Welcome to the 2016 edition of “Top Shelf NHL Prospects”. As we go through the Summer of 2016 I will be featuring a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. I will go team by team through the NHL bringing you a look at each Teams Top Prospects. I will follow the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no trades). You can find all the articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted this year. 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 2016-17 roster. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later; or an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as my darkhorse to make the NHL. For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 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.
TSP: Columbus Blue Jackets Prospects
Making the playoffs in 2013-14, the Blue Jackets were the darlings of the league. The 2014-15 season did not go as planned, but many blamed the lack of success on a slew of injuries that were impossible to overcome. A red hot finish to the that season had many believing that the 2015-16 Blue Jackets would be back in the playoffs and poised to take the next step.
It didn’t work out that way. The team got off to the worst start in the NHL. Their poor play out of the gate cost head coach Todd Richards his job. He was replaced by John Tortorella. Big changes were seen as star centre Ryan Johansen was shipped to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Seth Jones. Despite the changes, Columbus had dug too deep a hole to work their way out of, and missed the playoffs for the second straight year.
There was some good news at the AHL level though. The team’s minor league affiliate, the Lake Erie Monsters won the Calder Cup. A number of key prospects played big roles in the victory. They elevated their stock, and showed that they will be important parts of the Blue Jackets future. Good news also came at the NHL Draft Lottery. The Blue Jackets won the third overall pick in the draft, allowing the team to acquire another high level prospect.
Columbus Blue Jackets Prospects Scouting Reports
Top Prospect: Zach Werenski
Defense — shoots Left
Born Jul 19 1997 — Grosse Pointe, MI
Height 6’02” — Weight 214 lbs [188 cm / 97 kg]
Drafted by Columbus Blue Jackets in round 1, #8 overall at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft
Zach Werenski returned to college for his sophomore season. It turned out to be a great decision, as he developed both his offensive and defensive games. Werenski scored 11 goals and 36 points in 36 games for the Michigan Wolverines. He also played top penalty killing minutes, and was tasked with shutting down the opposing teams’ top lines. Werenski also played for Team USA at the World Junior Championships. He showcased his skills scoring two goals and nine points in just seven games. After the season, he turned pro and joined the Lake Erie Monsters. Werenski was a dominant force at both ends of the rink in the Calder Cup Playoffs. He finished with five goals and 14 points in 17 playoff games.
Werenski is a mobile, two-way defender. He has outstanding speed, which gives him the ability to join the rush, or pinch at the blueline and still be able to cover up defensively at the NCAA level. He has outstanding edge work and agility, giving him the ability to walk the line; as a result he is able open up passing and shooting lanes on the power play. His pivots are also very good. Werenski can transition quickly from offence to defence or vice-versa. As a result of his strong skating, Werenski is able to cover a lot of ice. He has the power and balance to fight through checks, and win board battles.
Werenski possesses high-end offensive ability with good passing skills, and strong ability to handle the puck. He can quarterback things from the blueline on the powerplay. Werenski is calm and poised with the puck. He has excellent stick handling ability, which he can use to start the transition game, or to control the puck at the point on the power play. He also has a very good slapshot, and excellent vision and passing skills. Offensively his hockey IQ is very high, and Werenski makes intelligent plays with the puck on his stick. He seems to be a step ahead of the play at times, and chooses the play that leads to the best scoring opportunity. All in, Weresnski is one of the top offensive defence prospects in hockey.
Werenski is not afraid to be physical in his own end of the rink. He can battle in the corners and works to clear the front of the net. He’s also been known to throw a hit if a forward comes down his side of the rink with his head down, though does not go out of his way and get caught out of position to do so. He is a strong defender, both one-on-one, and off the rush.
His overall defensive game has really improved over the last year. It is clear that he has gotten strong coaching as he has removed the tendency to get himself out of position by over pursuing the puck. He has also gotten better at reading the play and anticipating things in his own end. While he is still not a finished product, and more improvements can be made, Werenski is on his way. Continued improvement should come with maturity and coaching over the next several years.
Werenski will head to Columbus looking to make the Blue Jackets roster straight out of training camp. With the way he played in the Calder Cup playoffs, it would not be a surprise to see him do just that. Werenski appears to be NHL ready, or very close to it. With Ryan Murray and Seth Jones looking like a solid first pair, adding Werenski will make the Blue Jackets defense the envy of many NHL teams.
#2 Prospect Pierre-Luc Dubois
Dubois was covered as part of our extensive 2016 NHL Draft preview. Since there have been no meaningful games since the draft, I will not be re-writing his scouting report. You can find his pre-draft report here.
