In a season where the Blue Jackets finished in 30th place overall in the NHL, there was no shortage of negatives and adversity for the club. It's hard to say if there was a single rock bottom moment, given the multiple issues that plagued this team, but there are more than a few that can be pointed out.
If you could go back in time and change one thing this season in hopes of turning the Blue Jackets' fortunes around, it's hard to pick one point, but the 8 game suspension to James Wisniewski has to be a strong candidate. With the sudden disruption of the team's defense, the club was forced to shuffle players into roles they were not prepared for, particularly David Savard, who was forced to play up too high in the pairings and placing additional stress on both Steve Mason and Curtis Sanford.
Worse, his inability to play took his voice off the bench during the team's struggles, leaving a leadership gap, and it would take until his return to begin settling down the team and helping to settle the room.
Speaking of which...
Going into the season, the team was filled with a sense of confidence after the offseason moves that saw Jeff Carter, James Wisniewski, and Vinny Prospal added to the club. The team's swagger, however, proved a hollow front. When adversity began to strike in the pre-season, the expectations for the team seemed to weigh down the club, and while Vinny Prospal and R.J. Umberger, among others, tried to fire up the team, the team simply continued to slip deeper and deeper into the darkness.
The leadership question has been asked again and again - and this season will be another piece of evidence to suggest that while Rick Nash is an exceptional player, he was not the captain the team needed in this situation.
The Carter Situation
From beginning to end, the Jeff Carter saga in Columbus was fraught with frustration, deception, and drama. When he was traded from Philadelphia, his long silence struck fear of a hold out into fans, but it seemed to recede when Carter came to town and said the right things in advance of the season. Unfortunately, those words increasingly seem to have been just that in hindsight. Carter's performances, while impressive at times and effective when the forward was healthy, were shadowed by his attitude both off the ice and in the room. If Carter's health had been less of an issue or his point production maintained, perhaps the standoffish and disgruntled attitude would have been overlooked. With the factors united, his presence in the room became a black hole that disrupted not only his own morale, but the morale of the club. It's no surprise that his departure from the club would lead to an emotional boost to the room.
The original trade was a gamble - and seemed to be a good one on paper. Unfortunately, that gamble busted, and it was a major factor in the team's collapse, while more than a few fans will look at the seasons of Jake Voracek and Sean Couturier and wonder what might have been.
The silver lining must be considered the eventual return of Jack Johnson to Columbus, and whatever moves end up taking place around the Kings' first round pick, but this was still a hard price to pay for the results.
November 5, 2011
When schedules were announced, many fans in Columbus and Philadelphia were excited for this matchup between the two clubs - what was supposed to be Carter's return to his "home town".
With Carter injured (and later revealed to be speaking with his Flyer teammates about his discontent in the Midwest), that would be taken off the table. Worse, the team had lost defenseman Radek Martinek and backup Curtis Sanford already, leaving a shaky Steve Mason and untested Allen York as goaltending options.
Bluntly, the squad got destroyed. Hammered for five goal in the first period (including a last minute tally by Voracek), the Flyers would add three more (including a short handed goal by Sean Couturier) before Columbus finally got on the board late in the period. The seven goal loss would be their largest margin of defeat all season, and the largest surprise for most observers by the end of the game was that then head coach Scott Arniel wasn't fired by the end of it.
December 31st, 2011
After a painful loss to the Washington Capitals, the shit hit the fan when local reporter Lori Schmidt asked Scott Arniel about the team's struggles in 4 on 4 hockey - particularly relevant since that's where the team gave up the tying goal.
The coach...did not take it well.
With the team struggling and Arniel increasingly a target of scorn among the fans and media, this moment was the beginning of the end for the second year head coach...but it would take one last blow before the house of cards would topple.
January 8, 2012
Facing an Anaheim Ducks team that, at the time, was only one point ahead of them in the schedule, the Jackets would put Steve Mason in goal despite Curtis Sanford having delivered a shutout against the LA Kings the previous afternoon.
Mason would last one period, surrendering four goals on 16 shots. Sanford would fare little better, allowing two goals on ten shots, plus the team surrendering an empty net goal.
The loss would lead to Arniel's firing the next day with a record of 11-25-5.
