Since the end of last season, pundits expected that Columbus Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson would make some kind of move to overhaul his team after a disappointing step back, particularly after the hiring of Scott Arniel and his wish to bring the team into a higher tempo, "puck pursuit" style of play.
Aside from acquiring Ethan Moreau on waivers from the Oilers, and the waiver of Mike Commodore to join the Springfield Falcons, those moves haven't really materialized. There have been tantalizing rumors that Howson has been working the phones - even that a possible deal with the Flyers nearly occured - but nothing concrete.
Now, as the trade deadline approaches, and the Jackets continue to fight towards a post-season appearance, a larger question has begun: What if the team does make a run, but Scott Howson doesn't make any moves at all?
While the obvious response to the team not making moves to shake up the roster is that it will mean potentially "giving up" UFAs like Jan Hejda, Chris Clark, Andrew Murray, and Mathieu Garon without acquiring assets for them, and that the Jackets will not be able to keep up compared to other teams in the West, it's worth looking at just what the team has, and what their competition is doing.
- Top Line - The combination of Rick Nash, Derick Brassard, and Jakub Voracek has been a big part of the team's success this year - when they're scoring, the team wins, and when they're dry, things get a lot harder. Though trade rumors have swirled around Voracek, who will be an RFA at the end of the year, he stepped up his game in the new year, breaking a long scoring drought with an OT game winner on New Year's Eve, and is currently on pace for a 60 point season, which would set a new career high. Meanwhile, Derick Brassard has already set a new career best for points and goals, and finally seems to be settling into the top line role the team envisioned when he was drafted in 2006.
- Second Line - Though Antoine Vermette took a step back from a career season in 2009-2010, a 50+ point season is still a real possibility between Kristian Huselius and R.J. Umberger. Umberger, for his part, has continued a strong run of play with the Jackets since joining the team in '09, while Huselius has struggled this year, in no small part due to injury issues that have caused him to miss over a quarter of the season.
- Third Line - Anchored by Samuel Pahlsson and a cast of frequently rotating wingers (Chris Clark, Derek Dorsett, Ethan Moreau, and Andrew Murray, among others), the third line struggled at the same time as the rest of the team in mid-December and early January, but has generally done an excellent job at shutting down opponents.
- Energy Line - The province of Jared Boll, Derek MacKenzie, and of late Matt Calvert, the team's fourth line has done an excellent job of providing energy and secondary scoring this season.
Of this group, the players most likely to be trade material would be Voracek, Murray, Clark, and Moreau, with some possible interest in Samuel Pahlsson from a team looking to add a solid veteran checking presence. Voracek almost certainly has the highest trade value, but the versatility of Andrew Murray and the "crunch time" experience of Chris Clark would also likely attract interest.
Were Scott Howson to go into sell mode, or needed to move a major piece to make a deal, Voracek is rumored to be the player with the biggest interest, but it also puts the team in the position of needing to replace a player who is currently fourth on the club in scoring, and to shuffle a body into their top six. While it is possible that Kristian Huselius could be re-united with Nash on the top line, and Matt Calvert given another chance to play next to R.J. Umberger and Antoine Vermette, that's still a gamble, particularly if the move was part of acquiring a player for a late season push.
The loss of Clark, Moreau, or even Murray would be less of an issue - though each has been serviceable in their roles, each has also spent time out with injury or due to a lack of roster space, and the team has adjusted fairly easily.
- First Pairing - Fedor Tyutin, leading the club's defensemen on office and turning in a much better game away from the puck this year (only 28 PIMs this year, compared to a normal average of 50) has stepped up his game, while Marc Methot is within two points of setting a career high for offense, and is likely to finish the season with his best +/- rating as an NHL player.
- Second Pairing - Though Jan Hejda has disappointed as a shutdown player this year, he's been on a much better stretch of play as the playoff push has intensified. A UFA at the end of the year, he could draw interest from clubs looking for an experienced defensive d-man. Rostislav Klesla has been involved in trade rumors for the past several years, and though he started the season well, has struggled over the course of the year, including his most recent injury. Anton Stralman, an RFA at the end of the season, has been mired in an offensive and defensive slump, but finally seems to be turning things around this month.
- Third Pairing - As we've discussed before, a lot of people expected Kris Russell to really take off under Scott Arniel, and unfortunately he has fallen far short of his career high 22 points from last season, though he has clearly improved his defensive play - though he is a -3 on the season at this point, that's a great step forward from his normal double digit negatives. Russell also appears to be getting more comfortable by the game with Grant Clitsome, who has tallied 9 points in his first 14 NHL games this season, and appears well on his way to becoming a staple of the Jackets' power play.
On the D, Hejda is clearly the most "movable" player, and though I am sure Scott Howson would love to find a partner to take Mike Commodore's 3.75 million salary, that seems quite unlikely at this point. Stralman, Methot, and Clitsome are all RFAs this season, but I would suspect that the team will look to sign Methot and Clitsome to extensions, rather than parting with them, though it is likely that Stralman could be had for the right offer. Klesla, too, is less likely to move, given he's under contract for another three seasons, but if a partner could be found, I am sure that the team would make a deal.
