When the Predators drafted Jonathon Blum
two summers ago, many around the league questioned the pick. Nashville’s organization was loaded with young defensemen like established NHL stars Dan Hamhuis (just turned 26 earlier this month), Ryan Suter
(23), and Shea Weber
(23), up-and-comers Kevin Klein
(24) and Ville Koistinen (26), and stud prospects like Alexander Sulzer (24), Teemu Laakso
(21), and 2008 AHL All-Rookie Team honoree Cody Franson (21).
Blum’s selection seemed like a redundant addition of depth.
Fast forward 18 months and many scouts now consider Blum one of the elite defensemen in Canadian Juniors. Viewed as an undersized defenseman who might struggle against the bigger NHL forwards, Blum has added around 25 pounds since the time of his draft. His progress was noticeable at training camp.
“I saw a lot of progress in Jon from his first training camp to his second and it’s more to do with confidence,” Predators Head Coach Barry Trotz said. “This year he wasn’t overwhelmed by the size of the guys, he wasn’t overwhelmed by meeting NHL guys, veteran guys he’s seen on TV. The confidence and the strength and maturity of young player are the biggest differences. He’s gotten stronger physically, as well. When we first got him, I think he was about 170 pounds and now he’s in the 195 range and still getting stronger.”
“Training camp was great,” Blum said. “I got a chance to look at the pros and see what they do to get better and try to take those things back to Juniors with me. Playing in the exhibition game was really an eye-opening experience. Just the more I get a chance to be around the pros and watch them, the more I’m able to learn from them.”
Blum, who placed second in the WHL in defensmen scoring last year with 63 points in 64 games, has carried the momentum from Preds Training Camp into the ’08-09 WHL season. Before leaving the Vancouver Giants for the World Juniors, Blum had 44 points in 28 games played, with a staggering +41 plus/minus rating, tops in the WHL.
“It’s gone really well so far,” Blum admitted. “The team is doing fantastic; we’re playing strong hockey. When the team is playing well, your numbers are going to look better, but I pleased with the start I’ve had.”
“He’s having an outstanding year; he’s probably the best defenseman in the Western Hockey League this year,” said Trotz. “I think the experience of being in (the World Junior Championships) tournament is a great experience for young players. It’s high pressure; you’re on a center stage. Every game’s covered on TV in Canada and 20,000 people are at the games in Ottawa, so it’s a big stage. Jon’s had that experience of being in big games, being in a Memorial Cup (with the Vancouver Giants) and winning that, being a part of the World Junior tournament has been huge. Those are experiences you can’t put an amount of how much experience or confidence a player can gain from that, those experiences have only gone to make him a better player.”
The start not only cemented Blum’s spot on Team USA for this year’s World Junior Championships, but helped him earn the team’s captaincy.
“It’s a huge honor anytime you’re asked to be a team’s captain,” said Blum. “And when it’s your country, it’s just an even greater honor. (Before the tournament opener against Germany), when I put on the USA jersey with the “C” it was pretty cool. I had to step back a little and look at it and let it sink in. It’s a once in a lifetime type of honor to be a captain of your country’s team.”
A returnee from last year’s U.S. World Junior team, Blum has some unfinished business. Last year the U.S. squad went undefeated through the preliminary round, but dropped a tough semifinal game to Canada (the eventual Gold Medal winner) and then a fell in the Bronze Medal game against Russia to take fourth place. Despite flying under the radar – media attention is focused on host Canada, a deep, skilled Sweden team, and Russia as the three top medal contenders – this year Blum wants to finish what the team started last year and take home the Gold.
“We obviously know we’re a good team inside our locker room, so we don’t really need the media or outside people to pick us. You win the games on the ice, not on paper or in the media. If people take us lightly, then we want to show them that it’s a mistake on their part. But we can’t worry about what people are writing or thinking about us, we can’t control that. We just have to go out and play the games and prove to everyone we’re as good as all of us in the locker room know we can be.”
“I think we might have the best first line in the tournament, keyed by Colin Wilson
(with 2007 Entry Draft No. 2 overall pick James van Riemsdyk and projected 2009 top-10 pick Jordan Schroeder). Colin’s been unbelievable for us. He’s so strong on the puck. He makes guys look like boys in the corners and along the boards. And the way he’s able to get to the front of the net. He’s more confident now (than he was last year). He’s such a skilled player and he has a swagger to his game. He’s not cocky or overconfident, he just knows that he can make the plays and make a difference on the ice.”
Wilson, who also joined Blum with Team USA last year, sees improvement in Blum’s game, too. “He’s looked really good in the pre-tournament camp and games,” Wilson said of Blum. “He’s really stepped up in the defensive end, looks more physical this year. And as always he does a great job on offense; he always seems to find ways to get pucks to the net, which is especially important on the power-play. He’s just a solid all-around defenseman.”
Blum credits a lot of his success with the World Junior team to experience. “It’s easier this second time around. I know a little more what to expect. It’s a heck of a tournament; the best of the best at this age. I knew that last year, but having gone through it, I know what that really means.”