Five things that stood out for Blue Jackets in Traverse City
They didn’t lose or tie which, in the opinion of the Blue Jackets, made them the master of the Traverse City NHL Prospects Tournament 2021.
No winner was named as two of the five teams only played three games instead of four, but all there was went to the Blue Jackets – who went 4-0-0, who beat the Toronto Maple Leafs twice in overtime and some enjoyed victory pizza before their flight home.
Regardless, the prospects for Columbus in northern Michigan were looking good again. The top draft picks on their roster, Yegor Chinakhov (21st overall 2020) and Cole Sillinger (12th), free-agent newcomers Josh Dunne and Jake Christiansen also shone in their roles. Even their late picks and invites played well, Led by striker Tyler Angle (seventh round 2019).
Even the coaching staff proved something, led by Cleveland Monsters assistant Trent Vogelhuber, who filled the head coach’s void after Mike Eaves underwent unexpected shoulder surgery.
The preseason agenda quickly shifted to training camp that started last week, but the team’s management team didn’t let the Jackets’ success in Traverse City fade without recognition.
“I would say the entire team at Traverse City was very impressive,” said Jarmo Kekalainen, general manager of Blue Jackets. “I think it was well trained, led by Trent Vogelhuber, and they fought really hard. They played hard as a team, stood behind each other. There were some very physical games there and I’m really proud of this group, not just a few individuals. ”
Here are five things that stood out in Traverse City:
Chinakhov’s shot is legitimate
After being named “Best Rookie” in the Continental Hockey League last season, Chinakhov traveled to Columbus with high expectations. His shooting acumen was revered by those with perspective, but many in North America had not seen him live. It was a curiosity how long it would take him to get used to smaller ice rinks and a different style of play in North America.
Well it took about 15 minutes.
Chinakhov has yet to show he can make it against NHL talent, but the 20-year-old Russian winger had no problem igniting goalkeepers on par with the Maple Leafs, Dallas Stars and Detroit Red Wings.
Scoring his first of his six goals in three games late in the first period of the Jackets’ 4-3 overtime win to open the tournament, he scored with a long wrist shot from the top half of the right face and continued the opponent into the torch next two games. He scored two more goals against Dallas in the Jackets’ second game and scored a hat trick against Detroit to take Columbus 3-0-0.
Chinakhov didn’t have nearly as much success between the squads at the Nationwide Arena in the first two days of scrimmages, but the longer he was on the ice playing with and against some of the established NHLers in the Jackets, the more he stood out.
A stint in Cleveland might be necessary before he can effectively unleash his shot in the NHL, but it should be worth the wait if that is the case.
The ‘Silli’ season was fun
Sillinger, whose nickname is “Silli”, was drafted in July. He was the 11th player selected with the 12th overall pick as the Arizona Coyotes lost their first pick to a scouting violation, and the Blue Jackets wasted no time giving him much responsibility.
Sillinger, 18, centered the Jackets’ top line of strikers in the tournament and gave him a lead role in the first power play group. He didn’t look out of place from the start and quickly showed that he was one of the most talented players in a tournament field that featured several players with experience in the NHL and Stanley Cup playoffs.
Sillinger put his name on the top scorer list three games in a row before suspending the last one as a precaution. He finished with two goals, three assists and five points and stormed into his first NHL training camp in a remarkable way. Sillinger won’t turn 19 until May and has only two full seasons in junior hockey under his belt, including his final season at Sioux Falls in the United States Hockey League.
Listed at 6 feet, 201 pounds, Sillinger is already NHL sized and has shown in both Traverse City and training camp games that he has many intangibles as well. He drives the net hard, is always looking for open players or space for his own shots and harasses opposing goalkeepers with relentless use of loose pucks on the net.
In Traverse City he got a gloved slap in the face in the first game against Toronto and his reaction was only the grin of a Cheshire Cat. His habit of chewing on his mouthguard while playing will also draw comparisons to Chicago Blackhawks’ superstar Patrick Kane, who made the practice famous when he entered the league at the age of 18.
Chinakhov and Sillinger dominated
Looking at the projected roster for the Blue Jackets this season, it’s hard to see which players Chinakhov and Sillinger can push into regular roles. No one will be able to win the team if they don’t play regular minutes because both have to play to develop. Both are eligible to play for the Monsters in the American Hockey League, and it is possible that they both start the season in Cleveland.
Everyone gets the chance to play in NHL exhibition games that could hint at where everyone starts the season. Sillinger seems to be ahead of Chinakhov at this point, in large part because he’s the kind of center the Jackets crave, but both have made great strides to get into the Jackets list with their dominance in Traverse City .
“Usually the players who can dominate this tournament have a really good chance to jump in and play straight away,” said Kekalainen. “It depends on the team and the possibilities and all of that, of course, and it’s another level when you get into NHL competition and how they deal with it. Are you getting nervous? Do they have stage fright among the big boys or do they have the courage to play properly when they have a star player next to them? Those are the ‘mental part’ questions that you have to answer with your game … but I think it’s a great start. ”
Dunne was imposing
Josh Dunne made his NHL debut last season with a six-game stint and then spent the majority of his offseason training in Columbus at the Nationwide Arena. That’s a good indication of how high the Blue Jackets are holding the 6-foot-4,210-pound forward.
Dunne, 22, centered the second row of the Jackets in Traverse City, leading all of the tournament’s scorers with seven points (three goals, four assists) in four games. He also scored a winning goal in extra time in the first game against the Maple Leafs, camped in front of the net and tipped a beautiful pass from Carson Meyer home.
Aside from his insult, Dunne was a force in other ways too.
He was strong on face-offs, making effective use of his size, and also ditching the gloves in an argument with Detroit defender Wyatt Newpower – his teammate last season with the Monsters. Newpower sent Sillinger upside down on the boards for a dangerous boarding penalty, and Dunne responded with his fists. He won the fight and earned many leadership points for setting off without hesitation.
Dunne didn’t excel at training camp, but his game at Traverse City gave some insight into what an NHL player he could become. His lack of speed is a challenge, but Dunne makes up for it with the kind of size, strength and courage a good career as a striker could forge.
Late round picks impressed
The Blue Jackets scouting and development teams found gold in the final rounds of design during the “Kekalainen Era”. Her most notable finds are former defender Markus Nutivaara (seventh round) and current defender Vladislav Gavrikov (sixth round), both selected in 2015.
Several helped them stay unbeaten in Traverse City, including Angle (seventh round 2019), defender Tim Berni (sixth round 2018), Meyer (sixth round 2017), defender Ole Holm (fifth round 2020), striker James Malatesta (fifth round 2021), striker Ben Boyd (sixth round 2021) and striker Martin Rysavy (seventh round 2021).
Meyer only played two games due to an upper body injury, ran both wins against Toronto but was a factor in both games. Berni was gaining ground in the backend the more he played, Angle was one of the top scorers of the tournament and Malatesta scored a hat trick against the Maple Leafs in the final game.
Holm provided a strong presence on the blue line, Rysavy’s size combined well with Dunne’s physical presence, and Boyd showed an intriguing combination of size, speed, edges and surprising skill – he scored a nice goal on a rush against the Red Wings and eventually found a dance partner for a scrap in the final against Toronto.
Angle and Berni will likely spend most of this season with the Monsters, while Boyd and Malatesta will be ticketed for another year as juniors in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Rysavy is also expected to play junior in the Western Hockey League.