Blue Jackets Sunday Gathering: AHL coach Trent Vogelhuber a prospect in his own right

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A collection of notes, insights, ruminations and did-you-knows gathered throughout the week that was for the Columbus Blue Jackets:

Item No. 1: Another top prospect

The Blue Jackets will have three of their minor leaguers playing in the AHL All-Star Game on Monday in San Jose, Calif. — forward Trey-Fix Wolansky, defenseman Jake Christiansen and goaltender Jet Greaves.

All three of those players have played their way to the cusp of making the Blue Jackets roster, getting a taste of NHL games over the last few seasons. It won’t be a surprise if they surface again in Columbus before the end of the season.

But there’s another prospect opening eyes in the AHL, and his NHL future might be as bright — or brighter — than any of the players.

AHL Cleveland coach Trent Vogelhuber, a former Blue Jackets draft pick and a native of Dublin, Ohio, will coach in the AHL All-Star Game on Monday, the result of the Cleveland Monsters being in first place last month when the coaches were selected.

“We’ve got three players who are going, and we’re all representing a group that’s bought in and played for each other in the first half of the season,” Vogelhuber told The Athletic. “I’ve never been to an All-Star Game as a player or a coach. I’m just excited to soak in that experience.”

Vogelhuber’s pro career was limited to six seasons thanks to chronic injuries, especially to his knees.

The closest he got to playing in the NHL came during his final two seasons, spent in the Colorado Avalanche organization. On one occasion, he was on alert to be recalled by the Avalanche — he was in the airport, waiting on a flight and a phone call — when an Avs player was cleared to play and he was no longer needed.

It seems obvious that he’s going to coach his way to the NHL, though.

Vogelhuber was held in high regard by the Blue Jackets already, but he really grabbed their attention with the coaching job he turned in on short notice at the NHL prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich., three years ago when Mike Eaves became ill.

When Eaves battled injury and illness during the 2021-22 season, Vogelhuber became the de facto coach and again drew rave reviews. He became the full-time coach last season.

“I’ve always heard that the most important change for any coach is between Year 1 and Year 2,” Vogelhuber said. “The biggest thing I’ve changed this season, my second year, is just preparation and the organization we put in as a group, the attention to detail that sets the foundation.

“The other stuff — relating to players, the systems, that stuff — that came pretty naturally to me, to be honest. But I’ve really stepped it up this season, I think, in just being more prepared and learning the best way to do that as a pro coach.”

AHL Cleveland endured one of its worst losses of the season on Friday, a 5-0 home defeat to Chicago. One night later, they beat Chicago 9-0 and moved back into first place in the AHL’s North Division (26-14-1-1) as they headed into the All-Star break.

“He’s done a really good job with that group,” said an opposing AHL coach who didn’t wish to be identified. “There are some real bastards on that team, and he has a system that really works for them. They are dynamic and fun to watch. (Vogelhuber) seems like a really good, young, smart guy.”

In a way, Vogelhuber’s challenges as a player are his strengths as a coach.

He was never the fastest, biggest, or most skilled player, so he had to find other ways to lock down a lineup spot: an understanding and adherence to systems, film work to prepare for playing opponents, a relentless work ethic, etc.

He also paid attention, not just on the ice, but in the dressing room. Every room has its own dynamics, but they all have certain baseline requirements, too. Vogelhuber was a glue guy, a relationship-builder, just as he is now as a coach.

“To me, this is the best job in the world,” Vogelhuber said. “So it’s very important to me that everyone comes here and is passionate and enjoys what we have. It’s hard after a loss. It’s hard after three losses in a row. And there are hard conversations, there are video sessions that players won’t like.

“It’s business, for sure, and we’re going to work. But I want the players to always come to the rink.”

Vogelhuber had two incredible mentors: Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who coached Vogelhuber with St. Louis of the North American Hockey League (2006-07), and Avalanche coach Jared Bednar, who coached Vogelhuber for three seasons as a Blue Jackets minor-leaguer.

He also had two very bright assistants in Cleveland. Associate coach Mike Haviland was an assistant coach in Chicago when Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and others were developed. Assistant Mark Letestu was one of the craftiest NHL players over the last 20 years, playing with Pittsburgh, Columbus, Edmonton and Winnipeg.

