In June 2007, Nationwide Arena was uncharacteristically full of loud, happy Jackets fans.
Sadly, the team was not raising the Stanley Cup, but they were given the opportunity to host the NHL Entry Draft, and the town responded by turning out in droves.
Not only was it a prestige event for the team and the city, but it was the chance for most fans to get their first good look at Columbus' new general manager, Scott Howson, who would be making the franchise's picks after being hired earlier in the month.
While Howson didn't make a big splash with a trade on the draft floor, as some had predicted, he generated a lot of buzz and excitement among the faithful with his selection of Jakub Voracek, a young Czech playing in the QMJHL, where he'd put up 86 points (23 G, 63 A) in his first season.
The young winger was offensively gifted, dynamic, and showed every sign of being able to develop into a top level NHL talent.
In many ways, he was the face not only of the team's future, but of the new, post-Doug MacLean era for the Blue Jackets, particularly when he pulled on the team's newly redesigned jersey that night in front of an arena full of cheering faithful.
Fast forward not quite four years. Things are changing. The team has a new head coach, a shaken up style of play, and while Jake is still one of the faces of the franchise, his entry level deal is nearing the end, and more and more whispers indicate the young winger could be on the market for the right price.
What's going on?
Well, let's talk about that...
Jake continued to impress at the rookie camp that followed the draft, and in the team's training camp in September, but was sent back to Halifax after a short pre-season appearance, where he would rack up 101 points in 53 regular season games, and another 18 points in 15 playoff appearances to end his Junior career in style.
In the fall of 2008, Jake made his Blue Jackets debut, and scored in his first NHL game against the Dallas Stars, en route to a 9 goal, 29 assist rookie year that matched Rick Nash for the best debut season in Blue Jackets' history, and eventually found him in the playoffs against the Red Wings, though he only registered one assist in four games.
In 2009, Jake was expected to be one of the young players who really took a step forward, and I'd argue he did so in some respects, but showed some warning signs in others.
Points wise, it was clearly a strong year for him, as he nearly doubled his goals (16), added 5 more assists, and registered a 50 point season, while cutting down his penalty minutes to 26, compared to the 44 PIMs of his rookie year.
Defensively, however, he went from being a +11 player to a -7. Part of that can certainly be blamed on the team's defensive woes, but not all of it, particularly since Voracek was playing in top 6 situations both years.
Last season is also notable because Voracek spent the summer with "workout buddy" Mike Commodore, one of his major off-ice mentors, and while he did not experience the same physical injury problems as the veteran defenseman, he did seem to have issues with his explosiveness and stamina.
In the offseason, Jake traveled to the World Championships, where he had two assists and 6 PIMs in the Czech Republic's 9 game run to a gold medal, then returned to California to go back to working out with Commodore and others to prepare for the 2010-2011 season.
Unlike linemate Derick Brassard or teammate Steve Mason, Voracek did not receive an extension during the summer - GM Scott Howson explained that he'd simply been unable to get deals done with both Mason and Voracek that summer, and had chosen to focus on the goaltender. He assured fans (and Voracek's agent) that the team would return to complete a deal later rather than make negotiations a distraction during the season.
Here and Now:
Perhaps the first sign that something wasn't entirely kosher came in training camp and the pre-season. Voracek looked like a beast in the dressing room or standing in his gear, and it was obvious he'd worked on adding a lot of muscle in the offseason, but his shifts in game action were short, and his play at times seemed a bit labored.
The kid who aced the VO2 Max test at the NHL combine seemed to occasionally struggle with his energy, and his shifts were frequently under 20 seconds for much of the early season. His ice time dropped from an average of 18 minutes down to as low as 12 minutes as the team looked for ways to try and get him going. Jake didn't register a point until four games into the season, and didn't have a multi-point game until a two assist effort against Montreal in early November. His goal scoring drought would end a short time after against childhood friend Ondrej Pavelec in Atlanta, then he collected four more goals that month, including the OT game winner against the Islanders, before disappearing again, even being benched for the first time in his NHL career, before finally returning on New Year's Eve and scoring the OT game winner. It almost appeared that unlike many of his teammates, Voracek had to play himself into proper game shape - and once he made it there, his game finally started to flow again.
