A Blue Jackets fan's guide to the playoffs

The playoffs are here and for a Blue Jackets fan that can be a difficult time of year. One season after another we are forced to watch other teams have all the fun. Let’s face it, the NHL regular season is great, but the Stanley Cup playoffs always take hockey to a completely different level.

Some of you Jackets fan have a second favorite team (Cheaters!), but I don’t. I was a Colorado Avalanche fan in the 90s when Forsberg, Sakic and Roy played and it’s hard to forget the fantastic matchups between the Avs and the Red Wings, with a level of physical play, skill and goaltending that I feel has not been matched since. Before that I was actually an Islanders fan and this I blame entirely on my dad. He went to see the Rangers play the Islanders at the Garden back in the mid 80s and brought me back an Islanders sweater. I can only conclude now that he got it on sale, and that I as a child didn’t know any better.

These days I only have one favorite team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, and therefore I tend to route against teams that I loathe, like the Red Wings (hate them but respect the way they play), Predators (hate them but secretly think that we could have been like them) or the Blues (just simply hate them!). Otherwise I tend to cheer for the underdog team or the team that is playing the most fun hockey, which for me is a creative, attacking style of hockey.

But this year is a little bit different. I find myself pondering the consequences for my own team in almost every single playoff series. So what exactly are those consequences, and what’s at stake for the Blue Jackets? Well to start with there is the issue of the Rick Nash trade (yes, he’s going to be traded), which may be the Organization’s most important hockey related decision ever faced. How that trade will be structured is very much up in the air, because the success of other teams, or lack thereof, in the playoffs will determine how hard they will pursue Nash. Then there is the intriguing issue of goaltending, which is something that the team simply has to upgrade, unless failing for another top draft pick is Scott Howson’s latest strategy. There are a few other issues at stake as well, like conditional draft picks, coaching and how some of our former Blue Jackets players are fairing for their new teams. Here is my personal take on what took place in the first round of the playoffs.

Los Angeles Kings vs. Vancouver Canucks (Kings win 4-1)

This series had a very real and direct impact on the Blue Jackets. Howson was able to squeeze a first round pick out of the Kings in addition to getting Jack Johnson for Jeff Carter. The first round pick is conditional and can be used either this year or next year. The general consensus seems to be that the CBJ would opt to use that pick this year, especially if LA is ousted in the second round. The earlier they lose, the better the draft pick for the Jackets. Since the Kings won the matchup with the Canucks, our hope is now pinned on the Blues (damn them) ending LAs run so that we can keep our first round pick, which is currently at No.17. If LA beats Saint Louis the Jackets’ pick drops to No.27-30, depending on how far the Kings go from there.

Most experts believed that the Canucks would win this series, but they lost despite Cory Schneider’s stellar play. This brings me to the second important issue of this matchup – goaltending. Roberto Luongo started the first few games, and although he wasn’t bad, he was clearly outplayed by Jonathan Quick of LA. Schneider now looks to be the No.1 goalie and one has to wonder what this means for the future of both Schneider and Luongo. Until recently it was widely believed that the Canucks would not be able to afford Cory Schneider, who becomes a restricted free agent this year. Especially since Luongo has a very expensive long term contract as well as having a no trade clause. Many people have therefore speculated that Howson would make a serious bid for Schneider, but now the Canucks will most likely be trying to shop Luongo instead.

Luongo recently said that he doesn’t want to be the guy to stand in the way of the Canuck’s if they want to trade him. Doesn’t that sound a whole lot like what Nash said earlier this year? And just like Nash, it now seems that Luongo was the one asking to be traded. If Luongo is indeed on the move, I think it’s safe to say that the Blue Jackets will not be a contender, since it’s very unlikely that he would voluntarily come here. But then again, our current goaltending coach Ian Clark used to coach Luongo, so who knows? If Howson ends up luring Luongo to Columbus, no matter what you think of his long term expensive contract, he will have pulled off a rare feat, especially with so many other teams looking for a goalie this year. I for one would gladly see Luongo play for the CBJ, but again, I just don’t see it happening.

Could Nash be dealt to the Canucks? Well, it’s not impossible, but I think that this is entirely contingent on first dumping Luongo’s enormous salary. I also doubt that he is a good fit with the Sedins on the first line, because they tend to play their own freaky twin chemistry type game and don’t need a big time scorer. You can throw in anyone with the Sedins and instantly make them a 20-30 goal scorer. Even Jared Boll would score a few empty netters on that line. Sure, Nash would probably do very well on the Kessler line, but he is not exactly second line material and much too expensive for that role.

