The Columbus Blue Jackets will be well-represented on the rosters of the 2021 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship. That’s due, one must admit, to the team failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which is taking place simultaneously. Members of the Blue Jackets organization will appear on seven of the 16 team rosters (and it would have been eight except for a lingering injury).
The World Championship will be held in Riga, Latvia, from March 21 through June 6, 2021. Games were originally scheduled to be played in both Riga and Minsk, Belarus. Belarus was stripped of its co-host status “due to safety and security concerns.” National teams are grouped into three divisions, with the top 16 teams divided into Group A and Group B in Division I. Teams have been seeded based on their 2020 IIHF ranking. With the 2020 World Championship cancelled due to COVID concerns, the seedings are as of the end of the 2019 tournament.
The tournament’s top seed, Team Canada, is also the youngest team with an average age of just under 24. (Three teams – Denmark, Great Britain, and Latvia – average over 28 years old.) Perhaps not so surprising in light of the team’s youth, it also has the least World Championship experience on the roster. Defenseman Troy Stretcher and forward Adam Henrique both have 10 games under their belts, while goalie Darcy Kuemper has seven. Goalie Michael DiPietro has been a member of Team Canada twice before at the World Championship, but has yet to see game action. For comparison, Team Latvia has a combined 821 games of experience in the World Championship, followed by Denmark at 790 games.
The speedy forward Liam Foudy split time between the Blue Jackets and the AHL Cleveland Monsters during 2020-21. In 24 games with the big club, he registered only four assists, playing about 12:30 average time on ice. His time with the Monsters was far more productive: three goals and 13 assists for 16 points in a dozen games.
Prior to the start of the NHL’s 2020-21 season, one of my “Bold Predictions” was that Foudy would make become a regular in Columbus. That didn’t happen. Let’s say I was a year (or two?) premature with that prediction.
An undrafted free agent, forward Justin Danforth recently signed a one-year contract with the Blue Jackets. Steven Ellis of Sports Illustrated | The Hockey News had an interesting take on Danforth as part of Team Canada:
One other name to keep in mind: Justin Danforth. He’s the lone player on this team that made their living in Europe this off-season, but Columbus rewarded him with his first NHL contract earlier this month. Talk about a guy who really had to fight to prove themselves. He’s 28 years old, signed an ECHL contract out of college back in 2017, struggled in the AHL and then went overseas. He went on to have a pair of outstanding runs in the Finnish Liiga with Lukko before nearly finishing with a point-per-game in the KHL. He’s a depth guy for Columbus, but Hockey Canada is familiar with him at the Spengler Cup and World Junior A Challenge level. What a moment for the Oshawa, Ont. native.“Canada is Bringing a New Identity to Men’s World Championship,” Sports Illustrated | The Hockey News, Steven Ellis, May 12, 2021.
Danforth is likely to start the 2021-22 season with Cleveland.
Team USA certainly could have benefitted from the World Championship not overlapping with the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Like most of the top-seeded national squads, much of the high-end talent is still playing in the NHL. That’s not to say, however, that there are no interesting players and prospects who will wear the USA sweater in this tournament.
On the verge of unrestricted free agency, defenseman Adam Clendening spent part of the past season on the Blue Jackets’ taxi squad, but saw no NHL game action. He did, however, play nine games with Cleveland, scoring once and adding three assists.
One of only four Blue Jackets to appear in all 56 games of the 2020-21 NHL season, Eric Robinson put up 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists) and registered a team-leading plus-6 while playing under 12:30 average time on ice. Known for his exceptional speed, he scored three of his goals and six of his points in the final seven games of the season.
Robinson’s performance complicates the Blue Jackets’ decisions leading up to the Seattle Kraken expansion draft this summer. A number of mock drafts have the Kraken selecting Robinson rather than defenseman Dean Kukan or goalie Matiss Kivelnieks. Adding him to the protected list would mean exposing another forward the club would like to keep.
At an average of just about 6-foot-2 and 198 pounds, Team Russia has the physically largest roster in the tournament. With three, it also has the largest contingent of Blue Jackets players.
Physical defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov missed only one game for the Blue Jackets in 2020-21. In 124 NHL games to date, he’s put up only 30 points, but recorded 169 blocked shots and 148 hits. Prior to the trade deadline, he constituted half of Columbus’ shut-down second pair with David Savard (traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning).
After the breakup of “Gavy & Savy,” he continued his solid play, recording 14 blocked shots in the final five games of the season. That’s the sort of play one can expect to see from him during the World Championship.