#3 Prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand
Right Wing — Shoots Right
Born Apr 10 1995 — Herning, Denmark
Height 6’00” — Weight 174 lbs [183 cm / 79 kg]
Drafted by Columbus Blue Jackets in round 3 #89 overall 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Bjorkstrand followed up on his 2014-15 WHL scoring title, with another outstanding season. This time he did it at the professional level. While he didn’t have huge numbers in the AHL, 29 points in 51 games, he got better as the season went on. Eventually, he got his chance in the NHL. Bjorkstrand was very impressive with four goals and eight points in 12 games. He would go back to the AHL for the playoffs, where he scored 10 goals and 16 points in 17 games. Bjorkstrand’s outstanding play was invaluable in Lake Erie’s Calder Cup run.
Bjorkstrand is a natural sniper who has very heavy wrist and snap shots, along with an excellent one-timer. His shooting arsenal features an excellent release which he uses to fool goaltenders when he is coming down the wing on a rush, or after setting up in the offensive zone. He has a real knack for getting open either by trailing slightly behind on rush; or by finding the soft spot in the defence to unleash his vast shooting arsenal.
A tad undersized, he has outstanding stick handling and is tough to knock off the puck. He is very shifty and is able to avoid checks and buy time for his teammates to get open. He is an underrated playmaker with very good vision and passing skills. Bjorkstrand attempts to go to the key areas, and shows no lack of intensity in battling for pucks along the boards. However, he must continue to add muscle and get stronger before he is able to really be successful in this aspect of his game.
Bjorkstrand is a quick skater, but is not overly fast in terms of straight line speed. His acceleration is good though, and his ability to change gears allows him to beat defenders off the rush. Bjorkstrand has great agility, and edgework. This makes him very shifty, and able to avoid hits from defenders both on the rush, and when he cyles the puck. His agility and quickness allow him to elude defenders and buy time to make plays for teammates. His lateral movement is very good and Bjorkstrand is able to weave his way in and out of traffic. Bjorkstand has good balance and is harder to knock off the puck than you would expect, but again still has some bulking up to do.
Bjorkstrand is also a solid defender capable of playing a good two way game. He doesn’t quit on the back check and his quickness and hockey sense allow him to anticipate plays and cause turnovers. When he does so, he is able to quickly transition that turnover into instant offence. Responsible in his assignments and cutting off passing and shooting lanes, Bjorkstrand has been used on the penalty kill in both junior and the AHL.
Bjorkstrand will hope to carry his momentum into Blue Jackets camp and fight for a spot on the big club. With an outstanding camp he could claim that spot, but its more likely he will start in the AHL and be used as an injury call-up this season. That said, Bjorkstrand’s game is well rounded enough that he isn’t far away from making the big club.
#4 Prospect Joonas Korpisalo
Goalie — shoots Left
Born Apr 28 1994 — Pori, Finland
Height 6’03” — Weight 182 lbs [191 cm / 83 kg]
Drafted by Columbus Blue Jackets in round 3, #62 overall, at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft
Pressed into duty after an injury to Sergei Bobrovsky, Korpisalo had an excellent first year at the NHL level. In 31 games he put up a .920 save percentage, and went 16-11-2. It was trial by fire for the then 21-year-old and he proved his worth. Korpisalo has shown excellent development since being drafted in 2011, moving up on our prospects list every year.
Korpisalo is a big goalie who takes up a lot of net. He challenges at the top of the crease and cuts down shooting angles very well. Strong skating allows him to really challenge shooters, as he doesn’t have to worry about getting deked and beaten back to the net. A very athletic goalie, he has very good lateral mobility. His puck tracking is spot on as well. Korpisalo can make some real highlight reel saves as he never seems to give up on a play. He has quick legs and takes away the bottom of the net. Korpisalo is very difficult to beat down low. He also has good glove hand to take away the top of the net.
Korpisalo shows very good technique in the net. He goes down in a wide butterfly stance, but it is controlled and there are no gaps. He is quick to recover when he does drop down and gets ready for the second shot. His movements in the crease are also controlled and smart. He could use some work on his rebound control, as this will need to be developed with experience.
Korpisalo’s demeanor in the net is cool and calm. He recovers quickly from goals against and plays with a quiet confidence. He can sometimes get flustered by big strong forwards crashing the net, and Korpisalo will have to learn to deal with this in order to succeed in the NHL. Adding more muscle onto his big frame will help him to do so more effectively.
Korpisalo has all the tools to be the future starter for the Blue Jackets. With Curtis McElhinney signed for one more year, it is likely that Korpisalo starts the year in the AHL. This is likely for the best, as at his age he needs to be playing regularly and not in a back-up role. However, if injuries hit Bobrovsky again, you can expect that Korpisalo will take over as the starter again, with McElhinney remaining in his back-up role.