For the last three seasons, almost without exception, players coming up from Cleveland to play for the Blue Jackets have raved about Vogelhuber’s coaching — especially the relationships that have developed in the dressing room, not a small achievement in the transient world of the AHL.

“Everyone wants to have more team success than personal success in that room right now, and that’s definitely a switch we’ve had (since Vogelhuber took over),” said Wolansky, who leads the Monsters with 12-28-40 in 36 games.

“When you’re an NHL draft pick with an NHL contract, you want to be in the NHL. But the AHL is a great league, and to be on this team in Cleveland with Vogues and the coaching staff, we’ve really grown the last two or three years. I’ve learned so much, especially these last two years.”

Vogelhuber is just starting his coaching career, but these things move quickly. In the next few seasons, he’ll need to decide if he wishes to remain an AHL head coach or if he wants to join the NHL as an assistant, either with the Blue Jackets or elsewhere.

It’s not an easy call, and there is no wrong answer.

“I haven’t thought a second about that,” Vogelhuber said. “I love doing what I’m doing here. I love the staff I’m with. I love the guys we have. I’m trying to be the best for them every day.

“I don’t have a five-year plan. I probably should, but I don’t. I’m trying to help the guys here as much as possible. I’m investing in these guys. In five to 10 years, it’ll work out. But I haven’t put any thought into that.”

Item No. 2: Jenner’s weekend

Before the NHL All-Star Game final on Saturday, ESPN’s Ray Ferraro summed up the proceedings with the following: “Everybody wants to win, but nobody is super-trying.”

That’s perfect. But it also made for an interesting watch with regard to Blue Jackets captain Boone Jenner, who was appearing in his first All-Star Game in his 11-year career.

Jenner is one of the NHL’s top “super-tryers.” That’s his game — blocking shots, winning board battles and faceoffs, busting hump on backchecks, etc. He also scores goals, of course, which is why he was selected to play in the midseason classic.

He scored two goals in the two games, one in the early game and one in the final for Team McDavid.

“That first game was fun when we came back and won in a shootout,” Jenner told reporters in Toronto. “It’s too bad (we lost) in the finals there, but … it was just a good time.

“I’m going to remember this experience. It’s been awesome.”

Jenner, who grew up about an hour away from Toronto, had more than 20 family and friends at Scotiabank Arena. He played on a team selected by Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and was on the same club as former Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.

He skated alongside Edmonton’s McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Boston’s David Pastrnak, etc.

“I’ve been playing against those guys for a long, long time,” Jenner said. “Just seeing them up close, the skill that they have … they’re incredible players. They had it on display again.

“They’re always tough to play against. It was nice to have a couple of them on my side this time. All great guys. I enjoyed playing with them.”

Item No. 3: NHL in Cincinnati?

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman sure perked a lot of ears in Ohio this weekend with his comments before the All-Star Game regarding possible league expansion.

It is widely assumed that Salt Lake City has moved near the top of the list for a new NHL franchise even though there are, at present, no expansion plans. But the league is listening, Bettman said, and has had an expression of interest from several markets, including Cincinnati.

Cincinnati mayor Aftab Pureval was among the surprised. He told The Cincinnati Enquirer that he’s not heard any talk of the NHL coming to his town. Most believe that a new arena in downtown Cincinnati is a must before a major-league tenant would come. That’s only in the “discussion” stage.

But if an arena gets built, and if somebody is willing to pay the NHL’s expansion fee — the next franchises are expected to cost close to $1 billion — it’s not out of the question.

How the Blue Jackets would feel about sharing the state with another franchise is unclear, but we’re guessing they wouldn’t like it. Just as Toronto and Buffalo would likely fight against a new NHL franchise in Hamilton, Ont., the Blue Jackets would see a Cincinnati franchise as an encroachment on their territory, TV and otherwise.

We’re told that Blue Jackets president Mike Priest plans to have a conversation with Bettman this week to clarify where this stands. But, at this point, it’s way too early in the process to take it seriously.

Item No. 4: Snacks

The lacerated calf injury suffered by Blue Jackets rookie center Adam Fantilli is a tough blow. He’ll be out eight weeks after getting inadvertently stomped by Seattle’s Jake McCabe just before the break. Two points weighed heavily in Fantilli’s favor. First, he was wearing Kevlar socks, which almost certainly made the injury significantly less serious. (There’s a reason they’re called “cut-resistant” socks, not “cut-proof.”) Second is where McCabe’s skate landed on Fantilli’s calf. The impact lacerated his calf muscles, not his Achilles tendon, which would been a much longer recovery. Tendons take longer to heal, a team doc tells us, because they have less blood flow than muscles.

