Now that eight more teams have found their way to the off-season, it seems like a good time to do some introspection of our own pending off-season. Toward the end of the season, I had the fortune to spend a few minutes chatting with GM Scott Howson during the first intermission of the 3/29 game vs. Florida. Given my neophyte status as a credentialed member of the media, I would say I kept a lot of my questions pretty soft, but if nothing else there were some great subjects to broach. Don't expect much beyond normal GM-speak when you read it; that's not really the point right now.
What I do want to do today is to use that interview as a jumping-off point for a more in-depth (and hopefully ongoing) discussion of just where we think this roster/franchise is going to go this off-season. Anything you see here in this piece is speculation on my part. The full transcript of my interview is available at the link above.
Where to start? Obviously, the interview was done before the divorce of the team and goalie coach Dave Rook. Howson was a bit vague when I asked him about the goalie situation (and, to be fair, I took a strange tack to ask him if Garon would be moving on...), but clearly one of the areas (blue line being the other) that the Jackets need to really shore up their walls is in goal. Whether you believe that it's Mason or someone from outside the organization, I think we all know there will be at least one new goaltender on the roster. And, even though it sounded silly, I really believe the whole right-handed-catching thing has a HUGE effect on the CBJ's horrible shootout record in the second half.
(Tangent: it was after a game the Jackets had lost in a shootout to Nashville on 12/1. Aaron Portzline asked Rick Nash about shooting against Pekka Rinne as it compared to practicing against Mason. Porty wondered if their comparable size made shooting against them very similar. Nash's response was an immediate, "Totally different. Glove side. Different hands." So, my question for Howson coming from that perspective was as much as question about whether that would be an easy way to help improve shootout performance just a bit as it was a question about what he wants to do in goal overall. OK, and we're back...)
Whether you think Porty's right that Cory Schneider will be the guy on the roster either competing with Mason or starting, or if you hold out hope like I do that the big splash in free agency should be Ilya Bryzgalov, it seems clear that the Jackets need to reshape the goalie position. I don't believe the curtain is down on Steve Mason's career potential (Carey Price, anyone?), but I believe that he needs someone to truly come in and take the pressure off of him. A good, full-time goalie coach would be a good start, but having a legitimate starter (Bryzgalov) or 1A (Schneider) would be a bigger help.
Moving on... the blue line. Yikes. There are just two guys under contract (Fedor Tyutin and Kris Russell), three RFAs (Anton Stralman, Sami Lepisto, and Marc Methot), and three UFAs (Craig Rivet, Jan Hejda, and Grant Clitsome). That's eight guys, and while Howson told me that he wouldn't turn over five or six spots, I find it hard to argue with turning over at least four of those guys. Rivet's gone, obviously. Hejda wants to stay, but does he really fit with what Scott Arniel wants from his blue liners, and is it worth it to sink the money Hejda can probably get on the open market into him? That leaves us with two turnovers, and four free agents.
I just can't see the team going through the same song and dance with Stralman again this summer, in spite of his marginal improvement this season when healthy (read: motivated by being scratched and/or John Moore). That leaves us with three turnovers and three FAs. The team is high on Clitsome and his ability to help the Power Play, though he clearly fell off down the stretch. I think, given his likely pricetag (he made $550K this season), he stays. So, we're at three turnovers and two FAs.
The two wild cards are Lepisto and Methot. Methot made just over a million dollars, and according to CapGeek.com his qualifying offer could be his salary from this season:
Because his base salary of $1,050,000 is greater than or equal to $1,000,000, it does not receive an increase for the purposes of his qualifying offer. NOTE: It must be a one-way qualifying offer if a) the player appeared in 180 or more NHL games in three previous seasons; b) the player appeared in 60 or more NHL games the previous season; and c) the player did not clear waivers during the previous season. Backup goaltender appearances count as games.