Then there is Jeff Carter of the Kings. I for one never held a grudge against him, but I have to admit that I wouldn’t be sad to see him exit the playoffs sooner rather than later. Let’s go Blues!

San Jose Sharks vs. Saint Louis Blues (Blues win 4-1)

If the Kings/Canucks series was of vital interest to the Blue Jackets, the Sharks/Blues series may have been even more crucial. The reason is that the reported highest bid for Nash at the trade deadline probably came from the Sharks, at least if you listen to Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch. Now that the Sharks lost the series 4-1, there have already been rumors that San Jose is ready to up their bid. Joe Thornton is a very good friend of Nash, and the two of them produced a formidable duo for Davos, Switzerland during the 2004-2005 lockout season. They have also played together on team Canada.

The sticking point seems to be that Howson wants young stud Logan Couture and that is just to start the negotiations. Personally, I would love for the Jackets to acquire Couture, but I think it’s pretty unlikely. With 65 points and 31 goals this year, he was second in points on the team and tied for first in scoring. Compare this to Nash’s totals of 59 points and 30 goals, albeit on a much worse team in a really bad year. In my mind, Couture is a potential future superstar center and if the Sharks trade him for Nash, I quietly wonder if we could get much else back. Howson has hinted that he wants 4 or so pieces coming to Columbus in a Nash trade – something like a proven top six player, two good prospects and a first round pick. I actually think that this is a very sound strategy because it spreads the risk and gives us the kind of depth the organization has never had before. Joe Pavelski could potentially be a cornerstone for this kind of a deal, as others on The Cannon have recently pointed out, but he doesn’t have the same upside as Couture and is a bit older.

But maybe the Sharks are willing to bet really big on Nash. Last summer they decided to focus on defense after falling short in the playoffs again, with the acquisition of Brett Burns while giving up Setoguchi and Heatly, but clearly this strategy backfired. Although you could argue that the Sharks early exit this year was mainly due to the Blues stellar goaltending and good defensive play, they also seemed to lack some of the offensive firepower they have displayed in previous years. If the Sharks are willing to part with Couture and give Howson whatever else he wants, the Blues beating the Sharks may be a wonderful blessing in disguise for the Blue Jackets.

It’s also worth noting that Todd McLellan's days as head coach may be numbered with San Jose and this must surely be very interesting to Scott Howson. However, this is only a rumor at this point and I get the feeling that if there are no truly good coaching candidates available in the offseason, the Blue Jackets would be pretty happy with giving Todd Richards at least one more year. Personally, I have nothing against this strategy, because I think that Richards did a very good job with limited resources this year. But that discussion is for another day.

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Phoenix Coyotes (Coyotes win 4-2)

The Blue Jackets received a conditional fourth or fifth round pick in the 2013 draft as part of the Antoine Vermette trade earlier this year. Since the Coyotes beat the Blackhawks and thereby won at least one playoff series, the Jackets get the fourth round pick. Phoenix also have many other ex-Jackets players like Klesla, Whitney, Brule and Torres. Well, Torres won’t be playing for a while, rightly or wrongly, but I guess we should have seen that coming. It’s also interesting to note that Phoenix may not be an NHL city much longer, and if they move to let’s say Quebeck, it’s been rumored that Dave Tippett may not follow the team to Canada and would be available for another coaching job. Add to that the unlikely possibility of old Blue Jackets’ coach Dave King opting to move back to Columbus in some management role. He would certainly be a fan favorite and a guy that has the right experience to add to our front office. Pure speculation, but wouldn’t it be fun?

Another thing that stands out in this series is goaltending. Mike Smith was simply sensational for Phoenix and was able to subdue the otherwise impressive Chicago offense. After losing in the first round, Chicago will try to make changes in the offseason to get even better for next year. They have openly stated that they need to upgrade their goaltending which could make an already competitive Central division even tougher next season. Another team looking for a goaltender also makes it that much harder for the Blue Jackets to find their new guy in net.

Detroit Red Wings vs. Nashville Predators (Predators win 4-1)

I will be the first to admit that I didn’t see this coming. Yes, the Red Wings are getting old (for how long have we been saying that?) and they never seem to get very good goaltending, but Nashville made much quicker work of Detroit than I thought possible. Pekka Rinne (.944 Save%) had much to do with this, but there also seems to be something missing from Detroit’s arsenal lately. Simply put, they don’t score enough and with some cap space available this year (even more if Nicklas Lidstrom retires), they will surely be shopping for top six forwards. Mike Babcock bluntly stated that they were lacking in this area, and you wonder if Nash could be seen as a legitimate trade target. The problem is that for all of Detroit’s wonderful scouting and drafting, they actually don’t have very many young prospects to send our way. I suppose that if they threw in a guy like Valtteri Filppula, there would at least be a starting point for discussions, but they would have to give Howson a lot of other assets to make that work. In the end, I just don’t see the Red Wings as a legitimate trade partner in the Nash deal. But maybe that is because it would be so painful to see Nash play in a Red Wings sweater. I can’t even think about it actually, it just hurts too much.

