Blue Jackets Sunday Gathering: Anticipating the next wave of prospects in the coming weeks

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A collection of notes, insights, ruminations and did-you-knows gathered throughout the week that was for the Columbus Blue Jackets:

Item No. 1: The next wave

One of the few saving graces of this Blue Jackets season has been the hard-to-miss development of the young forwards who had been stockpiled in recent seasons.

In the next week or so, the Blue Jackets will be eliminated from the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season. But the emergence of centers Adam Fantilli, Cole Sillinger and Dmitry Voronkov and wingers Yegor Chinakhov and Kirill Marchenko have helped the winter months pass by a little quicker.

And now there’s another wave coming.

Over the next couple of weeks, no fewer than six players in the organization’s pipeline will have an opportunity to turn pro, including some players who could crack the Blue Jackets lineup before the season ends on April 16.

Here are the names to keep an eye on, listed in order of those most likely to arrive with the Blue Jackets or AHL Cleveland in the coming weeks:

Denton Mateychuk, D

Acquired: First round (No. 12) in 2022 draft

Scenario: Mateychuk has one week remaining in the regular season with Moose Jaw of the Western Hockey League. Up next will be the WHL playoffs, where the Warriors will likely be a No. 3 seed in the East. Moose Jaw could have a long postseason run, so it’s possible Mateychuk’s final days in the WHL will extend beyond the Blue Jackets’ season.

But whenever Moose Jaw finishes, Mateychuk, who is already signed to an entry-level contract, will turn pro. If Columbus has games remaining, he could come straight to the NHL for a taste. If not, he could join AHL Cleveland for the end of their regular season (April 21) and the AHL postseason.

Outlook: The Blue Jackets say Mateychuk nearly made the NHL roster out of training camp, so there’s a strong chance he’ll be an NHL regular sooner rather than later. He’s not as dynamic (re: risky) a player as the Jackets’ other top prospect on defense, David Jiricek, but Mateychuk has a more polished two-way game. It won’t be a surprise if Mateychuk and Jiricek pair up together as soon as this spring in Cleveland.

Jordan Dumais, F

Acquired: Third round (No. 96) in 2022 draft

Scenario: Dumais is fully recovered from midseason abdominal surgery, but he’ll miss the final week of the regular season due to a five-game suspension stemming from his recent DUI charges in Halifax. That legal entanglement — a court date has not yet been made public — could require him to stay in Nova Scotia after his junior season ends.

Otherwise, he’s in the same boat as Mateychuk. He’s already signed an entry-level deal, so he can join the Blue Jackets and or AHL Cleveland as soon as Halifax’s run comes to an end in the Quebec Maritimes Junior Hockey League. That could be a while, too, as the Mooseheads, with one week remaining in the regular season, are the No. 2 seed in the East.

Outlook: Dumais is a prolific junior-league scorer. His size (5-foot-8, 170 pounds) is a concern and his skating has been questioned, but Dumais plays with a chip on his shoulder and has excellent offensive instincts. He may require some time in the AHL to get acclimated to bigger, faster opponents.

Gavin Brindley, F

Acquired: Second round (No. 34) in 2023 draft

Scenario: Brindley has a big decision to make in the coming weeks. He’s had a stellar sophomore season at the University of Michigan (24-27-51 in 36 games), which plays Michigan State next Saturday in the Big Ten championship game and is a lock to make the NCAA Tournament field later this month.

But whenever the Wolverines’ run ends, Brindley bears watching, because it’s not out of the question he opts to turn pro instead of returning to Michigan for a third season. If he stays in college, he obviously won’t be seen in the Blue Jackets’ or AHL Cleveland’s lineup this spring. But if he turns pro, the entry-level deal he signs is key.

If the contract begins with the 2024-25 NHL season, he wouldn’t be eligible to play right away in Columbus, but he could sign a professional tryout contract that would allow him to play in the AHL. (This is exactly what another Michigan man, Zach Werenski, did in the spring of 2016 when he helped Cleveland win the Calder Cup.)

If Brindley, 19, signs an entry-level deal that begins this season (2023-24), he can only play the rest of this season in the NHL because he wasn’t on the AHL roster when the postseason rosters were established on March 8.

Outlook: The Blue Jackets say they haven’t tried to influence Brindley’s decision, so this will be a tough call between Brindley, his family and his advisor, NHL super agent Pat Brisson, as soon as Michigan’s season ends. Brindley already has a close friend in the Blue Jackets dressing room in Fantilli. He plays bigger than his size (5-foot-9, 165 pounds) and competes at a relentless, high-energy pace.

