If there's a team that can enter Traverse City, Mich., next weekend with a little bit of swagger, it's the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The organization has become the kings of Traverse, with the rookie team having won a record five championships in the history of the annual prospects tournament hosted by the Detroit Red Wings.
That includes last year's title -- one for the thumb -- as the Jackets youngsters led by such names as Kole Sherwood, Kevin Stenlund and Eric Robinson knocked off the Wings by a 7-3 score in the championship game. All three would go on to play for the big club by season's end.
It's a fun tournament, no doubt, and for Jackets fans the trek to battle for the Matthew Wuest Memorial Cup takes on a little extra meaning simply because many of the organization's top prospects often take part. For a draft and develop team like the Jackets, it's become a rite of passage to lace 'em up in the annual event that takes place in northern Michigan along the beautiful blue waters of Grand Traverse Bay.
"It's the start of the season, really," Blue Jackets director of player personnel Chris Clark said. "It's fun to get up there and get moving. Seeing seven other teams is awesome. You get to see what they have coming up as well, not only our guys, but you get to see almost a third of the league."
TRAVERSE CITY PROSPECTS TOURNAMENT: 2019 roster, schedule and need-to-know info
It'll be no different this year as a number of players expected to have a chance to make the team's opening day roster will be in Traverse. That list is headlined by a pair of highly touted rookies in forward Alexandre Texier and goaltender Elvis Merzlikins.
Texier, of course, burst onto the scene with a late-season call-up a season ago, after which he earned his first NHL goal in his second career game, then had two goals in the clinching Game 4 win vs. Tampa Bay in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Merzlikins, meanwhile, is expected to join Joonas Korpisalo between the pipes this season for the Blue Jackets. A standout both in the Swiss NLA and at the international level in the World Championships the past few seasons, Merzlikins will make his debut in North America not in Cleveland or Columbus but in Traverse City.
"It's great for our young guys heading into camp, especially if they haven't gone to a camp or they're going into their second camp because it gives them a week head start on the regular guys," Clark said of the CBJ youngsters. "Once you get into camp, it's full contact, full everything, so they get that grace period where once main camp starts they're already in game mode."
While Emil Bemstrom, another rookie who could make the big squad, is unable to play because of injury, 2018 first-round pick Liam Foudy and 2016 second-round pick Andrew Peeke are also on the roster. Goalie Veini Vehvilainen (2018 sixth-round pick) and forward Trey Fix-Wolansky (2018 seventh-round pick) seem likely to start the year with AHL Cleveland, while new 2019 draftees Tyler Angle (forward, seventh round) and Eric Hjorth (defenseman, fourth round) are also on the roster. Also on the roster is 2018 choice Tim Berni, a defenseman who will play in his native Switzerland this year.
Other thoughts and observations on the roster follow:
Goalie Talk: The pairing of Merzlikins and Vehvilainen bears watching, and not just because both will be making their North American debuts. The two are yet to suit up for the CBJ but are key parts of the organization's goaltending present and future, as Merzlikins is expected to begin the season with the Blue Jackets and Vehvilainen should begin the campaign with Cleveland.
Merzlikins enters having won the Jacques Plante Trophy given to the top goalie in the NLA in 2016 and 2018, and the Latvian boasts a career 2.63 goals-against average and .920 save percentage with HC Lugano. Meanwhile, Vehvilainen was named the top goalie in the Finnish Liiga each of the past two seasons, and last year he posted a 1.58 GAA and .933 save percentage with Kärpät then backstopped the team to the finals.
"That's gonna be awesome," Clark said of seeing the two goalies. "I followed Elvis after we drafted him, but it's been a while since I've seen him in person besides what we saw a little bit in practice at the end of last year. I'm really excited to see what he can do. The same with Veini. He's coming off two really good years in Finland, so it'll be fun to see. Both guys need to get into games so we can see what they can do."
Dev Camp additions: The Blue Jackets welcome seven free agent invites to Traverse City who also were with the team for the annual development camp this past summer.
That list includes three forwards in Brayden Guy (OHL Sarnia), Kyle Maksimovich (free agent) and Ryan McGregor (OHL Sarnia) and defensemen Justin Bergeron (QMJHL Rouyn-Noranda), Matt Brassard (free agent), Louka Henault (OHL Windsor) and Jacob Paquette (OHL Niagara).
Maksimovich and Brassard are each 21 and completed OHL eligibility last season while the rest are headed back to juniors, with Guy and McGregor set to play with Hjorth in Sarnia and Henault joining Angle on the Spitfires.
Clark said it will be a chance for the organization to get a good read on what each of those youngsters brings to the table considering junior teams are in the middle of preseason prep right now.
"You can't stand out in development camp because it's in the middle of the summer and I don't like to evaluate (then)," he said. "Our scouts liked them from what they saw during the year. This will really give us a good idea of what type of players they are."
Monsters, Inc.: Three players join the Traverse roster after having signed deals with Cleveland. Forwards Derek Barach and Nikita Korostelev each joined the Monsters in the middle of last year and had some success, with Barach posting 11 points in a 15-game cameo after completing his NCAA season with Mercyhurst and Korostelev totaling a 3-10-13 line in 31 games.
Then there's Anton Karlsson, a Swedish defenseman who signed with Cleveland this summer. The 25-year-old is coming off a season with Linkoping of the SHL in which he had 13 points and was plus-5 in 47 games.
Lilja heads north: Another player to keep an eye on who could help the Blue Jackets this year is forward Jakob Lilja. The 26-year-old Swede was one of the top scorers in the SHL last year, placing tied for eighth in assists with 25 and tied for 10th with 37 points in 52 games. A teammate of Bemstrom a season ago with Djurgårdens IF, Lilja was signed this offseason and could provide depth at forward.
Other ELC signees on the Traverse team include forward Maxime Fortier and defenseman Michael Prapavessis, who each played for the Monsters a season ago.
Welcome, Egor: One new name Jackets fans might not remember is that of Russian forward Egor Sokolov, who was on the Traverse City team a year ago as well. The massive 6-foot-4, 223-pounder is 19 years old and came over to North American two seasons ago, and he has 51 goals and 99 points in two seasons with Cape Breton of the QMJHL. He's certainly hard to miss when he puts on the Union Blue.
Know the foes: Columbus will begin the tournament Friday, Sept. 6, when it takes on the New York Rangers, with a game the next day vs. Minnesota and the final round-robin game Monday against Dallas. The other pod includes Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and new entrant Toronto, which replaces Carolina in the eight-team event.
The opening game will give Columbus a look at Kaapo Kakko, the Finnish standout the Rangers chose No. 2 overall in the 2019 NHL draft. Chicago also held the No. 3 pick and took forward Kirby Dach, who will be part of the Blackhawks roster in Traverse as well.
St. Louis is second to the Blue Jackets with four championships at the event.