With the Jackets currently at a standstill on their bye week, there’s no better time to take a look at some of the teams prospects. It’s a good time to see what you have in your system and how the players have developed since the draft. In particular the focus here will be on the 2015 draft as players picked out of the CHL need to be signed or they will re-enter the draft.
Teams have more time to sign players drafted out of Europe or those that go the college route and play in the NCAA. Teams control those players’ rights for four seasons and if they are not signed in those four seasons they can become unrestricted free agents to be signed by any team.
The Jackets for the most part do a great job at getting their prospects signed early and avoiding any last minute hassle. Of the nine players picked in the 2015 draft, five have already been signed. They have also already signed three of their five picks from the 2016 draft. Still, with the Jackets expected to be buyers at the deadline it’s a good idea to know what you have in the system in terms of both players signed and unsigned, and what players might have value to other organizations and what players may be expendable to your organization.
Round 1 Pick #8 – Zach Werenski
Well this is off to an easy start. Not much more can said about what the Jackets have in Werenski. He’s having a historic season for a rookie defencemen.
Round 1 Pick #29 – Gabriel Carlsson
Carlsson was picked out of the Linkoping program in the Swedish Hockey League so the Blue Jackets own his rights for four seasons; however Carlsson signed his entry-level deal in August, making that point moot. Carlsson has played two full seasons in the SHL and looks like he will be making the jump to North America sooner rather than later. He is currently on loan by the Blue Jackets to his Swedish team, Linkoping, so Carlsson could play in Cleveland when his SHL season over, but that isn’t very likely. More realistically he finishes his season in the SHL, goes on playoff run and sets himself up to make the transition to North America next season.
The next question is what do the Jackets have in Carlsson? He is a big bodied defencemen who the Jackets love to hoard, as you will see below, but so far none of them have worked out and it doesn’t look like Carlsson will either. His SHL season has been disappointing. His offensive production is down and it was never good to begin with. He has just four points in 33 games this season (0.12 points per game), down from nine points in 45 games last season (0.20 ppg). Yes he is a defensive defencemen who is not relied upon for offense, but players with this type of production are long-shots at best to make the NHL.
I thought Carlsson looked improved at the World Juniors but still had plenty to work on. He is not someone who is likely to be a good NHL player. Carlsson’s skillset is one that is overvalued around the NHL, which is why he went as high as he did. If the Jackets can find a team who values that skill set and sell them on the allure of a former first round pick, I think they would be wise to include Carlsson in a trade.
Round 2 Pick #38 Paul Bittner
Bittner is signed and has spent the season in Cleveland. He was another player who looks like he was picked more for his size than anything else. He had a great shot which helped score 34 goals his draft season, but he had help playing alongside Oliver Bjorkstrand and Nic Petan who were able to create offense and set him up. The next season with those two gone, Bittner struggled both on and off the ice. He had just 21 points in 25 games, as he struggled to create offense on his own. He also had hip surgery which wiped out the second half of his season.
He is someone who might have benefited from playing an overage season in junior, but he turned pro and has been playing for the Monsters. He’s had a rough first professional season with just three points in 30 games. He has had difficulty off-ice and just recently was granted a temporary leave of absence from the Monsters for personal reasons. Wish him nothing but the best as he goes through this.
The Blue Jackets aren’t going to do anything crazy with Bittner. Just hope he can get everything figured out and if/when he returns to the team he can find his form.
Round 2 Pick #58 Kevin Stenlund
Stenlund, much like Carlsson was picked out of the SHL so the Blue Jackets own his rights for another two seasons after this one. He is not signed and is someone the Jackets need to take their time on evaluating. He is developing in the SHL, increasing his offensive production from two points in 43 games, to 18 points in 42 games. He’s a 6’4 centre who is lauded for his smarts.
He needs to spend at least one more season in Sweden where he can continue to grow his offensive game. Stenlund has the upside of a bottom six centre, in a similar mould to that of William Karlsson. Stenlund still has a ways to go before he gets to that point though. Karlsson had two very successful seasons in the SHL before he came over. Before the Jackets make any decisions on Stenlund they need to see him improve again and have another strong season in Sweden.
