NOTE: This is the weekly column of BlueJackets.com writer Rob Mixer. Follow Rob on Twitter by clicking here, and follow his regular updates on the CBJ Today blog.
Though the timing could hardly be described as ideal, a quartet of Blue Jackets prospects are faced with an enormous opportunity.
Their mission: take the next step in their development as professional hockey players and help the Springfield Falcons compete for a Calder Cup championship. No middle ground, pretty cut and dry. Just make it happen. Get it done.
And thus the journey begins for Ryan Johansen, Cam Atkinson, John Moore and Tim Erixon. Four names that, while they will not be going at it alone, stand out because of the expectations which were shouldered upon entering the National Hockey League -- and also because of the valuable NHL experience they can pass on to their new teammates.
Brad Larsen is in his first season as the Falcons' head coach, but he has a pretty solid handle on the team after serving as assistant coach last year. Like I said last week, Larsen's a no-nonsense guy that demands accountability from every player.
Larsen is the type of coach who wants his leaders to lead and set the bar for the rest of the group, and I have a feeling he's going to have lofty expectations for the four players I've mentioned.
Despite getting a taste of life at the NHL level, these four young men each have some ground to cover on their paths to sustained NHL success -- and taking Springfield to the next level would be an excellent start.
Of the four, Atkinson probably has the biggest head start. He was an electrifying player for the Falcons last season, scoring 29 goals in 51 games and being named to the AHL's All-Star roster. Though he began the year in Columbus, Atkinson made the most of his time in Springfield and was recalled after the NHL trade deadline.
There was a marked difference in his game: more confidence, speed and tenacity on the puck. Atkinson proved that, with the right attitude, developing your game in the AHL can often times be the best-case scenario for a young player. In the process, he helped the Falcons go on a bit of a run and challenge for a playoff spot.
Johansen made his case in training camp last year, after another dominating campaign with the Portland Winterhawks (WHL) in 2010-11. GM Scott Howson and former coach Scott Arniel made the decision to keep Johansen in Columbus for the full season, and despite some bumpy stretches along the way, it was a solid introductory season for the 20-year-old.
His first NHL goal was a game-winner, and he scored a bevy of clutch goals in Portland. He was their Chris Drury, the guy they looked to when it was time to get serious. Johansen's in a good spot now; he's on the verge of breaking out and becoming a real weapon at the NHL level.
Adding 10-15 pounds of muscle in the summer has benefited the physical element of his game without sacrificing foot speed, and he's still got the lethal release that makes goalies look like victims of a game of freeze tag.
Johnny Moore is on the fast track to being a threat at both ends of the ice. He's trained hard and worked feverishly at improving his defensive game, making full use of his brilliant footwork. We saw flashes of the offensive upside that Moore has while with the Blue Jackets last season; he can find seams, transport the puck out of trouble and walk the blue line better than a lot of players we've seen come through the organization.
Best thing for Moore: he will play a ton of minutes in Springfield and might pair well with Erixon, who is going to be another pillar along the Falcons blueline. Think about that: Moore, Erixon, Savard, Goloubef, Holden, Ruth, Weber, Madaisky and others are going to be in the mix for minutes on the Springfield defense.
Erixon was a big "future" piece in this summer's megadeal with the New York Rangers, and for good reason. He's got NHL bloodlines, possesses the ideal frame for a big-league defenseman, and has the requisite skills on both sides of the puck. Best part? He's still just 21 years old, roughly five years shy of the light bulb age for NHL blueliners.
I'm anxious to see how these guys fit in with the Falcons. One thing I do know is that they're an instant upgrade to what was already a formidable team.
Not only is this installment of the Falcons going to be exciting on the ice, but it will provide these four players and their teammates with a valuable and necessary step in their development.
The AHL has long been regarded as the best developmental league for young players, and this particular situation seems to be an encouraging byproduct of an unfortunate result. The Blue Jackets will have their top prospects playing vital roles both on the ice and in the dressing room for a team that has championship aspirations.
Their next chapter begins now.