2011 Exit Interviews: The Top Six....or Seven

As the Jackets head into another early offseason, John P. MacConnell promised that every aspect of the team would be given a thorough review - something that has already seen some impact with the departure of goaltending coach Dave Rook in favor of finding a coach who can be a full time member of the staff. 

As Scott Howson and Scott Arniel met with each member of the team, we thought that a good way to evaluate this season might be to do the same thing, looking at the expectations coming into this for each, and how things worked out.

Rick Nash - LW / RW (C)

  • 26 Years old
  • 32 Goals, 34 assists (66 points) in 75 games.
  • +2
  • 34 PIM

What We Expected:

The highest paid player on the team is supposed to be your best player. The expectation from fans was that under the more aggressive approach of Scott Arniel, we might see Nash finally break the 80 point plateau and become a true point-per-game player. He was also expected to step up in his role as the team's captain and truly play a leadership role both on and off the ice.

What We Got:

Though Nash lead the club in goals, assists, and overall points (and was in a three way tie for second on power play goals with 6), his stats for this year are actually a bit disappointing - 32 goals in a season is his second lowest since the lockout (he had 27 in '06-07), and 13 points shy of his career best in '08-09. His +/- was decent (and only the 3rd time since the lockout he finished with a postive +/- score), and it's notable that his 34 PIMs were the lowest total he's taken in his career as a Blue Jacket, showing that he's been making strides to improve his defensive ability and responsible play on the ice. On the other hand, this is the first time in the past five years that Nash had no shorthanded goals or assists - something which can be explained by his reduced time on the penalty kill, but Nash still drew a fair amount of opportunities - and his shooting percentage dropped from a .130 last season to .105 this year, despite getting 50 more shots on goal. Nash's 6 power play goals were also tied with his career low, and a big part of why the team's power play struggled was their big guns not getting it done.

On the leadership front, it's clear that Nash and R. J. Umberger appear to have taken over the room - particularly with how veteran "leader" types like Chris Clark and Ethan Moreau were reduced in their roles this season due to injuries. And to his credit, the way the team came back after a bad December and pushed to a strong position through February seems to be a sign that the room is improving, compared to last season's utter free-fall. The issue comes with how the team responded in March, though the fact that Nash was suffering back problems for much of the month (which lead to his missing the final weeks of the season) is an indication that he may not have been 100% effective on or off the ice. 

We'll give Rick a B for the season, all things considered.

What We Need To See:

Though Nash lead the offense this season, we need to see more. Consider that Nash is very comparable to another "young" captain - the Carolina Hurricane's Eric Staal. Though Staal's team also missed the playoffs this season, he's still had 82, 75, 70, and 76 point seasons over the last four years, compared to Nash's 69, 79, 67, and 66. Changing his linemates several times this season likely didn't help, but we need our (nearly) 8 million dollar man to play like one, and especially to raise his game on the power play, either by delivering the puck himself, or setting up the rest of the unit. (Nash's 8 PPAs were also a career low - he's normally a double digit setup man with the man advantage).

Last but not least, there can be no more "leadership" excuses. This is your show, and you need to make the room accountable to you. Do whatever you have to this offseason to make it clear that you expect more from your teammates, and set the tone from the first day of training camp onwards.

 

Derick Brassard - C

  • 23 years old
  • 17 goals, 30 assists (47 points) in 74 games.
  • -11
  • 55 PIMs

What We Expected:

Going into the first year of a healthy raise from his entry level deal, a lot of people wondered if this would be the year we'd see Brassard take off as a pro. Though it was clear he would be part of the top six based on training camp, it was not certain if he'd mostly spend time on the first or second lines. Though he wasn't expected to suddenly become Joe Sakic, we did hope that he'd become a strong offensive threat, and perhaps show more of the exciting skill we saw in 2008-2009.

What We Got:

After an early experiment with a "kid" line of Filatov, Brassard, and Voracek, he was eventually elevated next to Rick Nash, and stayed there for the remainder of the season, with the exception of 8 games he missed during the February - March push with a hand injury. Stacked up against opponents' top lines and best checking players, the -11 isn't great, but it's certainly an improvement from his -17 last season, and his offensive production set career highs across the board. I'm torn between saying his 10 PPAs this season were a sign of his continued improvement (and they were the second most on the team behind Fedor Tyutin), or a sign of how much our power play struggled. 

There are a lot of positive things for Brassard this season, and a lot of reasons to be hopeful for next season, but there is a downside: sitting next to Rick Nash for most of the season, Brassard delivered numbers similar to Bryan Little of the Thrashers, or Sam Gagner of the Oilers. The problem is, he's being paid more than a million dollars than each of them per season. 

That's not really his fault (after all, it's not like you'll say no to someone wanting to pay you more money than you expected to make), but it keeps me from calling it an "A" year for Brass. Perhaps a B+.

What We Need To See:

To put it bluntly, if you're being paid like a 50-60 point player, we need to see you become one. Brass took big steps this year, and for now the #1 job is his, barring a deal in the off season or some other changes we can't anticipate. He is a younger guy, and it's entirely possible that he's finally coming into his own. If what we saw this year is the start of big things, we'll all be happy. If this year should prove an exception, and he steps back again, he could be the next player whose name appears on trade rumors.

