directory Light the Lamp - a Columbus Blue Jackets blog: Reflecting on past CBJ drafts

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Reflecting on past CBJ drafts

The thought of the "anonymous" scout who basically panned the entire CBJ scouting department during an article in the Dispatch really got me thinking - have our #1 draft picks really been that bad - especially now that we have competent coaching and management at helm of this ship?

Lets take a look.

1. Rusty Klesla - #4 pick 2000 draft - this guy will never win a Norris trophy but at worst he will be a top 4 defensemen in this league for a very long time in the mold of a Chris Phillips. At best he'll be a top 2 guy who may find a more consistant scoring touch. Not a spectacular franchise player type pick but anytime you can get a solid quality 10 years out of any draft pick in the NHL then its a good pick - Klesla will play in this league a minimum of that barring injuries.

2. Pascal Leclaire - #8 pick 2001 draft - you know what they say, goaltenders take the longest to develop. Leclaire has made big waves early on this season recording 4 shutouts and 5 wins in 7 starts. The knock on him has always been his durability. Well, he is training hard for the first time this past offseason and so far so good. The kid has always had the talent to be a franchise goaltender but he just needed to prove he was durable. If he continues this pace this pick will no longer look like a potential bust but instead as an oustanding pick. He has really benefited from a Hitchcock coached team as the quality of chances has dropped dramatically and he's making the saves he should and then some.

3. Rick Nash - #1 2002 draft - the face of the franchise and the team's most important pick to date. Nash started out as a 1-way player winning the Rocket Richard trophy in his 2nd year with 41 goals. After an injury riddeled 3rd year that still saw him score at a point per game pace Nash had an off year last year -- enter coach Ken Hitchcock -- ever since the coaches arrival last year Hitch has turned Nash in to a two way force on the ice one in which he has flat out dominated early on this season. He's conditioning is now at an elite level as well as his understanding of what he means to this team and his ability to lead -- as Nash goes so does this team. For those that may have questioned this pick this past year - those critics have been silenced and this pick will continue to be the most important one in the franchise's history.

4. Nikolai Zherdev - #4 2003 draft - in the most stacked draft in recent memory Zherdev was chosen 4th overall ahead of the likes of Phaneuf, Vanek, Getlzaf, Parise, etc as a highly skilled game breaking talent. After two productive seasons Z saw his game really take a tumble after he held out in a contract dispute two summers ago. This was the pick I was agreeing that was looking like it could be a disaster for the franchise. The kid that had all the talent in the world but only a 2 cent head to go with it. As in Nash's case -- enter coach Hitchcock and I think maybe just as important GM Scott Howson -- Hitch has taken the same steps with Zherdev as he did with Nash and has used him on the PK and in important game situations to gain the players trust and turn him into more of a complete player. GM Scott Howson took it upon himself to personally pay a visit to Zherdev in the offseason to let him know the slate is clean and to get to know the player. Its no secret that former GM Doug MacLean had a very rocky relationship with the young Russian and I think the dismissel of MacLean and the hiring of the steadfast even keeled Howson, more than any other factor, has been the biggest key towards turning Z around -- and with 7 points in 10 games thus far early in this season Z is getting it done on the ice. This pick is suddenly back to looking very good which is really astonishing to me as I had all but written off this kid.

5. Alexandre Picard - #7 2004 draft- Picard has been given his fair shot at the NHL in terms of playing time but has only managed to register a point in that span. He has been mostly told to go out and bang and create energy - I suspsect that may change now under the new regime. His career high point total in the AHL is 30 points in 45g. Picard is out for the next few weeks after suffering a brutal ACL tear in his leg late last year in the AHL. He is ahead of schedule but looks to project to no more than a 3rd to 4th line player. Still time for Picard to make some noise in the professional level but its been a rough start to his pro career over his first 3 games. This pick has the biggest bust potential at this point but it will be interesting to watch how he responds coming off the injury.

6. Gilbert Brule - #6 2005 draft - Brule had a prolific junior career scoring 87 points in 70 games in the rough and tumble OHL. I think in Brule's case the way the Blue Jackets handeled this kid's development was a crime. After his first year which saw him suffer two bad injuries at the pro level Brule returned the following year penciled in as the #2 center to not only get demoted to the 4th line wing but only score 19 points in 78 games. In short, this kid was not even close to ready for this kind of role in the NHL and should have been sent back to junior. This year has saw Brule come in much more mentally and physically prepared for the NHL grind and although he's only registered 1 point in 10 games he has been creating opportunities and playing a physical brand of hockey under Hitchcock and the points will come for this kid. I would definitely like to see more point production from Brule but you can see the skill level and you can see the maturity - I think this kid in the next year or two will be a success at this level although the verdict as of today is still out.

