Hello, all! For the first time since Traverse City I’m back with an update (I’m still a Twitter machine, just not so heavy on the blogging). With the 2019 World Junior Championships wrapping up, I thought I’d post my first Top 20 prospects ranking. It’s been a while since the last one, so I’m not going to include a previous rank.
I say this before every list I do: when it comes to criteria, a lot of this is feel for me. There’s a little bit of everything including (but not limited to) NHL readiness, stats, etc. So, without further ado, let’s get to it.
1. Elvis Merzlikins / HC Lugano (NLA-Switzerland) Goaltender
25GP 12-11 2.52GAA .918Sv% 2SO
Starting off with the heir apparent to…to be determined. The plan for Elvis this year is obviously finish the year with Lugano (the regular season ends Mar. 4, for those of you counting down the days depending on if the team doesn’t make the playoffs). When he’s done playing, my hope is that we see the Blue Jackets sign him to a PTO and have him get into at least a few of Cleveland’s final 17 games to give him a taste of North American hockey. Elvis will enter next season either as the Monsters' #1 or the Columbus backup, but this could change based on what the Blue Jackets do during the offseason. But, overall, I fully expect him to be in North America next year.
2. Vladislav Gavrikov / SKA St. Petersburg (KHL-Russia) Defenseman
43GP 4-10-14 +39 8PIM
Another player Monsters fans could get to see at the end of the season (Feb. 22 is when the regular season ends, but I’d expect a deep playoff run from this team) is defensive defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov. Gavrikov has been a mainstay in SKA’s top four and has been wearing an "A" since Christmas. Gavrikov is a linebacker on skates but has some upside. He’s on pace to have his best offensive season ever and currently needs just a point to tie his career high. If/when Gavrikov heads over to the U.S., which is expected, it surely seems like Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen is ready to hand him one of the Jackets' top six defenseman spots next season.
3. Liam Foudy / London Knights (OHL) Center/Wing
31GP 15-17-32 +17 20PIM
One of the fastest risers and skaters in last year’s draft, the Blue Jackets’ top North American prospect Liam Foudy is playing with the always-dominant London Knights this year, and usually on the team’s top line. Foudy was invited to Canada’s World Junior Camp but was cut – which I’m not taking as a negative, because you could either have him playing third/fourth line minutes with Canada or top line minutes with the Knights. Additionally, he’s still eligible for next year’s tournament. As far as expectations for next season, given his age/status, Foudy will have to make the Blue Jackets next year or he’ll be back in London.
4. Vitali Abramov / Cleveland Monsters (AHL) Right Wing
33GP 5-6-11 +3 18PIM
Coming off back-to-back 104 point seasons in the QMJHL, a lot of fans expected huge things from the diminutive Russian in his rookie pro season, but there have been some growing pains. After picking up four points in three games in Cleveland back in 2016-17, he’s collected just 11 points in 33 games this year. Now, obviously, I still believe him to be one of the team’s top prospects, it may just be that his adjustment time to the next level of hockey may take longer than expected. The Monsters lines are pretty fluid but of late, he’s been playing quite a bit with Sonny Milano and Kevin Stenlund.
5. Jonathan Davidsson / Djurgärden IF (SHL-Sweden) Left Wing
21GP 8-6-14 +6 12PIM
Davidsson had a chance to make the Blue Jackets out of camp this year, but the NHL club ultimately decided to send him back to Sweden for one more year with DIF. Jonathan has spent most of the time playing on a line with younger brother Marcus and a rotating group of wings (sometimes that included someone later in this list). Jonathan’s point per game pace is a bit higher than last year, and I’d expect him to head back over to North America after DIF’s season is over to play some games with the Monsters (Mar. 14 is the target date but it could slide, as the team will play in the playoffs).
6. Alexandre Texier / KalPa (Liiga-Finland) Center/Wing
31GP 4-12-16 -8 26PIM
After being drafted out of France, Texier headed to Finland where he’s been playing the last two seasons. I found it odd that Texier wasn’t invited to France’s entry in the World Junior Championships camp. One reason could be that KalPa may not have released Texier (if it’s their call) because they didn’t want to give up their top line right wing. If it’s not KalPa’s call, with Texier not being eligible for the WJC next season, it would seem kind of unfair to have prevented him from possibly dominating the tournament and be no help next year. Texier has been a constant on the Sword’s top line and was a big part of the team’s recent Spengler Cup victory. Texier is another player who could see time in Cleveland when KalPa’s season comes to an end (Mar. 14).