Forward Mikhail Grigorenko’s selection to Team Russia likely had much more to do with his several years in the KHL than his more recent season with the Blue Jackets. From 2017-18 through 2019-20, he played 147 games KHL games, scoring 46 goals and 70 assists for 116 points. With the Blue Jackets, his 2020-21 season included 32 games and 12 points. After a couple of seasons of North American minor hockey with the Quebec Remparts, Grigorenko was a 2012 first-round draft pick (No. 12 overall) of the Buffalo Sabres.
After five years of modest results in the NHL, he returned home to Russia to play for CSKA Moscow. His decision to return to the NHL was a limited success. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent this summer and his performance at the World Championship may determine whether he gets contract offers from both NHL and KHL teams.
Selected in the fourth round of the 2019 Entry Draft (No. 114 overall) by Columbus, center Dmitri Voronkov has yet to play in North America. In 90 games with the KHL’s Kazan Ak-Bars over the past three seasons, he’s put up 31 points and 70 penalty minutes.
There’s one Columbus-affiliated player on this national squad, but he’s not signed to a contract.
The Blue Jackets have not yet signed Swiss forward Gregory Hofmann. However, this past February they did flip a seventh-round pick in this year’s draft to the Carolina Hurricanes for his rights. (Hofmann was originally drafted by Carolina in 2011 in the fourth round, No. 103 overall.)
Here’s another loose affiliation with the Blue Jackets – another player whose rights belong to Columbus, but who is not under contract with the organization.
Slovakian defenseman Samuel Knazko was drafted by the Blue Jackets using a pick acquired in the trade that acquired Max Domi from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Josh Anderson. He was selected in this year’s draft in the third round, No. 78 overall.
The teenager has played for the Slovakian nation in the World Junior U-20 Championships during each of the past two tournaments. This will be his first appearance for his country in the men’s tournament.
Home ice advantage? Team Latvia is certainly looking forward to it!
It’s no huge surprise that one of the three goalies on the roster for Latvia is a member of the Blue Jackets. What is a surprise, perhaps, is which Columbus goalie will play in his home country. No, it’s not Elvis Merzlikins. It will be Matiss Kivlenieks appearing in goal for the host country.
Kivlenieks appeared in two games for the Blue Jackets this past season, starting the final two games. His record was 1-1-0, with a goals-against average (GAA) of 3.40 and a save percentage (SV%) of .901. In eight total NHL appearances (all with Columbus), his record is 2-2-0, with a 3.09 GAA and a SV% of .899. If either Merzlikins or Joonas Korpisalo is traded this summer or early next season, he’s expected to join the Blue Jackets as the No. 2 goalie.
This national team has a future Blue Jacket and a former Blue Jacket.
Born in Oslo, Bjorgvik-Holm (as his name is spelled in the NHL) played a season of junior hockey with the Mississauga Steelheads prior to being drafted by Columbus last year in the fifth round (No. 145 overall). He played 16 games for Cleveland, scoring one goal and adding four assists.
Former Blue Jackets defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen is part of the coaching staff for the Norwegian national team program. From 2005-06 through 2008-09, he skated in 145 games, with 10 points and close to 300 penalty minutes.
A nagging injury is reportedly keeping a Blue Jacket from representing Sweden in the 2021 World Championship.
According to Aaron Portzline of The Athletic, Blue Jackets forward Emil Bemstrom was invited to play for Team Sweden but had to decline:
Blue Jackets forward Emil Bemstrom would have played for Sweden in the Worlds, but decided to take it easy on his still-tender ankle.“Blue Jackets Sunday Gathering: Gerard Gallant’s redemption, John Tortorella wanted to quit a year earlier,” Aaron Portzline, The Athletic, May 16, 2021
An accomplished scorer in Europe prior to joining the Blue Jackets, he’s had trouble finding the net in the NHL. In 2019-20, he scored 10 times in 56 games. This past season, his only goals in 20 games came in a hat trick during an overtime loss to the Nashville Predators on May 3, 2021.
What Could Have Been
I’m sure I’m not the only Blue Jackets follower who would have loved to see Daniil Tarasov in goal and Yegor Chinakhov up front for Team Russia. I’m also pretty sure that some of the other national teams would have welcomed other Blue Jackets for the World Championship. Players who likely could have had an impact in the tournament (but aren’t playing) include Seth Jones, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Patrik Laine.
Pete Bauer is both a hockey fan and player. As a columnist for The Hockey Writers.com, he covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, NCAA hockey, and NHL trends, statistics, and history. He’s considered the go-to guy for info on the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NHL Players’ Association and other hockey-related legal mumbo-jumbo. He’s a frequent guest on a variety of podcasts. You’ll find all of his THW columns here. Pete is also the author of over a dozen books on photography, digital imaging, and graphics, including “Photoshop CC for Dummies.”