The Blue Jackets’ disappointing 2014-2015 season has essentially undone all the positive vibes fans got from their first playoff game victory last spring. The Jackets traded for Scott Hartnell in the offseason in anticipation of becoming a contender, but this season has proved to be dismal after a start that saw countless players go down with injury early.
In fact, the injury bug has hit them so hard that injuries are still plaguing the team – David Clarkson, Boone Jenner, Brandon Dubinsky, Jeremy Morin and Matt Calvert are all on the injured list as of March 12.
If the draft were to take place today Columbus would be selecting sixth overall, so while they’d like to be playing in the postseason again this spring, the focus for GM Jarmo Kekalainen remains on drafting and developing players for the future, and adding to his already-stacked prospect pipeline.
Kerby Rychel, LW
Arguably the Jackets’ top prospect, Rychel has been impressive in his first professional hockey season. Though he did appear in five games with the big club (in which he tallied three assists), Rychel has played most of the season with the AHL Springfield Falcons. In 51 games with the Falcons, he’s scored 33 poins (12G, 21A), putting him at fourth overall team-wide in points, and he is tied for first in shots on goal with 132 among Falcons skaters.
An intimidating power forward who can do it all, Rychel has a scorer’s touch but can also dish out the big hits and drop the gloves when needed. A natural leader, the former OHL Windsor Spitfire was named captain of his team last season before being traded to the Guelph Storm mid-season. He led all players in points in the postseason with 32 points (11G, 21A) in 20 games en route to an OHL Cup win. He also scored three goals and four assists in the Memorial Cup Tournament in which his team fell in the final game to the WHL Edmonton Oil Kings.
Sonny Milano, RW
The Jackets’ most recent first round pick Sonny Milano (16th overall in 2014) had committed to Boston college before the 2014-2015 season. Having put up some of the highest numbers in USDP history (29-57-86) for the U.S. National U18 Team last season, he was expected to light it up in college hockey. Instead, he decided to forego his commitment and join the OHL Plymouth Whalers, who drafted him in the fourth round of the 2012 OHL Priority Selection Draft.
Milano is a skilled winger with good hands who likes to carry the puck and have it on his stick. He has a quick first step as well as good straight line speed and able to use his edges well to elude and evade. He uses finesse puck skills and change of direction to beat defenders.
Milano’s skill is what makes him so successful, and in his first OHL season he has used that skill to score 61 points (20G, 41A). The Long Island, NY native also scored two goals and two assists in five games for the U.S. at World Juniors this year. He will likely return to junior next season in his final year of eligibility, but he’ll be returning as a member of the new Flint franchise.
Portland Winterhawks leading scorer Oliver Bjorkstrand has had an excellent offensive season in his final year of junior eligibility. He missed some games due to playing at the WJC for his native Denmark, but he’s still managed 99 points (54G, 45A) in just 52 games this year. Four of those goals came in the same night last week when he crossed the 50-goal plateau in a four-goal performance against the Seattle Thunderbirds.
Bjorkstrand had 50 goals last season, now 52 this season. Last WHL player with b-to-b 50s was Eric Fehr w Brandon Wheat Kings in 03-04 04-05
— Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline) March 7, 2015
Bjorkstrand was named WHL Player of the Month in both January and February, as his scoring tear has included a 12-game goal-scoring streak that ended on Sunday.
Acquired in the James Wisniewski trade on deadline day, center William Karlsson was a second round draft pick by the Anaheim Ducks in 2011. The 22 year-old forward spent the last two seasons in the SHL playing against guys much older than him, and that experience has made him a better all-around player, much more prepared for professional North American hockey.
A speedy and skilled player. Karlsson has good hockey sense and is fairly all-round overall. Works hard both ways and is reliable defensively. Nice passing ability. Creates a lot of scoring changes with his skating. Has a creative side and some nifty moves too.
Karlsson split this season between the NHL and AHL; he scored two goals and one assist in 18 games with the Ducks before being sent to Norfolk, where he scored 24 points (8G, 16A) in 39 games. The forward has only played two games for the Falcons since being assigned to Springfield, but has yet to make an impact (he has yet to score his first point with the club).
Mike Reilly, D
University of Minnesota defenseman has yet to sign a contract with the team that drafted him in the fourth round of the 2011 NHL Draft. Kekalainen will make signing his top defensive prospect a priority in the coming weeks, as the deadline is fast-approaching and he’d likely rather not lose Reilly like the Blackhawks lost Kevin Hayes in free agency last summer.
— Chris Nichols (@NicholsOnHockey) March 10, 2015
Reilly is especially coveted by other teams because the exceptional two-way defender leads all NCAA defenseman in points this season with 38 (6G, 32A) in 34 games. The name Ryan McDonagh comes to mind when analyzing Reilly, and Kekalainen probably wouldn’t want a repeat of that situation either. So if he can find a way to sign the fellow Minnesota native to his first pro contract before the deadline, Reilly may turn out to be a top-four defender for the Jackets in the future.