The summer is starting to wind down. Fall is in the air. And the Columbus Blue Jackets are ready to defend the Matthew Wuest Memorial Cup in Traverse City.
The annual prospect’s tournament in upstate Michigan is set to begin on Sept 6 with eight teams vying for the championship. The Blue Jackets are seeking their sixth title after winning a record fifth championship in 2018.
There’s no reason to think they can’t do it again based on who they are bringing.
We get you ready for the tournament. We’ll start with players to watch and then dive into a couple of stories we will follow throughout the week leading up to the opening of training camp on Sept 12.
Players to Watch
Elvis Merzlikins & Veini Vehvilainen
Arguably the Blue Jackets’ top-two goaltending prospects (depending on where you slot Daniil Tarasov) will share duties in Traverse City. This factor alone puts the Blue Jackets in the conversation to win this tournament.
Merzlikins will likely start as the backup to Joonas Korpisalo but is ready to prove he can be the number-one starter. This tournament will be his first games in North America since signing a contract with the team. He’s proven he can win on the world stage. We’ll now get our first look at him on the smaller ice surface. The obvious question is how long of an adjustment period will he need to get comfortable?
While there’s hype around Merzlikins, there’s just as much hype around Vehvilainen. He comes to North America from Finland fresh off winning the Urpo Ylonen Award, given to the SM-Liiga Best Goaltender. He also won gold at this past World Championships. In 38 games last season, he posted a 1.58 goals against and a .933 save percentage. He is expected to start the season as the Cleveland Monsters’ number-one goaltender splitting time with Matiss Kivlenieks.
While there are several questions about the big club, the goaltending pipeline is one area of strength and we’ll start to see that in this tournament.
Peeke is my odds-on favorite to wear the C for the Blue Jackets at this tournament. He was the captain at Notre Dame and helped lead the Irish to a Big 10 championship. He also played on Team USA at the World Juniors. He’s a big, mobile defenseman who is starting to round into form. Given the logjam of defenseman in Columbus, expect Peeke to start this season with the Monsters. He’d be one of the first call-ups in case of injury.
Hjorth’s season was shortened by a knee injury, but the Blue Jackets liked what they saw from him and took him in the fourth round at this past NHL Draft. Like Peeke, Hjorth is a big defenseman who can skate and can add offense. He will play this season in Sarnia and will give a huge boost to the Sting blueline. He could also be the player with the most impact from this draft class for the Blue Jackets given the few number of picks they had.
Berni was taken in the sixth round of the 2018 draft thanks in large part to his hockey sense and puck-moving ability. He is playing in Switzerland again this season but could be in the conversation for the Blue Jackets if his skating sees a noticeable improvement.
Texier made his NHL debut late last season and also got some valuable playoff experience. The stage wasn’t too big for him. With the likes of Artemi Panarin gone, Texier has a change to take on a big role with the team this season. With Emil Bemstrom injured, Texier is the best offensive player for the Blue Jackets at this tournament.
Lilja will make his North American debut here. He’s intriguing because he got to play on the same line as Bemstrom in Sweden and showed well. We can expect him in Cleveland to start this season.
Foudy is the other main offensive attraction for the Blue Jackets here. Don’t blink or else you’ll miss him. His speed gets all of the attention but has developed into a prospect with a bright future thanks to his time in London. He’ll get every opportunity to make the Blue Jackets this fall but I ultimately believe he plays in London again and will get a shot at the World Juniors for Team Canada.
The Blue Jackets have showed well with recent late-round picks and Fix-Wolansky is no different. He captained Edmonton last season and scored 102 points in the regular season while adding 14 points in 16 playoff games. Don’t let him being 5-foot-6 bother you. He’s highly skilled and very competitive and factors into the long term plans of the Blue Jackets. He is signed and should play a role with the Monsters this season.
Stories We’re Watching
- Striving for six: A win at this year’s tournament would make six championships. The Blue Jackets were the first team to get to five last season.
- Mike Eaves’ debut: The new head coach of the Monsters will make his debut as the head coach of these prospects. Eaves is known for his time spent at Wisconsin where he helped the Badgers win the 2006 National Championship.
- Notable free agent invites: There’s a strong contingent of OHL invites, including Kyle Maksmovich, Ryan McGregor, Brayden Guy, Matt Brassard and Jacob Paquette here. Which of these players can stand out in this kind of setting?
- Zach Werenski’s contract: This of course is something will be watching. The team is confident something will get done before training camp. By the time this tournament ends, it’ll be just two days until camp. Tick tock. Tick tock.
- Friday Sept 6: New York Rangers 3:30 P.M.
- Saturday Sept 7: Minnesota Wild 6:30 P.M.
- Monday Sept 9: Dallas Stars 2:00 P.M.
- Tuesday Sept 10: TBD based on standings.
- All games of the tournament will be streamed.