As fans of the Columbus Blue Jackets, we don't tend to spend much time in reality. Looking at the results of the many lost seasons, that's probably a very healthy defense mechanism. We tend to live in the extremes. "This is going to be our year! xxxxx (player) is going to have a breakout season and finally get us deep into the playoffs!" It's either that, or: "These guys are complete garbage. They should just move the team. The players don't even care or put in any effort."
Twitter is a funny thing. Jackets fans that only know me from there would usually lump me into the latter group only because I no longer fit into the former group. And make no mistake, before these past 2 seasons or so, I was firmly entrenched in the "This is our year" camp. I thought the moves we had made in the off season were great and that kids we were relying on were ready to break through. That free agent we signed had just never been given a proper chance with his old club and we were going to reap the benefits of him being allowed to walk. Boy were they going to be sorry when they realized what they let go. It just never quite worked out that way.
There are still many things I like a great deal about this team. Obviously, if I weren't passionate about them, I wouldn't care one way or another how they do. But there seems to be a sense that if you're not all in, you're all out. There's no room for criticism unless it's to criticize how little this player or that loves the thrill of getting to be a Blue Jacket. So here is one more analysis, is a sea of them as the season opens, of this year's edition of the Columbus Blue Jackets. In the off chance that anyone reads this besides myself, I'll be dismissed as a hater because I'll dare to have more negatives than positives (which do exist and are actually quite exciting.) But I feel that is just the reality when discussing a team that finished last overall in the league and then removed it's only elite skilled player from the lineup.
The Front Office
This is hands down my favorite aspect of this team at the current time. The Game Ops and Fan Relations people are top notch. They are energetic and engaging in a way that reminds me fondly of the way the Chill used to run those aspects. I don't have much exposure to how other teams in the league handle these departments, but I can't imagine anyone doing it any better.
The Hockey Ops department has gone from my biggest disappointment to my greatest excitement for this team with the addition of one person: John Davidson. He's the first person in the Hockey Ops department that we know what he will bring. He has done it before and has been successful at it. Previously, we had intelligent people that would hopefully grow into a new role. This isn't a move that will for sure pay off this season, but it has placed our haphazard hockey program on a solid path to finally begin a path to legitimacy.
The Coaching Staff
Next to John Davidson, this is the aspect of the team I'm 2nd most pleased with. I wasn't blown away by keeping Todd Richards as head coach at first, but I have no complaints with him either. I just felt with the way the front office was constructed at the time, that the coach would have to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Now with Davidson aboard, I really like the way he fits in as his cog in the machine that is this team. And with Craig Hartsburg, Keith Acton and Dan Hinote, I feel like we finally have a coaching staff that meshes well with the type of players we have: a gritty, good group of guys not entirely devoid of skill.
No secret here that this is where the big question mark lies. Anyone who says they know what we are going to get from this tandem (and sorry Curtis McElhinney, this is a tandem that barring injury we will likely ride the season out with) just hasn't been paying attention. Steve Mason could have a Vezina winning season this year (he has the ability) and I would still thank him for his time and wish him luck with his next team. We've seen the level of compete he has brought in non-contract years and I don't see that changing. This is the part where it's required that you throw in the disclaimer of "well it hasn't been all his fault. The team played poorly in front of him most nights." True. But that same team played the same bad hockey in front of Curtis Sanford who responded much better. And with all due respect, Sanford is not a starting goaltender in the NHL. But one thing he was was a legit, professional goaltender. I remember commenting to friends many times that, wow, this is what a real goalie looks like. If only he had Mason's raw talent to go along with it. Maybe Mason can still become that player. He hasn't earned the right to be given the benefit of the doubt.
Many will point to Sergei Bobrovski's season in the KHL as reason for optimism. While it's much better than if he had tanked, it must be kept in focus. The KHL is not the NHL. It's honestly a minor league. It was an environment where he felt comfortable. With coaches and teammates speaking his native language. That said, a hot goaltender is a hot goaltender. Especially in a shortened season. Like Mason, he has the skills to be a great goalie. Unlike Mason, he has shown a consistent work ethic throughout his career. I have a feeling that much will ride on his shoulders before this season is over.
This group, while they are probably the strength of our on ice product, I do not believe is as elite as many people claim it to be. Jack Johnson came in and played very well in a 21 game stint. There is no doubt that he has either elite or near-elite skills and it was a breath of fresh air to Jackets fans that a player of that caliber seemed to actually enjoy coming to our team. But this was the only NHL stat line in his career that didn't end with a very CBJ-like ugly +/- number. Advanced stats guys can put down the +/- stat all they like, but that is a troubling sign. Can his improved play become the rule rather than the exception it has been so far? Of course. He has the ability. We just need history to be written rather than repeated.
