Greetings, all. As is the usual around the end of the regular season, The Hockey News Future Watch issue has hit my mailbox. So it’s time for my annual “State of the Prospect Pool.”
Overall, after dropping only one spot in The Hockey News’ NHL organizational rankings last year (13th to 14th). The Jackets sunk like a stone this year, dropping nine spots to 23rd, although they somehow still kept their "B" grade.
As far as the talent within the organization itself, the magazine includes a top 10 list and it makes a little more sense than last year's list. Last year’s list had Gabriel Carlsson as the team’s top prospect and the departed Vitali Abramov as the team’s No. 4 prospect, while at the same time, not being amongst the overall Top 100 list (which I found odd).
Here are the Blue Jackets’ top 10 prospects. In parentheses, you'll find where they rank in the magazine's overall top 100 list.
1. Liam Foudy (51)
2. Vladislav Gavrikov
3. Elvis Merzlikins
4. Gabriel Carlsson
5. Daniil Tarasov
6. Alexandre Texier
7. Andrew Peeke
8. Emil Bemström
9. Veini Vehviläinen
10. Trey Fix-Wolansky
On the whole, I have no issues with this list, but I'm afraid to think of what next year's will look like with Elvis Merzlikins and Vladislav Gavrikov almost certainly being NHLers next year and as far as replenishing, the Blue Jackets currently have only two picks in the upcoming 2019 draft. It's also worth noting that every one of these players are signed by the Blue Jackets. If I do have a comment, it's that Gabriel Carlsson is maybe a little high – but then again, he was the team's top prospect in last year's issue.
Like last year, the Jackets only have one prospect whose rights they could be losing and well...it won’t significantly affect the overall quality of the prospect pool. No offense to 2015 draft pick Veeti Vainio, but since being drafted, the Finnish defender has only played 74 games of hockey due mostly to injury, (that's at any level Liiga, Mestis, even internationally). 43 of those games came in Vainio’s post-draft season.
As for players that were with the Monsters last season, most of the team could return. 10 players are set to become free agents, seven of them are restricted free agents with the other three being unrestricted. The current free agents are forwards Ryan MacInnis, Sonny Milano, Eric Robinson, Justin Scott, and Sam Vigneault. Doyle Somerby and Adam Clendening are the free agents on defense.
The unrestricted free agents are Mark Letestu (who I'm guessing will be around on one-year deals for as long as he likes). The other two UFAs are Ohio Junior Blue Jacket legend Tommy Cross and Monsters No. 1 goalie J-F Berube. I wouldn't be surprised to see Cross and Letestu back. As for Berube, well, the goalie crease for the Blue Jackets is getting fully renovated this summer, but he would be a good mentor for whoever gets sent to Cleveland.
As for the rookies next season, definitely keep an eye on Trey Fix-Wolansky. TFW has already played some games in Cleveland (where he should be next season) but he could head back to Edmonton next year. Personally, I don’t think he has much else to prove in the WHL. Andrew Peeke, who was signed late in the season to his entry-level contract, will make his pro debut more than likely in The Land next season. Additionally, Alexandre Texier got off to a hot start in Cleveland but didn’t look out of place during his time in Columbus. Texier will more than likely be in Columbus but Cleveland is an option. The SHL’s leading goal scorer, Emil Bemström, will be heading over to the United States and sounds like he’ll get a long look in training camp.
There will also be a new voice behind the bench as John Madden and the Blue Jackets mutually agreed to part ways after the season.
Two toss ups are goaltenders Veini Vehviläinen and Daniil Tarasov, with both being signed to ELCs. It sounds like Vehviläinen will get a look but could be back in Oulu for another year with the Stoats. Daniil Tarasov won the VHL’s (Russian AHL) Rookie of the Year award and has now been loaned to Assat, a club that will play in Finland's Liiga in 2019-20.
As for where the team's other prospects will be playing next season, Liam Foudy is still in the “OHL or NHL only” zone, so unless he blows management away next training camp, he'll be back among the London Knights' top six forwards.
In the NCAA, the Jackets will have four prospects playing across the U.S. next year. Carson Meyer will be back at Ohio State for his senior year after finishing tied for third in team scoring. He should be among the team's top six. Kale Howarth will be back at UConn where he led the Huskies in penalty minutes with 31, but 15 of those came in one game. Howarth came on strong in the tail end of the season, collecting four points in his last three games. Robbie Stucker will again try to become a constant in the Gophers lineup; this season he played in only 21 of the team's 38 games and sat for the team's last five games. Peter Thome will go back to Grand Forks where he will be walking into a goalie battle with Ohio native Adam Scheel. Scheel filled in while Thome was injured and Thome did the same when Scheel was injured.
In Sweden, Markus Karlberg has split time with Leksand's Allsvenskan team (who will be moving up to the SHL) and the team's J20 team. Karlberg signed a two-year extension just after Leksand won its promotion-clinching series.
Tim Berni will be the Jackets' only prospect in Switzerland, where he will hopefully spend most of the season among the Lions’ top four and additionally, play in his third straight WJC.
In Russia, Kirill Marchenko bounced all around the SKA organization this season playing for all three teams. Next season will be the last year of his current contract, so he could be in North America soon, but it has been said Marchenko could be the opposite of a flight risk when it comes to playing in the U.S.
As for next year’s World Junior Championships being held in the Czech Republic, the Jackets currently have four prospects that would be eligible for their home countries. Kirill Marchenko hopefully will be a bigger part of Russia’s team after playing on last year’s bronze medal team. As I said above, Berni should be back on Switzerland’s team and could be the captain after wearing an "A" last year. Foudy was a cut from Canada’s camp last year and should get another look for the Canadians. Karlberg is eligible for Sweden’s team next year and has played for the Swedes on a national level in other tournaments before.
As for the draft...try and stay awake? Ok, I'm kidding but seriously, for this year's draft, the current agenda should be to just get some more picks and keep Jarmo's streak of finding talent in the later rounds alive.
Thanks for following along this season, folks.