Vinny Prospal's season was one of the few bright spots this past season. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)
I'll be blunt- part of me is glad this season is over.
This season was arguably the most disappointing in team history. It wasn't just due to the team's record (though it was still the third-worst in team history), it was due to the fact there was so much hype and hope prior to the start of the season. It wasn't all bad though, let's take a look at a handful of things that put a smile on our faces, if only for a little while.
The Summer of Hope
Regardless of how the standings looked at the end of the year, you can never take away the excitement that surrounded the team in late August and September. The trade for Jeff Carter, though it turned out to be a complete disaster, was huge at the time for the club. It showed that they were ready to become a legitimate contender, and Carter finally gave Rick Nash a fellow superstar to help shoulder the load. The signing of James Wisniewski, one of the top free agent blueliners available, also helped fuel the hype machine. Additionally, veteran forward Vinny Prospal was signed, in a move that to most Columbus fans felt like the cherry on top of the icing already on the cake.
New Arena Deal
The Jackets were bleeding cash year-to-year leading up to this season. This was mostly attributed to an unfavorable lease with Nationwide Arena, but in September the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority stepped in and purchased the Arena for $42.5 million. As part of the deal, the Jackets will occupy the arena rent-free, saving them $9.5 million a season. The biggest chunk of news from this new agreement however, was that the team agreed to stay in Columbus until at least 2039. The funds that the city has put up to purchase the rink are coming from an expected increase in casino revenue. This deal is very good for the Jackets, as they'll be in better shape financially and are no longer at risk of relocation, a very real concern if the team was still under the previous lease.Hiring of Craig Patrick as Senior Advisor
There were very few topics that would qualify for this post from the start of the season through early December, when the Jackets made a huge addition to their management team. Craig Patrick, architect of the Pittsburgh Penguins' Stanley Cup wins in the '90s and the man who drafted Sidney Crosby was hired as a Senior Advisor to General Manager Scott Howson. I'm of the opinion that in day-to-day business there can be too many cooks in the kitchen, but a pair of excellent head chefs is always better than one. Patrick is a known quantity in the NHL management world, and has seen it all. He'll be a sounding board for Howson, and will be invaluable in assisting the Jackets navigate through a potential Rick Nash deal and the forthcoming NHL Entry Draft.
A Pair of Pre-Deadline Trades
Long before the deadline, in a search for a spark to ignite his struggling squad, Howson got on the horn with the Pittsburgh Penguins and St.Louis Blues.
Searching for some depth up front, specifically up the middle, Howson sent a fourth round pick in 2012 to Pittsburgh for center Mark Letestu. Acquiring Letestu wasn't a blockbuster by any means, but when healthy Letestu has given the Jackets steady play, with timely offense. He scored four of his 11 goals on the powerplay, and after the trade deadline served as a compliment to Derick Brassard as the top-six pivots.
In a shakeup of the blueline, Howson sent blueliner Kris Russell to the Blues for fellow defenseman Nikita Nikitin. I must admit, at first I was a bit ho-hum with the deal, but by the end of the year Nikki-6 had become a major part of the Columbus blueline and in the meantime endeared himself to Columbus fans across the board, including myself. Not only is he one of the best passers on the team, he has a booming shot and is rock-solid in his own end. He really broke out when his primary defense partner-countryman Fedor Tyutin-went down with injury. He had ten points in his last eleven games, finishing sixth in team scoring with 7 goals, 25 assists for 32 points in 61 games. On the other side of the coin, Russell finished the regular season with six goals and six assists for twelve points in 55 games played. Nikitin was second to only Jack Johnson in blueline scoring for the Jackets.
Jack Johnson Joins the Blue Jackets
This is a positives post, so I won't go any further than saying that Jeff Carter couldn't get out of Columbus any faster. In my opinion, Howson and Co. did a fantastic job of dealing with the situation- he wasn't just dumped to the first team that would take him, rather he was dealt for two high-value assets. Those assets? One was a conditional first round pick, and the other was defenseman Jack Johnson.
