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Defending champion Blue Jackets bring another strong roster to Traverse City

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

It’s the unofficial kickoff to hockey season, the first step on the journey for several NHL-hopeful prospects -- and perhaps sometimes overlooked, it’s a tournament that features some excellent hockey.

The NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Mich., is part showcase and part competition for eight teams: the Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild, New York Rangers, St. Louis Blues, Carolina Hurricanes and the host Detroit Red Wings. For five days, their top prospects go through a pro-style tournament of (at least) three games against quality competition, leading right into main camps the following week.

Columbus is a three-time champion of the event, most recently in 2014, and figures to be right there once again contending for the title.

The Blue Jackets, widely regarded as having one of the most talent-rich pipelines in the league (particularly so at forward), are bringing another strong roster to northern Michigan. One look at last year’s roster gives a strong indication of the caliber of players in the tournament: Alexander Wennberg and Marko Dano were two of Columbus’ best in 2014, and both had an impact at the NHL level.

Sonny Milano, the team’s first round pick in 2014, returns for the second straight year – but this time, he’s hoping for a much different result; Milano suffered facial fractures in the Blue Jackets’ tournament opener a year ago and didn’t return.

Oliver Bjorkstrand, the Western Hockey League’s leading goal scorer in 2014-15, is back once again along with 2013 first-rounder Kerby Rychel, a dominant scorer in the OHL who made his professional debut a season ago.

Don’t forget about Josh Anderson, who scored the overtime tournament-winning goal against the Dallas Stars in 2014 and also made his NHL debut with the Blue Jackets. He’s part of a deep forward group representing Columbus in 2015 that also features names like Daniel Zaar, Paul Bittner, Kole Sherwood and Nick Moutrey.

“It seems like there’s a lot of competition,” Bjorkstrand told BlueJackets.com. “Everybody wants to show how good of a hockey player they are, and try to give (management) a good impression going into main camp.

“It’s a good tournament for a lot of young guys to get a taste of how big the competition is to make the NHL team. I feel like it’s (a good way) to get the season started.”

On the blue line, recent acquisition Michael Paliotta (acquired from Chicago in the Brandon Saad trade) makes his Traverse City debut for the Blue Jackets. The 22-year-old put up 36 points in 42 games last season – his senior year – at the University of Vermont, and looks to be in line for a pro debut with the Lake Erie Monsters in October.

Dillon Heatherington, Blake Siebenaler, Olivier LeBlanc…those are a few of the Jackets’ recent draft picks on the blueline who return to Traverse City in 2015.

Joonas Korpisalo looks to be the No. 1 guy between the pipes for the Blue Jackets in this year’s tournament, and he too projects to see time with the Monsters this fall. A year ago, it was Oscar Dansk and Anton Forsberg splitting the duties in goal, with Dansk getting the start in the championship game and playing quite well.

What are they playing for? The Blue Jackets are in search of their fourth title in Traverse City, and this year, the trophy has been renamed in honor of the late Matthew Wuest. Wuest was the founder of popular hockey website CapGeek, and he tragically passed of colon cancer earlier this year at age 35.

“The expectation should be to try and win it,” Bjorkstrand said. “We won it last year, and it was fun to win all those games. Hopefully we can do it again.”

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