In mid-August, while there is no meaningful hockey to speak of at the professional level, the junior level is hosting its premier event. The loss of the 2022 World Junior Championship in December is August’s gain, as all eyes are able to be focused on this event – and there is quite a bit to focus on.
It has been a long time since the Columbus Blue Jackets have had a legitimately exciting prospect pool. Actually, this may be the first time in their short history that they have had one exciting enough that it has drawn attention from across the NHL. While only a few Blue Jackets made the cut for their respective countries at the World Juniors, all of them are showing quite well so far.
Kent Johnson – Team Canada
The skill of Team Canada is almost too much. Through their first four games, they’ve scored 27 goals. Absolutely ridiculous. One of the more finesse players on their dominant roster is Blue Jackets’ fifth overall selection from 2021, Kent Johnson.
Johnson has been a point-per-game player through those four games, which flies a little under the radar when Mason McTavish has exploded with a tournament-leading 13 points over that same time period. However, Johnson has shown flashes of brilliance which should excite Blue Jacket stakeholders. One of those flashes was a textbook Michigan/lacrosse goal, which landed him the number one spot on highlight reels across the globe.
It’s not just cheeky plays that Johnson has displayed, he even shows brilliance in the simpler puck-handling plays. As a result, Blue Jackets fans should be foaming at the mouth in anticipation for him to take the ice this season, as he has shown to have an amazingly creative mind with the puck seemingly on a string. It’s rare to see a player making those kinds of complex decisions at the speed that he does.
Granted, Johnson’s first foray into NHL action was a bit on the weaker side with only three assists through his first nine games. However, you have to remember he came to the Blue Jackets mid-season as an 18-year-old and that he is a smaller guy. Being with the team from training camp onwards will be a huge benefit for him, along with another summer under his belt. When he plays a little more he’ll figure out how to hold his own physically while he tries to put a little more meat on his bones.
It wasn’t all bad though. You could see flashes of brilliance from Johnson, akin to those of Pavel Datsyuk, Patrick Kane, or Trevor Zegras. To make creative plays like those guys at the NHL level, you need confidence above all else. There’s no reason to think that a strong World Juniors won’t give him a little more strut in his step as he heads into his first full season in the world’s top league.
Jiricek, Rysavy, and Svozil – Team Czechia
In what is becoming a popular spot for the Blue Jackets to draft from, they have a trio of Czechs who have been on display throughout the tournament. Team Czechia has been one of the weaker teams, yes, but the Jackets’ prospects have been a big part of the squad regardless.
David Jiricek is the next big thing on the Blue Jackets’ back end. Drafted sixth overall in the 2022 NHL Draft, he will be looked upon to be a key part of the top-four of their defense in the long term. He had a bit of a slower start to the tournament, which was to be expected, as he is still on the mend from a bout with COVID earlier in the month. Still, he has been counted on for big minutes playing around 20 minutes per night as an 18-year-old. I would expect a bigger performance from him to come at the 2023 iteration of the tournament in December.
Martin Rysavy is an interesting and under-the-radar piece for the Blue Jackets. A seventh-round pick in 2021, he made the move from the Czech league to play in the Western Hockey League (WHL) last year for the Moose Jaw Warriors. He had an okay first season in North America, putting up just over half a point per game. He is the beneficiary of being from a smaller hockey country, where he is able to get World Junior experience due to a bit less depth in the Czech system.
Rysavy has played well in a middle-six role for the Czechs, playing around 13-15 minutes per night. He’s counted on as more of a physical, bigger-bodied forward, but he has chipped in with some scoring as well. Two goals through his first three games, with one of those goals to take the lead over Johnson and the powerhouse Canadians. There’s some work to be done before he could be considered a legitimate NHL prospect, but he has shown well so far in this tournament.
Stanislav Svozil is another 2021 Draft pick, having been picked in the third round by the Blue Jackets out of the Czech League. He, like Rysavy, came to North America by way of the WHL, playing on a strong Regina Pats team. He was counted on and produced in a key role on their blueline, scoring 41 points through 59 games – which was fourth best among rookie defensemen. He’s already been signed to his first NHL contract and is expected to turn pro in Cleveland this year.
Svozil has produced well in the tournament, scoring a goal and two assists through three games of play. He’s played important minutes for the Czechs too, being counted on to lead from the rear.
The World Juniors wrap up on Aug. 20. If you’ve got some time between now and Saturday, sitting down and watching a game or two is a worthwhile investment. If not to see the future of the Blue Jackets, then just because it’s some form of hockey to enjoy as we drudge onwards through the slowest days of the offseason.