Blue Jackets GMJarmo Kekalainen was thrilled about the youth in the organization after his prospects squad put on an offensive clinic to win the Traverse City Prospects tournament.
Now it’s time for some of those youngsters to push for spots on the big club. And in the team’s first appearance of the preseason at Nationwide Arena, three of the team’s most prized prospects will be front and center.
Alexander Wennberg, Kerby Rychel, and Marko Dano were all selected by the Jackets in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft. With three first round selections in one draft, it was an opportunity for the team to make a giant leap forward to improve its prospect talent pool.
BLUE JACKETS PRESEASON: SPLIT SQUAD
Just one year later, the three are already on coach Todd Richards’ radar.
“It was a special year for Columbus. Three picks in the first round, and now we’re playing together in the first exhibition game. It’s something special,” said Dano.
Wennberg and Dano will see their first NHL action Sunday night against the Blues, after neither player was able to attend last year’s training camp due to contractual obligations with their European clubs. Rychel played in two preseason road games during last year’s camp before being returned to juniors at the end of the first week.
“I had some experience last year, but I’m still nervous, obviously. It’s my first game at Nationwide Arena. It should be pretty fun and I’m looking forward to it,” said Rychel
All three players received high marks from management during the tournament, coming in with high expectations off their respective seasons last year. Wennberg scored 16 goals in his first professional season with Frolunda of the Swedish Elite League, while Dano had a strong season in the KHL before tallying six points in a ten game stint with AHL Springfield to finish the year.
Wennberg skated with fellow Swede Simon Hjalmarsson during the morning skate, along with Matt Calvert. Dano skated with Josh Anderson and Artem Anisimov, whom he played against during the lockout season.
Rychel skated with Boone Jenner and Jared Boll in the morning. Rychel had his best season in the OHL split between the Windsor Spitfires and Guelph Storm. He had 34 goals and 90 points aver 58 games. He took it to another level in the playoffs, scoring 32 points in 20 games and adding three goals and four assists in four Memorial Cup games.
Nerves are to be expected for any player making their debut in the NHL, but Wennberg said he’s had many people to turn to in the room, draftee and veteran alike.
“Everybody takes the game differently," he said. "Some guys get nervous, but we try to talk to each other and help each other out. But there are a lot of guys here with experience and they try to help you if something bothers you.”
“It’s a chance for us to see how these guys play with NHL players, to play with other guys on our team who have been in the league, “ said Richards. “So you’re looking for that and how they mix with each other.”
Richards also said it was important for young players to acclimate themselves in exhibition games, and how the experience strengthens them for the future.
“Us playing big games in the lockout year was important for our experience. Last year playing playoff games was big for us for experience,” said Richards. “It’s no different for these young guys in exhibition games. Go through it once, go through it twice, the more time you do it the more comfortable you become. Then it’s easier to go out on the ice and do your job.”
Rychel, Wennberg, and Dano will all have their first big audition tonight to make the NHL roster. They’re big pieces for the Jackets’ future, vying for a spot on a team that increasingly speaks of its win-now mindset.
Perhaps after tonight, we’ll have a clearer picture if the future is now for the Class of 2013.