Next season has the opportunity to be a really exciting one in Central Ohio.
For one thing, it looks like at least one recent first-round draft pick could become a regular contributor at the NHL level for the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2023-24.
Drafted in 2022 with the sixth overall pick, defenseman David Jiricek has 30 points (six goals, 24 assists) in 38 games this season for the Cleveland Monsters. His point total leads all defensemen on the Monsters—good for fifth overall on the team—and he’s second overall in assists.
Across the entire American Hockey League, Jiricek leads all rookie defensemen with 0.79 points per game. He's tied for 10th overall in the league in that category with San Jose Barracuda's William Eklund, who has played 14 more games than Jiricek in the minors. Eklund is currently in the NHL with the San Jose Sharks.
The prospects of Jiricek having a shot with Columbus next season already felt like a good possibility, and while nothing is set in stone, The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline mentioned on Sunday that the Blue Jackets expect Jiricek to be an NHL regular in 2023-24.
Perhaps there's a chance he gets a few more games with the Blue Jackets before this season comes to a close.
Of course, Jiricek made his NHL debut against the Boston Bruins on Oct. 28 and also played against the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 30. The Monsters are currently in last place but are trying to secure a playoff berth and sit four points back of a playoff spot.
If Jiricek is on the NHL club next season, it further signifies the next crop of prospects that could come up and make an immediate impact. Corson Ceulemans, Dmitry Voronkov, and the potential of a center like Connor Bedard or Adam Fantilli could also be among that mix. Then, of course, there are current NHLers in Kent Johnson, Kirill Marchenko, and Cole Sillinger to name a few who are at least a season into their NHL experience.
In The Athletic's January edition of the NHL midseason update of the under-23 NHL player rankings by Corey Pronman, Jiricek was ranked 20th, up three spots from the Aug. 2022 rankings:
Skating: Below NHL average
Puck skills: Above NHL average
Hockey sense: NHL average
Compete: Above NHL average
Shot: Above NHL average
Analysis: Jiricek has been one of the most impactful teenage defensemen I’ve seen in the AHL in recent years and was the best defender at the world juniors. He’s always been a big, mean defender with a big point shot and some offense, but he’s showing a whole other level of offense this season. His stick skills are excellent and he’s showing strong creativity as a puck mover. Everything, except for his footspeed, points to a big minutes NHL defenseman.
Since Jan. 28, Jiricek has 10 points (one goal, nine assists) and it's already been quite an eventful year for the 19-year-old with a trip to the World Juniors and being selected for the AHL All-Star Game, the latter of which he missed due to illness.
D David Jiricek, the Blue Jackets 1st pick, 6th overall, at the 2022 NHL Draft, is an AHL All-Star. The 19-year-old rookie was recently named the Top Defenseman at the 2023 WJC tournament after leading Czechia to a silver medal. #CBJ https://t.co/V12mnsxp3V— CBJ Public Relations (@BlueJacketsPR) January 11, 2023
Per the AHL, David Jiricek (CBJ) is the second youngest player ever played named to the All-Star game (in modern history).— Corey Pronman (@coreypronman) January 11, 2023
It's exciting to picture Jiricek as a regular among the Blue Jackets' defensive pairings next season, and with the infusion of young talent coming up through the pipeline and only beginning to emerge at the surface for Columbus, it's just as curious to wonder what the rest of the defensive corps might look like next season, let alone for the rest of the team.
As things stand for the blue line right now, Zach Werenski, Erik Gudbranson, Adam Boqvist, Nick Blankenburg, Andrew Peeke, and Jake Bean are all under contract for next season. Samuel Knazko, Stanislav Svozil, Ole Julian Bjorgvik Holm, and Billy Sweezey are signed through at least next season, with Sweezey being a UFA following 2023-24. Denton Mateychuk, the other big 2022 first-round pick selected 12th overall, is the other name to watch for in the near future.
Tim Berni is an RFA and Gavin Bayreuther is a UFA after this season. Marcus Bjork and Jake Christiansen have both been in Cleveland since just before the All-Star Break and are both RFA after this season.
Bjork actually won Saturday's outdoor game against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, home of the Cleveland Browns, in overtime. He also had the game-tying goal as the Monsters rallied from down 2-0 for the victory. It's the first outdoor game for the Monsters.
As for the Blue Jackets, as bleak as it feels in the moment on the ice, there are reasons for optimism off the ice.