The Columbus Blue Jackets continue to face the same question year after year. Who will be their centers of the future? Given their track record over the years, it’s a valid question to ask.
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The Blue Jackets have drafted players that they hoped would turn into their center of the future. Among those players were Ryan Johansen, Alexander Wennberg and Pierre-Luc Dubois.
Each player was selected in the top half of the first round of the NHL Draft. However for one reason or another, each player found themselves no longer playing for the Blue Jackets. While Wennberg was bought out, Johansen and Dubois were each traded.
In the case of the latter two, the Blue Jackets did get valuable assets back. Seth Jones came back in the Johansen trade while Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic came back in the Dubois trade. While the team did well to get assets back, a big gaping hole remains in their top-six.
Getting By For Now
Captain Boone Jenner has done everything asked of him and then some playing the role of number-one center. He has become one of their most important players up front. He does everything for them while showing he has chemistry with Laine and Johnny Gaudreau on the top line.
This season, the issues at center start below that top line. Jack Roslovic has had a slow start to his season. Cole Sillinger is going through a bit of a sophomore slump. Both players were expected to take the next step this season. While both players still have time to turn things around, neither of them project as a true number-one center.
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So we’re back to the age-old Blue Jackets question. Who is their number-one center of the future? Perhaps it’s Kent Johnson? For now, he’s playing on the wing not getting much work at center. As he gets more comfortable in the NHL and stronger, that is one potential option they can explore. But it is not a slam dunk.
The Blue Jackets also spent three first-round picks in the last two drafts on defense. Those being Corson Ceulemans, David Jiricek and Denton Mateychuk. The answer to the center question might reside on the outside. Hello Connor Bedard or others?
Or is it? The Blue Jackets used a second-round pick at the 2022 Draft to land a player they thought was a first rounder. He is also a center who is developing in a good place in the OHL. At 44th overall, the Blue Jackets selected Luca Del Bel Belluz.
If things go the right way in his development, the Blue Jackets might already have a solution to their center conundrum. So far in 2022-23, Del Bel Belluz is off to a good start.
James Richmond on Del Bel Belluz
Steelheads GM and head coach James Richmond has known Del Bel Belluz since he was 12 years old. From that time Richmond has seen him skate and develop.
That familiarity was a big reason why the Steelheads drafted Del Bel Belluz in the third round of the 2019 OHL Priority Selection. A total of 50 players were taken before him. Yet he is showing why he’s among the best of that draft class to this point.
In the Steelheads 7-3 loss to the Erie Otters Saturday night, Del Bel Belluz was one of their best players on the ice even in an up and down game for him. On the positive side, he tallied two primary assists while showing a great ability to get the puck to the right place. His linemate James Hardie was the beneficiary of both of Del Bel Belluz’s assists.
With that said, Del Bel Belluz like most players at this stage of development has a lot more to give. Richmond spoke postgame about that including the reason why he is the hardest on him of any player he coaches.
“When he is really going, he is a strong 200-foot guy,” Richmond said of Del Bel Belluz. He’s good on the faceoff circle. He’s real strong when he is going. He can play really well in the D-zone against top scorers on the other team. And he’s really, really gifted with the puck so he can make those offensive plays that checkers sometimes can’t.”
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The one knock on Del Bel Belluz was his overall strength. Richmond says he continues to focus on this area of his game for overall improvement.
“He still needs to work on his strength,” Richmond said. “He’s still kind of a lean, thin guy. So he needs to get a little bit stronger. As for his biggest improvement, he’s been committing himself to the defensive side of the puck when we don’t have the puck. How to take away the seams, the passing lanes and getting the puck back.”
Because Richmond does have that familiarity with Del Bel Belluz, he can be harder on him knowing he has more to give. According to Richmond, Del Bel Belluz is doing well handling feedback and constructive criticism when given.
“Yeah he’s been pretty good. There is no one on the team I am harder on than him. He knows why I’m hard on him. If he wants to be a pro, he is gonna have to play a certain way. So he handles it very well.”
Del Bel Belluz Gaining Confidence
After his two-assist performance against the Otters Saturday, Del Bel Belluz has a line of 13-15-28 in 23 games. He’s on pace to potentially reach 40 goals after scoring 30 last season. He’s on pace to match his assist total from last season with 46.
