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Blue Jackets have sights set on upcoming NHL draft

An early look at Columbus' thoughts on the selection process

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Last week, the Blue Jackets learned they'll pick fifth overall in the upcoming NHL draft, to be held in late July. 

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen joked it would have been easier if the ping-pong balls had bounced the right way and the pick had moved up to one or two, leaving the Jackets the chance to take whoever they want. Instead, the team's top pick of three first-rounders stayed at No. 5, while Buffalo kept the No. 1 overall pick after a season in which it finished last in the league with 37 points. 

There is a plethora of names available, including University of Michigan standouts Owen Power, a defenseman projected by many to be the No. 1 overall pick, center/wing Kent Johnson and center Matty Beniers. 

Other potential top-five picks according to draft rankings include USNTDP forward Chaz Lucius and teammate Luke Hughes, a defenseman who is the brother of former top-10 picks Jack and Quinn Hughes; Canadian junior stars in forwards Mason McTavish and Dylan Guenther or defenseman Brandt Clarke; and Swedish standouts William Eklund (wing), Simon Edvinsson (defense) and Jesper Wallstedt (goalie). 

Video: One On One w/ Jarmo (6/2/21)

So which direction will the Blue Jackets go? Of course, much of this will be determined by the teams above Columbus, but as the Jackets build their draft list in scouting meetings over the next few weeks, don't think that just because there is a perceived need down the middle of the ice for the Jackets that a center will be heading to the capital city. 

Of course the Blue Jackets want to continue to build their depth down the middle of the ice, but Kekalainen cautions that drafting based on need is a fool's errand. This might especially be true in a draft where scouts tend to believe the center depth drops off a bit after Beniers, who many could see going second overall to expansion team Seattle. 

"Whoever the best one, the highest one left available for us at 5, we'll pick," Kekalainen said last week after the draft lottery in an interview with CBJ radio voice Bob McElligott. "We always talk about it, we'll take the best player available in our minds. We're not doing it on need or position. I think it's dangerous to do that because the needs can change so quickly. Once these players are ready, it could be four or five years and the needs could be completely different than they are right now, so the best player available, that's the strategy and that still holds. 

"If it's a tie, then you probably go for a center, but you don't want to make that mistake where you think you have that need and you do have that need, and then there's another player that is much better and has a much better projection for his career in our minds and becomes that, and then 10 years later you're saying to yourself, 'Why the heck did you pick a center when there was this winger available who has scored 600 goals since? What were you guys thinking?' 

"I think that's where you get into the danger of trying to think short term when you actually have to think, what are these guys going to be for their career? That's the tough part of amateur scouting." 

Having flexibility: The Blue Jackets enter a big offseason in a different position than in recent years. This past season's record left the team out of the playoffs for the first time since the 2015-16 season, and the draft lottery was the Jackets' first one since that 2016 campaign. 

The Jackets have questions to answer, of course, after finishing tied for last in the Central Division, but they also have a lot of capital going into the offseason, including three first-round picks and salary cap flexibility. 

The picks acquired from Toronto (in the Nick Foligno trade) and Tampa Bay (David Savard deal) will be much lower in the draft than the third overall choice, but first-round picks are first-round picks. They carry a ton of capital with them in NHL circles, and however the Jackets play it, they should be able to acquire assets whether it be in the form of prospects or trade pieces. 

With that in mind, Kekalainen said last week that the odds are the Blue Jackets will deal at least one of their first-round picks for potential immediate help, assuming they can find a suitable trade partner. 

"I think that gives us a lot of flexibility," the general manager said. "We have those assets now that we can think of within our group (about) what is the best way to build from those picks. It could be a trade, it could be a pick, two picks out of three, or if we think that's the best way to do it and best way to go, we'll pick all three.  

"But most likely we'll use one of those in a trade and try to get our team stronger for next year." 

Draft success: The last time the Jackets were in the lottery, they found success with the pick of Pierre-Luc Dubois at third overall. That came on the heels of using the No. 8 overall pick to select Zach Werenski, a two-year run of successful first-round picks. 

But there have been hits and misses in the first round over the years. For example, the last time the Jackets had three first-round choices was 2013, when the team selected Alexander Wennberg, Kerby Rychel and Marko Dano. While Wennberg has become a full-time NHLer, both Rychel and Dano have turned into NHL journeymen and are currently out of the league. 

Those looking for confidence in the Jackets' future, though, can see it in the way the Kekalainen regime has drafted over the years, especially in a season in which the Jackets have nine picks overall. (The team has three first-rounders, single picks in rounds three, four, six and seven, and two picks in the fifth round.) 

Since Kekalainen took over as the general manager in February 2013, Columbus has drafted 22 players who have made it to the NHL in eight drafts. That's a pretty solid showing already, and the number will surely go up over the years as well as the more recent picks mature and make it to the NHL level. 

That success has been particularly noteworthy in lower rounds. The first two rounds tend to produce the most NHL players, especially those who become high-level standouts, but picks in the third round or later to make it to the league under Kekalainen include Oliver Bjorkstrand, Elvis Merzlikins, Vladislav Gavrikov, Markus Nutivaara and Emil Bemstrom. 

With the Jackets having some big-time draft capital this year, however you slice it, this should be a draft that will help determine the course of the franchise going forward.  

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