A recent fanpost by "westside paul" combined with our atrocious season has got me looking to next year for sunlight. It's a terrible feeling to be looking to next season at the All-Star break, but such is the life of a Jackets fan.
I sat down and started poking around, looking at upcoming free agents, NHL trade rumors, and what not. Got a pen and paper out and started coming up with a potential lineup card and what it could look like next year...
...and here's what I came up with.
? - Carter - Johanson
Nash - Brassard - Letestu
Umberger - Vermette - Dorsett
Atkinson* - MacKenzie - Kubalik*
Methot - Wisneiwski
Tyutin - Nikitin
? - Sanford*
All the question marks are needs that the team needs to address via trade or free agency. I'd like to go through and explain some of my reasoning for some of my projections, notably the part where I dismiss the idea of Columbus currently possessing a defenseman capable of manning the top pair. In my opinion, it is a major problem with this franchise, next to goaltending, of course.
First off, I like the concept of splitting Nash and Carter, as both are primarily shooters, and although they have shown a few signs of chemistry, they are still lacking in that department. On the other hand, Brassard and Nash have looked great together. While his play may taper off, Brassard has been very impressive since the coaching change, and barring a collapse in his level of play, I see him as a top-six center next season. The Johan has been impressive this year, and so far, looks like our most promising draft pick since #61. I think he's earned his spot in the top six, and would flourish alongside Carter, although I don't think he's ready to play pivot on a top line in the NHL yet. Besides, the one position we have depth at seems to be center. Mark Letestu has shown promise, although it might be a stretch placing him in the top six. Still, he's shown offensive spark and defensive responsibility, and I feel that acquiring him may be the best move Howson has made this season.
As for our bottom six, I really like the Umberger - Vermette - Dorsett line. Umberger is one of the main veteran voices in the locker room, and hopefully this season is just an off year for Umby. If we can get gritty play in both ends from him and the 20 goal year he's capable of, he's one of the core pieces of this team. He and Vermette seem to have good chemistry together, and I'd like to see Vermy centering his line, with Dorsett on the other wing. Hopefully Howson resigns him, I don't see how you justify letting him walk after a breakout year. Dorse just needs to work on his discipline, and quit taking so many dumb penalties. Another upcoming free agent who I would like to see resigned is D Mac. MacKenzie hustles up and down the ice every shift, finishes his checks, and just doesn't take nights off. It shouldn't come as a surprise he leads the team in +/-
As for the rest of our forwards, I've been very impressed by Kubalik in his stint on the big club, and would like to see him make the club next season. Atkinson has been tearing it up in Springfield, and with more seasoning, he and Kubalik could be ready to take the next step as full-time NHLers. That said, there are other guys who could also be worthy, and it wouldn't shock me to see Calvert, Russel and Mayorov, or even Martin St. Pierre(he should be resigned, let the goon Byers walk, and give him the C in Springy, but that's just my opinion) making a case in the pre-season. Depending on what the club decides to do with Jared Boll, there could also be added competition for ice time from him. Personally I see him leaving Columbus, call it a hunch. Which isn't a major loss, Cody Bass could be used to fill the void, spending some games in the press box and entering the lineup when "toughness" is needed. From what I've seen, he plays the game a lot like Boller, he's a checking forward who's not afraid to drop the gloves. Personally I like Boll much better, he's disciplined...considering his role, he draws more penalties than he takes anyways. Plus he's been with the team, and there's something to say for loyalty. Although Bass' 2 way contract could give the team more versatility, which would be a small upside if Howson decides to go that route.
Either way, I expect the CBJ to be in the market for a top 6 winger...and depending on who they land, our forwards are the brightest spot for this team. Given the end of the Arniel era, and the renewal of the passing game, not just dump-and-chase, puck battles, and endless cycling...we may see the offense we all thought these guys had the ability to generate.
As for the guys I haven't listed, judging from his comments and obvious frustrations, I think Prospal would welcome a trade to a contender looking for depth for the playoff run. Either way, as an UFA, I think it's unlikely he opts to resign in Columbus. Pahlsson is a solid defensive center, but given the depth at the position and his expiring contract, I just don't see the need for him. Especially considering that Vermette can also win draws and puck battles, play good D and add a little offensive spark that Sammy just doesn't have. Huselious is as good as gone, making matters worse is given his injuries, there will be almost no trade value for him at the deadline.
