The 2022 NHL Entry Draft was a major success for the Columbus Blue Jackets as they added two defensemen who should become key pieces of the organization’s future. With the sixth overall pick, they selected Czech defenseman David Jiricek. Later in the first round they added another defender, this time a Canadian from the Western Hockey League, Denton Mateychuk. Despite an abundance of blueliners in the team’s depth chart, these two add some much-needed top-level talent that was severely needed.
It was a similar story coming out of the 2021 NHL Draft as the Blue Jackets had walked away with two centers that the team desperately needed following the departure of first-line center Pierre-Luc Dubois in the previous season. Kent Johnson and Cole Sillinger were highly touted prospects prior to being selected 5th and 12th overall respectively and both were able to make an impact in the NHL less than 12 months after their draft day.
Blue Jackets Building a Blue Line
It’s often said that the two most important assets for any hockey team are a legitimate first-line center and a top-pairing defenseman, especially a right-handed one since they can be very difficult to find. As a result, players who fit that description are often seen as the key to winning a Stanley Cup. The reigning champions, the Colorado Avalanche, have Nathan Mackinnon and Cale Makar. The Tampa Bay Lightning have Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point for that matter, as well as Victor Hedman. The statement may be a bit of a cliché, but history shows that it’s also the truth more often than not.
The Blue Jackets currently have a defensive core that looks strong on paper, but last season it was one of their greatest weaknesses. Adding Mateychuk and Jiricek won’t be an immediate solution to that issue, but once they’re ready for the NHL, they’ll be a major part of addressing it. Although he wasn’t a draft pick, the addition of Nick Blankenberg to the organization last season will certainly be a big help as well.
With the heavy influx of new defensemen recently, it’s easy to forget that they also added a few others at the 2021 Draft who have the potential to be difference makers at the NHL level. Corson Ceulemans doesn’t have the same hype around him as a late first-round pick, but he certainly can become a key prospect if he continues to perform with the University of Wisconsin. Jiricek also has a countryman who was added to the farm system as a third-round pick in last year’s draft, Stanislav Svozil. It’s a safe bet to say at least half of these prospects won’t become high-end NHL players. Realistically, the Blue Jackets only need one of them to become a star considering the current players on the roster, however, if some who aren’t able to reach that status can turn into legitimate role players, then it’ll be enough to push them to the next level. Anything more than that will be a bonus, while anything less can certainly hold them back.
Front and Center
The major story of the 2021 NHL Draft was certainly the Blue Jackets getting two top center prospects. The aforementioned Johnson and Sillinger have quickly become key parts of the organization, with both being under the age of 20 but already having NHL experience.
Sillinger’s rookie season was one of the biggest talking points about the team, as he was performing at a high level despite being the youngest player in the league. He may not have had a season that put him in the conversation for the Calder Trophy, however with his age taken into consideration, there could be an argument made that he deserved at least a few votes. He certainly didn’t have a season worthy of being a finalist though and in the grand scheme of things, he has plenty of time to make up for the lack of support he received in the voting. Johnson also made his NHL debut during the 2021-22 season, but since he only suited up for nine games it’s difficult to discuss his contributions to this point. With that being said, the one thing that can be said is he certainly didn’t look out of place early in his professional career.
The Blue Jackets also addressed the center position during this year’s draft by selecting Luca Del Bel Belluz with their second-round pick. The Canadian had a strong season for the Mississauga Steelheads in the Ontario Hockey League following a season off due to the league’s shutdown. Prior to this season, he had played 58 games in the OHL during 2019-20 but had a fairly rough performance overall.
The Blue Jackets have done a phenomenal job addressing major organizational needs over the last two NHL Drafts, and if they continue to do so they’ll certainly be in a position for future success. Management has added several pieces to the most important positions on the team, and already has quite a few assets to play alongside them going forward. The team is building through the draft, which is not only a key to success but also the biggest requirement for sustainable success in the long term.
William Espy is a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus. He has been writing about hockey since 2016 on various platforms. He currently covers the Columbus Blue Jackets but had a previous stint covering the Calgary Flames.