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World view forms Blue Jackets' top 10 prospects

by Mike G. Morreale /

The IIHF World Junior Championship is traditionally the tournament most NHL scouts point to as a barometer to gauge how far a prospect has progressed among his peers.

If that's the case, Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen must be brimming with confidence after witnessing his players excel for their respective countries at the 2014 WJC in Malmo, Sweden.

Five recent draft picks were very productive in last year's tournament, including forwards Alexander Wennberg of Sweden, Marko Dano of Slovakia and Kerby Rychel and Josh Anderson of Canada, and goalie Oscar Dansk of Sweden. Wennberg, Rychel and Dano were chosen No. 14, No. 19 and No. 27, respectively, in the 2013 NHL Draft. Dansk was selected No. 31 and Anderson No. 95 in 2012.

Additionally, the 2014 WJC Division I Group A tournament featured another diamond in the rough for the Blue Jackets in right wing Oliver Bjorkstrand of Denmark. All Bjorkstrand did was earn recognition as the top forward at the tournament after he had four goals and six points in five games to help his country qualify for the 2015 WJC in Montreal and Toronto.

"I think it means something when kids get a chance to win at that younger level; it helps their confidence down the road because of that winning attitude," Blue Jackets director of amateur scouting Paul Castron said. "We've kind of lacked that type of stuff. So anytime you win, it's good."

Kekalainen saw unrestricted free-agent forwards Derek MacKenzie (Florida Panthers), Blake Comeau (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Jake Skille (New York Islanders) sign with other teams, so openings on offense are available. Wennberg and Rychel will have the opportunity to secure their place in the lineup with a solid training camp and preseason.

"The depth we have just in Columbus allows the organization to keep guys in the minors or wherever until they're ready," Blue Jackets development director Chris Clark 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."

Here's a look at the Blue Jackets' top 10 prospects, according to

Sweden-born prospect Alexander Wennberg highlights a group of young international talent in Columbus. (Photo: Bill Wippert/ NHLI)

1. Alexander Wennberg, C

How acquired: 1st round (No. 14), 2013 draft

Last season: 50 GP, 16-5-21, Frolunda, SWE

Wennberg impressed at the 2014 WJC with three goals, four assists and a plus-5 rating in seven games on the way to earning a silver medal. He was second on his Swedish club team in goals. He signed a three-year, entry-level contract in May and appears ready to challenge for a roster spot out of training camp. He's added 10 pounds of muscle since last summer and is listed at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds. The scouting staff feels Wennberg, 20 in September, could duplicate what Boone Jenner did at training camp last year by coming in, impressing at camp and earning a roster spot to open the season.

"He's such a reliable, smart, two-way player, with lots of skill and character, just in the way he works and plays on both sides of the puck," Kekalainen said. "He was the best skater on the ice in the [WJC gold-medal game against Finland]."

Projected NHL arrival: 2014-15

2. Mike Reilly, D

How acquired: 4th round (No. 98), 2011 draft

Last season: 41 GP, 9-24-33, Minnesota, BIG TEN

The 6-1, 186-pound offensive-minded defenseman finished his second collegiate season with an impressive plus-19 rating. A First Team All-America selection and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Reilly will return to the Gophers for his junior season. The left-handed shot also played a big role for the United States at the 2013 WJC, with one goal, three points and a plus-4 rating in seven games en route to a gold medal. The 21-year-old has great mobility and is projected as a player who could work magic off the transition.

"He likes to jump up into the play, carry the puck and make things happen," Castron said. "He's an exceptional skater and we're pretty excited about the future with him. He's the type of player that you're lucky to have in your system if you can get him. He has a little [Chicago Blackhawks defenseman] Duncan Keith in him."

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

3. Oliver Bjorkstrand, RW

How acquired: 3rd round (No. 89), 2013 draft

Last season: 69 GP, 50-59-109, Portland, WHL

The 5-11, 166-pound native of Herning, Denmark, turned 19 in April, so he's too young to play in the American Hockey League and likely will spend another season in the Western Hockey League. Bjorkstrand had career highs in goals, assists and points last season, but also in penalty minutes (36) and plus/minus rating (plus-44). He had 16 goals, 33 points and a plus-17 rating in 21 WHL playoff games as Portland advanced to the WHL final. Bjorkstrand has 81 goals, 172 points and a plus-82 rating in 134 WHL regular-season games, and 24 goals, 52 points and a plus-28 rating in 42 WHL playoff games.

"This kid has a passion for the game," Castron said. "He's all over the puck. He's not the prettiest looking skater but he's a wiry type of guy with good quickness and agility. He has smarts and anticipates things well offensively, has a good stick and great shot. He's dangerous any time he gets the puck in any area on the ice. He just needs to get stronger."

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

4. Sonny Milano, C

How acquired: 1st round (No. 16), 2014 draft

Last season: 58 GP, 29-57-86, USA U-18, USHL

The highly skilled 18-year-old had 49 goals and 133 points in two seasons with the United States National Team Development Program. He is scheduled to attend Boston College in the fall, but his Canadian Hockey League rights are held by the Plymouth Whalers in the Ontario Hockey League. Castron told that Milano (6-0, 183) remains committed to Boston College and that the decision was up to him. (NOTE: Milano will play for the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League this season.)