The Blue Jackets lost over four hundred games to injury this season, a club record. Kristian Huslieus played a pair of games this season between his torn pectoral and "lower body" injuries (a high ankle sprain and groin injury). Mark Dekanich, whom many thought would be an answer in goal, dressed for all of one period. Radek Martinek suffered a concussion which may end his career. James Wisniewski paid the price for shot blocking, as did Marc Methot, Fedor Tyutin, and John Moore. Derek Mackenzie and R.J. Umberger also battled concussions this season, and even Derek Dorsett and Jared Boll, who put their body through battles just this side of torture every game, would spend significant time on the shelf.
Ironically, the team had exactly two iron men to make it through the entire season - Rick Nash, who nearly missed the final game, and Vinny Prospal, who came in with major durability questions after knee surgery last season.
Despite the team's front office and ownership promising "big changes" after this season's disappointments, the trade deadline was really more dud than demolition. Though the news that Vinny Prospal would be back next season was welcome, it did remove one of the larger assets off the trading block. The pre-deadline swap of Jeff Carter for Jack Johnson lifted a cloud from the room, but it addressed only one issue - not the larger problems that many saw in the team's goaltending and leadership.
From there, the team would move Antoine Vermette to Phoenix for a surprisingly low return (though the freed up cap space will open more options for the club), and Samuel Pahlsson to the Canucks for picks and an ECHL level prospect.
The biggest non-event, however, was the fact that Rick Nash would end up staying in Columbus after speculation that the franchise winger might be available was turned into a five team derby - one that it seemed the New York Rangers were well on the way to winning until the demands from Scott Howson and advisor Craig Patrick became too rich for Glen Sather's blood.
While many fans might have been content with that knowledge, the post-deadline conference where Scott Howson revealed that Nash had requested a trade, and not the team simply looking to deal their best possible asset. The loss of faith for many fans in the player who had been the face, heart, and soul of the franchise was a deal breaker to many, and served to drive wedges between several significant groups of fans.
Though fans will look at the continued struggles of Steve Mason as a major reason for the club's struggles, it's worth pointing out that of the key players expected to contribute, only Vinny Prospal and Derick Brassard approached their expected production. Rick Nash, despite reaching the 30 goal mark, recorded his lowest point totals since 2007, Umberger his second lowest since his rookie season. Antoine Vermette recorded his lowest point totals since 2005 - even with a 10 point run in Phoenix, and Jeff Carter's 34 point production was his lowest of his NHL career.
One core player having a bad year might have been absorbed by the club, but the entire roster on a downswing? It's no wonder the team finished with a -60 goal differential, but it was not helped by...
One stat says it best: Between Springfield and Columbus, the Blue Jackets organization dressed 12 goaltenders this season. Steve Mason's struggles were compounded by his multiple head injuries, Mark Dekanich was, as discussed, never truly played, Curtis Sanford had his back struggles, Allen York was, well, a first year pro, and Springfield saw Manny Legace, Paul Dainton, and Mike Clemente in net at various times. Add in the brief tenure of Shawn Hunwick, and it's no surprise that the one thing we never saw was a stable, dependable presence in net.
Ah, yes. The Youth.
While the team did give Ryan Johansen the chance to play through much of this season, it's debatable if he ever really played in the roles fans expected. Moved from wing to center, top six to bottom line, he showed some good development and grew in his defensive skills, but was never really able to click offensively with linemates that could make the best use of his talent. Cam Atkinson showed what he could do both at the end of the season and the AHL, where he was deep in the rookie scoring race, but was dropped through the lineup and eventualy sent to Springfield after making the club out of camp. One wonders if he might have rivaled some of the Calder trophy candidates if given the chance all season.
After all the struggles of this season, the reward will be another young, talented player. Can this franchise do right by him? That could be a make or break question for the organization.
A team might have struggled with any of these issues, but the combination of these factors paint a bleak picture. If there is good news, particularly with the draft lottery coming tomorrow evening, it is that many of these factors are correctable, either through offseason changes or the simple passage of time.
With a little luck, planning, and execution, there's a strong chance that this laundry list of issues will be one we can look back upon as ones we will never need to repeat.
Think we missed something? Feel like there's more grievances to air? Feel free to contribute in the comments!