For Del Bel Belluz, it’s about gaining confidence. He just signed his entry-level deal with the Blue Jackets. He acknowledged that this was a sign that he’s on the right path in his development. The signing came together pretty quickly. Del Bel Belluz’s agent called him and said the Blue Jackets they thought it was time to sign the contract.
“That’s a big step,” Del Bel Belluz said. “It helps with confidence. It’s just a step in the right direction and there’s still a lot more work to do.”
Del Bel Belluz was able to soak in his first training camp from playing in Traverse City to taking part in his first full NHL camp. He said he got to spend a lot of time with Kent Johnson between playing in Traverse City and then back in Columbus. As for what the Blue Jackets told Del Bel Belluz upon being released back to the Steelheads:
“Be a solid 200-foot center. You just work on getting stronger, getting in the gym and putting on the weight. That what they really want to see.”
Growth During Up & Down Season
The Steelheads are now 12-9-3 on their season, good for second place in the OHL’s Central Division. While that seems good on the surface, Richmond and the Steelheads know they have a much better game in them.
“We could be doing a better job for sure,” Richmond said. “We’re underachieving. There’s no question about it so we need our top guys to pull us through it. Right now we’re kind of in mud, spinning our tires. So we just got to hit a reset button and do it soon so we can get back to where we need to be.”
Among those top players is Del Bel Belluz. He knows there’s a better version of not just himself but of the Steelheads. He’s trying to stay positive in the midst of the losses.
“We have a really good team in there,” Del Bel Belluz said. “We have 35+ shots a night. We’re just struggling to score. We’re trying to stay as positive as we can be. It’s going to start clicking soon.”
Del Bel Belluz wears an “A” on his jersey and for good reason. He is one of the leaders of this team. That’s why Richmond is so hard on him. But Del Bel Belluz sees all of this as a positive in the long run.
“Some people might look at that as a negative. But for me I think it’s a positive. He’s trying to help me get to the next level. He’s helped me a lot and I’m really thankful for that. I just try to lead by example. I show on the ice not to give up on any play and to work through anything. That’s where I do my best.”
Things That Won’t Hit the Scoresheet
Watching the game Saturday night, you can see why Del Bel Belluz is an interesting prospect. He can do good things with the puck on his stick.
Del Bel Belluz was especially good at making the correct read in the offensive zone with his passing. Whether it was a back pass to a teammate or a pass across the ice to an open area, his awareness was really good which kept plays alive. On this play, Del Bel Belluz drew four defenders to him and then hit Hardie with a pass to create a goal.
Then defensively, you can see Del Bel Belluz is making a commitment there. On one play in particular, he was tracking back in his own zone after an Otters’ player got into the slot. He was able to recover and disrupt the play while the pass was getting to the slot.
And when he gets an opportunity to shoot, he will and can finish with creativity. He’s taking a lot of faceoffs and enjoying success winning over 56% of draws this season.
In all, overall success is going to come down to Del Bel Belluz’s ability to add muscle and strength to his game. He’s on a good track in other areas of his game. With a late birthday, he would be eligible for the AHL starting next season.
While he usually isn’t talked about in the same light as some of the other Blue Jackets’ prospects, we should not sleep on what Del Bel Belluz could become. He just turned 19 on Nov 10. He’s developing at center and making noticeable progress. Should he get the strength needed for the NHL, there is a chance he could become part of the solution at center for the Blue Jackets. If that’s the case, that’s a second-round pick well spent.
Get to Know Del Bel Belluz
- Favorite NHL team: Columbus Blue Jackets. He enjoys watching Laine play.
- Who does he model his game after? Sebastian Aho. He’s a really responsible 200-foot center he tries to model his game after.
- Activity on long bus rides: Chatting with teammates and having a good time.
- Favorite meal? Pasta and chicken.
- Best advice he’s ever received: “Don’t be satisfied with anything. Just keep going. If you have three goals in a game, try for four. If you have four, try for five. Just never be satisfied.”
I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2022-23 season will mark nine seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager. Please take note of the updated Twitter handle: @mark_scheig.