7. Emil Bemström / Djurgärdens IF (SHL-Sweden) Right Wing
24GP 12-5-17 +7 4PIM
Bemström has been among the SHL’s goal leaders all season, quite impressive for a 19-year-old. His 12 goals are currently tied for second in the SHL. Bemström was a star for the Swedes at the World Junior Championships as well, scoring four of the only seven goals the Swedish forwards scored. In recognition, he was named one of the team’s top three players. What makes Bemström’s point totals so impressive is he’s doing it playing mostly third-line type minutes. In 24 games, he’s played less than 10 minutes five times. Bemström is currently not under contract with the Blue Jackets, but I’m guessing his recent play could make that change soon.
8. Kirill Marchenko / SKA Organization (Russia) Right Wing
13GP 5-12-17 +12 4PIM
Ok, I may take a beating for this one but let me explain. I only put Marchenko this low because I don’t think we’ve seen what we have in Marchenko yet. In the KHL, he has had a great seat for SKA games as they dress him and then either barely play him (one game he played 15 seconds) or don’t play him at all. In the VHL (Russia’s AHL) he’s getting third line minutes and probably not seeing much special teams play. In the MHL (Russian juniors) Marchenko was a force putting up 17 points in 13 games including a hat trick with a goal of the year candidate, and he was held without a point in only three games. But he hasn’t been in the MHL since October. After the World Juniors, Kirill at least started with SKA-1946 but who knows how long he’ll be there. As for next year…I’m not sure. He’ll more than likely be back in Russia, but where, I don’t know.
9. Andrew Peeke / Notre Dame (Big 10) Defenseman
19GP 2-11-13 +7 12PIM
The first American-born player on my list is Notre Dame defenseman Andrew Peeke. Peeke was named the Irish’s captain before this season and is currently second in scoring amongst defensemen on the team. Peeke is a big, mobile defenseman who’s already set a career high in assists. Peeke could turn pro after the season, but another year in South Bend wouldn’t be a bad thing as the Irish have become a national power.
10. Eric Robinson / Cleveland Monsters (AHL) Left Wing
33GP 10-9-19 +2 6PIM
Eric Robinson has played in two career NHL games and not looked out of place. I described Eric as Josh Anderson without the snarl as they both play a power forward game and are faster than defenders expect them to be. Eric started the season as one of the AHL’s top rookie goal scorers, but has cooled as of late. Overall, all these signs say that Robinson appears to be a big part of the Jackets' plans.
11. Gabriel Carlsson / Cleveland Monsters (AHL) Defenseman
30GP 1-8-9 -4 6PIM
A bit of a forgotten player amongst the Blue Jackets defensive prospects, Gabriel Carlsson has put together a strong start to his second season in North America. He’s played the second-most games among Monsters defensemen behind only Tommy Cross and Dillon Simpson, who have played every game so far. The big defensive defenseman has already set a career high in points, almost doubling last year’s totals in three less games. Carlsson could be in competition with Gavrikov next year for any openings in the team’s bottom pair.
12. Veini Vehviläinen / Oulun Karpat (Liiga-Finland) Goaltender
24GP 15-5-4 1.40GAA .940Sv% 4SO
These next two players are really more of a 12A and 12B scenario. Last season, Vehviläinen won Liiga’s goalie of the year award and helped Karpat win its seventh league championship. Today, Vehviläinen currently leads Liiga in wins, save percentage and goals against. Vehviläinen could be on his way over next season but with Elvis Merzlikins and Matiss Kivlenieks, the team's creases could be full.
13. Daniil Tarasov / Toros Neftekamsk (MHL-Russia) Goaltender
16GP 11-4 1.95GAA .916Sv% 1SO 0-1-1
After helping Russia win bronze at the WJC, Daniil will return to the Toros crease where he’s tied for the team lead in wins, having won 11 of his 16 starts. Before leaving for Russia’s camp, Tarsasov won eight of his last 11. Despite missing his entire draft season due to injury, Tarasov is still seen as a talented goalie, but of the goalies on this list, Tarasov is the farthest from making an impact in Columbus with him being the youngest of the group.
