With the NHL Draft and the start of free agency in the rearview window, the Columbus Blue Jackets organization is nearly a finished product heading into the 2022-23 season.
It's a good time to take stock of the organizational depth of the prospect pool, both from a top-down (NHL-AHL) and positional (forwards vs. defensemen vs. goalies) standpoint. Today is part one of a three-part segment where we'll examine the state of the franchise's stable of young players. Up first, the forwards.
First, a bit of housekeeping. Any player that is over 23 (i.e., Carson Meyer, 24), or has already fully established himself as a full-time NHL player (i.e., Cole Sillinger), will be omitted. Lastly, this isn't a ranking, more so a holistic look at the pool as a whole.
The 2021 NHL Draft completely changed the Blue Jackets' outlook. Within a matter of minutes, the club had traded Seth Jones, thus acquiring an additional first-round pick (which became Sillinger) on top of their already-existing pick.
They used their fifth-overall pick to select Kent Johnson, who is the most promising forward prospect in the organization. He'll turn 20-years old in October and could vie for playing a serious role with the NHL club from the onset of this season. In nine games to end last season, Johnson was held goal-less but tallied three assists.
Johnson is waivers exempt, which could work against him. But the skillset is tantalizing, and he's done nothing in the year since being drafted that would preclude him from being in the conversation as a future star in the NHL. The biggest questions remaining: Is he a center or a wing? Can he handle the physicality of the NHL at his current frame?
It could be argued that Yegor Chinakhov, who played 62 NHL games in 2021-22, should be similarly omitted from this piece, a la Sillinger. But I think the former still has some work to do to ensure that he's a full-time NHLer this season. While Johnson is known for his ability to dance through the neutral zone and set up teammates with dizzying passes, Chinakhov, a 21-year-old winger, is known for his world-class shot.
While we've seen a little of Johnson and a bit more of Chinakhov at the NHL level, Kirill Marchenko may be the name with the most allure. At 22, he's played overseas in Russia's KHL for years and has been seen as an NHL-ready player for most of that time. He's finally in Columbus, and the front office and coaching staff alike must be excited to see what they have on their hands. At 6'3", 185 lbs, the right-winger is considered a player who can play up and down an NHL lineup.
Liam Foudy burst onto the scene in 2019-20, but the 22-year old now finds himself lower on the depth chart that one would have imagined after he played well in the Covid-19 bubble playoffs in 2020. He's no longer waivers-exempt, meaning the Blue Jackets could lose him for nothing if they try to stick him back in the AHL with the Cleveland Monsters. But is he more deserving of ice time than the aforementioned players?
If Foudy has a rocky path to a regular lineup spot with the Blue Jackets, the same goes for 23-year-old Emil Bemström, who remains the final unsigned RFA in the organization. He was thought to be a player that could utilize his 'plus'-level shot, but he's scored just 19 goals in 117 regular-season NHL games. Is his time with the organization nearing its end?
At 6'4", 190 lbs, 21-year-old Dmitry Voronkov is an exciting prospect. While his ceiling isn't as high as some of the others listed thus far, he's got contributing NHL player written all over him. He's a versatile, well-rounded player that the Blue Jackets are looking forward to having in North America. He's committed to the KHL's Ak-Bars Kazan for one more season, then we'll see...
Dmitry Voronkov's shot is lethal. pic.twitter.com/tWfMQAZ9nB— KHL (@khl_eng) December 7, 2021
Luca Del Bel Belluz, 18, was recently drafted in the second round, and could possibly end up being the steal of the draft for the Blue Jackets. He'll be playing in the OHL with the Mississauga Steelheads in the upcoming season.
ICYMI, Luca Del Bel Belluz with a casual end-to-end goal— Canadian Hockey League (@CHLHockey) December 10, 2021
Mikael Pyyhtiä had a tremendous season with TPS in Finland's top professional league (Liiga) in 2021-22, leading all u20 players in goals (21) and ranking second in points (35). At just age 20, he could be a real diamond in the rough; the Blue Jackets drafted him 114th overall in 2020. He'll almost certainly start the season in AHL Cleveland.
Mikael Pyyhti with yet another goal for TPS in Liiga play-offs. Currently has a 3 game point streak (2G, 3A). pic.twitter.com/81lBinTVMP— CBJ Highlights (@ThreadsJackets) April 5, 2022
Jordan Dumais, 18, finished third in the QMJHL in scoring playing for the Halifax Mooseheads. He's got a slight frame, and is listed at 5'8", 165 lbs. But he has skill for days, and the Blue Jackets feel good about where they were able to draft him in the recent NHL Draft.
This kids confidence is off the charts right now.— Garreth MacDonald (@GarrethMD) April 23, 2022
2 goals, 3 assists in a 5-3 win over Baie-Comeau today.
32 points in his last 10 games.
8 power play goals in his last 9 games.
104 points on the season.
Third in Q scoring.
Jordan Dumais is a star.pic.twitter.com/WSnpE4CFgC
Kirill Dolzhenkov, 18, is best known for his monster frame. He's 6'6" and raw, but would be absolutely worth the gamble at 109th overall if he hits.
Tyler Angle, 21, finished second on the Monsters in scoring in 2021-22, not bad for a seventh-round pick in 2019. Like Pyyhtiä, he'll start this season with Cleveland, but could be seen as a call-up if he continues to progress.
Trey Fix-Wolansky, 23, finished the AHL season with 15-18-33 in 53 games. While his 5'8" frame works against him, he's a player that is consistently involved in the play. His tenacity gave him a promotion, and in six games with the Blue Jackets last season, he posted 1-1-2.
James Malatesta, 19, will play in the QMJHL for his fourth and final season. He's been a semi-productive player at that level but has an uphill battle to become an NHL player.
James Malatesta can absolutely fly. Here he winds up in the defensive zone on the breakout before getting the pass in the neutral zone and protects the puck as he blows by the defender for the sweet finish. #NHLDraft2021 pic.twitter.com/BxTB5ajjtB— Nick Richard (@_NickRichard) February 26, 2021
Overall, the Blue Jackets boast some interesting forwards in the pipeline. There is some high-end skill, with Johnson, Marchenko, and Chinakhov. There is some size with Voronkov and Dolzhenkov, and some smaller players that are worth the gamble, like Dumais and Fix-Wolansky. The forwards are in a much stronger place than they were two offseasons ago, and with the graduation of Sillinger, and the anticipated graduation of others, the need to replenish this pipeline will be paramount.