Johnson was generally considered to be an offensive defenseman who was no damn good in his own end, a cocky sumbitch who was no longer a fit with the Los Angeles Kings. While that description may have been true in LA, it was extraordinarily refreshing to hear Johnson's comments upon being traded to Columbus. To paraphrase, he was excited to return to the midwest, where he's from and played his college hockey at Michigan. On the ice, Johnson has set team records for ice time, and has been an offensive contributer to go along with his strong overall play. He's said all the right things while with the Jackets. and you know he'll be wearing a letter next season, maybe even the "C".
As I mentioned earlier, the signing of Vinny Prospal came as a bit of a surprise for most Columbus fans. It was a bit of a treat to add a veteran forward who had the ability to put up points, who's been through the battles and has hands-down the best goal celebrations in the NHL.
In a nightmare season, Vinny was a godsend. To go along with the ear-to-ear smiles that he gave Columbus fans with every goal, he also celebrated 1000 games-played in the NHL. He was honored pre-game before a tilt with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the two teams came together in a very nice ceremony where he was given momentos from both squads.
He was no slouch in the offensive department either, finishing second in team scoring with 16 goals, 39 assists for 55 points, playing in all 82 games. Mdway through the season, Vinny surprised us all by signing a one-year extension to remain a Blue Jacket. The contract included a gentleman's agreement that Vinny would continue to sign short-term deals until retirement, at which point he'll take a job with the Jackets' front office. In a season where many players would want to get the hell out of dodge, Vinny made a commitment to winning it all with the Jackets, a very encouraging sign.
Ryan Johansen and the All Star Game
In seasons' past, Rick Nash had been a token Columbus representative at the NHL All Star Game. This season, with the Jackets completely shitting the bed by the end of January, Nash was not invited to participate in the midseason classic. The NHL does mandate however, that each team is represented in the game, in one form or another. This year, Columbus' rep was rookie Ryan Johansen, named as a first-year member of the weekend's festivities, taking part in the skills competition. Johansen was never a candidate for the Calder Trophy, but his rookie season will go a long way for his development. It was a trying season that saw him play in many different situations, but his involvement in the All Star Game in his rookie year will forever be a proud moment for the young centerman.
Derek Dorsett Breaks the #&@% Out
I'm guilty of questioning Derek Dorsett's value to the team at the beginning of the season. I saw him as an agitating fourth liner who would need to scratch and claw every game to remain in the big leagues.
Boy, did he change my tune.
Dorse finished the season as the NHL's penalty minutes leader with 235. More than that, he delivered some big goals, finishing the season with a dozen plus eight helpers for twenty points. He was a fixture on the Columbus checking line, routinely facing the opposition's top forwards and throwing them off their game with excellent forechecking, big hits, and of course, well-placed verbal grenades.
This season can be considered his breakout, and going forward he'll be the anchor of the checking line, and will be known league-wide as an agitating shithead (but he's our shithead!). He will score some important goals, and as he's shown the past two seasons, he's right at home with a letter on his chest.
The Sandman Cometh
Curtis Sanford was almost an afterthought last summer when he signed a deal with Columbus. It was expected that he would join rookie Allen York in Springfield of the AHL, serving as the team's third goaltender if one of the NHLers went down. Those NHLers, Steve Mason and Mark Dekanich, never operated as a tandem. Dekanich never played an NHL game due to injury, and Mason put forth another ugly season.
Sanford was thrust into the starter's job with the Jackets, and you know what? He kept the Jackets from getting embarrassed. More than that, he played well. It was no fault of his that the team in front of him played like hot garbage more often than not. He dealt with various injuries throughout the year, but at the end of the day the Sandman was one of the team's MVPs and it will be interesing this summer to see if he's brought back as a free agent, especially with Mason having one year left on his current deal.
Great New Blueline
I'll say it.
I love the look of the Columbus blueline.
I can't wait for the team to go into training camp, a fresh start, with the current group of blueliners. Wisniewski was a first-time Jacket this past season and when healthy, was an offensive threat, a hired gun on the powerplay, and five-on-five was willing to make the big hit. With players like him who take chances offensively, you know there will be odd-man rushes against, but the good outweighs the bad when he's dropping bombs from the point behind opposition goalies.