14. Kevin Stenlund / Cleveland Monsters (AHL) Center
32GP 9-6-15 -9 10PIM
The other big Swede on this list, this 6-foot-4 center was a force in Traverse City and had me thinking he could make the Jackets out of camp. But the team sent him to Cleveland where he came out hot, scoring points in four of his first five games.
15. Trey Fix-Wolansky / Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL) Right Wing
40GP 24-48-72 +21 34PIM
One of the WHL’s leading scorers and biggest snubs for Team Canada, Trey Fix-Wolansky – despite being undersized – possesses an NHL caliber shot. Fix-Wolansky leads the WHL in assists and is currently second in league scoring. Fix-Wolansky is the Oil Kings’ captain and I believe he could be in Cleveland next season if signed to an ELC. Some will probably think this ranking is too high but…my list, my rules.
16. Tim Berni / ZSC Lions (NLA-Switzerland) Defenseman
23GP 0-5-5 -6 6PIM
Berni is another prospect coming off a successful World Juniors where he was named one of Switzerland’s top players. In the tournament, Berni was Switzerland’s horse on defense and led the team in total minutes played (158:05) and average time of ice (22:35). Prior to the WJC, Berni spent most of the first half of the season as a scratch or on the Lions' bottom pair; but, recently, original Jackets alum and Zurich Head Coach Serge Aubin has moved him to the team’s second pair with former NHL player, Kevin Klein. Berni’s a few years away from making an impact but is definitely a prospect to keep an eye on.
17. Paul Bittner / Cleveland Monsters (AHL) Left Wing/Center
25GP 4-13-17 +10 4PIM
This may shock some of you, but two years after taking a leave of absence, Paul Bittner has been healthy this season and has almost matched last year’s career high in points in 27 fewer games. Bittner has been playing on the Monsters top line a lot of the season. Bittner is another big center in the Jackets pipeline who can also play wing.
18. Maxime Fortier / Cleveland Monsters (AHL) Right Wing
(ECHL) 21GP 12-13-25 -5 4PIM
Fortier is another undrafted free agent on my list. After being signed by the Jackets out of Halifax, Maxime started the year as a constant scratch with the Monsters before finally heading to the Jacksonville Icemen of the ECHL. Since making it to North Florida, Fortier has picked right up where he left off in the QMJHL; in 21 games with the Icemen, Fortier has collected 25 points. Fortier is tied for second in goals and third in assists. If he finishes the year in the ECHL (which, if he keeps putting up points, wouldn’t be terrible) hopefully next year he can find a spot in Cleveland.
19. Kole Sherwood / Cleveland Monsters (AHL) Right Wing
21GP 4-3-7 -9 22PIM
Possessing probably one of the hardest shots in the organization, Kole has been getting more and more ice time of late in Cleveland…before a two-game suspension. This season, Kole has been among the Monsters top six and hopefully can keep putting up points. Kole is a big winger with a hard shot and hopes to follow in the footsteps of big brother Kiefer, who is currently on the Anaheim Ducks roster.
20. Matiss Kivlenieks / Cleveland Monsters (AHL) Goaltender
10GP 3-2-1 3.31GAA .888Sv% 1SO
After being thrown to the wolves last season due to injuries, Kivlenieks has settled into what the Jackets probably had planned last season, as he’s been serving as the backup to veterans J.F. Berube and Brad Thiessen. He has won three of 10 starts this season including a shutout in his season debut, and is another in a strong group of goalie prospects (there are four on my list). With Berube being a UFA, the Monsters could roll with some combo of Matiss, Elvis Merzlikins or Veini Vehviläinen next year…going to be an interesting summer for the Jackets and Monsters creases.
There you have it, folks, my take on the Jackets' top prospects. If you’re wondering where Sonny Milano is...after asking a few others, I decided that it’s a little hard to call a guy a "prospect" when he played 55 NHL games last year and scored 14 goals while there. If he was on the list, he’d probably be in the top five.
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