue Jackets. Even the top ten picks (Werenski and Dubois) took a year post-draft before turning pro. A draft can still be a successful one even if it takes three to four years to reap the benefits.
  • Trade away the second round pick. Jarmo has an unusually poor record with second picks, so it’s a good thing that is the one round without a Columbus selection this year.
  • Eurovision. 2013’s class featured three players who played in Europe, and five who played junior hockey in North America (including the Denmark-born BJORKSTRAND). The last three drafts have featured just four players who played in North America (including the Norwegian Ole Julian Bjorgvik-Holm), while ten played in Europe. Given that the OHL did not play and the WHL had a limited season, there is more game tape of the European prospects in this class. Therefore I expect that region to remain a focus of Jarmo and his scouts.

Coming Up

We have many more draft prospect profiles to come over the next two weeks. You can catch up on all of them here.

Today is the beginning of the annual SB Nation NHL Mock Draft. Picks will be posted on team sites every two hours between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. today through Friday. All articles will be posted at this link, and be sure to come back today at 4 p.m. to see our first selection.