Alexander Wennberg was taken 14th overall by Columbus at the draft in June. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Columbus Blue Jackets walked into the 2013 draft with a spring in their step. After all, the franchise was quickly resurrected by Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky during the shortened season, albeit a smidge late to earn a playoff berth. Nonetheless, the new braintrust of GM Jarmo Kekalainen and president of hockey operations John Davidson commands respect around the NHL and after drafting three players in the first round, the Jackets are looking viable now and in the future.
“I’m excited,” says left winger Kerby Rychel. “It’s a young team and an organization that is turning the corner. I’ve heard nothing but good things about the city.”
Rychel was the second of three forwards taken by Columbus in the top 30, sandwiched at No. 19 between Swedish pivot Alexander Wennberg (14th overall) and Slovakian power forward Marko Dano (27th overall). The son of ex-NHLer and Windsor Spitfires owner/GM Warren Rychel posted back-to-back 40-goal seasons in Windsor, but also drops the gloves with aplomb, as his running feud with Plymouth agitator Ryan Hartman (30th overall to Chicago) can attest. Spitfires owner/coach Bob Boughner spent a year as an assistant coach in Columbus and gave Rychel a positive review of the Ohio capital.
“With Rychel, there’s bloodlines obviously,” Davidson says. “There’s a passion for a hockey, a kid who can be a power forward who is improving his skating and knows how to score goals. We’re real happy with that stuff.”
While none of the three picks should be expected to jump right onto the Columbus roster, Rychel’s thick six-foot, 205-pound frame and maturity (his late birthday means he’ll be 19 come October) suggest he’s not far off.
“There aren’t too many pure goal scorers at the NHL level,” he says. “So I’m going to have to grind, kill penalties, do whatever it takes.”
Dano was a bit of surprise as a first-rounder, though he’s also the type of player who will throw his weight around and has been doing so against men for the past couple years. This season it was in the Kontinental League with Slovan Bratislava. Some look at Dano’s nine points in six games at the world juniors for Slovakia as a big plus, but four of those came in two relegation round matches. He also needs to stay out of the penalty box, but there’s a risk in curtailing his bruising too much, as Dano is most effective when he’s crashing and banging. Whether he remains overseas in the short term is another question.
“There’s a chance he will be,” Davidson says. “But he’s our property, we drafted him and we’re very happy. He looks like a hockey player already. Fit, strong, he’s already playing in a men’s league.”
The top player in the crop, Wennberg, also comes with an impressive resume. As part of Sweden’s world junior team, he stepped up when injuries crushed the Tre Kronor leading up to the tourney in Russia. Instead of wilting, the kids ran all the way to the final, losing a close one to Team USA to earn silver.
“We were missing a lot of great guys – Oscar Klefbom, Hampus Lindholm, Mika Zibanejad,” Wennberg says. “We were a young team, but we really came together.”
Scouts loved Wennberg’s work with Djurgarden this year, where he also put a stamp on the team despite his young age. Clearly that adulation carries over to the Blue Jackets’ managers.
“He’s got real good speed,” Davidson says. “We know it’s going to be a year or two, but the improvement he has shown in the last year in particular has been very strong. A lot of people have spoken very strongly about him and we’ve done our research.”
Columbus had more than just the draft to worry about leading up to June 30. Bobrovsky was still a restricted free agent at the time, but with ‘Bob’ negotiating in good faith, the Jackets went ahead and used all three selections, rather than dealing them, then closed the deal with their netminder soon after.
“When ‘Bob’ comes back we have depth in goal,” Davidson says. “And we have a real good defense; we were good last year defensively. We need help up front and that’s not something where you can just go out and knock the ball out of the park. It takes some time to develop. But we look at those three players and they have different looks, but they can all put the puck in the net. We feel good about it.”
This article originally appeared in the August 26, 2013 issue of The Hockey News.