Although it wasn’t for the lack of trying, Columbus Blue Jackets General Manager (GM) Jarmo Kekalainen did obtain two 1st Round draft selections in the 2015 National Hockey League (NHL) Entry Draft. Kekalainen was able to solidify a glaring gap in the Blue Jackets development with their blueline (defensive unit) in nabbing University of Michigan freshman Zach Werenski with the 8th overall pick as well as trading up with the previous no.’s 34th and 68th picks with the Toronto Maple Leafs for defenseman Gabriel Carlsson of Linkoping of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) with the 29th overall pick.
As chronicled in the prior article, Kekalainen coveted obtaining premier defenseman prospect Noah Hanifin who most draft observers projected to be the 3rd overall pick in the draft to the Arizona Coyotes; however, it wasn’t the Boston Bruins, who earlier in the day traded Dougie Hamilton to the Calgary Flames and Milan Lucic to the Los Angeles Kings to obtain supreme leverage by now owning the 13th-15th overall picks who threw a wrench into the works. It was the Arizona Coyotes who surprised everyone and selected with the 3rd overall pick forward Dylan Strome. Eventually, Hanifin was selected 5th overall by the Carolina Hurricanes and Kekalainen did try to broker a deal with Hurricanes GM Ron Francis but nothing could be consummated.
After Hanifin was selected, the Blue Jackets set their sights on defenseman prospect Ivan Provorov; however, he was selected by the Philadelphia Flyers right before the Blue Jackets’ turn in the drafting order at 7th overall.
Kekalainen then selected with the 8th overall pick Werenski, the 17-year old who had just completed his frosh year with the Michigan Wolverines as its first selection. While this may have not been met with the same hoopla as selecting potential first pairing defensemen like Hanifin or Provorov, Werenski is viewed as no mere consolation prize by most scouts.
Here is the consensus view of Werenski via TSN Director of Scouting Craig Button, former GM of the Dallas Stars, “Has ease to his game and is always under controls but in command. Werenski is a fluid skater who beats pressure and can create space for himself offensively. He sees the play well and combined with very good passing skills can create offense. I’ve always felt he deserved to be discussed in the same light as Hanifin.”
Here is the view of Central Scouting’s Greg Rajanen, “He’s such a cool, calm and collected player. He’s smart, always in the right spot, moves the puck and makes all the right plays.”
Later in the 1st round, the Blue Jackets added to their blueline developmental gap by trading their 34th and 68th overall picks to the Toronto Maple Leafs to draft Gabriel Carlsson with the 29th overall pick. Carlsson, like Werenski, is a tall (6’4”), rangy defenseman who is also a left-handed shot but, unlike Werenski, who’s adept at puck-moving and the power play, is considered more of a stay-at-home defenseman who patterns his game after the legendary fellow Swede defenseman Niklas Lidstrom although does not currently yet possess Lidstrom’s offensive proclivity.
Here is Button’s assessment of Carlsson, “Gabriel is a big, mobile defenseman who can defend and take up space. Very smart in his positioning and makes good, clean outlet passes. His game is based on having a real good base of defending and ensuring his team can close down the opponent’s cycle and exit the defensive zone quickly and efficiently.”
Here is the view of the Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb, “Carlsson is a tall, physically strong two-way defenseman who has improved a lot during the season. He plays a smart, cool, mature game and uses his size without being overly aggressive. A smart player who can both pass or play the puck out of danger.”
With their 38th pick (2nd Round), the Blue Jackets drafted Paul Bittner a left wing who played for the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League (WHL) and who played on the opposing wing with Blue Jackets prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand. Bittner was projected by many draft pundits to be drafted in the top 20 positions of the 1st Round.
Here’s what Button sees with Bittner’s potential, “Bittner is a good, effective winger who compliments top line players. He’s smart and reads the play very well and understands how to take advantage of his teammates’ skills and at the same time contributes with his own (skill). A good passer with a good shot and utilizes his size to gain advantages. The combination of skill and size is always coveted.”
So, the Columbus Blue Jackets draft is in the books but as is the case with these 17 and 18 year old prospects, time will tell as to how they progress and whether they can contribute at the NHL level.