Now, onto defense. I really liked the Wiz-Methot pairing when it was used this year. I don't think it's a true number one defensive pair, but it works. Marcy marc shoots left, plays good conservative D, blocks shots, but is lacking in puck moving skills and offensive ability. Wiz is a decent puck mover, has a great shot from the point, but takes too many risks...he likes to step up on his man and go for the hit rather than stay in position. They got burned a few times, but for the most part it worked when they were together...Wiz generated a couple turnovers and some offense, and Methot stayed home and covered his ass for some of his defensive mistakes. I still remember his textbook hip check breaking up the 2 on 1 rush in New Jersey...I think it was against Zajan - Elias. The Russian duo has been decent this year, although they should be the third pair on a good team. Tyutin turns the puck over too frequently, and sometimes just has terrible games. Nikitin shows great promise, and the two seem to have good chemistry together. He plays solid defense, and needs to unleash that slap shot of his more often. In my opinion, he could use a little polishing on his skating, but still, a good defenseman. I like John Moore, don't get me wrong, but I just don't see him filling anything other than the 7th man at this stage in his career. I would rather him get tons of minutes and seasoning in Springfield than sit in the press box, but considering our past luck with injuries, maybe that won't be an issue. Savard just isn't ready for the jump to the NHL at this point, of course I could be wrong, but it seems he needs more seasoning in Springfield. While these pairings give us a great 2nd and 3rd defensive pair, we are still lacking two defenseman who can step up and play top pair minutes. Howson may have signed Wiz to a #1 contract, and his offensive production may certainly merit that paycheck, but his defensive play is lacking. We just don't have a top pair.
Therein lies the problem, as we are unlikely to sign a big time free agent D-man, like Ryan Suter, we would have to pay through the nose to lure him here anyways. (Frankly I hate the Preds so much, I don't think I could stomach that anyways) We don't have the kind of disposable assets to trade for two top Dman, and the free agent market will not be kind to us. The Caps will be trying like hell to resign Wideman, he won't go to C-Bus even if he opts to change uniforms. Some of the other upcoming UFA names out there, Tim Gleason, Matt Carle, John-Michael Liles, Michal Rozsival...are all either A. Likely to resign with their respective teams B. Unlikely to be interested in signing with the CBJ or C. Just not the caliber of player we're looking for. Unfortunately I forsee Howson signing someone who falls into the C category, and paying them too much money. We have a gaping wound, and that isn't going to be fixed with a band-aid. We can add more depth at defense, but adding 3rd pairing caliber guys just isn't going to fix our problem at the blue line. I don't expect two top defenseman to be acquired this off-season, but in time...that should be our end goal. I also wouldn't mind picking up a veteran guy to play 7th man while we send Moore down for another year of seasoning, but we have other more pressing needs.
As far as the guys in Union Blue who won't be coming back, I think everyone can agree that Clitsome, Lebda, and Johnson just aren't NHL-caliber defenseman. Martineks concussion more than likely ended his career.
It's also hard to devote resources towards acquiring two top defenseman when you have an even more pressing need staring you in the face...and that would be our goaltending situation. Mason needs to be moved. Plain and simple. it's a shame, he has the size and quickness to be a great goalie...but he is inconsistent, and the team has lost faith in him. They play a completely different game when Mason is in net, and he needs a change of scenery. Moreover, at times it looks as if he has lost faith in himself, some of his games have been absolutely awful this year. Dekanich has been plagued by injuries, and as of this writing, has reinjured himself after posting a 4.00 GAA and a .86something save percentage in a handful of AHL games. Sanford has been a wonderful surprise, and had he not been, it makes me shudder to think how bad our record could be right now. However, he isn't a long term answer in net, and he is a UFA at the end of this year. I wouldn't mind resigning the Sandman for another year, especially if they can convince him to take a 2 way deal. He can't be relied upon to be the #1, given his back problems, but barring a late-season breakdown, he has shown that he still has the skills to be an effective backup. Dekanich has not shown us anything yet, and will more than likely start next season in Springfield. WE NEED A GOALIE. Plain and simple. I don't expect a superstar, but we need a serviceable NHL goaltender, a legitimate #1 netminder. I would be satisfied with a guy posting the league average in GAA and SV%.
That said, trading for a goalie is extremely difficult, and we don't have many assets to offer up in trade without costing us dearly in other areas. The best option for us seems like free agency, although most of the guys out there will be resigned, or wouldn't have any interest in the CBJ, or worse, just wouldn't be an improvement. Cristobal Huet, Dwayne Roloson, Nittymaki...not servicable options. Hell, Roloson is the one goalie worse than Steve Mason. Other guys will more than likely resign, like Vokoun and Clemmensen. Honestly the two options I see us most likely to be able to land would be Josh Harding or Al Montoya. But the downside is that Tampa will also be in the market for a netminder(s), as will the Devils, unless Brodeur opts to resign and not retire. There will be other teams in the hunt too, so who knows what will happen.
That said, I see our biggest needs being the acquisition of 4 new players, which doesn't sound like much, but they are all extremely valuable, and difficult to acquire, pieces. A #1 goaltender, two top defensemen and a top six winger don't exactly grow on trees. We'll have limited options in the trading market, since most of what we have to offer are merely short-term rentals with expiring contracts and a struggling young goalie.
I hate to be a pessimist, but I don't see all our needs being met next year. The road ahead will be difficult, but if we draft well and develop the guys in the system, we could be looking at a contender in a few years. Which...speaking of the draft, I think we're looking at a couple of can't misses regardless of whether we "Fail for Nail" or not. In all honesty, any of the guys in the top couple picks have me salivating. Grigorenko and Forsberg are both great wingers, and Ryan Murray is being touted as the next Scott Niedermayer. Any one of those guys would be a great addition to the organization.
Here's to hoping for better second half this season.