Welcome to today’s edition of “Top Shelf Prospects” a team by team look at the top prospects in the NHL. Today, as I continue my alphabetical journey through the NHL I bring you a look at the Columbus Blue Jackets. As always you can find a complete listing of my previous articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2012 draft, as there have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed. What I will be doing is linking you to those articles, as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2012-13 roster of the NHL team in question. I will also bring you one sleeper pick. A player who was either drafted in the 4th round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as my darkhorse to make the NHL. For those asking the cut off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 45-50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
Top Prospect: Tim Erixon, Defence
Born Feb 14 1991 — Port Chester, NY
Height 6.02 — Weight 190 — Shoots Left
Selected by the Calgary Flames in round 1 #23 overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft;
Acquired by the Blue Jackets in the Rick Nash trade with the New York Rangers, July 2012
Tim Erixon is the son of Jan Erixon, a former NHL player with the New York Rangers. He was drafted by the Calgary Flames in the 2009 NHL Draft, but when he hadn’t signed by June 1, 2011 it looked as if the Flames could lose his rights and he’d re-enter the 2011 draft. Instead of allowing this to happen the Flames traded Erixon to the Rangers where he quickly signed. Unfortunately for Erixon he would only play 18 games in the big apple before being traded to the Blue Jackets in the Rick Nash deal.
Erixon is one of the top defencemen not currently in the NHL. He has excellent skating, and is an extremely mobile defender. He can rush the puck effectively and is capable of making smart passes to teammates or taking an accurate wrist shot. In this way Erixon will add offense in transition. On the powerplay Erixon has great vision, and is an extremely smart passer. He has excellent vision and makes crisp, hard passes to teammates. Add in an accurate low slapshot and he looks to be a future powerplay quarterback.
Defensively, Erixon’s great mobility makes him extremely hard to beat one on one off the rush. He uses his edges well and his pivots are clean and crisp. He has a very quick stick and uses his pokecheck to steal pucks. In the defensive zone he is also a willing and capable shot blocker. He is also willing to engage on the boards or in front of the net. However Erixon will need to add a bit more upper body strength to be truly effective in these areas.
With Ryan Murray, Tim Erixon, James Wisniewski, and Jack Johnson, the Blue Jackets have set up an excellent quartet to run their Power play for years to come. Given Erixon’s development and the fact that he got some NHL experience next year, I expect to see him in the NHL this season.
#2 Prospect David Savard, Defence
Born Oct 22 1990 — St. Hyacinthe, PQ
Height 6.01 — Weight 217 — Shoots Right
Selected by the Columbus Blue Jackets in round 4, #94 overall 2009 NHL Entry Draft
As a fourth round pick, David Savard could qualify for top sleeper on the Blue Jackets. However his development at the junior level and AHL level suggests he has far surpassed “sleeper” status and is a legitimate top prospect in the organization. Savard’s development has been remarkable, and his improvement over the last 3 seasons has been very, very impressive. It was as if he took off immediately following the draft, putting up 77 points in 2009-10 for the Moncton Wildcats and winning the 2010 CHL Defenceman of the year award. He would follow that up with an impressive rookie season in Springfield where his 44 points put him among the top scoring AHL defencemen. Last year he continued to impress in Springfield, and even earned time with the Blue Jackets playing in 31 NHL games and recording 10 points. Impressive numbers for a 21 year old rookie.
Savard’s future is as an offensive defenceman. He has extremely high hockey IQ, and reads the play very well. He spots and exploits openings in the opponents defence. He does this in two ways, without the puck, he seems to always find the perfect time to pinch in from the line and to create his own scoring chances. And with the puck on his stick, he is calm and patient able to use his good puck protection skills to wait for a teammate to get open, and then he fires a crisp tape to tape pass to create a scoring chance. He also has good lateral mobility, which allows him to walk the line, and find openings for his hard slapshot.
Savard still needs some work on his skating. His high end speed is only slightly above average, and could stand to improve. His edgework and pivots need a bit of refinement and he is susceptible to being beaten off the rush by outside speed. He could also stand to be more physical, especially in his own end of the rink. He relies a little too much on his quick stick and not enough on being willing to engage in the physical puck battles. That said he has strong instincts in his own zone, is very good positionally and cuts off a lot of plays with an active stick.