There is a goalie that might be interesting to the Blue Jackets on the Nashville roster, Anders Lindback. He will become a restricted free agent at the end of the season, and many people see him as a legitimate future No.1 goalie. He is a 23 year old, big goaltender (6’-6”) with a .914 NHL save% and having been schooled in the Predators goalie system doesn’t hurt either. Lindback would be a good option if Howson decides to go with a cheaper, younger goalie while our young forwards and defensemen develop. I can actually see this being a logical way forward, rather than overspending on an already established goalie and “wasting” a few years of his contract, while the rest of the team catches up. On the other hand, getting a young and unproven goalie like Lindback, would not signal to the fan base that the Blue Jackets are ready to be a contender yet.

I also find it interesting that Alexander Radulov has been Nashville’s points leader in the playoffs so far. I guess his rumored $5 mil KHL salary was more reasonable than I thought. I wonder what his future with the NHL holds this time around? If he stays, I think he will become a force to be reckoned with, as I don’t see any weaknesses in his game. This could also have a very positive effect on young draft prospects like Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko, hopefully choosing NHL entry level contracts before the riches of the KHL.

Overall, I don’t think that Nashville beating Detroit will have a very big impact on the Blue Jackets. The Red Wings will still be a good team next year, if not better after their UFA upgrades, and Nashville has now taken the next step in becoming a perennial playoff contender. If anything, this just proves that the Blue Jackets have a really steep climb in the Central division.

Ottawa Senators vs. New York Rangers (Rangers win 4-3)

The Ottawa Senators surprised many people, including myself, when they almost beat the New York Rangers. We all know that Henrik Lundqvist was not the main problem for the Rangers, and their defense was about as solid as always. But even though they won, they just didn’t seem to score enough goals, despite star forwards like Richards and Gaborik, and I think they might have a hard time advancing any further. Seeing that the Rangers were very active in trying to get Nash before the trade deadline, if they don’t advance past the Conference semifinals, it would seem a foregone conclusion that they will up their bid. If they continue on their winning path to the Stanley Cup finals, Nash may be of no interest to them anymore. The fact that the Rangers (barely) beat the Senators could be a blow to the Blue Jackets hopes of getting maximum return in the Nash deal.

The Rangers rumored final offer, before the trade deadline, was said to include Brandon Dubinsky, Tim Erixon, J.T. Miller, Christian Thomas and a first-round selection in this June’s Entry Draft. Some people claim that this was a very fair deal, but I feel that it was lacking a bit in top young prospects, especially on the forward end. Howson was reportedly asking for either young winger Chris Kreider or young defenseman Michael Del Zotto to be included, but the Rangers called them untouchables. I very much doubt that they would still be untouchables if the Rangers exited the playoffs in the first round. As it stands now, much depends on how far the Rangers advance. It is also noteworthy that former CBJ player Anton Stralman has had a very solid playoffs with 2 goals and 2 assists, which is good for second in points on the team only behind Brad Richards.

Washington Capitals vs. Boston Bruins (Capitals win 4-3)

Wow, was this a great series or what? I have to say that I was very happy to see the Capitals beat the Bruins. Not only do I think that the Caps have paid their dues in the playoffs for the last few years, but I also think that the Bruins tend to bully other teams, and get away with it. Case in point was Jason Chimera, getting knocked down in the last game by Milan Lucic (who else), as he was skating to the bench without drawing a penalty. Chimera was later called for a penalty with 2 ½ minutes left of the third period for doing absolutely nothing. Good for Chimera that his team ended up with the win in the end. And has Boston not won enough in professional sports lately? And then there is Tim Thomas, don’t even get me started… Speaking of Thomas, he wasn’t bad at all against the Caps (.923 save%), but at age 38 he isn’t getting any younger and Boston has arguably the best backup goalie in the league in Tuukka Rask waiting in the wings.

So could Howson make a play for Rask in a Nash trade? Well the Bruins will not happily accept this season’s early exit, but to think that they would give up Rask is probably a stretch. Don’t get me wrong, if Howson pulls this off it would be amazing, but I wonder how much else he could get in such a deal? On the plus side, the Bruins have many good top six forwards that they may be willing to part with to get Nash. So maybe a Nash trade wouldn’t have to include Rask at all.