Max McCue, F

Acquired: Signed as a free agent on March 1, 2024

Scenario: McCue might be busy for a while with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, who will be a top seed when the playoffs start later this month. But that’s just as well, as McCue isn’t eligible to play in the NHL until next season at the earliest. The entry-level deal he signed with the Blue Jackets starts with the 2024-25 season, and it’s possible McCue will need some seasoning in the AHL before he’s ready for the big leagues. When London’s season ends, however, McCue could sign a professional tryout contract with AHL Cleveland and try to crack the Monsters lineup in the postseason.

Outlook: Credit to McCue for playing his way into an NHL contract. He was drafted by San Jose (fifth round, No. 156) in 2021 but never signed by the Sharks, then went back into the draft last summer but was not drafted. He’s had a big final season of major junior (26-31-57, with 110 penalty minutes in 59 games) and plays a reckless, physical style that keeps opponents (and league disciplinary folks) on high alert.

Guillaume Richard, D

Acquired: Fourth round (No. 101) in 2021 draft

Scenario: Providence College was bounced from the Hockey East quarterfinals by UMass on Saturday and is now a bubble team for the NCAA Tournament field. Whenever Richard’s season at Providence ends, he’ll need to decide if he’s ready to turn pro or if he wants to return for his senior year. If he decides to turn pro, look for him to join AHL Cleveland on a professional tryout contract. If he stays in college for a fourth year, he could become an unrestricted free agent next summer and sign with any NHL club.

Outlook: Most scouts view Richard as a middling NHL prospect, a player likely to spend considerable time in the AHL. This is not a decision that will garner much attention. Richard could also factor the Blue Jackets’ crowded collection of blue-line prospects into his plan.

Aidan Hreschuk, D

Acquired: Part of a three-way trade with Carolina and Florida that sent Max Domi to Carolina at the 2022 trade deadline

Scenario: Hreschuk is in the same situation as Richard — he’s a junior at Boston College, which plays next weekend in the Hockey East semifinals. Boston College, however, is a lock to make the NCAA Tournament, so Hreschuk may have longer to weigh his options. If he returns to college, he can opt to become an unrestricted free agent next summer and sign with any NHL club.

Outlook: It’s unclear if the Blue Jackets see Hreschuk, a stay-at-home defenseman, as a player with pro potential, so an entry-level contract may or may not be in the offing.

Item No. 2: Heavy lefties

With Andrew Peeke traded, David Jiricek parked in the AHL and Adam Boqvist once again injured, the Blue Jackets suddenly have a dearth of right-shot defensemen on the roster.

The lineup had a bizarre look on Saturday against San Jose: Zach Werenski, almost exclusively a left-side defender so far in his NHL career, moved to the right side of the top pair to play alongside Ivan Provorov. Jake Christiansen, a left shot, joined Damon Severson on the Blue Jackets’ second pair.

How can you say “We don’t want to recall Jiricek” without actually saying those words, right?

Jiricek, a right shot, was sent to AHL Cleveland in late January after spending most of the first half of the season with the Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets want the 2022 first-round pick (No. 6) to sharpen the defensive side of his game, so they sent him back to the minors, where he spent most of last season.

If they recalled Jiricek, they would have had three lefties and three righties. With only one month left in the season, they could have taken a look at Jiricek on a pair with Werenski.

Instead, it was Christiansen — one of the AHL’s top offensive defensemen (13-27-40 in 54 games) — who got the nod for a recall, not the top prospect.

Blue Jackets coach Pascal Vincent shed more light on what he wants to see from Jiricek.

“We want him to get better at his gap control, because in the NHL if you don’t have that, it’s going to be really hard,” Vincent said. “Not that all defensemen are great at it, but you need to have it.

“We play him big-time minutes (in Cleveland). The most important thing to us is that he needs to play minutes. He needs to be on the ice at key times and keep growing. That’s the plan right now.”

Jiricek has 6-10-16 in 22 games with Cleveland. He also has a minus-14 rating on a club that leads the AHL’s North Division.

“A full evaluation (of Jiricek’s game), I don’t have as of right now,” Vincent said. “But they’re sticking to the plan and (making) sure he touches the puck a lot, and that he’s facing good opponents to get better.”

Item No. 3: Snacks

Forgive us if we sound like a broken record. But … since he returned from a broken jaw in mid-January, Blue Jackets captain Boone Jenner has played over 20 minutes in 15 of 23 games, including the last seven in a row. He’s averaged 20:55 per game in that stretch, which is 11th most among NHL centers and more than players such as Toronto’s Auston Matthews (20:46), Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl (20:27), Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby (19:59), Florida’s Aleksander Barkov (19:54) and others. This represents a huge workload for a player who has seen two of his 11 NHL seasons end prematurely due to a back injury. Vincent has said he wants to watch Jenner’s minutes in back-to-backs, but he played him 20:56 on Saturday against San Jose with a Sunday game vs. Winnipeg on the docket.

