The Kids Are Alright

Just when, for the first time, hope didn’t just appear to spring eternal, it appeared justified, the Columbus Blue Jackets were beset with a rash of injuries as well as a contract holdout from its first-line center Ryan Johansen. The list of injuries appears like a medical ward, and the season hadn’t even yet started:  Nathan Horton (degenerative back condition), Ryan Murray (knee injury, considered day-to-day), Brandon Dubinsky (abdominal surgery, out six weeks) and Boone Jenner (broken hand, out five weeks).

Add to that the Johansen holdout uncertainty and you had what was their first forward line being either out of action or whose availability was unknown. In addition, Dubinsky, their second line center and playoff stalwart in shutting down the dynamic duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin during the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs and you have a scenario where the Blue Jackets faithful had the wind literally taken out of their collective sails of hope.

Historically, such a rash of injuries to its key players would have initiated a countdown of days until the National Hockey League (NHL) Entry Draft in June; however, much unlike the previous regimes, rife with horrid draft picks and even worse prospect development, the new Columbus Blue Jackets didn’t have what has long been considered the preeminent miner of untapped and unknown prospect gems in Jarmo Kekalainen.

Kekalainen’s list of NHL stars who weren’t on any lists of hockey pundits draft pool is astonishing, names such as Mike Fisher, Anton Volchenkov, Martin Havlat, Antti Niemi, T.J. Oshie, Vladimir Tarasenko, David Backes, Marian Hossa and numerous other NHL stars, while serving as director of scouting and player development for the Ottawa Senators and the St. Louis Blues.

During Kekalainen’s first draft with the Blue Jackets, he ‘hit jackpot’ with his three 1st round picks: Alexander Wennberg, a dynamic pivot (center) who played last season in the Swedish Elite League (SEL) with Frolunda and who dazzled in the World Junior Championships, left wing Kerby Rychel, son of former NHL pugilist Warren Rychel and Slovakian Marko Dano, former Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) player who also impressed during the World Juniors.

It should be noted that the Blue Jackets were allotted three 1st round picks via the trade of Jack Johnson from the LA Kings in exchange for Jeff Carter as well as the trade of Rick Nash to the New York Rangers during 2012.

Another result of the Rick Nash trade was acquiring defenseman Tim Erixon, son of former NHL forward Jan Erixon. Erixon has been considered one of the top young prospects in NHL prospect pool; however, the glut of defensemen on the Blue Jackets parent squad left Erixon and fellow young defenseman Cody Goloubef relegated to their American Hockey League (AHL) team, the Springfield Falcons.

However, the decision to not resign Nikita Nikitin as well as the Murray injury left openings for both Erixon and Goloubef to make the Blue Jackets squad.

As a result of the injuries as well as the Johansen holdout, to which he eventually signed a few days before the regular season started, the Blue Jackets, who were the NHL’s 2nd youngest team, last season, were now the NHL’s youngest squad, slightly ahead of the Buffalo Sabres who they opened their regular season with who are going through a massive rebuild with youth.

While the ever-patient Kekalainen would have preferred to allow his cadre of great young prospects the ability to continue their development in the AHL, the current situation created a necessity, one that truly was the mother of invention.

While the season is very young, Wennberg, Dano and Erixon have impressed with their poise and tenacity against elite NHL-level players. Wennberg is considered to possess great creativity and vision but has impressed with his poise and passing prowess, particularly on the Blue Jackets’ power play.  Dano, while short in stature, possesses a great shot and elusive skating ability, has also proven scouting pundits wrong so far with his overall strength due to his off-season training diligence, coming in much stronger and more adept in working in the corners to dig for pucks.  Erixon has displayed steady play and calm beyond his years to go along with his adept puck-moving ability.

And while the Blue Jackets and these young players will be sternly tested during an upcoming 4-game road swing to include the 3 vaunted California teams, the San Jose Sharks, the Anaheim Ducks and the defending Stanley Cup champion LA Kings, for now, calm rather than panic has settled into Central Ohio because, as the rock group The Who once sang, “the kids are alright.”