Thursday buzz: Ceulemans set for pro debut tonight

Photo: Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

📝 by Patrick Williams

A glimpse into the future of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ blue line will be on display tonight in Cleveland.

The Cleveland Monsters host Grand Rapids, and head coach Trent Vogelhuber will have Blue Jackets first-round pick Corson Ceulemans in his lineup as the 19-year-old makes his professional debut.

Selected 25th overall in the 2021 NHL Draft, Ceulemans signed with Columbus on March 7 following two seasons at the University of Wisconsin. In 33 games with the Badgers this year, Ceulemans led all team defensemen in goals (eight), assists (15) and points (23).

Vogelhuber already has Columbus first-rounders David Jiricek (sixth overall in 2022) and Yegor Chinakhov (21st overall in 2020) on his Cleveland roster, and another recent first-round selection, Blue Jackets forward Cole Sillinger (12th overall in 2021), is eligible to be assigned to Cleveland at any time in the regular season or the Calder Cup Playoffs should Columbus decide to do so.

Ceulemans and Chinakhov are late-season boosts for a Cleveland team that is also getting healthier after injuries hit the team hard in the season’s first half. Chinakhov, who was assigned to Cleveland on Feb. 27, is rounding back into form after an ankle injury sustained in December put him out of the Columbus lineup for more than two months. The 22-year-old forward has picked up three goals and three assists in his four games with Cleveland.

With 56 points, the Monsters are last the North Division but sit only three points behind Belleville for the nearest available playoff spot. After hosting the Griffins tonight, Cleveland welcomes the Senators to Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse for a critical two-game showdown on Saturday and Sunday.

Vogelhuber will be working Ceulemans into his team’s defensive rotation in the middle of a playoff race and acknowledged that challenge. Ceulemans has not played a game since March 4 when Wisconsin was eliminated from the Big Ten conference tournament, and the Cleveland coaching staff put him through a hard practice to open the week.

“It’s difficult because early in the year you have a lot of time to work through developmental mistakes,” Vogelhuber said. “Every one of these games is the biggest game of the year now, so for him stepping into it, it can be difficult.

“He’s going to get his opportunity to play and then after we go through that, everything is earned here. Doesn’t matter, first-round or seventh-round or free agent — you’ve got to earn your ice time.”

While there is excitement among the Blue Jackets to see Ceulemans start his pro journey, Vogelhuber has no illusions about the test that he faces tonight. The Griffins are fighting their own playoff battle in the Central Division, and the AHL’s late-season pace is a considerable step ahead of the college game.

“We’re going to assess and help him, but it’s a little difficult situation. He’s got to perform and perform quickly, because of the magnitude of these games for us.”