The Blue Jackets have built themselves a solid depth chart under GM Jarmo Kekalainen and with a rebound season in the cards, things are looking up for the present. The future is also promising, but do the kids have the patience to wait for their crack at the big time?
The Columbus Blue Jackets are in a really nice spot right now. Last season, they went through an injury crisis of biblical proportions, but this year brings a clean page. An already solid forwards corps got even more difficult to play against with the acquisition of erstwhile Chicago Blackhawks left winger Brandon Saad, while more talent is pushing up from below.
Under GM Jarmo Kekalainen, the Jackets have done a great job of drafting and a big cohort appears to be ready for prime time. But is there space on a squad that could do some serious damage in the playoffs this season?
The idea of having too much depth is obviously comical, but asset management will be important for the franchise, with many of the team’s top talents heading into their first or second years of pro.
“It’s certainly a problem we’d like to have,” Kekalainen said. “Time will tell. It’s always a bit of a jump from junior or college to the pro level – the American League is a tough league, so it’s a good challenge for those guys.”
The Blue Jackets are especially deep at forward and the team’s youngsters just won their second straight Traverse City prospects tournament title in Michigan, beating Detroit’s kids 5-2 in the final. Kerby Rychel, Oliver Bjorkstrand and T.J. Tynan were a potent first line, with Rychel basically unstoppable in the championship showdown.
“Winning back-to-back years in pretty special,” Rychel said. “You have to have all guys contributing and that’s what we had both years.”
Add in Sonny Milano and Josh Anderson and you’ve got one crowded pipeline up front – especially since Alexander Wennberg was already up with Columbus for the majority of last season.
“There’s positives and negatives to it,” Bjorkstrand said. “There’s more competition, but when there’s more competition you work harder and want to be the best player on the ice so that you have the best opportunity to make the team.”
The bonus for Columbus is that competition. The Blue Jackets opened training camp with 37 forwards and Kekalainen noted that pushing the older players was one reason that many youngsters from the Traverse City team are attending.
There is also the notion that some of these kids could become trade chips, should the Jackets need to bolster their lineup once the post-season is in sight. Keep in mind, Kekalainen gave highly-touted youngster Marko Dano to the Blackhawks in the Saad trade – and the GM is willing to make a similar move if necessary.
At the least, the team’s new AHL affiliate, the Lake Erie Monsters, will be a lot of fun to watch this season in Cleveland. Barring injuries, there may not be a spot for any new Jackets unless one of the kids can unseat the 21-year-old Wennberg. So patience will be a virtue, even if that can be tough for youngsters who have accomplished resumes and seemingly NHL-ready games. How they react to getting sent down will also be revealing to their boss.
“That’s a big part of our evaluation of their character,” Kekalainen said. “What kind of teammates they are and what kind of future they’re going to have with our organization. Part of becoming a good pro is accepting your role and being proud of it, no matter what it is. If you do get sent down, you work even harder and stick to your goals.”
As long as the kids believe in the process and believe in the framework their GM has put together, they will be able to achieve those goals, Kekalainen said. Though he acknowledged that youngsters do get frustrated these days, since everyone wants to get to the NHL as soon as possible.
“If you stay patient,” Kekalainen said, “and you play 15 years in the league, you’re going to laugh about this; that you were in the minors for two years and you were all pissed off and ready to go home and quit hockey. The NHL is the best league in the world and if you’re going to play in it you have to be patient.”