Welcome to the 2017 edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. During the summer, I will feature a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. I will follow the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no trades). You can find all the articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted this year. There have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed.
I will link you to those articles; as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2017-18 roster. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later; or an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as a dark horse to make the NHL. 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old is the cut-off for prospects. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
TSP: Columbus Blue Jackets Prospects
2016-17 was the best season in Columbus Blue Jackets history. In December and January, they won 16 games in a row. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky took home the Vezina Trophy. Coach John Tortorella won the Jack Adams Award. Defenceman Zach Werenski was also a Calder Trophy finalist. The team accumulated 108 points, a franchise record. Unfortunately the regular season success did not translate to the playoffs. The Blue Jackets fell in the first round, losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games.
The team has spent the off-season looking to get even better. They acquired Artemi Panarin in a blockbuster trade with the Chicago Blackhawks. They also picked up Jordan Schroeder in a deal with the Minnesota Wild. The team also suffered some losses with William Karlsson being taken by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft; Sam Gagner leaving for the Vancouver Canucks; Kyle Quincey going to Minnesota; as well as Scott Hartnell heading to the Nashville Predators.
2017 NHL Draft Picks: Alexandre Texier, Daniil Tarasov, Emil Bemstrom, Kale Howarth, Jonathan Davidsson, Carson Meyer, Robbie Stucker,
Graduates: Zach Werenski, Joonas Korpisalo, Josh Anderson, Markus Nutivaara, Lukas Sedlak
Top Prospect: Pierre-Luc Dubois
Left Wing/Centre — shoots Left
Born June 24th, 1998 — Ste. Agathe-des-Mont, Quebec
Height 6’3″ — Weight 202 lbs [191 cm / 92 kg]
Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 1st round, #3 overall at the 2016 NHL Draft
Dubois struggled early in the season with Cape Breton. Playing centre, he failed to find the high scoring prowess of his previous year which was spent mostly on the wing. A trade deadline move to the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, and a move back to left wing seemed to right the ship. Dubois scored 15 goals and 37 points in 28 games for the Armada; as well as 22 points in 19 playoff games.
Dubois is a power forward type who has a powerful skating stride and fights through checks as he takes the puck to the front of the net. He has excellent lower body strength and balance, which allows him to win board battles, and establish position in front of the net. He is hard to knock off the puck and protects it well using his body as a shield in the cycle game. Dubois also shows good speed and acceleration, as well as very good agility for a man his size.
Off the rush, he has the skating skill to also be able to take his man wide and cut to the front of the net. His agility and ability to change gears makes him capable of playing a finesse game as well as his power one.
Dubois can be an offensive force. He has a very good wrist shot and a quick release which fools goaltenders. He has excellent hockey sense and gets himself open in good areas on the ice. From there Dubois can unleash an excellent one-timer. He has the size and the hand eye co-ordination to get tip-ins and knock in rebounds after he has established position in front of the net. Dubois has a long reach, and combines that with his strong puck handling skill to protect the puck in the cycle and create time and space to make plays for his teammates. He also has good vision and the passing ability to be a play maker off the wing or at centre. Dubois is also a big hitter, who gets in quickly on the forecheck, pressuring defenders into mistakes and turnovers.
The son of former AHL journeyman and QMJHL coach Erik Dubois, the younger Dubois’ game is very mature, and he already shows defensive skills and awareness that are very advanced for an 18-year-old. He is a complete player who understands how to read plays and helps with back pressure against the rush. Dubois is willing to sacrifice for teammates, blocking shots and cutting down on passing lanes. He also has a bit of a mean streak, and can sometimes cross the line with his physical play.
With Hartnell, Gagner, and Karlsson all in new uniforms next season, there are some openings in the Columbus lineup. Due to Dubois age, the Blue Jackets have a choice, keep him in the NHL, or send him back to junior. There is no AHL option. With that in mind, expect him to get his nine-game audition to start the season. From there, Dubois play in the NHL will show if he is ready or needs a little bit more time in junior.
Prospect #2: Oliver Bjorkstrand
Right Wing — shoots Right
Born April 10th, 1995 — Herning, Denmark
Height 6’0″ — Weight 177 lbs [183 cm / 80 kg]
Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 3rd round, #89 overall at the 2013 NHL Draft
Bjorkstrand bounced between the NHL and AHL last season. He scored six goals and 13 points in 26 NHL games, and 26 points in 37 AHL games. He also played in all five of Columbus’ playoff games, picking up one assist.
Bjorkstrand is a quick skater, but is not overly fast in terms of straight line speed. His acceleration is good though, and his ability to change gears allows him to beat defenders off the rush. Bjorkstrand has great agility, and edge work. This makes him very shifty, and able to avoid hits from defenders both on the rush, as well as when he cycles the puck. His agility and quickness allow him to elude defenders and buy time to make plays for teammates. His lateral movement is very good. Bjorkstrand is able to weave his way in and out of traffic. Bjorkstand has good balance and is harder to knock off the puck than you would expect, but again still has some bulking up to do.
