NHL: Jackets high on forwards of future

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
High Contrast Normal Version
View Slideshow
Kerby Rychel, middle, is a power forward with a nasty disposition, in the mold of former NHL All-Star Keith Tkachuk.

The Blue Jackets headed into the offseason with a stated goal of getting faster and more skilled at forward. Ryan Johansen and the Worker Bees might be a good name for a band, but it’s no way to win the Stanley Cup.

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen might be aggressive with trades, and he will consider free agency this summer, but there’s a third option for boosting the roster — patience.

The Blue Jackets historically have struggled with drafting and developing high-end talent, but they have five forward prospects who are on the cusp of beginning their pro careers.

Three were first-round picks last June: center Alexander Wennberg (No. 14), right wing Kerby Rychel (No. 19) and center Marko Dano (No. 27).

The other two are right wing Josh Anderson, a fourth-round pick in 2012 (No. 95 overall), and right wing Oliver Bjorkstrand, a third-round pick (No. 89) last year.

“I’m very excited (about these guys), but I’m keeping in mind to be patient,” Kekalainen said. “Young players all take their time. You can’t fast-forward the process, no matter how excited you might be.”

Rychel and Anderson are still playing. Their clubs have reached the Memorial Cup, the championship of Canadian junior hockey that is being played this year in London, Ontario.

Anderson, Dano and Rychel are certain to turn pro next season and probably will play for the Jackets’ American Hockey League affiliate in Springfield, Mass.

Bjorkstrand, who turned 19 last month, will be too young to play in the AHL, so he will likely play another season of junior.

Wennberg is more of a mystery.

It has taken longer than expected for the Blue Jackets to sign him to an entry-level deal — those are typically layups — and until that’s signed, his plans for 2014-15 won’t be clear.

If Wennberg appears targeted for Springfield, he might decide to stay in Sweden for one more season. Then again, he could always make the Blue Jackets’ roster.

“We’re not counting on any of them to make the NHL team this fall, and we’re not counting any of them out, either,” Blue Jackets development coach Chris Clark said. “If they’re ready, we’ll find room for them.

“These are really talented kids, so it could happen. Look at (Blue Jackets rookies) Boone Jenner and Ryan Murray. That’s proof it can happen.”

The Blue Jackets are delighted to have two prospects experience the pressure and passion of the Memorial Cup.

“These are the kind of games that really prepare you for the next level,” Clark said.

Rychel is a power forward with a nasty disposition, in the mold of former NHL All-Star Keith Tkachuk.

“I went back to junior (this season) on a mission,” Rychel said. “I wanted to put up points, but I also wanted to be a leader on and off the ice, and I wanted to play a better two-way game. And I think I did that.”

Rychel had 34 goals, 56 assists and a plus-41 rating in 58 games split between Windsor and Guelph in the Ontario Hockey League. His penalty minutes dropped to a career-low 43.

“Opponents stopped asking him to fight, because they know he can,” Clark said. “So he just played hockey.”

Rychel is the son of former NHL tough guy Warren Rychel. From a very young age, Kerby has been expected to follow in his dad’s skate lines.

Anderson, meanwhile, is a story in perseverance. Undrafted during the OHL bantam draft in 2010, he made the London Knights as a walk-on the following season and blossomed beyond expectations, all the way to representing Canada in the world junior championship this past winter.

He was a standout in Blue Jackets training camp last fall, then had 27 goals and 24 assists in 59 games with London this season.

“They told me to go back and play a physical game because it’s hard to find physical guys with skill,” Anderson said.

The Blue Jackets nearly had a third player in the Memorial Cup, but Bjorkstrand’s club, Portland, lost in Game 7 of the Western Hockey League finals.

Still, Bjorkstrand had a breakout season. He tied for second in the WHL in goals (50) and was third in points (109). In the playoffs, he had 16 goals and 17 assists in 21 games.

“He’s a slippery player,” Clark said. “There so much offensive instinct there, so much anticipation. He has to get bigger and stronger, and he knows that. But what he has, you can’t teach.”

aportzline@dispatch.com

@Aportzline

Comments

Please Share Your Zip Code

To listen to 97.1 The Fan or ESPN 1460AM we ask that you provide a zip code so that we may give you the best audio connection possible.

Please enter your zip code:

No thanks