If all goes well, Fantilli will return by the final weeks of March, giving him two or three weeks remaining in the season. It’s unclear how long Chicago’s Connor Bedard will be sidelined with a broken jaw. But it’s been a tough turn of events for two of the first three players picked in last year’s draft. It could open the door for Minnesota’s Brock Faber or Marco Rossi, New Jersey’s Luke Hughes, or the Blue Jackets’ Dmitry Voronkov to have a shot at the Calder Trophy.

Elvis Merzlikins’ 21-save shutout on Tuesday was the Blue Jackets’ first shutout since Jan. 13, 2022, when Merzlikins made 31 saves in a 6-0 win over the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh, N.C. That’s a span of 178 games between shutouts, the longest stretch in franchise history, and it’s not even close. Previously, the Blue Jackets hadn’t gone more than 64 games — Nov. 22, 2015 to Oct. 21, 2016 — between shutouts. (Sergei Bobrovsky, no surprise, had both of those.)  The 2022-23 season is the only season in which the Blue Jackets haven’t had a shutout. They had one each in the 2005-06 (Marc Denis) and 2015-16 (Bobrovsky) seasons.

The Blue Jackets’ long stretch without a shutout was so far beyond even their previous record that it got us thinking … what’s the NHL record, and where does the Blue Jackets’ 178-game span rank? We turned to Hockey Reference for the answer(s). From Dec. 16, 1987 to Nov. 30, 1991, the Quebec Nordiques went 317 games without registering a shutout. The Blue Jackets’ streak, meanwhile, is the 12th longest in NHL history.

One more shutout nugget: The Blue Jackets have gone 98 consecutive home games without a shutout, the longest stretch in franchise history. The last no-no in Nationwide Arena was Nov. 24, 2021 when Merzlikins had 36 saves in a 3-0 win over Winnipeg.

The 1-0 win, meanwhile, was the 14th time in franchise history the Blue Jackets have won 1-0 in regulation. The last time it happened was Nov. 25, 2019, when the Jackets beat Ottawa. The only goal that night was scored by Oliver Bjorkstrand.

Here’s your weekly Sunday Gathering trivia question: Jenner is the 13th Blue Jackets player to be selected to play in the NHL All-Star Game. Who was the first player to represent the franchise in the midseason classic?

We’re still watching David Jiricek’s situation with the Blue Jackets after Jiricek went public with his frustration following his most recent demotion to AHL Cleveland. In response, Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekäläinen said he hoped that Jiricek, through his play, would give the Blue Jackets no choice but to recall him for the stretch drive of the season. Well, Jiricek is off to a good start, it would seem. On Saturday, the 20-year-old had his first professional hat trick in the Monsters’ 9-0 win over Chicago. He also had an assist, giving him his first four-point game. He’s had four previous three-point games. The Monsters don’t play again until Feb. 9. The Blue Jackets don’t play again until Feb. 10.

AHL Cleveland’s Carson Meyer, from Powell, Ohio, had two goals and two assists in Saturday’s 9-0 waxing of Chicago, giving him 102 career points (52-50-102) in the AHL. Meyer, with 18 goals and 29 points in 40 games, has already set AHL career highs. His 63 penalty minutes also match a career high. Meyer, 26, has played 27 games with the Blue Jackets over the last two seasons, and could well get another opportunity in the final months of the season.

Trivia answer: The first Blue Jackets player to play in the All-Star Game was forward Espen Knutsen, who had a goal and an assist in the 2002 game in Los Angeles. Knutsen remains the only Norwegian to play in an NHL All-Star Game.

The Columbus hockey community lost a pillar this weekend with the sudden passing of Mike Zazon on Friday. Zazon, his wife Sue, and their entire family have been tireless supporters of local hockey, from the grassroots learn-to-play programs to the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets and the NHL Blue Jackets, where they were Day 1 season-ticket holders. Matthew Zazon, their youngest son, is a standout goaltender at Ohio U.

(Photo of Trent Vogelhuber behind the Cleveland Monsters bench: Frank Jansky / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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