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Prospect Report: Defensemen, goalies look strong for future

Hjorth, Tarasov, new signee Christiansen among those to have impressive years

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

The future of the Blue Jackets is taking shape in rinks around the world, with the team boasting a number of draft picks in junior leagues and playing pro hockey in Europe.

And most of those players who have been chosen by the Blue Jackets' brain trust put together impressive 2019-20 campaigns, showing why they're considered to be among the top prospects in the game.

With most leagues now done thanks to the threat of the coronavirus, it's a good time to take stock of how the Blue Jackets' draftees did this season around the world. After looking at the forwards Monday, today we'll take a look at the defensive and goaltending prospects around the world.  

For this exercise, we won't include the prospects who spent the season at the AHL level with the Cleveland Monsters. For one, most of those players ended up making cameos in Columbus given all the injuries the Blue Jackets suffered, so fans got a chance to see many in action. For another, we'll take stock of the Monsters at another point down the road. 

For each player, we'll take a look at his numbers and how his season went as well as project how that player could fit into the Blue Jackets' plans down the road.  

Jake Christiansen (Everett Silvertips, WHL; signed in March as a free agent)

The Blue Jackets made an aggressive move to get in on the high-scoring blueliner, who not only led the WHL in goals by a defenseman with 22 but also finished 11th overall in the Canadian junior league with 1.32 points per game thanks to a 22-28-50 line in 38 games. Those numbers are certainly impressive, and Christiansen also has some pro experience as he had a nine-game debut this year with Stockton of the AHL, finishing with no points and a minus-4 rating. The 20-year-old from Vancouver spent five years with the Silvertips and was one of the most intriguing players available on the free agent market coming out of juniors. He's thought to have high-level offensive talent -- especially when it comes to his shot -- from the blue line, as those numbers will attest, and his work ethic is also thought to be top-notch. 

Projection: A new addition to the CBJ prospects ranks, Christiansen looks likely to report to AHL Cleveland next year given his youth and the depth in the ranks of Blue Jackets defensemen.; he has some experience at that level but could likely use more seasoning there. The question seems to be whether he has the skating to excel at the NHL level, another thing that can come along with some time at the minor league level. Nonetheless, he's an intriguing player who could provide big dividends to the CBJ down the road.  

Eric Hjorth (Sarnia Sting, OHL; fourth-round pick, 2019)

Hjorth was a bit of a surprise pick by the Blue Jackets at last summer's draft simply because he hadn't played much high-level hockey; he had only seven games at Sweden's Under-20 level over the previous two seasons after missing most of his 2018-19 campaign to injury. But after being drafted, Hjorth moved from his home country to Sarnia of the OHL, giving him a chance to play the top junior hockey in the world. There, he showed impressive offensive abilities, as the 19-year-old used his skating ability and excellent shot to post a 12-17-29 line in 60 games. He was minus-22, but Sarnia finished last in the OHL's Western Conference and he saw a steady diet of NHL-caliber prospects including Liam Foudy on a regular basis.  

Projection: A raw prospect, Hjorth has a ways to go, but he's also very much worth being excited about considering how well he took to the OHL after leaving Sweden. He has great size at 6-3, skates well, and his offensive abilities have shined through both at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament and at the OHL level. He's also a right-hand shot, something that's nice to have in a young blueliner these days. He'll likely return to the junior ranks and keep improving next season, but you can see how his upside might shine down the road.  

Robbie Stucker (University of Minnesota, NCAA; seventh-round pick, 2017)

Stucker asserted himself in the Golden Gophers' lineup this year after being in and out as a freshman. This year as a sophomore, he played in 35 games, posting a 2-6-8 line while earning a fair amount of time on the power play where his big shot from the blue line could be best utilized. 

Projection: Stucker was drafted out of St. Thomas Academy in his native state of Minnesota thanks to tools that include that shot as well as excellent size as he stands 6-4. It doesn't look as though he'll ever be an offensive dynamo as his numbers indicate a player who's a stay-at-home defenseman at the next level. He's still a project who is growing into his size and has two more seasons of college hockey to continue improving.  

Tim Berni (ZSC Lions, NLA; sixth-round pick, 2018)

The Swiss defenseman continued to ply his trade in his home nation's top league, the third season he's earned time in the NLA. This was his first full season at that level, though, and the 20-year-old held his own with four goals and 11 points in 45 games as well as a plus-8 rating and only eight penalty minutes. He also took part in the World Junior Championships for the third time, captaining Team Switzerland and posting three assists and a plus-3 rating in five games for a Swiss team that continues to make strides at the international level.  

Projection: Berni will be another interesting prospect to watch as he has experience playing against men in his home country as well as three different trips to skate on the World Juniors stage. He doesn't have much when it comes to size -- Berni is listed at just 5-11 -- so he'll have to be a bit of a playmaker to make it at the highest level. So far, he appears to be a solid all-around player who can play well in both zones, but time will tell if the skills continue to develop enough to make him an impact player in the NHL.  

Daniil Tarasov (Ässät, Liiga; third-round pick, 2017)

The big Russian is truly a goaltending prospect to be excited about. Still just 20 years old for a few more days -- his birthday is Friday -- Tarasov left his home country to head to Finland for a starting job this past season and showed well, posting a 2.72 goals-against average and .899 save percentage for an Aces team that was up and down throughout the year. Before that, he was dominant in Russia's version of the AHL and also made his KHL debut a year ago. 

Projection: The plan for Tarasov was for him to grow his game while earning starter's minutes, something that wasn't assured in his home country as Salavat Yulaev Ufa has an established starter. It appears the plan worked well, as Tarasov -- who had little left to prove in the Russian minors despite his young age -- overcame the Aces' struggles to impress. At 6-4, he has excellent size and is thought to have the tools to be an NHL standout as he gains more experience. Time will tell when his North American journey begins -- could it be soon? -- but he's a name to watch and was cited as a top prospect by Jarmo Kekalainen at the deadline.  

Peter Thome (University of North Dakota, NCAA; sixth-round pick, 2016)

Thome has at times been a bit of a forgotten man not just in the CBJ goaltending pipeline but at UND, where his playing time has been sporadic. It was no different this year, as Thome began the season as the Fighting Hawks' third goalie and didn't see a minute of action in the first half of the season. But he kept up his work ethic, and when starter Adam Scheel hit a rough patch, Thome went back in and was nothing short of dominant. The 22-year-old was named the National Collegiate Hockey Conference's goaltending champion, finishing with 11 games played, a 7-1-1 record, a 1.37 goals-against average, a .935 save percentage and two shutouts for a UND team that was second in the rankings when the season ended.  

Projection: Nothing has come easy for Thome over the years, as he's had to fight for everything he's gotten. That's what makes his storybook second half of the season so impressive and satisfying, and Thome has a lot of good tools including size (he stands 6-4) and athleticism. He bears watching in part because he's played so few games over the past few years in college; he's the type of player who could continue to grow with more and more playing time.  

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