Bjorkstrand is a natural sniper who has very heavy wrist and snap shots, along with an excellent one-timer. His shooting arsenal also features an excellent release which he uses to fool goaltenders when he is coming down the wing on a rush, or after setting up in the offensive zone. He has a real knack for getting open either by trailing slightly behind on rush; or by finding the soft spot in the defence to unleash his vast shooting arsenal.
A tad undersized, he has outstanding stick handling and is tough to knock off the puck. He is very shifty and is able to avoid checks and buy time for his teammates to get open. He is an underrated play maker with very good vision and passing skills. Bjorkstrand attempts to go to the key areas, and shows no lack of intensity in battling for pucks along the boards. However, he must continue to add muscle and get stronger before he is able to really be successful in this aspect of his game.
Bjorkstrand is also a solid defender capable of playing a good two way game. He doesn’t quit on the back check and his quickness and hockey sense allow him to anticipate plays and cause turnovers. When he does so, he is able to quickly transition that turnover into instant offence. Responsible in his assignments and cutting off passing and shooting lanes, Bjorkstrand has been used on the penalty kill in both junior and the AHL.
Bjorkstrand will hope to carry his momentum into Blue Jackets camp and fight for a spot on the big club. This should be his year. Expect to see Bjorkstrand in the Jackets top nine.
Prospect #3: Gabriel Carlsson
Defense — shoots Left
Born January 2nd, 1997 — Orebro, Sweden
Height 6’4″ — Weight 183 lbs [193 cm / 83 kg]
Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 1st round, #29 overall at the 2015 NHL Draft
Carlsson speent last season with Linkoping in the SHL, putting up just two goals and two assists in 40 games. He also played for Sweden in the World Juniors. When the European season was done, he came over to North America, playing for both Columbus and the AHL affiliate in Cleveland.
Carlsson is a good skater for his size. He has a long stride and generates above average speed and acceleration. Carlsson has good balance and can be tough to knock off the puck when playing against his peers, but needs to add some lower body strength to improve on this before transitioning to playing the game against men. He also has decent agility, pivots, and edge work which combined with his good backwards skating speed makes him difficult to beat in one-on-one situations.
Offensively, what you see is what you get with Carlsson. He does not handle the puck much, preferring to move it quickly to a teammate rather than skate it up the ice. He has good passing skills, and can make a good first pass on the breakout, or the long breakaway pass to a streaking teammate. Carlsson is very much a stay at home defender though. He does not even join the rush as a trailer very often. Carlsson has a decent slap shot when he gets the chance to unleash it, but lacks instinct in the offensive zone to create opportunities.
The best part of Carlsson’s game, is his play in his own end of the rink. He has excellent positioning, and his hockey IQ is very high. He anticpates plays well, cutting down passing lanes with a long stick, and creating transitions with a good first pass. Carlsson’s big body is an asset as he is willing to play a physical game, throwing hits, fighting for loose pucks, as well as clearing the front of the net.
He battles hard every shift and is willing to do whatever it takes to win games. He doesn’t throw a lot of big hits, but is very involved in the dirty areas of the ice and is willing to take a hit to make a play. Carlsson is more than willing to put his body on the line and block shots. He is also very good on the penalty kill. His big frame and long stick really cut down on options for the attacking team.
Carlsson will head to camp looking to make the Blue Jackets. He needs to make the top six though. He is so young that keeping him as a seventh defenceman just does not make sense. Its top six role, or AHL for Carlsson this season. Expect him to be a quick call-up though. He will play lots of minutes in the AHL and adjust to smaller ice.
Prospect #4: Vitaly Abramov
Right Wing — shoots Light
Born May 8th, 1998 — Chelyabinsk, Russia
Height 5’10” — Weight 181 lbs [178 cm / 82 kg]
Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 3rd round, #65 overall at the 2016 NHL Draft
Abramov was a dominant offensive force in the Quebec League last year. He scored 46 goals and 104 points in 66 QMJHL games for Gatineau. He also added seven points in seven playoff games. With the Olympiques eliminated early, Abramov played four games, scoring four points in the AHL.
Abamov may be slightly undersized, but there are more and more undersized players succeeding in the NHL today. One thing that Abramov has in common with the most successful of these undersized players is that he is an outstanding skater. He has great speed and tremendous acceleration, allowing him to blow past opponents on the rush. He also has great agility, allowing him to make quick cuts and beat defenders one-on-one. Add in a strong lower body, as well as a low centre of gravity and Abramov has the balance and power to be strong on the puck and to fight through checks. For a smaller player, he is surprisingly good in one-on-one battles along the boards.