Seems like a reasonable offer to negotiate with Methot, who was at times the best defenseman on the roster (which, I know, ain't saying much). I wouldn't be surprised if Methot took it, as he probably wouldn't get more from arbitration. If he rejected the offer, the Jackets are protected in terms of compensation if Methot decides to bolt for greener pastures, and honestly he's not good enough to bend over backwards to keep.
Finally, we come to Lepisto. I vacillated between thinking he was a throw in to make this year's money match in the Klesla trade and that he was a guy the team was targeting because of his reported skills-set (bigger Kris Russell). As the season ended, I found myself leaning more and more toward the assumption that Lepisto will be offered a qualifying offer--since he's cheap at an $840,000 qualifying offer--but if he rejects it the Jackets will be more than happy to drive him to the airport should he want arbitration.
So, where does that leave us? I see the blue line--pending any free agent signings--as: Tyutin, Methot, Russell, and Clitsome. That's four spots turned over in some fashion. Note that in my original interview Howson hinted at hole-filling from within (David Savard, anyone?), but it leaves room for a big move or moves in free agency or in trades. I believe that all of the rumors of the Jackets looking to move their first round pick center around finding a legit, impact defenseman in a trade. I don't want to speculate, there. With regards to free agency, I can't see the Jackets landing one of the big fish (think: Kaberle, Jovanovski, McCabe, etc.). So, some other names in free agency to consider are: Andrei Markov, James Wisniewski and Roman Hamrlik from Montreal; Joni Pitkanen from Carolina (my brother, a big Canes fan, has said they have been looking to unload Pitkanen for some time, though, which gives me pause); and Kevin Bieksa (in whom the Jackets were said to be interested last off-season) and Christian Erhoff from Vancouver.
Next up: the top six. I asked Howson about RFA Jake Voracek's contract status, and one would assume Voracek will be back in some capacity despite Howson's assertion at the time that he hadn't been talking much with Jake's agent. I think there are many of us assuming the club will try to buy out or trade Kristian Huselius. That leaves a bit of a hole. Scottie Upshall could help to fill it, though his price tag may move out of the neighborhood in which the Jackets are comfortable. RJ Umberger is a true gamer, playing wherever the club asks him to. That said, the big wild card is Ryan Johansen. Does the kid make the big club this fall? He can't go to the AHL, and after throwing up 92 points in 63 games in juniors--not counting his hellacious playoff run--he doesn't really have anything left to prove in Portland, either. But, if he makes the club, is he ready for top-six duty? If not, does it make sense to put him on a checking line?
In my perfect world, RyJo plays well enough in camp and the pre-season to make the club, and by the end of next season our top six looks like:
Is that ambitious? Totally. Is it also a reflection of the fact that I see the Jackets spending all of their off-season cheese on the back end? Absolutely. Does it have the potential to be awesome with Johansen? Yep. Does it also have the potential to be a colossal failure? Sadly, yes. Yes it does. Deep down, I myself am ready to wait two years for Johansen in an effort NOT to rush and ruin him. But, I don't think the club is. They're feeling the heat, and he's one of the guys the club can showcase if he has a great pre-season. Sidenote: I wouldn't rule out Cam Atkinson being in the discussion, either. He's old enough to potentially make an impact next year a la Calvert this year. He's got the skill that the club desperately needs.
So, 1500 words later, what have we clarified, here? Though Howson didn't say as much when I chatted with him, my extrapolations based on what he's said to date are that the back end--possibly both the blue line and in goal--is going to get the most attention this offseason. I think when you look at a club like Nashville, Columbus has the forward talent to be even with the Preds. The difference is in defensemen and in goal. That's where Howson will look to make his moves. And, in looking at where the roster stands and what the free agent landscape looks like, I think it's realistic that we'll see as many as four spots turned over on the blue line.
What other off-season issues are out there? I polled the guys, and Matt wondered is if there are any plans to work on an extension this off season with R.J. Umberger, since he's heading into his contract year. For all the talk about leadership over the years, let's hope so. RJ is more valuable than anyone on the roster not numbered 61. We'll continue to delve into these and other off-season issues in the coming weeks.