Savard is very close to being NHL ready. However for maybe the first time ever there is a bit of a log jam on the Columbus blue line. With Jack Johnson, James Wisniewski, Ryan Murray and Tim Erixon all ahead of him as offensive defencemen, this will be a tough lineup for Savard to crack. The Blue Jackets also have capable defencemen in Fedor Tyutin, Adrian Aucoin, and Nikita Nikitin as veterans on the big club. Savard might be forced to start the season in the AHL and wait for an injury or trade to open up a spot for him on the Columbus blue line. In the meantime he can fix those small flaws and be ready to grab the bull by the horns when he gets the opportunity.
Sleeper Prospect: Cam Atkinson Right Wing
Born Jun 5 1989 — Riverside, CT
Height 5.07 — Weight 172 — Shoots R
Selected by the Columbus Blue Jackets in round 6 #157 overall in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
Cam Atkinson is a highly skilled winger who like many before him fell in the draft due to his size, and not his ability. Clearly the scouts never measured the size of this kid’s heart as he continues to work hard, and bring a cocky, no one can stop me swagger to the rink day in and day out. After falling in the draft, he went to Boston College where he put up back to back 30 goal seasons in the NCAA. This led to Atkinson being recognized as one of the top 3 players in the country and a Hobey Baker award finalist. He’s followed that up with an excellent rookie season in the AHL. His 29 goals in 51 games for Springfield was impossible for the Blue Jackets to ignore, and he even earned a 27 game stint with the big club, scoring 7 goals and adding 7 assists.
One way a smaller player can overcome the size disadvantage is by possessing great skating, and Atkinson certainly has that. He has great speed, and lightning quick acceleration. He has outstanding agility, and his edgework is outstanding. He is able to turn on a dime and make impressive cuts and quick dekes all over the ice. This allows him to beat defenders off the rush, and to find small openings to exploit in the defence. Atkinson also has a snipers shot. It is hard, heavy, deadly accurate, and can be unleashed with a very quick and deceptive release. It is this quickness and shot that have allowed Atkinson to rack up the goals wherever he goes, and will make him a top 6 forward in the NHL. Despite his small size, Atkinson is a tireless worker who wins board battles and is not afraid to engage with bigger, stronger defencemen. He is also not afraid to get to the dirty areas of the ice in order to generate offence. I expect to see Atkinson on the Blue Jackets this season.
After years of mediocre performances on the ice and a number of high draft choices the Blue Jackets have a ton of talent in their system. Its true, the teams defence prospects with Murray, Erixon, Savard, and John Moore are deep and talented. They have a good young forward core with Ryan Johanssen already in the NHL, Matt Calvert and Cam Atkinson knocking on the dore, and guys like Boone Jenner, Tomas Kubalik, and Michael Chaput on the way. They even have two excellent goaltending prospects in Oscar Dansk and Joonas Korpisalo. At first glance, it would appear to be a deep system, and I certainly can’t deny that there are some talented youngsters in the Columbus pipeline.
All that said, I hate to bring this up. I really do not want to rub salt in the wounds of the Blue Jackets faithful who support this team despite the the team’s less than winning history, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it. The Columbus Blue Jackets have been down this road before. Talk of a stockpiling of young talent has happened many times in Columbus, and it hasn’t worked out. We have seen complete whiffs like Alex Picard, and we’ve seen players who have had one or two promising years and then fell apart, like Steve Mason, Pascal Leclaire, and Nikolai Zherdev. We’ve seen a couple guys who became decent but not great NHLers in Gilbert Brule, Rotislav Klesla and Derrick Brassard. Lastly we’ve seen only one player come through the Columbus system and actually be a consistent top level performer. Unfortunately, that player is Rick Nash and he now plays for the New York Rangers. Until the Columbus system can prove the naysayers wrong and take these talented but raw kids and make them into legit NHL stars who help the team win games, the Jackets must be questioned. There seems to be a disconnect between the time these kids are drafted and when they make the NHL. Fixing the development program will go a long way to fixing the team. Perhaps that has already been done and we haven’t seen the results yet, but until we see those results, until we see Columbus develop a group of talented youngsters into productive NHL players, the team doesn’t really inspire confidence or get the benefit of the doubt.
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