Abramov marries his skating ability with soft hands and good stick handling ability. This makes him very tough to defend one-on-one, whether it be off the rush, or working the puck down low. He can stick handle in a phone both, making Abramov a nightmare for defenders even when they try to take away his time and space. If he gets that space, look out.
Abramov is a pure goal scorer. He has an excellent wrist shot along with a quick release. Abramov also has a very good snap shot, slap shot and one-timer. He can also play the role of play maker with good vision and passing skills. While Abramov has good lower body strength, he must continue to get stronger in his upper body to take the physical pounding he could face at the next level.
Abramov works hard defensively, as he is conscientious on the back check, and tries to help out the defence down low. Unfortunately this is the biggest area where his lack of size is exposed, as he can be outmuscled by bigger, stronger opponents. He must add upper body strength in order to improve his defensive game.
Abramov is looking for a spot in the NHL, however it may be a little too soon for him. Upper body strength is still a bit of a concern, and he can use a bit more work defensively. He’s good for a junior aged player but not yet NHL ready. There has been talk that if he does not make the Blue Jackets, he will opt to play in Europe rather than return to the QMJHL.
Prospect #5: Sonny Milano
Left Wing — shoots Left
Born May 12th, 1996 — Massapequa, New York
Height 6’0″ — Weight 199 lbs [183 cm / 90 kg]
Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 1st round, #16 overall at the 2014 NHL Draft
Milano improved in his second AHL season. He scored 18 goals and 47 points in 63 games. He also got a short call-up to the NHL, playing in four regular season games, and on playoff game for the Blue Jackets
Sonny Milano has good top end speed, but his quickness is outstanding. By that I mean that he has a tremendous first step, great acceleration, and the ability to change direction on a dime. This really helps him to get by defencemen as the moment he sees an opening, he can fly through it. His ability to change speeds is deceptive and makes him very elusive. Milano also has very good agility and edge work. His balance and strength on the puck improved this past season, as he has gotten stronger. There is still more work to do.
Milano has great hands and the ability to make plays with the puck at top speed. He has a good wrist shot as well as a quick release. He also has a very dangerous backhand which he can get off in an instant. Milano is relentless on the puck, chasing down loose pucks in the offensive zone with reckless abandon. He wins puck battles via his determination, positioning and leverage, but can do even better if he added muscle.
Milano is very dangerous working off the half-wall on the power play, as he can take advantage of smallest bit of extra time and space to create excellent scoring chances with a shot or a pass. He is a tremendous play maker with great vision, and the ability to thread the needle and put the puck on a teammates tape.
Milano improved defensively this season. He was more consistent in his work ethic, but cas still get better. He can sometimes coast when his team does not have the puck. Milano does not use his skating, and his quick feet as effectively in the defensive zone as he does in the offensive zone. This is improving, but he sometimes falls into old habits.
Milano can win a forward spot with a good camp. He will need to outplay Bjorkstrand though. It is more likely that Milano gets more time in the AHL to work on his strength and defensive game. He could be a call-up if Dubois is sent back to junior after his audition, or if injuries hit.
Prospect #6: Vladislav Gavrikov
Defense — shoots Left
Born Nov 21 1995 — Yaroslavl, Russia
Height 6’3″ — Weight 205 lbs [191 cm / 93 kg]
Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 6th round, #159 overall at the 2015 NHL Draft
Gavrikov put up seven points in 54 games for Lokomotive in the KHL. He also added five points in 15 playoff games. He was part of Team Russia on the European Hockey tour as well as at the World Championships, putting up three points in 16 games combined.
Gavrikov is a good skater for his size. He has decent top end speed, a good first step, and above average acceleration. More importantly his backwards skating is as strong as his forwards movement, allowing him to play the shut down style of defensive game that he is known for. Gavrikov also has good edge work and pivots which allow him to keep the play in front of him and cover a lot of ice. His balance and lower body strength give Gavrikov the ability to win board battles.
There is not much to talk about when it comes to Gavrikov’s offensive game. While he has a decent first pass out of his zone, and his slap shot is average, he really does not bring a lot of offense to the game. He is a stay at home type of defender, who does not join the rush often, and is not one to pinch a lot at the blue line. He is more valued for his defensive contributions, than for any kind of offence he puts up.
Gavrikov has excellent size and is not afraid to use it. He plays a very physical game, standing up zone entries at the line, punishing opponents who try to go wide on him, throwing plenty of hits in the corners, and clearing the front of the net. He plays excellent positional defense, maintaining good gap control and forcing attacker to the outside and away from key danger areas in his zone. Gavrikov is also a willing shot blocker who is not afraid to get into shooting lanes, and uses his long stick to cut down on passing lanes.
