The Columbus Blue Jackets are a franchise looking to the future. Still in the midst of building the core with championship aspirations, opportunity is abundant. While there are some positions filled in the long-term lineup with players like Zach Werenski, Johnny Gaudreau, and Patrik Laine, the rest falls largely under the “to be determined” category.
The cream of the crop will rise to the top, and the rest will find their way out of Ohio. There are a few players once lauded with exceptional expectations that now find themselves in danger of an early departure. Let’s have a look at three of these players who have yet to prove themselves at the NHL level, and 2022-23 could be their last chance to prove they are worth a roster spot moving forwards.
Emil Bemstrom has been teetering on the edge for a couple of seasons now. The forward came over from Sweden with much anticipation. He had just led their top league in goal scoring as a 19-year-old and was said to have a heck of a shot.
Fast forward a few years, and nothing has come from Bemstrom yet. While he managed to score 10 goals through 56 games in his first North American season, he didn’t capitalize on it. He never earned any meaningful level of ice time under former head coach John Tortorella and somehow saw even less ice time under current HC Brad Larsen. He finally got some power-play time on the second unit during the back nine of last season, but he didn’t chip in any points.
As a restricted free agent this offseason, Bemstrom re-signing did not seem like a certainty. His two-year, one-way contract seems like a vote of confidence from management, but it could be the end of his leash to prove that he can be a legitimate NHL player.
He doesn’t have size. He doesn’t add strength. Nor does he bring strong two-way play. He’ll punch his ticket to success in the big league with his skill. This is the year for him to step up and prove that he can be the offensive contributor he was once hoped to be all those years ago.
A former first-round draft pick, Liam Foudy has had a rocky start to his career. A product of the elite talent-producing pool that is the London Knights, Foudy showed well in the bubble during the 2020 playoffs but has vanished since. The main cause of that disappearing act has been injuries.
The young forward has been lauded for his speed and would ideally bring more of a two-way style of game to the table. Under Tortorella, his defensive game needed too much work to stick in the lineup. Under Larsen, he spent last season in Cleveland or out with injury. Only playing about 30 games in each of the last two seasons hasn’t helped his case, but it’s surely hurt his development in these key years.
Once seen as someone who could be a leader on the team’s forward corps, the bar for Foudy is now more realistically set as a bottom-six player, and that’s okay. As a forward, the window for making it in the NHL closes earlier than at other positions. Four years out from getting drafted, Foudy’s chance with Columbus could be closing as younger talent with higher ceilings continue to steal opportunities from him at the NHL level.
As far as offensive defensemen go, Jake Bean is one with a ton of potential. Still on the younger side, 24, Bean has so much room to grow. He was looked on as a big acquisition before last season, showing great potential to play in the pro leagues, but he’s yet to show it at the NHL level.
In the AHL only two seasons ago, he scored 48 points in 59 games and won the Eddie Shore Award as the league’s best defenseman. He was never able to stick with the Carolina Hurricanes – who drafted him – because of their wealth of depth on the blue line, and so last year was his first full season at the NHL level. Ultimately he produced mixed results, but he did show the ability to score a big goal when needed.
The problem when it comes to Bean is his competition for the role that he would excel in. Both he and Adam Boqvist are players who have incredible offensive upside but are also each pretty easy to push around in the defensive end. Ideally, they would each be quarterbacking a power play and playing second pairing minutes as offensive specialists.
In the long-term structure of a team, there is really only room for so many of those players in a defense corps. With Werenski a lock for one of those power-play spots and playing an offensive role, that doubles down on only keeping one of Boqvist and Bean.
Boqvist has a higher ceiling, so that does kind of put the honus on Bean to prove his merit. Either he gains some strength and changes his role to a more two-way style that can be useful in all situations, or he has an offensive explosion that puts Boqvist to shame. In any case, this is an important year for Bean.
He is a legitimate NHL defenseman, and at his low cap hit of $2.3 million, with two seasons left on his contract, this will be a “prove it” year for him. Because if he doesn’t, he will be a prime trade target next offseason.
There’s lots to look forward to as this season is about to get underway. Training camp lays the groundwork for who gets opportunities and who does not. These are three players who need to have a strong camp and show what they have got this season — because their careers in Columbus could be dependent on it.
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Writer covering the Columbus Blue Jackets for THW since August 2021.
Co-host of the Blue Jackets’ focused “Union Junction Podcast” on The Hockey Writers’ podcast network.
Also, a radio personality and reporter currently based on Vancouver Island.