I'll be the first to admit that it's a lot of fun in July to take a look at the new direction Howson and Chris MacFarland are taking both teams. Opting for mobility over force, with a blend of toughness, it's hard to look at the potential of either club and not being encouraged by these off-season moves.
At the end of June, I mentioned my personal desire to see two character guys return to the Falcons. Ben Guite, last year being his first with the Jackets family, and Trevor Frischmon, a five season loyal veteran to the club.
Both have moved on. Guite to the San Jose Sharks and Frischmon to the New York Islanders. Both, presumably, will remain in the AHL this season, although Frisch may make the Islanders as a dependable third or fourth line forward.
"The majority signed two-way NHL/AHL contracts and will provide competition, quality depth and give us roster flexibility this season."
Guite brought on ice leadership with a caring spirit for the community. A true professional both on and off the ice, he will bring that same character to Worcester and possibly San Jose.
Falcons goaltending also experienced two departures. Gustaf Wesslau's one year North American experiment came to an end. Meanwhile, journeyman David LeNeveu will also be playing elsewhere in 2011-2012. Last season, neither could be generally categorized as "bad". Nor could they be categorized as "good" either. As we all know, a hockey team will only go so far as its goaltending will allow (I'm sure the name Tim Thomas rings a bell).
In a move that I found surprising, forward Mike Blunden was traded to the Montreal Canadiens. Blunden had re-signed with the Jackets just prior to the free agency signing period. When he reupped with the Jackets, Blunden could have come to camp and made the big club a la Derek MacKenzie last season. Had Blunden returned to the Falcons, it's likely that he would have been looked at as a Top 6 forward for the Birds.
Blunden only played in 37 games last season due to some nagging injuries. Another ex-Falcon whose playing time was limited because of injury is Tomas Kana. Kana, early in the summer, opted to return to his native Czech Republic, inking a two year deal with his hometown HC Vitkovice.
Kyle Wilson is also an "ex-Jacket". I was suspect of his future with the organization when as soon as the season ended, his name was immediately taken off the "Prospects" roster on the Jackets official website. Wilson signed a two year deal with the Nashville Predators, where he might have a shot at making the Preds.
As of this writing, Jonathan Sigalet remains a free agent. Having seen Sig pick up his game over the second half of the season, it would have been easy to see him returning for the upcoming season. Sometimes front offices have a different perspective though and it looks like Sigalet will have a new zip code when October rolls around. Another defender who won't be back is Michael Ratchuk. Ratchuk spent some time in Springfield and with Fort Wayne last season. In my estimation, Ratchuk's game showed signs of improvement, but suddenly the Jackets find themselves very deep in the prospects department on defense. Ratchuk was a victim of numbers.
The Jackets, and indirectly the Falcons have also parted ways with three late season acquisitions: Trevor Smith, Greg Moore and Petr Kalus.
By my count, that's a dozen bodies that need to be replaced. And replaced they have been!
While much of the focus on July 1st was on Brad Richards and Semyon Varlamov, the Jackets made a big splash, inking James Wisniewski to a big money, multi year pact. Within the first 12 hours of the signing period though, it became quite evident that Jackets management were not going to pile up their roster at the expense of turning their backs on the farm team in Springfield.
A signing that took place in the days before July 1st, Nick Holden signed a new one year deal with Columbus. Nick had a strong second half last season and it appears that if he has the camp that everyone expects him to have, he could be the Jackets #6 or 7 guy on "D" for the new season. Having seen Chris Pronger play as a rookie, as Holden continues to improve his game, I see many similarities in the young Holden and the young Pronger.
Once the clock struck noon on July 1st, one can only imagine how fast things were moving across Scott Howson's desk. The signings came later in the day, and sporadically throughout the long Independence Day weekend. And they came in bunches!
After seeing in which direction the goaltending market was headed, Howson surprised most by signing former Milwaukee Admiral standout, Mark Dekanich. Dex was among the netminding leaders in the "A" for much of the past two seasons. A short time later, the Jackets announced the signing of Curtis Sanford as well. It could be argued that with Sanford's experience he should be the guy to sit behind Steve Mason this season. Howson has a plan, and it involves Dekanich being labeled as the backup in Columbus, while Sanford will become the #1 man in Springfield. The former St. Louis Blues starter will not just take the goaltending lead for the Falcons, but will also
be in position to mentor Allen York, who will start the season as a solid #2 for Springfield. That sets the Jackets top 4 netminders as Mason, Dekanich, Sanford and York. I would have a hard time taking issue with any of that.
Not content to solidify the netminding, the office remained busy with the rapid fire signings of Alexandre Giroux and Aaron Johnson. Giroux has emerged as a prolific scorer at the AHL level, putting up 142 goals and 278 points over his last three AHL seasons (two with Hershey, one with Oklahoma City). The 30 year old has also skated in 29 NHL games over the past three seasons, registering three goals and four assists for Washington and Edmonton. While it would be great to have him here in Springfield, much like D-Mac or Kyle Wilson last season, he may show enough to make the big time. At his age, he might not have an opportunity like this again.