#5 Prospect: Sonny Milano
Left Wing/Centre — Shoots Left
Born May 12 1996 — Massapequa, NY
Height 6’00” — Weight 190 lbs [183 cm/86 kg]
Drafted by Columbus Blue Jackets – round 1 #16 overall 2014 NHL Entry Draft
While Milano was eligible to return to the OHL this season, the Blue Jackets instead choose to keep their 2014 first round pick at the AHL level. He had a solid season considering that he was one of the youngest players in the league. Milano scored 14 goals and 17 assists for 31 points in 54 games. He also added eight points for the Monsters in the playoffs. Milano was allowed to play for Team USA at the World Juniors, where he managed eight points in seven games.
Sonny Milano has good top end speed, but his quickness is outstanding. By that I mean that he has a tremendous first step, great acceleration, and the ability to change direction on a dime. This really helps him to get by defencemen as the moment he sees an opening, he can fly through it. His ability to change speeds is deceptive and makes him very elusive. Milano also has very good agility and edge work. His balance and strength on the puck would be improved by adding more muscle to his frame.
Milano has great hands and the ability to make plays with the puck at top speed. He loves to shoot the puck, and has a great wrist shot and release. He also has a very dangerous backhand which he can get off in an instant. Milano is relentless on the puck, chasing down loose pucks in the offensive zone with reckless abandon. He wins puck battles via his determination, positioning and leverage, but can do even better if he added muscle. Milano is very dangerous working off the half-wall on the power play, as he can take advantage of smallest bit of extra time and space to create excellent scoring chances with a shot or a pass. He is a tremendous play maker with great vision, and the ability to thread the needle and put the puck on a teammates tape.
Milano can improve his defensive game. He needs to work harder and more consistently defensively, as he can sometimes coast when his team doesn’t have the puck. He doesn’t use his skating, and his quick feet as effectively in the defensive zone as he does in the offensive zone. This can be taught going forward.
It is likely that Milano spends another year in the AHL this year. With a year of pro experience under his belt, it would not be a surprise to see him take big strides forward. Milano could be one of the most important forwards on the Monsters this year. Expect to see him get a few call-ups when injuries hit, before fighting for a full time spot in 2017.
Sleeper Prospect Vladislav Gavrikov
Defense — shoots Left
Born Nov 21 1995 — Yaroslavl, Russia
Height 6’03” — Weight 205 lbs [191 cm/93 kg]
Drafted by Columbus Blue Jackets in round 6, #159 overall at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft
After being a sixth round pick of the Blue Jackets last year, Gavrikov choose to stay in the KHL playing with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl last season. While he doesn’t show much in terms of offensive numbers, he continued to play a strong defensive game. He is getting stronger and develop as a shut down defender.
Vladislav Gavrikov has excellent size and is not afraid to use it. He plays a very physical game, standing up zone entries at the line, punishing opponents who try to go wide on him, throwing plenty of hits in the corners, and clearing the front of the net. He plays excellent positional defense, maintaining good gap control and forcing attacker to the outside and away from key danger areas in his zone. Gavrikov is also a willing shot blocker who is not afraid to get into shooting lanes, and uses his long stick to cut down on passing lanes.
Gavrikov proved to be particularly strong in the penalty kill when playing for the Russian national junior teams. To top it all off, he is a player who shows leadership on the ice and was rewarded by being named the captain of Team Russia, and the captain of his MHL club in 2014-15. Adding muscle over the last two years is a big reason why he was so much better in board battles and clearing the net now.
Vladislav Gavrikov is a good skater for his size. He has decent top end speed, a good first step, and above average acceleration. More importantly his backwards skating is as strong as his forwards movement, allowing him to play the shut down style of defensive game that he does. Gavrikov also has good edgework and pivots which allow him to keep the play in front of him and cover a lot of ice. His balance and lower body strength give Gavrikov the ability to win board battles.
There isn’t much to talk about when it comes to Gavrikov’s offensive game. While he has a decent first pass out of his zone, and his slap shot is average, he really does not bring a lot of offense to the game. He is a stay at home type of defender, who does not join the rush often, and is not one to pinch a lot at the blue line. He is more valued for his defensive contributions, than for any kind of offence he puts up.
It looks like Gavrikov will spend another season in the KHL this year. He is close to NHL ready, and should be able to step right into the Blue Jacket lineup when he does come over. Questions remain about his ultimate upside though, as he may just be a third pairing defensive defenceman.
The Rest of the System
The Blue Jackets have one of the deeper prospect groups in the NHL right now. In addition to Korpisalo, they also have Anton Forsberg pushing for a spot in the crease. Defencemen Gabriel Carlsson, Dillon Heatherington, Ryan Collins, Dean Kukan and Andrew Peeke provide depth on the blue line. Up front Paul Bittner, Josh Anderson, Vitaly Abramov, Markus Hannikainen and Keegan Kolesar have all taken steps towards carving out an NHL career. Overall the pool shows high-end talent and depth. The future should be bright for Columbus.