With the on-ice portion of training camp set to begin on Friday, followed by the first preseason game on September 25th, the Columbus Blue Jackets are inching ever closer to the home opener against the Eastern Conference rival Boston Bruins on October 13th. As the beginning of another potentially tumultuous season approaches, Columbus management and fans alike spent the past few days evaluating the play of their most promising prospects at the annual Traverse City Prospects Tournament. These four games served as a showcase for a few familiar faces, as well as providing first impressions for a number of players new to the organization.
Traverse City Takeaways: Columbus Blue Jackets
The Way It Was
Columbus came into this year’s tournament having won the gold in each of the previous two years, yet struggled initially. In a match that became an absolute shootout, the Jackets lost their first preliminary game to the Detroit Red Wings by a score of 6-4. The game became progressively chippier as the match continued, leading to a few silly penalties from both sides.
With a loss in the first game, Columbus needed a win in the second round, and the young Jackets rebounded in a big way. On the back of improved goaltending in the form of Jeremy Brodeur, the Jackets struck early and often en route to a 4-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues. By the end of day two, all four teams in Columbus’ division left with both a win and a loss, leaving the third day to decide who would fight for the top three spots.
With the pressure on, the Jackets’ prospects faced a familiar foe in the Chicago Blackhawks for game three. Chicago struck early with two goals in rapid succession, but Columbus was able to fight back a little at a time, culminating in a game winning goal by third overall draft pick Pierre-Luc Dubois with just over eight minutes left in the third period.
Day Three also saw the Red Wings beating out the Blues, which meant that the Blue Jackets had to settle for a spot in the third place game on Monday. Continuing the theme of familiar adversaries, their opponents were the New York Rangers. In a stunning reversal of the first game, the Blue Jackets became an offensive powerhouse, winning 6-4 and walking away from Traverse City with the bronze.
— Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline) September 21, 2016
Three Stars of the Tournament
1. Pierre-Luc Dubois – 2G, 5A
By themselves, Dubois’ numbers throughout the tournament are impressive. When taken in combination with the way he played the game, there can be no doubt as to his place atop the prospect pool in Columbus. Forget the fact that it was his game winning goal that sent Columbus into the third-place game and the fact that three of his five assists came against the Rangers in the final game. Even without putting up seven points in four games, Dubois would’ve been the standout player on this team because of the work he put in, shift after shift.
In this tournament alone, he showed positional intelligence both on and off the puck, a penchant for incisive passing, sufficient strength to hold off defenders, and a willingness to play a gritty game. Dubois earned the title of power forward in a way that belies his youth. The transition from minors to the NHL can be tough and he may not earn a permanent spot this season, but Dubois’ play style, reminiscent of teammate Boone Jenner, will undoubtedly serve him well down the line. Despite a slow start for the entire team, Dubois improved rapidly as the tournament progressed, and management will surely take notice.
2. Nick Moutrey – 2G, 3A
Coming off his first season with the Cleveland Monsters, the expectations for Nick Moutrey were certainly low. He only contributed 11 points in the entirety of the Monsters’ Calder Cup-winning season, but his performance in this tournament proved to be uncharacteristically strong. He was a vital part in the final win against the Rangers, scoring both the first and third goals for the Jackets as they fought to victory. Additionally, it was his assist that led to the tying goal against the Blackhawks and gave Dubois the platform to win the game.
It is unclear what effect this performance will have on Moutrey’s stock within the organization, but his play in this tournament has given a glimpse into what he’s capable of doing when given the proper support. Look for a better season as a member of a deep Cleveland team this year, with the occasional glimpse of NHL play in the likely event of an injury bug.
3. Justin Scott – 4G, 0A
A relative unknown, centerman Justin Scott came into the Traverse City tournament as an undrafted player on an entry level contract with the Blue Jackets. Scott spent the 2015-16 season with the Barrie Colts of the OHL, where he accumulated 65 points in 67 regular season games and 17 points during the Colts’ 11-game playoff run. Despite this level of production, he has flown under the radar of management and pundits alike until his impressive display this past weekend.
Although he wasn’t responsible for tallying any assists, his four goals led the team throughout the tournament, and his play demonstrated strong sense of positioning as well as a deceptively quick, accurate shot. Don’t expect to see him in Columbus much this season, but he should feature prominently as a member of the Cleveland Monsters if he is able to continue this level of production.
Vitali Abramov, another product of this year’s draft, managed to provide a sneak peek of things to come, albeit a little further down the line. Although he neither scored nor assisted throughout the tournament, he ensured that everyone on the opposing teams would be aware of his presence. At top speed, he was nearly untouchable, and his stick handling was nothing short of impressive.He flew all over the ice in every matchup, playing the gritty game of a man five inches taller and 25 pounds heavier while still speeding past defenders with ease at full stride.
With such strong natural abilities, his ridiculous scoring tear of 103 points in 73 games last season with the Gatineau Olimpiques feels like a matter of course rather than the impressive total it truly is. If he improves upon his decision making and upper body strength, he should undoubtedly evolve into a top-six forward. Unlike Dubois, however, his development will likely take a few seasons. He undeniably contains the raw talent, but unpacking and polishing it will require patience on the part of fans and management. A few seasons in Cleveland will do him well, and he may help them to another cup along the way.
Lingering Question Marks
Despite the fact that he contributed two goals and two assists across the tournament, the best way to describe Milano’s performance is inconsistent. He certainly showed flashes of his skating and passing abilities, but lapses in concentration and failures to get back defensively punctuated these moments. The talent is certainly there, and if he manages to eliminate errors caused by mental breakdowns and a lack of hustle, Milano could find himself a spot on the senior roster. As for now, he is simply too inconsistent to knock anyone out of their position.
#CBJ D Zach Werenski will likely miss the first week of training camp, club says. He has a groin injury.
— Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline) September 21, 2016
The question surrounding Werenski is not one based in ability, but rather in availability. After he picked up what would later be diagnosed as a groin injury over the weekend, management forced him to sit out the rest of the tournament. While they were adamant that sitting Werenski was simply precautionary, reports suggest that the injury will likely keep him out of camp for at least the first week, which could be damaging to his first-team hopes for the immediate future.
In the little time he was on ice during the tournament, however, he showed why he was fighting for a spot on the senior roster in the first place. He showed intelligence and poise on defense, and managed to score a goal in the 4-1 win against the Blues. With a history of prolonged injury throughout the club, the natural tendency for Blue Jackets fans may be hesitancy. However, if he actually only misses the first week of camp, Werenski may still find a spot in the big leagues going into the regular season. Otherwise, it’s likely he’ll start the season back in Cleveland and work his way up.
Overall, the tournament served as a good first glimpse into the potential future of the Columbus Blue Jackets, despite slipping from gold to bronze. While the sample size is certainly insufficient to make any long-term judgments, the initial look at these young players, particularly Dubois and Abramov, sparks a sense of hope for good things to come. Provided their development goes as planned, the future has the potential to be bright in Columbus.