TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Kerby Rychel is a week away from the unofficial start of his professional hockey career.
The next step is determining exactly where that journey will begin.
Rychel is one of four first-round draft picks competing for the Blue Jackets in this year’s NHL Prospects Tournament, a tournament that several around these parts believe can be won by Columbus.
And if Rychel was dead set on impressing Blue Jackets coaches and management the week before NHL training camp begins, his opening act was an eye opener.
In the Blue Jackets’ 6-4 win over the Minnesota Wild on Friday afternoon, Rychel was one of their most noticeable players and seemed to make something happen on every shift. He scored a goal and added three assists to lead all players, and made up one-third of a super-skilled line centered by Alexander Wennberg and flanked by shifty winger Oliver Bjorkstrand.
The first few minutes were shaky, Rychel said, but he felt better and better each time he went over the boards.
“Playing here last year, I kind of knew what to expect,” Rychel said. “There was rust at the start but toward the end, I felt pretty good out there.
“I thought I did some good things, but obviously, there’s room for improvement. When you’re off for three or four months you feel the rust, for sure. It was a nice effort by the boys and a good start to the tournament.”
Rychel’s line was at its best in the second period, when Rychel himself gave Minnesota all kinds of problems on the forecheck. He was winning battles, coming up with loose pucks and creating chances — all positive signs that Springfield Falcons head coach (and tournament coach) Jared Bednar wants to see more of as Rychel gets more comfortable with the system.
That system won’t change much from Springfield to Columbus, and that’s something the Blue Jackets have worked hard at in recent years. They’ve installed similar structure at both the NHL and AHL levels in effort to create a seamless transition when players are recalled to Columbus and vice versa.
Whether Rychel starts 2014-15 in Columbus or Springfield, Bednar nor the Blue Jackets can say right now, but if he uses his wide-ranging skill set as he did in Friday’s win, he will factor into the NHL plans sooner than later.
“I saw some good things from him,” Bednar said. “There was a stretch in the second period where he was real hungry on the puck in the offensive zone, their line scored a couple goals and he was in on them, he was creating some chances for himself and his line mates.
“It’s a new system, more or less, so everyone makes a few mistakes here and there, but I thought he was pretty solid. Maybe a little slow at the start of the game, but he picked his game up as the game went on.”