Three. That’s the number of draft picks that general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and the Columbus Blue Jackets brass had to work with during the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. The club pushed hard during last year’s trade deadline in an attempt to add some meat to their roster in hopes of a deep playoff run. Unfortunately, they fell short, suffering a second-round exit. Thus, resulting in no Stanley Cup and one extremely thin entry draft.
It was by no means a perfect scenario. With just two picks in the fourth round and one in the seventh, Blue Jackets fans were gearing up for a very somber weekend. In all honesty, it was nothing special. However, the club managed to draft smart, selecting three players with great potential and addressing some obvious weaknesses within the team’s depth chart.
The club managed to make the best of the situation and believe it or not, all three selected players exceeded expectations this season. Could the Blue Jackets have gone three-for-three last June, picking a trio of “diamond in the rough” players late in the draft? Let’s dive in with an update on each of their seasons.
Fourth Round – Eric Hjorth
It was day two of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. The Blue Jackets had been waiting patiently for their time to step up and finally make their first selection of the weekend. With the 104th pick, they selected the right-handed defender, Eric Hjorth. A Swedish native who possesses good size and is equipped with a keen eye to produce offense from the back-end.
The 19-year-old made his way to North America this season after playing his previous two in both the U20 and U18 Swedish Leagues, respectively. Unfortunately, his sample size had been somewhat limited as his career was riddled with a long history of injuries. For this reason, his stock naturally dropped, allowing the Jackets to snatch him up later than expected.
Adjusting To Life in Juniors
Hjorth currently plays for the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League and is adjusting to the North American game quite nicely. While the team is on track to finish in the basement of the league, the 6-foot-3 blueliner is enjoying decent success on a personal level.
He burst out of the gate strong, posting 17 points through his first 21 games, shining as one of the league’s top offensive performers (among defenders). While his game eventually dropped back down to earth, he remains at the top of all Sarnia d-men with a respectable 12 goals and 17 helpers through 60 games.
He may still be a few seasons from seeing any real-time at the professional level. However, with an above-average shot and pro-level skating abilities, Hjorth could serve as a nice option on the right side down the road.
So far so good.
Fourth Round – Dmitri Voronkov
The club did not have to wait long before they were back on the clock to select their second player of the 2019 Draft. With the 114th pick, Columbus selected a heavy-set centreman, Dmitri Voronkov.
Size and skill are a rare and deadly combination to find, and the Russian pivot is loaded with both. He enjoys playing the game on the edge, and his 6-foot-3 frame is guaranteed to stand up to skaters within the North American game. He established himself as a pro-hockey player last season after he spent 50 games playing in Russia’s second-tier league, recording seven goals and seven assists. His confident two-way style earned him a permanent roster spot in the countries top league this season, suiting up for the heavyweight club, Ak Bars Kazan of the KHL.
Becoming A Regular in The KHL
Granted, he found the net during his first game as a rookie. However, it naturally took some time to transition his game. It’s uncommon for young talent to enter this league and expect heavy minutes right off the bat and Voronkov was no different. For the first half of the season, he earned anywhere from 5-10 minutes of ice-time per match. Of course, he still managed to chip in with hard-nosed goals like this:
His status as a full-time KHL player would help him earn his first spot in the highly-anticipated World Junior Championships. The tournament would serve as a giant stepping stone in his young development. Going from an otherwise unknown skater to Russia’s player of the tournament, Voronkov impressed many with his versatile two-way game. It’s safe to say his confidence was peaking and although his country would ultimately miss out on the gold medal, it was here that the Blue Jackets fourth-rounder put his name on the map.
He would take that confidence back to Russia, wrapping up his inaugural season with 12 points (5 goals, 7 assists) and topped it off with (February) KHL rookie of the month honors.
Related: Top 10 NHL Goalie Prospects
Voronkov has yet to sign an entry-level deal with the Blue Jackets. However, given his success, expect there to be some talks over the summer. His skill set screams NHL bottom-six and could end up being a nice steal for the organization.
Seventh Round – Tyler Angle
After selecting two players in the fourth round, the Blue Jackets were forced to take a seat again, patiently waiting for the seventh round to begin. Eventually, it was time to make their third and final pick of the 2019 NHL Draft. The organization already enjoyed a nice stockpile of wingers and goaltenders among their system, therefore, another centerman seemed to be the logical way to go. That center would be Tyler Angle, an undersized player in the middle of resurrecting his OHL career.
At just 5-foot-10, Angle had been overlooked during his previous draft year. Despite his soft hands and strong skating ability, he struggled to transition his game to the junior level. With that in mind, he was generally considered to be a prospect with little to offer. However, with just six picks remaining in the draft, the Jackets decided to take a chance on the struggling center. Blue Jackets assistant director of amateur scouting, Chris Morehouse knew that the potential was there:
“He just kept popping out at me every time I went to see him play. He’s a guy that he has skill, but he plays anywhere you want in the lineup. Every game I went to watch him play, you just saw the progression.– NHL.com
Fast-forward to today and the fourth year OHL veteran has turned his career around, enjoying career totals in almost every category.
A Career Year
While skating alongside high-end talent such as Egor Afanasyev (Nashville Predators), Angle is enjoying a career season with the playoff-bound Windsor Spitfire. With 29 goals and 38 assists, the Ontario native has solidified himself as one of the league’s top centers. He is a creative player who thrives on the power play, playing the half boards and opening up space for his teammates. If you are a fan of a good comeback story, he may be the prospect for you. He currently co-leads his team in points and finds a way to get his name on the score-sheet on a nightly basis. Keep an eye out for him during the OHL playoffs, he could be making some loud noise.
With no NHL contract signed yet, his status with the club remains in the air. However, it’s no reach to think he becomes a seventh-round steal for this organization. Assuming he inks a deal, Angle shows potential to crack a top-six role at the AHL level, perhaps becoming a fringe NHL player in the future.