James Wisnieski was another player fans took to quickly because of his personality and how much he enjoyed coming to the Jackets. Of course, he has 5 and a half million reasons per season to be excited about it. This is another dangerous case of hoping that a player can improve on the role he was playing for another team and do better on ours. I had no problem with the signing. He brings an offensive talent to the blueline that we have never seen. (It could be argued that we've never seen it on any part of the ice.) But the question we need to start asking is, would this player be a top line player on other playoff or Cup contending teams? Maybe. We needed what he brings and I'm glad we have him. I just have to hope he's enough.
When the Jackets made the playoffs, Fedor Tyutin was playing incredibly on their 2nd pair of defense. When Jan Hejda's knee failed him and took Mike Commodore's game with it, Tyutin was forced out of lack of other options to step up to the first pair to, lets say, mixed results. The increase in minutes seemed, in my opinion, to make him change his game. He forced too many plays, leading to far too many turnovers (Tyurnovers) just inside his own blueline. With the current configuration, he should be able to slide back into either the 2nd pairing or at least a 1b situation where his game is bettor tailored. The contract he was signed to just makes zero sense to me as, while I think teams would like him, I don't think anyone was paying huge money and term to get him.
Nikita Nikitin was a huge surprise coming over after being a spare part for St Louis. It's very interesting that Davidson was part of a braintrust that found Niki6 to be expendable. But nothing about his play on the ice has shown him to be anything but an asset on a legit NHL 2nd defense pairing. Has a great shot and seems to be the only point man not afraid to take a one-timer.
Adrian Aucoin was a great, low risk signing. There would be many a season where he would have been expected to run our powerplay and play in our top 4. Instead, he can fill out the 3rd pair nicely, mentoring the young talent while still providing quality play himself. And he can slide up in a pinch if needed as well.
The next wave is where all the excitement lies. People much smarter than all of us projected Ryan Murray to be an NHL defenseman this season. Not a "good enough to play for the Blue Jackets" defenseman, a legit NHL defenseman. His injury and subsequent absence from team Canada at the World Juniors was most likely a tournament changer. The lockout was probably the best scenario for his development until his season ending injury, as it kept him from being thrown into the fire, ready or not. Juniors is not the NHL and anything can happen, but there is no reason to be anything but very excited about his future potential as a top line, shutdown defenseman to go along with our offensive minded defensemen.
The jury is still out on what type of defenseman John Moore is going to become. It's looking like he could be that quiet, solid defenseman that every team needs, but most people don't notice. Other than his skating, he doesn't do anything that really makes you stand up and take notice. He hasn't developed as fast as some people like from their first round picks, but he also hasn't shown signs of being a bust either.
Tim Erixon is the player I'm still undecided on. The minor league numbers are there. The only thing that worries me is that he is 21 and already with his 3rd organization. If he wouldn't play in the minors for Calgary, what would his attitude be if we needed him to continue to develop in Springfield? Hopefully it was a different situation. Hopefully, he doesn't need any more time in the minors and is ready to become a fixture in the NHL. The talent level seems to be there. If his attitude matches, we're going to be quite happy with him.
This is where I will lose most of the faithful if I haven't already. I like the overall work ethic of this group. I like the potential of this group. I just don't see this group as being good enough to get it done. Right or wrong, the forward corps were built around Rick Nash. That's because a player of his talent doesn't become available very often and when they do, you pay through the nose to get them. The people who wanted to rush him out of town don't realize that it wasn't that he wanted to leave Columbus. He just wanted to be on a ship that had a captain (ok, poor metaphor) instead of just floating aimlessly in the water, hoping to bump into it's destination. Sadly, a leader like Davidson is exactly what he wanted here. If Davidson had been hired before the trade, Nash would have happily retired here. But he didn't and it's over. So we just have to move on from here.
Brandon Dubinsky is the kind of player I love to watch as I'm coaching from my couch. He works hard, has solid character and has the ability to put in a few goals here and there. The problem is, he is going to be counted on to fill a big role on this team. Are his "a few goals here and there" going to be enough?
Cam Atkinson is a great story and seems to be an even better guy. I think he fits the Tyler Ennis mold from Buffalo. Most teams would love to have him on their team. But he is most likely going to fill a top line role for the Jackets. Is he a Tyler Ennis? Great player, solid contributor but not top line player. Or can he be more of a Martin St Louis elite top line threat? He has the skill to be something special, but will he get the help he needs? Could he survive vs a Shea Weber-led shutdown defense pair? A lot has been made of his late season finish in garbage time against other poor teams. Can he do it when it counts? The answer to these questions will go a long way toward the direction this team heads.
The story I hear everywhere on Artem Anisimov is that he played important minutes in New York and should thrive in an expanded role in Columbus. That certainly could happen. But here we go again hoping that players will improve over what they previously were. See Bobrovsky for my thoughts on how a great KHL season translates to the NHL.
