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The journey begins in Traverse City

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

The bags are packed, the kids are ready and Blue Jackets Air awaits for the first of many trips in 2014-15. It's hockey season, friends, and the story begins this weekend.

For the 13th consecutive year, the Blue Jackets will take their best prospects to beautiful Traverse City, Mich., for the annual NHL Prospects Tournament hosted by the Detroit Red Wings. It's part showcase and part competition - just don't tell the former to the players - because this is a highly-anticipated tournament every year and for good reason.

If you're the Blue Jackets, you have to be uber excited for this (and they are). The team is bringing arguably its best group of prospects ever, and they're going to be favorites to unseat the defending champion Red Wings if they can get past them in the Gordie Howe Division.

Alexander Wennberg. Sonny Milano. Kerby Rychel. Marko Dano. Dillon Heatherington...the list goes on and on. If you ever wonder why John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen are so bullish on not only the present-day Blue Jackets, but also the organization's future, look no further than this year's Traverse City roster.

Blue Jackets assistant GM Bill Zito has taken on a lot of the work for this, and one thing that will stick out right away is the method of transportation. Gone and forgotten is the charter bus; this year, Blue Jackets Air is getting an early workout and will be flying the full group to northern Michigan.

But this isn't just a five-day getaway in a picturesque corner of the country. They want to win, and there's a lot at stake for several of the Jackets' prospects.

Can Wennberg impress - as he did during development camp - and forge his way into the conversation for training camp?

Anton Forsberg (center) will compete with Swedish countryman Oscar Dansk for Springfield's No. 1 job between the pipes. 

Are players like Rychel and Dano ready to take on big roles on a young Springfield Falcons club and usher in a new era of sorts at the AHL level? Are they dark horses to be in the NHL roster mix in a week's time?

Which of Anton Forsberg and Oscar Dansk is going to take the first step forward in their battle for Springfield's No. 1 goalie job?

Now let's make one thing clear: those questions won't be answered in Traverse City, but we may get a pretty good idea of where things are headed.

This is a big opportunity, and the hockey should be outstanding.

The Buffalo Sabres are loaded, too, and you can bet they'll have plenty of eyes on their kids as the tournament gets underway. Names like Sam Reinhart (the No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft), Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov, all recent first-round picks for GM Tim Murray's team, make Buffalo a must-watch as well.

Host Detroit is bringing the likes of Anthony Mantha, who seems to do nothing except score goals, and highly-touted defenseman Ryan Sproul to support its title defense.

The St. Louis Blues just announced the addition of Ty Rattie to an already-impressive roster that includes 2014 first-rounder Robby Fabbri and second-round pick Ivan Barbashev.

Excited yet? Thought so. You should be. This is an awesome time of year and a really cool tournament, one that gives fans a glimpse into the future of not just their team, but also the league's future stars.

I'll be on-site with the Blue Jackets every step of the way, from practices to games to cookouts to random activities sprinkled in along the way. You'll have to deal with an occasional food update because I've never been to Traverse City and that's just what I do.

Anything in particular you want to see? Let me know on Twitter (@RobMixer) or drop a comment down below. Glad to have you along for the ride.

Here we go!

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