The 2011-2012 season turned into a disaster of epic proportions for the Columbus Blue Jackets. With Jeff Carter as the center Rick Nash had always been waiting for and James Wisnewski launching bombs from the blue line this was going to be the season the Jackets finally took that Great Leap Forward into the land of NHL contenders. Clearly it didn't work out that way. The Jackets finished dead last, Carter ended up hoisting Lord Stanley's Cup in Los Angeles and face of the franchise Rick Nash had his worst year ever, and asked to be traded. If ever there was a disaster, last season was it.
But with each year comes a new season, and with it hope. The 1993 Cleveland Indians were awful. The 1995 Indians won over 100 games and played in the World Series. With each new season comes fresh hope, and despite Nash's seemingly imminent departure, there is reason to hope in Columbus as well. But rightly we have to begin by understanding why last season turned out so foul.
In September we had plenty of reason for hope. Steve Mason had played two shaky seasons but he now had a proven (and non-suicidal) goalie coach in Ian Clark plus two new backups, veteran Curtis Sanford and Mark Dekanich, whom pretty much everyone thought was ready for a steady job in the NHL. The forward corps was considered the strength of the team. The Prospal-Carter-Nash line looked like a thing of beauty when the season began, with Umberger, Vermette and Brassard right behin. Rising youth Ryan Johansen, Matt Calvert and Cameron Atkinson gave us reason to hope for real offensive depth and defensive stalwart Sammi Pahlson anchored the checking line. We really expected to score some goals.
The real questions about the team began from the blue line back. Wisnewski was signed to provide us with real power play leadership for the first time. But defensively the rest of the team was suspect, and most commentators noted the team really did not have a true first pairing. Help was on the way in the forms of John Moore, David Savard and Cody Goloubef, but nobody thought they'd be ready. Things were even worse in goal. If Mason could recover the form of his Calder cup season all would be well. In the pre-season it certainly seemed he had regained his touch, and he had proven goalie coach to help guide him But if he did not, things were likely to be rough.
And so it came to pass. The Jackets were undone by a series of injuries and suspensions that concentrated on the blue line back. Wisnewski was suspended in the pre-season in what in hindsight clearly seems an attempt by Brendan Shanahan to send a message to rest of the league on hits to the head, but one he never backed up. The CBJ lost Wiz for the first ten games of the season, and the conclusion is inescapable based on Shanahan's subsequent actions that he would never have hit Wiz that harshly had he remained in Montreal or gone to Detroit. The combination of suspensions and injuries took out our four best pre-season defensemen.
The situation was even worse in goal. Often hung out to dry by a decimated defensive corps, Mason faltered early. But here two injuries left the jackets vulnerable. Mark Dekanich was seen by everyone as NHL ready when signed out of the deep Nashville organization by GM Scott Howson, Only Dex got hurt during his first pre-season game and never played a second for the Jackets. Veteran backup Curtis Sanford had also been brought in as option #3, but most of us forget he too was hurt during the early season. Between Columbus and Springfield the Jackets had 12 goalies on roster this season,one of whom , was called to Columbus to sit on the bench the very day he was called. When Mason faltered there simply was no place to go, and no way even to give him a break to get his head in shape.
Jeff Carter's attitude issues clearly made things worse, as did poor practice habits, But the season really fell apart along with the goaltending and injury issues. Practicing is easier when you're winning, and winning keeps people positive. Had the team come out of the box strong some of these problems would have gone away, but we were undone by poor play and consistent injuries concentrated from the blue line back. Fate picked apart the Blue Jackets as if it were trained sniper.
Much of the fault belongs to former head coach Scott Arniel, who clearly was in over his head. We all had high hopes for him when hired, but he was not ready for the NHL and certainly not ready for the team he got. Scott Howson too is due some criticism, primarily for his failure to sign a true NHL goalie. But he in no way can be held accountable for the rash of injuries, and particularly that so many were concentrated in the areas we could least afford. The primary challenge for management in the offseason is two-fold. First, we need a true starting goalie and one quality backup. Second, we need to get a great return for Rick Nash. Finally, we need to revamp the scouting corps so we get better results. Our scouts have found some players, but mostly in the late rounds. We simply cannot afford to waste any more high picks.
The team that is:
Rick Nash may well be gone by the time you read this, and until his trade and free agency are done it makes little sense to speculate on possible lines. Nevertheless, if he can recover his fire (and wins might do this, he is a perennial all-star and tough penalty-killer.
Derrick Brassard highlighted more then anyone else the problems of Scott Arniel. Brass is one of those people who cares very much about the game. He was always one of the first guys at practice and one of the last to leave. But like a lot of people who care he's one of the first to tighten his stick when things aren't going well. Arniel made him gain weight and strength, but that took away his quickness. And then he tried to browbeat him into play. Brass plays best when he's loose, so the way to coach him stay positive, try and give him the tiniest touch of swagger. Richards seemed to understand this, so it is reasonable to expect more from Brass next season.