Also, there's good signs that after several injury plagued seasons, Brass is on the right track with his conditioning and physical development. Though he did miss 8 games due to his hand injury, he still returned to finish the season, and it's the closest he's come to a full NHL season. Perhaps next year we'll see him for a full 82 games...or more, if he can be a part of the club taking that next big step. 

 

Kristian Huselius - LW

  • 32 years old
  • 14G, 9 A (23 points) in 39 games.
  • -17
  • 10 PIMs

What We Expected: 

After two seasons where Huselius was neck and neck with his linemates in the club scoring race, we expected him to continue to be a major offensive threat for the Jackets, and a contributor to the team's power play, where he had turned in an excellent season in 2009-10. Starting the season in his native Sweden, we expected it to be the springboard for a memorable year, especially if his offense outweighed his defensive headaches.

What We Got:

It was certainly a memorable year for Huselius, but for all the wrong reasons. Losing over half the season to injuries, particularly a high ankle sprain that did him in at the end of October, he worked so hard on trying to recover that he reportedly needs groin and ankle surgery to fix the problems he caused trying to force himself to get better. His point production was a career low, and the fact that he had such wretched defensive play despite appearing in so few games is a major cause for concern. He's coming into the final year of his contract, and it's not surprising that many wonder if he could be dealt during the offseason. A resounding F.

What We Need To See:

If Huselius returns for next season (and at this point I don't think that's a given), we've already talked about our concerns for his ability to play up to his contract at age 33 and coming off major injuries. He needs to rehab his ailments and be ready to play in Arniel's system, and that means he's going to need to be in top conditioning. If he does return, he needs to be better defensively, and ideally we'd like to see him get back to being a solid playmaker and setup man on the power play. A 60 point season is unlikely, but a 40-50 point season, and perhaps (just perhaps!) finishing the season in the positive +/- territory, or at least only single digit negatives, would go a long way towards redeeming this stinkburger of a year.

 

R.J. Umberger - F (A)

  • 28 years old 
  • 25 G, 32 A (57 points) in 82 games
  • +3
  • 38 PIM

What We Expected:

I listed R.J. as a forward, rather than a fixed position, because he's always been willing to do a bit of everything. Able to play both wings or the pivot (though he's clearly more comfortable on the wing), he started the year as a bit of a tweener, with Scott Arniel experimenting with expanding his scoring lines, and putting Umberger on the third line in favor of giving Nikita Filatov a chance with the top six. A leader on and off ice, it was expected that Umberger would pitch in wherever the team needed him.

What We Got:

Umberger didn't spend long on the checking line, though he certainly didn't play badly there. Elevated back into the top six almost before the team landed back from Sweden, he delivered a career year in points (second behind Nash), lead the team in power play and shorthanded goals, and put the team on his back more often than not. Never missing a game this season, Umberger set the team's iron man record in the process, passing Jason Chimera, and it was clear how much missing the post season for the second straight year bothered him in his comments to the Dispatch and other media as the season wound down. 

Clearly a voice in the locker room demanding accountability (and pushing opponents out of the building), if Rick Nash is the face of the team, Umberger is their heart, and he proved it again and again. A+.

What We Need To See:

Really, I don't think we need anything from R.J. except to keep being the player and leader that he has grown into being. The biggest question may be Umberger's contract, which expires at the end of next season. Does he want to keep playing in Columbus, or would a third season of missing the playoffs potentially lead him to look elsewhere? Given the loyalty and commitment he's shown the team, I don't believe he wants to go, but if they miss the playoffs again, he could be forgiven for wondering about greener pastures. Given the turmoil of late, if Umberger chose to have his agent negotiate an extension this offseason, it would send a powerful message to the room.

 

Antoine Vermette - C (A)

  • 28 years old
  • 19 Goals, 28 Assists (47 points) in 82 games
  • +/- 0
  • 60 PIMs

What We Expected:

Off of a career high 65 point season, we expected Vermette to be a "real" first line center this season for Nash, continuing a trend of strong play in a Jackets' uniform since he was acquired from Ottawa for Pascal LeClaire. A top faceoff man, his other defensive skills needed a bit of tweaking, but he generally was expected to bring a big year.

What We Got:

Vermette did start on the first line, but after the team's chemistry got off to a shaky start, he was moved down to the second line with Umberger and a cast of rotating off wings, but found his stride. Though his scoring dipped from a .79 PPG to .57 PPG, he still tied Brassard for third in club scoring with 47 points, was 10th in scoring percentage at 10.4% (and that number improves to 7th if we discard players with less than 40 GP), and came in 14th in the NHL in overall faceoff wins. He was good, but not quite as good as we hoped - especially since, like Brassard, he started the first year of a contract extension with a notable raise.

Despite that, for all the complaints about his production, the fact that he was still within 18 points of his previous season totals despite moving down from Rick Nash and Kristian Huselius as linemates is actually pretty impressive, doubly so when you consider he spent almost a quarter of the season with Nikita Filatov on his off wing, who utterly failed to develop this season. If he'd had a better linemate to go with himself and Umberger, I can't help but think Vermette might have broken the 50 point barrier - perhaps even pushing Nash again for the club scoring race. His +/- of 0 isn't great, but given the team's defensive woes, it's still a notable achievement. 