Johnson should be no stranger to a diehard Jackets fan. He made his NHL debut for the Jackets in the 2003-04 season. He played 40+ games for the Jackets in three out of his first four pro seasons. He was back in the "A" as a full timer for the first time since playing 44 games for the Syracuse Crunch in '05-'06. He led the Milwaukee Admirals defense into the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs. Johnson added 35 points in 72 games for the Admirals.
Coming off of what was his worst statistical season as a pro, Andrew Joudrey will be looking to make up for it in the Jackets fold. Signed by Columbus to a two year contract, Joudrey will have an opportunity to re-establish his game. Joudrey was the captain of the Hershey Bears last season and was named the Bears man of the year for his charitable work. Andrew was a member of the 2008-09 and 2009-10 Calder Cup winning Bears teams.
Left Wing Nick Drazenovic was also added to the Jackets family in early July. Draz skated the past four seasons with the Peoria Rivermen of the AHL, where he averaged 69 games played a season with a four year points average of 40. Those 40 would have placed him fourth on last year's Falcons. He got his first taste of NHL action last season, playing 3 games for the St. Louis Blues and going scoreless.
The signing action continued on July 1st, when the Jackets inked defenseman Dalton Prout to a three year, entry level contract. The 6' 3", 221 pounder was the Jackets sixth round pick, 154th overall in the 2010 Entry Draft. He finished his OHL career last season with the Saginaw Spirit, after being traded by the Barrie Colts. He has plenty of puck moving ability and will likely get to develop that skill in Springfield in the upcoming season. Oh yeah, he can mix it up too:
I mentioned earlier that I was somewhat surprised to see Mike Blunden moved only about a week after his re-signing. In return for Blunden, the Jackets obtained Ryan Russell from the Montreal Canadiens. Russell, as we all know, has an identical twin already skating for the Jackets in brother Kris. Ryan just finished his fourth season with the Hamilton Bulldogs where he chalked up 7 playoff goals in 20 games, tied for second on the Bulldogs behind Nigel Dawes. The knock it seems on him, is a similar trait to what brother Kris has had to deal with and that is his size. Ryan is listed at 5' 10" and 180. By no means a small guy, Ryan is expected to start the season with the Falcons.
Wrapping up the acquisition department, this past Monday the Jackets announced the signing of Martin St. Pierre and the re-acquisition of Dane Byers. You may remember that Byers was sent to Phoenix at the trade deadline last season along with Rusty Klesla in the deal that brought Scottie Upshall and Sami Lepisto to Columbus.
I've followed Byers for a few seasons, and have always been fond of his hard nosed play. The former captain of the Hartford Wolfpack, Byers was traded to the Jackets by the New York Rangers last November. He scored 25 points in 48 games with the Falcons before finishing the season with the San Antonio Rampage. With the Rampage, he added 12 points in 21 games. An oddity about his 2010-2011 season: because of the trades, Byers ended up playing in 85 regular season games.
Back to the GM's blog:
"Ryan Russell...We are also pleased to announce that we have agreed to terms with forwards Dane Byers and Cody Bass. All three players give us great organizational depth at forward and will make the competition for a roster spot during Training Camp in September even tougher."
Martin St. Pierre could write his own version of the old Johnny Cash song, "I've been everywhere". Since turning pro Marty has been to Greenville, Edmonton, Norfolk, Chicago, Rockford, Providence, Boston, Binghamton, Ottawa, Austria, Russia and Finland. WHEW! As amazing as his frequent flyer miles, he's been a reliable point producer wherever he's been. His best pro season thus far was 2006-07 with the Norfolk Admirals when in 65 games he scored 27 goals and added a whopping 72 helpers for 99 points. His last AHL season was '09-'10 with the Binghamton Senators. Marty recorded 24-48-72 in 77 games with the Baby Sens.
Finally, in a Tweet last weekend, Scott Howson announced that he was bringing Cody Bass to the Jackets. The signing was made final on Wednesday. Bass won the AHL's Yanick Dupre Memorial Award as the AHL's Man of the Year. You want to talk a quality person to have join an organization? Read this. A physical center, Bass adds a no-nonsense dimension to a lineup.
Last season here in Springfield, it was a time to look forward to many of the players that the Jackets regarded so highly. John Moore, Tomas Kubalik and Maksim Mayorov to name but a few. Those three in particular enjoyed some success last year, but more importantly, it was a year of pro development in what is arguably the second best pro league in the world.
With the roster changes, the extra year of experience, the upcoming season promises to be a very exciting one for the Blue Jackets at both the NHL and the AHL levels. These acquistions, along with a core of holdovers from last year, infused with the new blood of some extremely talented rookies make this a season of hockey that I am looking forward to more than any other. This could be big!