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Deep Blue Jackets can afford to develop prospects

by Craig Merz

COLUMBUS -- The appearance of the Columbus Blue Jackets' three first-round picks from the 2013 NHL Draft at development camp has fans anxious to see them skating in Nationwide Arena this season.

Imagine how those players feel.

"I want to be a part of this team to be honest," said center Alexander Wennberg, the Blue Jackets' first selection (No. 14). "It's a team on the way up and only going to get better, so of course I'm going to try and stick around."

Left wing Kerby Rychel (No. 19), the son of former NHL player Warren Rychel, could start the season with the Blue Jackets' American Hockey League affiliate in Springfield, Mass., but that's not his goal when training camp begins in mid-September.

"If I have to go to the AHL for a bit that's fine, but at the end of the day I'm going to work as hard as I can to be a player that earns a spot up here," he said.

Center Marko Dano, the 27th choice a year ago, sees the Blue Jackets' roster and knows the organization is stockpiling talent.

"It's a great opportunity and I have a great chance, but there's so many young guys on the team," he said. "It's up to me how I improve my hockey and how I grow."


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Wennberg is Swedish, Rychel is Canadian and Dano is Austrian, but they all have something in common that says a lot about where Columbus is headed: None of them have to make the Blue Jackets this season.

Oh, it would be great for them if they did, but the organization, coming off its best season, has unprecedented depth.

"We want to make sure that whoever makes our team really makes our team by earning it and not putting them in situations where they get preference because of their status as a first-round pick or whatever it might be," general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "That's not going to happen. Everybody has to earn their way on our team."

The Blue Jackets were known for years for first-round picks who failed, including Nikita Filatov (2008, sixth), Gilbert Brule (2005, sixth), Alexandre Picard (2004, eighth) and Nikolai Zherdev (2003, fourth).

Others didn't meet expectations before being traded. Jakub Voracek (2007, seventh) went to the Philadelphia Flyers, and John Moore (2009, 21st) and Derick Brassard (2006, sixth) were traded to the New York Rangers.

Some didn't make it because their hype exceeded their talent, but the Blue Jackets have been guilty of promoting players too quickly because they had no other options.

That isn't the case anymore, development director Chris Clark said.

"The depth we have just in Columbus allows the organization to keep guys in the minors or wherever until they're ready," he said. "This year the Springfield team, barring who makes [the Blue Jackets], and who knows what's going to happen there, is going to be a young, prospect-filled team, which we haven't had the last couple of years at that level. By that I mean first-round picks and such."

Though that depth might appear to put up the stop sign for the young players in the system, two developments have given them reason to be optimistic.

The first was the decision to not re-sign fourth-line unrestricted free agents Blake Comeau, Derek MacKenzie and Jack Skille.

"You try not to pay attention to that stuff, but obviously you know what's going on," Rychel said.

The other thing that the top prospects talked about while gathered in Columbus was how defenseman Ryan Murray and left wing Boone Jenner went from junior hockey to the NHL last season and played major roles for the Blue Jackets.

Murray's ascension was not as surprising, even though the No. 2 pick in 2012 was coming off an injury-plagued season with the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League.

Jenner, though, was a 2011 second-round pick (No. 37) who went from the Ontario Hockey League's Oshawa Generals to a 29-point regular season (16 goals, 13 assits) for the Blue Jackets, plus three goals and two assists in six Stanley Cup Playoff games against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"He wasn't a name for sure that was going to play in the NHL, but he showed that by working hard and doing your best you can get there and he earned a spot," Wennberg said. "I can watch and learn from him and do it the same way he did."

Clark said a year ago at this time after the development camp he would not have figured Jenner for the Blue Jackets' opening-night roster.

"Boone is a good example of him being ready," Clark said. "He wasn't slotted to be here all year but he played so well that they made a spot for him. He accelerated throughout the year and there was no looking back."

It won't be easy for any of the prospects to crack the lineup this season, but that's a good thing for the Blue Jackets. Having depth, for example, means their 2011 fourth-round pick, defenseman Mike Reilly, can go back to the University of Minnesota for a third season and be a possible Hobey Baker candidate.

It also means there's no pressure to push 2014 first-round selection Sonny Milano, who is expected to attend Boston College and polish his game before trying to jump to the NHL.

"You've got to be ready both mentally and physically. It's a hard League," Kekalainen said. "I talk about being ready to succeed and us being able to put the guys in situations where they can succeed rather than putting them in a situation where their development is going to be compromised because of our poor decisions.

"There's always going to be opportunities. Last year was a good example. I don't think we rushed Ryan Murray or Boone Jenner at all. They earned their way on the team."

Veteran center Brandon Dubinsky has noticed the influx of talent being developed by management and said it was one reason he signed a six-year contract extension.

"The young guys are coming in," he said. "You can see it with Boone and Ryan Murray. They're making some great moves and helping the team not only be younger but be better."

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