In the new year, Voracek has put up four more goals and 14 more assists, and seems to have clicked again with Rick Nash and Derick Brassard, but his name has still come up as "potentially available."
Despite his struggles, it's hard to say that Jake has had a bad year - he's still only a third year pro, and he's got 11 goals and 28 assists. He's starting to use that size to win board battles, and he's getting harder and harder to take off the puck. He's also clearly worked to improve his defensive game this year, and currently has tied Rusty Klesla for the +/- lead for the club. But the fact remains that he has disappeared for long stretches. Games where he can't seem to get the puck towards the net have crept back up again, leading to frustrations about his game more frequently, and he seems to have taken a step backwards in his confidence. Voracek improved from a 8.9% shooter to a 10.4% shooter from his rookie to Sophomore years, but now has slid back down to 8.6%, and has shown a frustrating tendency of late to pass rather than shoot, even in odd man rush situations where he's got the better angle.
Another possible area of concern is Voracek's aftorementioned relationship to Mike Commodore.
Commie was known to be a bit of a party guy, and that attitude coupled to his fitness issues appears to have become a major area of contention between the defenseman and the team. When you combine the ill-structured workouts that Commodore and Voracek both took part in over the last two seasons, Voracek's issues with his endurance this season could be a major red flag. If the young winger is not taking his conditioning seriously, that's a major liability. This is a team that is working to form an identity as being hard workers both on and off the ice - a lack of effort in the fundamentals is unlikely to be tolerated, and the team has been stressing the importance of improved conditioning to the players since Arniel's hiring. It's concerning that Voracek apparently didn't get the memo - or worse, chose to ignore it.
Everyone who has gotten guidance from a co-worker or supervisor knows how easily you pick up habits from them. I write my notes in meetings a certain way because that's how the person who mentored me into a role did them. A guy who is shown that cutting corners will allow you to get by with a job will cut those same corners. In Jake's case, he may have simply followed the wrong example, and picked up bad habits as a result.
That said, bad habits can be broken, and behavior can be re-learned. But sometimes you need something to shake you up that will force you to do that. Will Commodore's demotion (and likely buyout or trade) be that spark? Perhaps - it's interesting that Jake has stepped up his game a fair bit since Commie was assigned to Springfield.
What to do?
It becomes a question of what Scott Howson wants to accomplish at this trade deadline. If the team is trying to add a significant piece at the deadline, Jake is an attractive player. Plenty of GMs wouldn't mind adding him, and even with having to negotiate an extension, the worst case scenario is that the team fails to get a deal done over the course of the next year, and then likely deals with arbitration in the following summer, particularly since a step back this year might lead to a reduced price on his next contract. A team looking to unload a player making 3-4+ million dollars for a player likely to ask for 2.5-3 on his next contract is a nice savings, and that might be exactly the kind of deal we see Howson make.
On the other hand, if Howson cannot find something he likes well enough to pull the trigger, keeping Jake in the fold isn't a terrible gamble - especially since he can still explore an extension in the off season if Voracek continues to improve, or make the decision to move him at the NHL draft if the young winger backslides again.
Of late, Jake has improved, and you like to think that the more he battles, the more he chooses to pursue the puck, and the more he works to get to the net, the better he will develop. Certainly, I have a difficult time imagining the team without him, even as I write reasons why it could happen.
In a perfect world, Jake stays with the team, continuing the be the face of the "new" franchise, and helps lead them back to the postseason, keeps developing, and improves his fitness. Perhaps working in the offseason with Kevin Collins helps to improve his endurance, a few more goals will boost his confidence, and we will see the young winger turn into a truly dominant force, just as the team hoped on that June evening when Jake heard his name over the Nationwide Arena PA system for the first time.
But if Scott Howson sees a deal that will make the Blue Jackets a better team on March 1st than they were on February 28th, he's going to take it, and with the team deep into the hunt for a playoff spot, Jake may still find himself on the move if the right package comes back in return.