My excitement at getting Dubinsky was due to the fact that I see him as a player much like RJ Umberger. I really like the way RJ plays. I just wish we could use him where he is the most effective; on the 3rd line. People think that is a knock on him but it isn't at all. Great teams have a player as good as he is on their 3rd line. But our talent level has necessitated that we use him much higher in the lineup. RJ got a big contract and seemed last season to have to prove to people that he deserved it. So he over-played, tried too hard and nothing went right for him. I wish he would just keep playing the same simple but effective game that got him the contract in the first place. But you won't find more heart anywhere than Umberger.
Derick Brassard has been a player the team has been waiting on to put it all together for some time now. He will likely be asked to fill a top line role once again for the Jackets and an argument can be made as to if that's fair or not. He has been a player that the Jackets have leaned on for far too many seasons in his young career. When he failed to live up to those expectations, he was dropped considerably down the depth chart. He has projected as a 2nd line center in the NHL and could still do a great job in that role. The question is does he have the ability to do so? Does he have the work ethic to make it happen? And has he been properly developed up to this point?
For Nick Foligno, I could copy and paste what I have already written about Dubinksy and Anisimov. He has the potential to be very good. But we are asking him to increase his role from what he has previously been able to do. I guess there is something to having several of these type players. If you collect enough of them, one of them might go off. Honestly though, the good thing about these type of players is that they aren't boom-or-bust players. If they thrive and become really good players, great. But if they don't pan out that way, they are still really solid players. The question is do really solid players win in the NHL today with no star players?
If you don't hate me yet, you probably will now. Because it's time to talk about Derek Dorsett. I love the guy. I love the energy he brings, I love how he holds his teammates accountable. You will never get anything but 100% effort (only because the proverbial 110% is not possible) from him. That said, this is where we have to get realistic. Derek spent the season on the 3rd line, got lots of penalty kill time and generally expanded his role above and beyond what anyone would have expected from him. It was also the worst season in the history of a team that has had some really bad seasons. I would never say he shouldn't be a regular in the league, but he belongs on the 4th line. On a 4th line with Derek McKenzie and a 4th line that is used more than we have in the past. But on the 4th line all the same. Thanks for helping out, but we have a better role for you. Lots of people don't want to hear that, but it's where he can do his best work.
Speaking of DMac, I was very happy to see him resign. He is the perfect 4th line center. He plays a solid, responsible game. But he has the skills as well that if you have an injury situation, he can keep up playing a few games here and there higher in the lineup. Very solid and versatile. The utility player that every winning team has.
Mark Letestu fits a similar mold. He can do a little bit of everything and is a great guy to have around as long as you don't expect the world of him. He won't hurt you on the ice. The question is, how much will he help you?
Colton Gillies is really just an able body at this stage of his career. A solid enough player, but nothing to write home about. Again, isn't going to add much, but doesn't glaringly hurt you either.
Jared Boll seems to be one guy it's ok to dislike. I can't figure out why. It's true he doesn't add much to the skill level of the team. He's no heavyweight, but doesn't back down from other heavyweights. I never understood how a player like Boll has never spent a day in the minor leagues. But there have been many players over the years to wear the sweater with no more skill than Jared Boll. Yet he seems to be the one that incurs people's wrath. The team wouldn't worse off without him. But that could be said of several players.
I've been psyched about Ryan Johansen since watching him dominate at the World Junior Championship. He took a huge step back last season. Some would say that it was due to a lack of commitment off the ice. The poor coaching he received certainly didn't help his cause as the presumable #1, franchise center, spent a large chunk of the season killing time as either a scratch or as a winger (winger?) on the 4th line. Hopefully, more time to mature in Springfield and a clean slate with the new coaching staff will get him back on track.
Have we heard this one before?: The Jackets have signed a player to a 2 way contract, with the intent that he will be a big scorer for the minor league team and possibly prove to be a diamond in the rough to help score goals for the big club. No, Alexandre Giroux was last year. This year the hot new, surefire Calder winner is Jonathan Audy-Marchessault. It could happen. Players sometimes go undrafted, sign a minor league deal with a Cup contender for a year, are allowed to walk at the end of the year, sign with another team and blossom into solid player. But it's rare.
Expecting doom and gloom? Despite what you think, it's not from me. I'm as excited as anyone for the season to return. Bad NHL hockey is better than any other hockey. And, as much as I love my Reds and Bengals, better than any other sport out there. I'm finally going into a season with low expectations. In fact, another year of finishing near the bottom and getting a shot at a game breaking player would do us a lot of good. That said, there is every chance that, if the stars align just right, they could greatly exceed those expectations. And I would be psyched to be proven wrong with a breakout performance by this team. They appear to be an honest, hardworking team. They will likely be a fun team to watch, as long as you don't require long winning streaks or high offensive outbursts for your entertainment value. But for once, the team appears to have an identity and a path towards a better future. It has been hard to have faith in the path in the past. Now if feels like there is someone actually leading us out of the woods and into the promised land. We don't know how long it will take, but we finally have reason to believe it can happen.