New Jersey Devils vs. Florida Panthers (Devils win 4-3)

Did anyone actually watch this series? If you did, it was actually one of the better played matchups of the first round. Florida is an interesting team in some aspects, because like the Blue Jackets they have been really awful for a long time, but this year they seemed to turn a corner. Some people feel that the Panthers way of putting together a team this season, coupled with their coaching, could be a blueprint for the Jackets going forward. I personally disagree with this. First of all the Southeast is a very weak division, and I very much doubt that the Panthers are as good of a team as their #3 seed in the East would indicate. As a matter of fact, New Jersey being the #6 seed actually had 102 points vs. Florida’s 94 in the regular season. Furthermore, I feel that Florida’s rag tag team was not built for the long term and will not sustain this season’s level of play in the future. When, or if realignment takes place, I think that the Jackets will be very fortunate to play teams like Florida more often.

So is Kevin Dineen as good of a coach as the Columbus Dispatch, and some other writers seem to think? He has clearly had a very good first year as an NHL coach, but I would like to see him be successful for a few more years before I buy their line of thinking. I also find it curious that the very same Dispatch writers seem hell bent on claiming that the Jackets finally need a coach that is “tough”. This is especially odd considering that the last two full time head coaches were named Hitchcock and Arniel, not exactly the two most easy going people in the world, but whatever.

On the New Jersey front, one has to wonder if this is finally going to be Brodeur’s last year in the NHL? If the Devils go far in the playoffs, it would be a very nice way for Brodeur to end his storied career. Either way, you would think that the Devils will actively pursue a new No.1 goalie, possibly Luongo himself, to find a long term solution in net. It’s also worth noting that Zach Parise will become a UFA after the season, but don’t even get your hopes up - he’s not coming to Columbus.

Philadelphia Flyers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (Flyers win 4-2)

This was clearly the most talked about series of the first round and for good reason. We saw some unbelievably good offense, incredibly bad goaltending and some really ugly stuff in between. It’s quite clear that both teams have a major goalie problem, but will they shop for a new goalie this year? With the current contracts that Marc-André Fleury and Ilya Bryzgalov have with their respective teams, it seems like they will both be staying put for a while. Sergei Bobrovsky could be on the move, but I doubt that the Blue Jackets are interested in him, unless he would be the No.2 goalie behind a new true No.1 guy.

Regardless of the goalie situation, I have felt that the Flyers could be the best trading partner in a Nash deal. I base this on two things. Firstly, Howson and Flyers GM Paul Holmgren have a good working relationship, since the Carter deal, and they met several times shortly before the trade deadline regarding Nash. Unfortunately at the time, the Flyers didn’t have the cap space to make a move, and were hesitant to make major changes in mid-season. Secondly, Philadelphia has the largest amount of young talented forwards (which we need) in the league. With the likes of Brayden Schenn, James Van Riemsdyk and Sean Couturier, just to name a few, they could certainly lose one or two of their young guns. If Jaromir Jagr retires after this season, or goes to another team (or country), he will also leave a significant void in the power forward department that needs to be filled. And is there a better player to plug that hole than Nash?

However, after seeing the Flyers dismantle the Pens, I very much doubt that Holmgren needs to go after Nash at all. Seeing Schenn or Couturier in a Blue Jackets sweater is probably just a pipe dream, but wouldn’t it be great?

Playoff implications for the Blue Jackets

The goalie situation is getting more intriguing by the day. Cory Schneider is probably off the market, although he is technically a restricted free agent after the season, and Luongo now appears to be the most coveted prize. Throw in guys like Tuukka Rask (probably not available), Anders Lindback (RFA), Josh Harding (UFA) or why not Thomas Vokoun (UFA) and you get a very confusing picture. With the Nash trade, many draft picks and money to spend on UFAs, I would be willing to bet that Steve Mason will not still be the Blue Jackets No.1 Goaltender next year. But who will it be?

With all the upsets and big market teams losing in the first round, it furthermore appears that Howson was wise to wait until after the season to trade Nash. I’m guessing that teams like the Sharks, Bruins and Canucks will be much more willing to part with assets they previously claimed to be untouchables, now that they are feeling the heat from their fans. That’s not to say that the Blue Jackets can get whatever they please in return for Nash, just that they will get a solid overpayment. And when you lose the first and only Franchise player in the history of the organization, that’s really all you could ask for.

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