TRAVERSE CITY - When the plane lands in an airport tucked within the treetops of northern Michigan, that's the first indicator that hockey season has arrived.
The Blue Jackets brought their group of top young prospects here to Traverse City on Thursday and they're treating this as a business trip. A year ago, Columbus won its forth-ever NHL Prospects Tournament title and when the puck drops on Friday night against the host Detroit Red Wings, the drive for five begins in earnest.
If you think this stuff isn't important, I've got news for you. A number of the kids who contributed to the 2014 and 2015 tournament wins were key contributors for a Lake Erie Monsters (now Cleveland Monsters, I know) team that went 15-2 in the Calder Cup playoffs en route to a championship.
And you'll be hearing from many of those same players (Bjorkstrand, Milano, Anderson, Korpisalo, etc.) when the Blue Jackets open main camp in a week. Player development is a marathon, not a sprint, and every step of the way, these kids have had their hands in something significant.
Not only does this tournament boast great hockey, but it's exposure to a professional lifestyle and professional way of doing business for many of these kids. They'll be led by John Madden, the new coach in Cleveland, who's meeting many of the players for the first time this week.
In addition to what's been mentioned above, here are three storylines to watch in Traverse City:
1. Live streaming (!) - yes, it's true. For the first time, there will be a live online video broadcast available for the NHL Prospects Tournament. The Red Wings have graciously offered to stream all tournament games and we'll distribute links and viewing information as soon as it becomes available.
2. Zach Werenski & Pierre-Luc Dubois - these are two new and prominent faces on the Blue Jackets' Traverse City roster, and they are two to keep your eyes on. Werenski has a really good chance to make the Blue Jackets out of training camp coming off a tremendous run in the Calder Cup playoffs; several people, including John Davidson, have said he was the best defenseman in the playoffs…and he was 18 years old. His skillset and skating ability offer the Blue Jackets a new dimension on the back end and, provided he proves that he's ready for the job, it's likely you'll see him in Columbus this fall. There are a lot of people anxious to see him play in this tournament. The same goes for Dubois, this year's No. 3 overall pick and a versatile forward oozing with skill. It will be interesting to see how much time he spends at center versus the wing, as the Blue Jackets view him as a center in the long term. Dubois is a flashy and entertaining player who can really shoot the puck, he figures to have two talented players flanking him when the tournament begins.
3. The new Monsters - not only do the Monsters have new faces on their roster this season, but they also have a nearly all-new coaching staff. Toby Petersen is the lone incumbent after departures of both Jared Bednar and Nolan Pratt to Colorado; Madden was hired on Aug. 29 after a brief search to replace Bednar, and veteran defenseman Steve McCarthy joined the Monsters' staff after playing this past season in Cleveland. On the ice, look for players like Dante Salituro, Justin Scott, Jordan Maletta, Paul Bittner who are eager to make an impact with the defending Calder Cup champions.