If the team was to move a d-man, unless the move came as part of acquiring another blueliner to improve their offense from the back end, the team would likely make a move to call up another AHLer for a look - perhaps another dose of John Moore or Nick Holden, or giving David Savard a chance to make an impression at the NHL level. If the player to move was Stralman, or even Hejda or Klesla, this is an area where a younger player might not be a difficult replacement (or, if Howson was able to bring in a blueliner for the push, would hopefully be an improvement), but the core pieces of the defense (Methot, Tyutin, Russell, Clitsome) are players the team would have difficulty replacing at the deadline and expecting a similar (or higher) level of performance.
In net, while Howson may have considered moving Steve Mason when the team was in the midst of a 5 game slump, it's doubtful that he's looking to replace his netminder considering that he's putting in some of the best starts of the season right now.
Mathieu Garon is more of an open question - a pending UFA, he's both valuable to the team (a steady backup who has put on some excellent performances this year), but also valuable on the open market (a reasonable contract for any team not satisfied with their tandem, and only two seasons removed from Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup run). Though the team appears to be pleased with the performance of Gustav Wesslau and David LeNeveau in Springfield, all three are free agents at the end of the year, so Scott Howson is going to have to decide what kind of backup he wants to put behind Steve Mason for next season, and the goaltending market at the moment does favor the sellers.
Given the lack of an obvious replacement for Garon within the system, I wouldn't be shocked to see Howson hold his cards and offer the veteran netminder another 1-2 year deal before July 1st, but the right offer could easily change his mind, and it would give the team an opportunity to either bring up one of the Springfield goaltenders for a sustained period to see how they perform at the NHL level, or acquire a reliable backup netminder with a year or two left on his deal from another team.
But Who Are We Trying To Get Past?
With the team's core players unlikely to move, and too many questions involved in replacing some of the players who might be on the block, perhaps a better question to ask is: Who does the team need to beat, either by getting the most out of the current roster, or by making a move to add something at the deadline, if they want to make it into the post-season? (To say nothing of playoff success...)
As of Wednesday, 2/16, prior to their game against the LA Kings, the Jackets are five points out of a playoff spot. (They're also 13 points out of the Central Division lead, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.) They currently hold at least two games in hand on four teams ahead of them in the standings - Phoenix, Calgary, San Jose, and Vancouver. They also hold a game in hand on Nashville, Dallas, and Anaheim, and are even with LA, Minnesota, and Chicago.
While it is nearly impossible that the team would catch Vancouver, who currently sit atop the Western Conference and the NHL with 83 points, Calgary, Phoenix, and San Jose are all within eight points - half of which could be made up by simply winning the games in hand. (In Calgary's case, in fact, the Jackets have three games in hand, and are only 5 points back of them - this makes them particularly vulnerable to getting leapfrogged.)
Columbus has been on a 7-3-0 run in their last 10 games, compared to 4-4-2 for Nashville and Chicago, 2-7-1 for Dallas, and a 6-4-0 run for Phoenix. If the Jackets can keep their current pace, there's a good chance they can make up ground on each of these teams.
Where the Jackets direly need to improve is their goal differential - at a -16, they are tied with St. Louis for the fourth worst differential in the Conference, and of the current playoff clubs, only Calgary carries a worse Goals Against stat. Much of that damage came from early season drubbings at the hands of Pittsburgh, Colorado, and Chicago, but the fact remains that the team needs to either drastically cut down the amount of pucks going into their own net, or put a few blowouts of their own on opponents.
There is some reason to hope, however - the Jackets' Goals For of 152 is actually better than Nashville and Minnesota, and on par with LA , Dallas, San Jose, and Anaheim. To my mind, this makes think that if the Jackets can tighten up just a bit, and continue with their current level of goal scoring, they're in business, and that's a change that does not demand a roster move - it's a matter of adjustments by the coaching staff, and the need for the Jackets' netminder, whomever gets the call, to step up to the challenge.
Some of the Jackets' competition have aleady begun to make roster moves - most notably Nashville, with the addition of Mike Fisher, and Anaheim with the return of Francois Beauchemin. Neither move seems to have provided an immediate boost to either club (Nashville losing to the Sharks last night, and while Anaheim has continued to win since Beauchemin came into the lineup, he is a -2 with 0 points and 2 shots in 2 games so far).
There's no reason to think that there is a player that would instantly fix the Jackets' defense AND add scoring (or at least not without giving up so many assets that the team would find itself with a new set of problems), and there are reasons to think that the solutions, while not easy, DO lie within the players and coaching staff as currently assembled.
If there is a deal out there that can truly improve the team without costing them the assets they need to make a successful push, then GM Scott Howson should certainly make a move. But at this point, there are more and more reasons why the Jackets would be better served pushing for the playoffs with the group as assembled, and addressing the areas of concern by attempting to make a deal at the NHL draft, or in free agency.
Unsurprisingly, there's been plenty of discussion about this in the Jackets' blogosphere this week. For some excellent point and counterpoint articles, I'd suggest looking at Jeff Little's Old, New, & Missing Pieces at The Hockey Writers, Bart Logan's Jackets Keep Winning - Will Howson Hold Up His End, and Patrick Drottar's Could Jackets Continue Playoff Push Without Being A Buyer?
At the risk of tooting our own horn, If you are looking for a trade, I also encourage you to take a look at Mike's suggestions for improving the blue line, and our first status check for the month of February.