"I love the fact that Sonny has so much fun playing hockey; he's got that passion," Castron said. "He's not only skilled but a tireless player. He's obviously more offensive than defensive, but loves the game and leaves it all out on the ice. He won't be in training camp with us since he'll be in Boston, but his time will come."

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

5. Kerby Rychel, LW

How acquired: 1st round (No. 19), 2013 draft

Last season: 27 GP, 16-23-30, Windsor, OHL; 31 GP, 18-33-51, Guelph, OHL

Rychel is a power forward (6-1, 205) who comes up big in the clutch and defends teammates when necessary. The 19-year-old finished his junior career with 11 goals, 32 points and a plus-20 rating in 20 OHL playoff games to help Guelph win the league title and earn a berth in the Memorial Cup. In 256 OHL games spanning four seasons, Rychel, the son of former NHL player and current Windsor general manager Warren Rychel, had 122 goals, 271 points and a plus-27 rating.

"I've seen him become a better player," Clark said. "He's been great for the Storm and he's helped make the team as successful as it was. How he has gone through this year has been great; he's improved immensely. You can see his play on the ice is more of an NHL style now versus a junior style of play."

Projected NHL arrival: 2014-15

6. Marko Dano, C

How acquired: 1st round (No. 27), 2013 draft

Last season: 41 GP, 3-2-5, Bratislava, KHL

The 5-11, 183-pound Austrian-born left-hand shot believes he plays a similar style to that of New Jersey Devils right wing Jaromir Jagr. Dano, who was limited in ice time last season but had two goals and six points in 10 games with Springfield last season. He agreed to a three-year, entry-level contract with the Blue Jackets in March. Dano, 19, has experience internationally, with four goals and a team-leading nine points at the 2014 WJC. His Canadian Hockey League rights are held by the Prince George Cougars of the WHL, so it remains to be seen where he'll continue his development next season. The NHL, AHL and junior hockey all are options.

"I think he has good instincts, and he sees the ice really well," Kekalainen said. "He understands the game when the puck's on his stick and when his team has the puck, he can create offense and he has good offensive tools. The one thing we have to work on with him and other European forwards is the game away from the puck."

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

7. Ryan Collins, D

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 47), 2014 draft

Last season: 59 GP, 1-6-7, USA U-18, USHL

A stay-at-home defenseman, the 6-5, 202 18-year-old won a gold medal with the United States at the 2014 IIHF Under-18 World Championship when he had two assists in seven games. He'll join Reilly at the University of Minnesota in 2014-15. He's a player that excelled in many tough situations with the USNTDP under-18 team last season, often facing the opposition's top line. He worked the penalty kill and was very difficult to beat 1-on-1.

"As a staff we weren't sure he'd be there when we picked in the second round," Castron said. "We thought Ryan made the most strides from start to finish on that under-18 team. At the end of the year he was on their go-to [defense] pairing in the World Championship. He's a big kid with good feet, and we like his potential and upside. He's not a physically dominating player at this point, but the potential is there. He's not awkward out there for his size either and has really improved his puck skills; he was effective with his first pass, and by the end of the year wasn't nervous rushing the puck."

Projected NHL arrival: 2017-18

8. Dillon Heatherington, D

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 50), 2013 draft

Last season: 70 GP, 6-29-35, Swift Current, WHL

The left-shot defenseman usually was the one a coach relied on to shut down the opposing top forwards. Heatherington completed his third full season with Swift Current and likely will return there this season. The 6-4, 205-pound shutdown defender was impressive at the team's development camp last month and could serve as a productive third or fourth defenseman for Columbus in the future.

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

9. Josh Anderson, LW

How acquired: 4th round (No. 95), 2012 draft

Last season: 59 GP, 27-24-51, London, OHL

Last season, his third with London, Anderson (6-3, 196) had career highs in goals, points, penalty minutes (81) and plus/minus rating (plus-31). He also represented Canada at the 2014 WJC and had one goal in seven games. The 19-year-old, who likely will begin his professional career in Springfield this season, was a pleasant surprise at training camp last September.

"Josh is a big, good-skating power forward, and the more he plays physical the more room he creates," Clark said. "He and the team need to be more aggressive physically; they have the skill to win."

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

10. Oscar Dansk, G

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 31), 2012 draft

Last season: 42 GP, 29-9-1, 2.39 GAA, .909 SVP, 6 SO, Erie, OHL

The 6-3, 201-pound Swede will be battling with countryman Anton Forsberg for the starting role in Springfield this season. In 85 games spanning two seasons with Erie in the OHL, Dansk has 40 wins, a 3.25 goals-against average, .897 save percentage and six shutouts. Dansk, 20, finished 5-1-1 with a 1.79 GAA and .929 save percentage on the way to being named top goalie at the 2014 WJC for silver medal-winning Sweden.

"Playing that position in your home country at a tournament such as this, that's a test for things to come," Kekalainen said. "You want to be a professional athlete? In that position, you have to handle pressure, and there was a lot of pressure on him."

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17


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