7. Derrick Brassard - #6 2006 draft - another prolific scorer at the junior level which saw Brassard score 116 points in 58 games. He suffered an injury last year but on his return he nearly averaged two points per game (25p in 14g) and was a force in the playoffs. He made a strong case to make this team in training camp but management felt it best for Brassard to play in the AHL to get acclimated to the pro game. The good news is that Brassard is 2nd right now in AHL scoring with 12 points in 10 games. Management would like to see this kid go to more of the dirty areas to score instead of being a perimeter player. He's off to a pretty good pro career and the challenges he's facing now are common for scorers taking their game to the next level. So far this pick is looking solid.

8. Jakub Voracek - #7 2007 draft - the Jackets got very lucky that Voracek slid to them in this draft. LA pulled a stunner when they drafted Tomas Hickey #4 overall and that shook things up just enough for the Jackets to land a player with huge upside. Voracek had a great preseason and was one of the final cuts of camp. He really does have a pro build and pro vision on the ice. Like any young player he needs time for his body and mind to continue to develop. Voracek is off to a blazing start this year in the minors racking up a mind blowing 3g, 22a in just 10 games played. He is already 4th in that league in scoring while playing a total of 9 less games than the leader. The biggest knock I've heard on Jakub is that he doesn't shoot enough and I'm sure he's working on that aspect of his game. In short, this pick is looking fabulous right now. I don't see anyway this kid isn't at least playing in the AHL next season and stands a very good chance to make the team next year.

So there you have it - a quick snapshot at this team's top draft choices over their 8 year draft history. The rule of thumb is to give picks at least 5 years before judging them so I think in our case its pretty fair to judge Klesla, Leclaire and Nash.

I would say at this point Nash and Klesla can be declared successes even if Klesla isnt' going to be that #1 defensemen he was projected to be. Nash is still just scratching the surface of his potential and with Leclaire, he's got the talent but needs to put in a couple of injury free seasons before declaring him the franchise goaltender and a successfull pick.

Zherdev is back to looking like the impact pick we'd hoped he'd become. Picard is the biggest question mark of the group. Brule/Brassard/Voracek all still need time to really judge one way or the other but all have shown the skill to be players at the NHL level early on.

The Jackets were horrendous early on in their later round drafting - there is no denying that. Really no one to speak of in the first two draft past the 1st round picks - although Andrew Murray is still playing with the Crunch.

They have gotten better lately starting in 2002 with 3rd round pick OK Tollefsen playing full time in the NHL and picks Joakim Lindstrom and Steven Goertzen having seen NHL time and are still playing well in the AHL.

The 2003 draft saw Dan Fritsche draft in the 2nd round and has been a full time NHLer the past two season. Marc Methot has been a steal as a 6th rounder and if it weren't for the depth at defense, in the words of Ken Hitchcock, Methot is ready to be a full time NHLer now.

2004 has 2nd round pick power winger Adam Pineault playing strong for the Crunch and according to GM Scott Howson was a man among boys in the game he saw him play in. Defensemen and 4th round pick Andrei Plekhanov is off to a pretty good start in his first year in North America. 9th round pick Grant Clitsome looked very good in prospect camp and has a an outside shot at making some noise as a pro down the road.

Then there is 2005 draft which has seen a real gem plucked in 3rd round pick Kris Russell. This kid made the team right out of camp. Jared Boll was also pucked in the 4th round of this draft and leapfrogged some 6 players to make the NHL team and has had a huge impact. Tomas Popperle is a 5th rounder who is currently starting for Syracuse in the AHL. Needless to say this is the draft when the CBJ scouting staff really started to find their way.

2006 looks like it could even top 2005 with the staff committing highway robbery when the stole 6' 3" goaltender Chris Mason in the 3rd round - he broke the record for most wins last year ever in the OHL and quite frankly almost made this team in camp as a 19 year old. He has since been sent back to junior to continue his development and has won his first 7 starts. He's got franchise goaltender written all over him. Fellow 3rd round pick Tom Sestito who is 6'4" is another kid who nearly made this team out of camp and will probably see some time with the big team this season. Late rounders Derek Dorsett and Matt Marquardt are two other kids playing well and have chances.

2007 saw second round pick Stefan Legein get off to a great start and he has 19 points in 11 games. Defensemen and fellow 2nd round pick Will Weber is playing well in the USHL and has collected 5 points in 7 games along with 20 PIMs.

So as you can see, the team has done a much better job at drafting of late and we absolutely cannot underestimate the impact of having an elite coach like Ken Hitchcock and a GM like Scott Howson have had on understanding young players and how to properly play and develop these guys at the pro level - even in the short amount of time that they've been here.

Some will say I did not give Doug MacLean enough credit in this post but the fact of the matter is that although guys like Nash, Zherdev and Tollefsen had some decent seasons under hit watch none of these guys really played as well as they have until Hitch got here so you can say he drafted them, but without the proper coaching, development and structure which MacLean was directly responsible for providing -- this group could still be declining instead of building.

So to that anonymous scout it would be interesting to hear his take now on this team. Currently this team is dressing 9 draft picks (Nash, Klelsa, Zherdev, Brule, Tollefsen, Fritsche, Boll, Russell & Leclaire - 5 first rounders, 1 second, 2 thirds, 1 fourth) and currently this team sits with a 6-3-1 record - not bad.


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