Vinny Prospal was one of Howson's better pickups, nicely replacing Huselius. He is a natural leader with the respect to call people out when needed. But he's old in hockey years and getting older. It's no secret his production fell off as the season went on. The key to Prospal going forward is rest. He needs to be rested regularly, and right from the beginning, so he doesn't wear down. Unless it's late in the season and we really need two points he should never play both nights of a back to back. I think we'll get more points out of Vinny if he plays 60 games then 82.
RJ Umberger is a great guy, but he's really a plus third line forward. Other teams have learned to make him carry the puck into his zone, and his stick skills simply aren't up to it on the top six. On a top team, he's a third line winger. His goals come at the net, or when he has space. When Boone Jenner is ready to anchor the third line, Umby will be the perfect linemate to create a dangerous checking line. His character and willingness to go to the net make him valuable, but the team won't be really dangerous until he occupies the third line.
Ryan Johansen really needed to spend last season in the AHL, only that option wasn't open to the team. This year they should exercise it unless he seizes a top-six center job in camp and never lets go. He's got size and talent, but he was a boy among men. I saw enough last year to feel good about the pick, so please take the time to develop him.
Mark "Test Tube" Letestu proved a pleasant surprise last year. But nobody should expect him to get better, or even the same production.
Derrick Dorsett was the biggest nice surprise of last year. He scored ten goals, more then many ever though him capable of, and cut way down on the dumb penalties. He's a third line stalwart. Dorsett showed he belongs in the league, and can stay so long as his body holds up.
The rest of the forwards are interchangeable, and there are no sure-fire NHLers. Jared Boll seems about used up after too many years fighting underweight. Ryan Russell is fine as a checker but brings zero offense Derek MacKenzie brings speed, face offs and little offense. Daryl Boyce and Colton Gillies are checkers, pure and simple. The Jackets need more scoring, pure and simple, but it isn't clear we'll find goals in Springfield, except maybe for Matt Calvert. We really need a big return for Rick Nash and a good draft to find help here.
On Defense things look a lot better. Jack Johnson's attitude and skills turned the Jeff Carter debacle into a positive. He's not regarded as a good defender, but he and James Wiznewski found chemistry gave us a a truly offensive pairing (and I mean that in the good way) from the Blue Line. Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Nikitin found chemistry and skills. Nikitin needs resigned for a fair deal. John Moore showed he belonged in the NHL last year and made a lot of progress before he wore down toward the end of the season. Marc Methot returns as a sixth defensemen, and Aaron Johnson is just fine in the press box.
But really the pairings tell the story. For the first time ever we have a two big guns at the blue line. For the first time Tyutin shouldn't have to shoulder top pairing responsibilities on or off the power play. Marc Methot can be the third pairing defenseman God intended him to be. And with Savard and Goloubef gaining top four minutes in Springfield, we have some defensive depth for the first time ever. I don't think we're done, but we're in better shape then we've been in a long time.
Goalie however remains a huge question Mark. The only thing we do know is that Steve Mason can't handle the job, and we'll have to pay him $2.9 million next year to not do it. I cannot see anyone trading for him. Allen York played well for us, and deserves the chance to develop properly without the pressure of the NHL. Shawn Hunwick was an emergency pickup and should be seen as such. Certainly he deserves an invitation to camp and a chance to win a job, most likely in the ECHL. But the Blue Jackets need goalies and at least one needs to be a proven starter. I'd even be willing to swallow a bit of Luongo because he is an all-star goalie and his contract was signed before 35, so he can presumably retire out of it. We need one go to guy, and I'd like a decent back up. Everyone else needs to be on a two-way contract. I have no objection to re-signing Mark Dekanich with the proviso that he needs to recover his game in the AHL before joining the big time. And i have no objection to buying out Steve Mason if we can find a third goalie, but if not, it would be best if he started the season in Springfield.
My top draft pick in the #2 spot would either be between the Nail, (who probably wont' be there) swings between Ryan Murray and Filip Forsberg. While our defense is better then ever, Murray would pad it even more and given the injuries you know are coming makes us solid. I'd like to have a blue line we can build from in the long term. Forsberg's numbers aren't great, but he's been a boy playing among men. For both prospects character is considered a solid plus. Until we're certain our clubhouse is on the right path, and thanks to Vinny, Wiz and JMFJ it may be, we can't afford any head cases. Forsberg looks like a fine long-term player even if he isn't NHL ready next year. And no goalies before the third round. We need to draft forwards with our first and second round picks because that seems to be were scoring forwards are found.
Realistically, if we simply add an NHL-caliber starter, stay reasonably healthy and get a decent return for Rick Nash we ought to be in the hunt for a playoff spot next year. With a little bit of luck and further development from the kids, we can take the next step.