Jack Johnson, as we discussed above, has been a massive addition for the Jackets. He'll pair with Wisniewski next year, as he did at times this past season, forming the #controlledchaos duo, of twitter fame. We simply must come up with a better name for this pairing- two guys who are high-energy, high-character, oozing offensive ability who have the ability to bring you out of your seat.
On to the prospective second pairing. While the top duo is All-American with Wiz and JMFJ, the second pairing is an All-Russian duo of Nikitin and Tyutin. As we've talked about, Nikitin has been fantastic in Union Blue, while Tyutin remains the team's most complete blueliner.
As for the bottom pairing, the Jackets are already flush with options, without any potential free agency or trade additions. Former first rounder John Moore played most of the season, and didn't look out of place. There are those who are concerned by his lack of offense, but that's not his game. He's a fantastic skater, who uses positioning to defend, rather than snarl. He makes a good first pass, but he's not a shooter. Barring a horrific training camp, he'll be back with the Jackets next season.
Joining Moore will most likely be Marc Methot. Methot is a top-four shutdown defenseman on most teams, but with the Jackets he'll be riding shotgun to Moore. Young stud David Savard is another option for a roster spot, along with any potential additions the team may make.
It may fly under the radar, but the defense as currently constructed is a great group that should be considered a positive from this past season. Starting from the beginning of the season as a group will make all the difference in the world.
Columbus Awarded 2013 All Star Game
Now that the area surrounding Nationwide Arena features more hotels, to go along with the existing infrastructure, Columbus became a prime candidate to host an All Star Game. A bit of good news amid a terrible season was that the Jackets would be host to the league's best next January. It will be a great opportunity for the Jackets to show that they are a top-notch organization.
- Interim head coach Todd Richards had an improved record over the man he replaced- Scott Arniel. It remains to be seen if the changes he made were enough to give him a shot at taking over the coaching job full-time, but in my humble opinion he should get every chance possible to be the guy full-time.
- The Jackets were able to shed a lot of salary at the Trade Deadline. They dealt the contracts of Jeff Carter and Antoine Vermette, and traded upcoming free agent Samuel Pahlsson. In return, they picked up Jack Johnson, a first round pick in either 2012 or 2013 from the Kings (Columbus' choice), a second round pick in 2012 from Phoenix, two 2012 fourth round picks from Vancouver, and a conditional 2013 fifth round pick from Phoenix. The salary room alone is a win, but the added picks will be great for restocking the cupboard.
R.J. Umberger was one of the many Columbus players who had a trying season. The good news is, he finished the season on a tear, and ended up with 20 goals, 20 assists for 40 points. It was still a down year, but his play down the stretch was encouraging going into the offseason.
- Along with Umberger, rookie Cam Atkinson also finished the season strong. He formed a productive duo with Umberger, and did not look out of place on a scoring line. #CamJam will be in full force next season.
- The Jackets' top development squad, the Springfield Falcons of the AHL, were right in the thick of the playoff chase until the end of the season. That's more than their parent franchise can say, and in the case of the Falcons, even sniffing the playoffs is an improvement over recent seasons. If the Jackets weren't so decimated by injury and poor play this past seasonl, the Falcons would have had more weapons in their arsenal and would more than likely be one of the better teams in the AHL.
Derek MacKenzie somehow finished the season as a "plus" player, finished with a plus/minus rating of +4.
- The Jackets' finished the season strong, going 5-1 in their last six games. It was garbage time, but the team showed what they could do when their heads were screwed on properly.
- It's bittersweet, but given their last-place finish, the Jackets are guaranteed the first or second overall pick. They have the best chance of winning the Draft Lottery, giving them the first overall pick, but if another team wins the lottery the worst the Jackets' could draft is second overall.
Let us know if there were any other positive moments for you this past season by posting in the comments! Though it was a terrible season, there were a few positive moments, let's try to remember the good, not the bad.
Check back tomorrow for more post-season analysis.