Round 3 Pick #69 Keegan Kolesar
Like the other forwards from this draft, Kolesar is a big physical player who is tough to play against. It’s clear looking at the NHL roster, the Monsters roster, and who the Jackets have drafted what kind of team they are trying to build. They want to be a team that is big, skilled, and hard to play against. At the NHL level it’s working as you have big skilled forwards such as Brandon Saad, Scott Hartnell, Boone Jenner and Brandon Dubinsky. Those players were all great offensive players in junior and became power forwards and top six players in the NHL. The players who were just fine in junior, like a Josh Anderson, end up as bottom six and depth players. Those that don’t have any success in junior, find themselves not in the NHL and out of pro hockey pretty quickly.
Kolesar is similar to that of Josh Anderson. He hasn’t crushed junior but has been hovering near a point per game for two seasons in a row. He does play alongside Matt Barzal in Seattle but Kolesar has enough ability that he could be solid contributor without Barzal. Kolesar is already signed to an ELC and will make the jump to Cleveland when his WHL season is over.
There is NHL potential with Kolesar so it doesn’t make much sense to move him.
Round 5 Pick #129 Sam Ruopp
This was a highly questionable pick at the time and two seasons later it only looks worse. Ruopp is a big physical shutdown defencemen with great leadership qualities. He has been the captain for the Price George Cougars for three straight seasons. Outside of being a great leader Ruopp does not have a lot going for him. He was selected as a re-entry player after he had 26 points in 64 games. He did not improve the following season with 25 points in 69 games. He was returned to the WHL for his overage season and he is doing better with 20 points in 45 games, but for someone of his age he should be crushing the league and he isn’t.
He is not signed and is not someone who should be. He is not going to make the NHL and looks like a longshot to even be an AHL player. It’s best for the Blue Jackets to not sign him and let him pursue his own opportunities in the ECHL or in the CIS.
Round 5 Pick #141 Veeti Vainio
Vainio was a really intriguing pick at the time of his selection. He’s a big d-man who had shown offensively ability. He put up 44 points in 42 games in the Finnish junior league. Since that season however, he has had issues finding his way. He was in no man’s land for a while as he was too good for the junior league but not quite ready for the Liiga. This led to inconsistent playing time and hurt his development. In 30 games in the Liiga he had just four assists. He was at one point loaned to Mestis (one step below the Liiga) and had five points in six games.
This season he was moved to a new team with the hope of having a more consistent year. Unfortunately he suffered a season ending injury and has only been able to play nine games this season. He is not signed but the Jackets hold his rights for two more seasons. This year has been a complete write-off and Vainio faces an uphill battle to regain prospect relevancy. He needs to get healthy and find consistency to get back to playing at the level he was in junior. That has to happen before the Blue Jackets even think of offering him a contract.
Round 6 Pick #159 Vladislav Gavrikov
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before; big, strong, shutdown defencemen with limited offensive upside. Gavrikov has been a regular in the KHL, but as I've said with the other players, he doesn’t have enough of an offensive game to have a chance at the NHL level. He’s defensive defencemen who’s not relied on for offense, but again those that can’t produce offensively are a longshot at best to make the NHL.
The silver lining here in the Jackets have two more seasons to evaluate Gavrikov before they have to sign him.
Round 7 Pick #189 – Markus Nutivaara
It’s funny that off all the big defencemen picked by the Blue Jackets in this draft it’s the ones with the most offensive upside that have made and been successful in the NHL. At the time of the selection that offensive upside was difficult to see as Nutivaara had just two points in 35 games as a 20 year old in the Liiga. The Blue Jackets were quick to point out however that he had strong offensive tools and his playoff performance that season (six points in 16 games) was a better indicator of who he was a player.
The scouts were right as Nutivaara had 22 points in 50 games the following season, had five points in seven playoff games, was a strong possession player, and then was able to make the jump to the NHL. Nutivaara hasn’t shined in the NHL but he's been a serviceable bottom pair defencemen, and you’re starting to see little flashes of that offensive game.
Looking at the picks made by the Blue Jackets in the 2015 draft; it’s obvious what they are trying to do. They put an emphasis on size with the hope that the skill will develop later. This is a low probability strategy and most of the time; teams are left just waiting and waiting. The Jackets seem ok playing the waiting game as they picked five players out of Europe. The players that have shown flashes have been quickly signed, whether it be a Markus Nutivaara or a Keegan Kolesar.
The Jackets hit a home run on their Weresnki pick, but outside of a few later round players the hits have been few and far between. With trade deadline season upon us the Jackets would be wise to move some of these players if there is interest from other teams. The Jackets have a surplus of big shut down defencemen and can afford to move one if necessary.