Gavrikov proved to be particularly strong in the penalty kill when playing for the Russian national junior teams. To top it all off, he is a player who shows leadership on the ice and was rewarded by being named the captain of Team Russia, and the captain of his MHL club in 2014-15. Adding muscle over the last two years is a big reason why he was so much better in board battles and clearing the net now.
Gavrikov signed a two-year deal with CSKA Moscow this summer, one of the KHL’s top clubs. The Blue Jackets hope to bring him to North America in 2019. He is in the mix for the Russian Olympic Team.
Prospect #7: Kevin Stenlund
Center — shoots Right
Born September 20th, 1996 — Stockholm, Sweden
Height 6’3″ — Weight 205 lbs [191 cm / 93 kg]
Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2nd round, #58 overall at the 2015 NHL Draft
Stenlund put up 13 goals and 20 points while playing for HV71 in the SHL, Sweden’s top men’s league. He also added four goals and 10 points in 16 playoff games, helping the team to the SHL Championship.
A big centre, Stenlund’s skating is a bit of a work in progress. His speed and acceleration can be improved. He could clean up his footwork and initial strides. Stenlund has good agility and edge work for a big man. He changes directions quickly and makes good cuts. His strong lower body and good balance is a real asset in controlling the puck down low and playing the cycle game.
Stenlund uses his size and stick handling ability to control the puck down low. He wins battles on the boards and gets to the front of the net. He is also a very smart player, keeping the puck moving effectively, and finding open spaces in the defence. Stenlund has very good vision as well as the skill to make these passes to open areas. He can score with a good wrist shot, and strong release.
Stenlund back checks hard and supports the defence down low. He uses his size effectively to contain the cycle game. He also uses his long stick and good positioning to cut down passing lanes. Stenlund is not afraid to block shots.
Stenlund will spend another season in Sweden. He could be a third or fourth line centre for the Jackets down the road. They will hope he continues to improve and comes to North America next season.
Sleeper Prospect: Tyler Motte
Center — shoots Left
Born March 10th 1995 — St. Clair, Minnesota
Height 5’9″ — Weight 193 lbs [175 cm / 88 kg]
Drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 4th round, #121 overall at the 2013 NHL Draft
Traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets in June 2017
Motte was acquired as part of the Artemi Panarin trade. He played in 33 games for the Blackhawks last season, scoring four goals and seven points. He also player in 43 AHL games, scoring 10 goals and 16 points.
Motte is another diminutive player with excellent speed and skating ability. He has a good stride and picks up acceleration quickly. He is also extremely elusive, both with and without the puck, thanks to his good agility and edge work. Motte will probably need to add some more muscle to play at the pro level, but in college was strong on the puck and showed good balance in board battles.
Motte is pure sniper. He has a strong wrist shot and an outstanding release. Motte understands how to get open in the offensive zone and has a knack for finding the soft spots in a defence. He also has an excellent one-timer. Motte is more goal scorer than passer, though he does have good vision and the ability to thread the puck through tight areas. Motte makes up for his lack of size by being tenacious. He never stops moving his feet and is often in on the fore check, in front of the net, or battling in the corners.
Motte brings his tenacity to the defensive end. His ability to continually pressure the puck is a very effective asset in his own end. He continues to bring the tenacious, hard working style in all three zones. Motte is a smart player with good positioning as well. He was part of the Wolverines penalty kill units.
Motte will try to win the Jackets fourth line centre spot. He will compete with Schroeder for the position. William Karlsson leaves a void on the team in terms of his defensive role, and the penalty kill minutes he provided. Whoever can best take some of those minutes has a leg up in grabbing the role.
The Jackets have a strong young team. With the number of good young players who have graduated in recent years, the system’s depth has taken a hit. That should not be a big concern though, as there is plenty of team to rebuild the team’s depth.
The Blue Jackets did not have a first round pick this year. They added an intriguing prospect in French forward Alexander Texier in the second round. Other intriguing forwards picked this year include Emil Bemstrom, Kale Howarth, and Jonathan Davidsson. Forwards Calvin Thurkauf and Markus Hannikainen are further down the depth chart. Paul Bittner had a rough year, even taking some time away from the rink. It is hoped he can get back on track as a top prospect.
Andrew Peeke is a big, hard-hitting, defensive defenceman. He is joined by Jacob Graves, and Blake Siebenaler. This is the Jackets weakest position which makes it so important that they get Gavrikov to come to North America in a couple of years.
Daniil Tarasov was a third round pick. He joins Elvis Merzlikins and Matiss Kivlenieks as the Jackets goalie prospect depth.
BUFFALO, NY – JUNE 24: Pierre-Luc Dubois gives an interview after being picked third overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets during round one of the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Jen Fuller/Getty Images)