The Blue Jackets have seen their prospect pool diminish in recent years.
In some ways, that's a good thing. Many players, from Zach Werenski to Pierre-Luc Dubois, took a step from 'prospect' to 'player'. In other ways, it's problematic. AHL Cleveland had a rough year, but there's always a give and take, and ultimately the goal isn't to win the Calder Cup, but rather the Stanley Cup.
The club didn't have a chance to draft in the first round a year ago, as they moved their first pick as part of their deal with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
All drafts are so unique that it'd be impossible to compare this season's to another, but there are some distinct characteristics worth noting. This season's first overall pick is a virtual lock to be Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, though Russian dynamo Andrei Svechnikov is a potential 40-goal scorer.
Assuming the Blue Jackets don't move up or down in the draft, you won't need to worry about those names. But if they stay at No. 18, who are some possible players that the club may select with their first pick?
Disclaimer: it's nearly impossible to predict the NHL Draft. It's not like the NFL Draft where 99% of the prospects come from one feeder league (the NCAA). Front offices send scouts to every corner of the globe, so no two franchises will have the same lists. These are simply three players that could be available at 18, but if recent drafts have taught us anything, it's that mock drafts are largely a waste of time.
Rasmus Kupari, C, Karpat (SM-Liiga)
One of the Blue Jackets' top prospects, Alexandre Texier, played in the same Finnish Elite League as Kupari, and given that alone, it's safe to assume the club has seen plenty of viewings of Kupari. That is to say nothing of GM Jarmo Kekalainen's obvious Liiga connections.
Kupari likely would require some seasoning in Finland before making the jump to North America, but it's easy to see what makes his game so enticing. He's a high-end shooter that happens to play center, which is of note in this draft because there are arguably zero top-tier centers available in this draft.
He posted 6-8-14 in 39 games for Karpat, but he was the only teenager that played regular minutes for the team this year. He turned 18 just last week.
Ryan Merkley, D, Guelph Storm (OHL)
Typically, the word "enigmatic" seems reserved for Russian forwards that are perceived to have an allergy to defense, but Merkley has earned the same billing.
This critique from The Athletic's Scott Wheeler sums up the essence of Merkley's game.
Concerns about Merkley are well known. He’s got a temper, is easily frustrated, and was sent home at least once this season. There is chatter that he’s a bad teammate/uncoachable. He’s also one of the most purely gifted playmaking defencemen not named Rasmus Dahlin that we’ve seen in recent years...
He’s the most high-risk prospect in the draft and will appear on a lot of teams’ no-draft lists but I couldn’t justify taking any player outside of my top-16 ahead of him.
Ryan Merkley, by skill, should not be available at the 18th overall pick. Wheeler had him at 11th, even after that scathing (but honest) assessment. But hockey is the ultimate team sport, and it's certainly possible that he's on the Blue Jackets "no-go" list.
Draft strategies change from team to team, but one essential truth is this: NHL franchises draft to improve their teams in the present and in the future. Merkley has the type of talent that could see him be a steal at 18. But some team will have to be comfortable with the baggage – deserved or not.
Vitali Kravtsov, RW, Chelyabinsk Traktor (KHL)
Perhaps no prospect has seen his stock rise in recent months than Kravtsov, who went from a pedestrian seven points in 35 regular season games to 11 in 16 playoff games.
If Kravtsov is available at 18, I'll be shocked, but another Vitali (Abramov), who fell to the third round in 2016, has shown us that high-end Russian players are still at least a little bit taboo among NHL front offices.
Kravtsov is a lanky, skilled skater that reminds me a bit of another graduate of the Chelyabinsk Traktor, and that's Evgeny Kuznetsov. In Kuznetsov's draft year, he posted nine points in 35 games, and was held to just one point in four playoff games. He, too, was a 6-foot-2, gangly left-handed shot with high-end skill. He fell to the Washington Capitals with the 26th overall pick.
It's worth mentioning that Kuznetsov played another four years in the KHL before making the jump to Washington in 2013-14. Since then, he's been a dynamic player in the NHL.
If the Blue Jackets came away with any of these three players, I'd consider it a success, but there are plenty of other options in as wide-open a first round as there has been in recent draft history.
Keep checking in with 1st Ohio Battery as we ramp up our coverage of the NHL Draft.