Here’s Vincent on Jenner’s minutes before Saturday’s game: “As a coach, I need to be aware of those things. I coach according to how the team responds. They decide if I’m going to coach hard. I’m going to adjust my approach by how we work, how we play. My point is, I’d love to play four lines. Just go. But I make adjustments during the game depending on who’s playing. The problem with Boone Jenner is he’s always going, right? Even when he has an average game, he’s still pretty good. That doesn’t happen very often. He’s on the power play. He’s on the PK. He’s five-on-five against the best lines. What I’d like to do eventually is play four lines because we have four lines going. But I’m certainly aware of his minutes, especially on a back-to-back. It’s my job to manage that.”

It’s harder now than ever for Vincent to keep Jenner off the ice because he’s without his other veteran center, Sean Kuraly (lower-body injury). He’s come to trust Cole Sillinger as a second-line center, but Dmitry Voronkov’s minutes have been heavily managed. He’s averaging just 13:14 per game, despite being tied for second among NHL rookies with 17 goals. Put into perspective: Eric Robinson played 13:15 per game before he was traded to Buffalo earlier this season.

Jenner has scored the 1-0 goal in the last two games, giving him 21 for the season. It’s the fourth time in his career he’s hit 20 goals. Rick Nash had eight 20-goal seasons with Columbus while Cam Atkinson had six. R.J. Umberger and now Jenner have four each.

Jenner’s goal only 15 seconds into Thursday’s game vs. Ottawa was the fastest goal at the start of a game by a Blue Jackets player this season and the sixth-fastest goal at the start of a game in franchise history. Jenner also owns the franchise’s third-fastest game-opening goal. On Dec. 3, 2016, Jenner scored 13 seconds into a 3-2 shootout win in Arizona. The fastest game-opening goal(s) in franchise history took only 10 seconds, and it’s happened twice: First by Nash on Jan. 11, 2006, vs. Pittsburgh, and seven years later by Cam Atkinson on March 28, 2013, at Edmonton.

Here’s your weekly Blue Jackets trivia question: Werenski’s assist in Saturday’s game puts him at 4-36-40 on the season. There have been 11 40-point seasons by a Blue Jackets defenseman, and Werenski has five of them. Who was the first Blue Jackets blueliner to net 40 points in a season?

Unless veteran winger Johnny Gaudreau goes on a goal-scoring spree in the final month, he’s going to set a career low in goals this season. Gaudreau, in the second year of a seven-year deal with Columbus, has just 11 goals through 67 games after scoring against San Jose on Saturday. His previous career low is 18 set during the 2016-17 and 2019-20 seasons when he played for Calgary. Gaudreau had 21 goals last season with the Blue Jackets, but he’s generating only 1.97 shots per game (vs. his career average of 2.70 before this season) and shooting just 8.3 percent (vs. his career average of 12.5 percent).

• Here’s Gaudreau on his goal scoring: “It feels nice to get one (on Saturday). Missing breakaways is not ideal. That’s happened. Having goals called back (after an official review) is not ideal. And that little stretch at the start of the season wasn’t my greatest. That’s probably why I am where I’m at today. I just have to move past it and create some chemistry.”

Boqvist was rubbed off a puck early in Thursday’s shootout loss to Ottawa. The hit itself was nothing out of the ordinary, but Boqvist was steered into an NHL linesman who had hopped onto the wall in front of the Blue Jackets bench to avoid contact. They slammed into each other, with Boqvist tumbling to the ice and the lineman sailing backward into the Columbus bench. “One of those injuries,” Vincent said. “We don’t know (how long he’ll be out). We’ll see how he progresses. It’s a physical game. The official was there. He can’t disappear all of a sudden.”

The trivia answer: Jaroslav Spacek had 9-36-45 in 81 games during the 2002-03 season, becoming the first Columbus defenseman with 40 points in a season.

In a one-week span, the Blue Jackets recalled forwards Trey Fix-Wolansky, Brendan Gaunce, Carson Meyer and Mikael Pyyhtia and defenseman Jake Christiansen from AHL Cleveland. That’s five of the Monsters’ top six point producers, and they’ve accounted for 84 goals, 113 assists and 197 points this season. The lineup Cleveland rolls out at 3 p.m. today against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton will look nothing like the club that was in first place of the AHL’s North Division when the call-ups started. As of today, Cleveland is tied with Syracuse atop their division.

Meyer, who grew up in Powell, Ohio, a Columbus suburb, was delighted to have a large family contingent in the house on Saturday against the Sharks. That included his nine-week-old son Charles, who attended his first NHL game. Charles would have debuted against Ottawa — Meyer’s first game in Nationwide Arena this season — but they were waiting for the little man’s noise-canceling headphones to be delivered. That cannon is no joke, people.

(Photo of Denton Mateychuk in a Blue Jackets preseason game: Jeff Le / USA Today)

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