B+

What We Need To See: 

I don't have a problem with Vermette on the first or second line, and in fact I hope that Vermette (and perhaps Ryan Johansen) may 'push' Brassard in camp, but there is one thing: Vermette needs to shoot more. Though he had an excellent shooting percentage for this club, he only fired off 183 shots this year - and had a bad habit of passing off at times. It's a common flaw for much of the team, but there were a few times when he had a chance to put the game on his stick and failed to rise to the challenge. We've also pointed out that Vermette takes a lot of "cheating" penalties. That's something that I'd like to see him work on. We need his abilities on the ice, not in the penalty box.

 

Jakub Voracek - RW

  • 21 years old
  • 14 goals, 32 assists (46 points) in 80 games
  • -3
  • 26 PIM

What We Expected:

Unlike most of his peers on the top lines, Voracek was a player coming into a contract year - something that often pushes a player to deliver a bit more than he might otherwise. Having spent much of the offseason working on bulking up and developing his frame, many expected him to use his newfound muscle to start getting more aggressive and attacking the net - perhaps even becoming another "star" for the team alongside Rick Nash at the national level.

What We Got:

If it seems a little odd to call Voracek's season a step back after calling Brassard's a success, despite such similar numbers...well, that's what I'm doing. After a 50 point campaign last season, we expected him to take it to even greater heights. Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that his bulking up during the offseason came at the expense of speed and endurance. Voracek struggled well into November, disappeared again in December, and finally seemed to hit stride in the team's New Year's Eve win against Ottawa. Worse, Voracek again disappeared when the team needed him most. After scoring against Phoenix just prior to the trade deadline, Voracek would only record two more goals and four more assists over March and April. 

Perhaps the removal of "buddy" Mike Commodore and countryman Rusty Klesla affected his game. Perhaps the loss of Brassard from the lineup affected his confidence. Whatever the reason, Voracek regressed, and regressed hard. That means we really only got four months (really, less, considering the holiday and All Star breaks....let's call it three and a half) of "good" performances from Jake, and three and a half months where we could have anyone else on the ice and would likely have gotten just as much impact. We'll call it a C.

Scott Howson appears to have made a very smart move to wait on giving the young Czech an extension. One thing is clear: This team needs more than a 50% effort from it's young players, and if Voracek expects to keep playing in the top of the lineup, he had better be prepared to give it everything he has.

What We Need To See:

Conditioning is the watchword for Jake. If he'd been in shape to meet the demands of his new coach, instead of needing a month of pre-season and much of the early season to get into speed, perhaps this would be a very different question. Conditioning is one of the biggest things that separates playoff teams from also-rans. He's a young guy - one of the youngest in the locker room - and there's certainly time to turn things around, but he needs to start now. If Jake wants to be an impact player, and not a question mark, he has to show commitment to himself and the locker room. I don't think it's a coincidence that he's going to work with the same trainer who Derick Brassard uses. Brass is his linemate, but he may end up being a bit of a "keeper" to make sure he sticks to the game plan for this offseason. Add to that the question of if he will take an extension, or if this might go to salary arbitration, and it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Matt Calvert - LW

  • 21 years old (first pro season)
  • 11 goals, 9 assists (20 points) in 42 games.
  • +3
  • 12 PIM

What We Expected:

Well, honestly, we didn't expect anything. Not at the NHL level, anyhow. We suggested he might factor into the battle for a spot on the fourth line in training camp. We weren't shocked to see him go to Springfield, and I'd say most fans were pleased to see him light it up there early on in the year, but expected his NHL debut was a year or two away.

What We Got:

Once called up, Calvert spent time in the top and bottom six, but seemed to find his most natural fit next to R.J. Umberger and Antoine Vermette, and that's where he did the bulk of his damage. Scoring the 11th hat trick in franchise history in front of a packed crowd, he also had some of the most visually impressive goals this season for the Jackets, including a flying breakaway goal past the Blackhawks' Corey Crawford. He also showed a willingness to hit anything that moves as a checking player, and did reliable work on the fourth line when shuffled around by coach Arniel. Not bad for a 5th round pick. He wasn't as consistent as we might have liked, but he showed a lot of positive signs for what the future could bring - particularly his .220 shooting percentage. I doubt he can keep that up over a full season, but if he can continue to develop his skills as an NHL level sniper...

A solid B+ performance, marred only by a bit of a slump down the stretch into the end of the season, but still a very encouraging start.

What We Need To See:

This offseason is going to be all about Calvert continuing to develop himself and making the team out of camp, rather than attaching himself as a call up. Continuing to adapt to the pace of the NHL game and working on building up strength and endurance will go a long way, and if he can keep honing his scoring abilities, the future is bright. He may be a "plus" third liner who can shift between the bottom and top six, in the end, but I don't have any doubt that we're going to be seeing a lot more impact from Matt Calvert as his NHL career continues.

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