4-8-3. It doesn’t get much more bleak than that. Through 15 home games at the start of the season, the Blue Jackets have managed a grand total of 11 points. With attendance down over 1,200 per game (14,239 this season, good for 25th in the league, as opposed to 15,511 last season, which was slightly better at 24th in the league), and the product on the ice lacking the progress that was expected this season, the time appears right to start asking questions of the front office. Several, but not nearly all of these questions, include:
If Coach Tortorella is forced to resort to teaching the team how to be a professional, including how to prepare properly, what was the focus during the preseason and training camp?
Did the front office recognize these issues in the offseason? If so, why did John Davidson and Jarmo Kekäläinen passively approve the goings-on by keeping Todd Richards around? If they were unaware, why were they unaware that the team’s development was so lacking?
How does the front office plan to improve the roster this offseason while being a cap team?
Was the front office overly confident, given the performance at the end of the season last year?
We’ve heard some of these questions before. In 2011-2012, the franchise ranked 27th in attendance (averaging 14,660 for the season), going 17-21-3 at home, and finishing dead last in the NHL (losing the draft lottery to the Edmonton Oilers, because the Hockey Gods won’t even let the Blue Jackets fail properly). The Blue Jackets opened that season 0-7-1, all while losing newly acquired Center Jeff Carter to a broken foot. The Blue Jackets eventually bottomed out at 11-25-5 halfway through the season, traded Jeff Carter to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Jack Johnson, and fired Scott Arniel for Todd Richards. The team finished the season 29-46-7, good for 30th place in the NHL standings.
That team was not handicapped by the amount of money that the current roster is. They were able to trade Kris Russell, Antoine Vermette, Carter, and picks throughout the course of the season for Nikita Nikitin, Curtis McElhinney, Jack Johnson, and James Wisniewski. Quite the turnaround, and that’s before acknowledging the blockbuster trade of captain Rick Nash for Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon, and Brandon Dubinsky the following summer. The team also brought in Nick Foligno and Sergei Bobrovsky during the course of the summer following the 2011-12 season.
There were several roster parallels from that team that mirror this year’s team. First and foremost, we had the high profile acquisition of a big name in the offseason. That year, the CBJ brought in Jeff Carter. Carter, on an 11 year, $58 million deal, was seen as a player who could play next to then-captain Rick Nash for years to come, creating a potent first scoring line. Obviously, that never materialized here. Carter played 39 games, registered 15-10-25, and was shipped out at the trade deadline. And this isn’t meant to slam Jeff Carter, a player who didn’t want to be in Columbus (inspiring pieces such as this). It is instead meant to be a cautionary tale for the team’s latest high prized acquisition, LW Brandon Saad. Saad, coming off of two Stanley Cup victories in Chicago, was hailed as a massive acquisition for the club. He was signed to a 6 year, $36 million deal shortly after arriving in the city. To this point (as of the morning of the Dallas Stars game on 12/15/2015), Saad has put up 10-8-18, good for a tie for 3rd on the team in scoring. To his credit, Saad has said and done all the right things since his move to Columbus, despite a slow start to the season scoring (of which he is far from the only one on the team to struggle to find the net at times).
In 2011-12, the Blue Jackets boasted an outstanding top line talent who, for reasons unknown, appeared to fail to meet the eye test on multiple occasions. That player, captain Rick Nash, was traded the following offseason for Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, and Tim Erixon, after Nash requested a trade halfway through the season. This season, the player who has been questioned for various reasons has been Ryan Johansen. Johansen has had mysterious health issues this season, failed multiple eye tests for fans, and seemed to loaf through the occasional shift, all while sitting tied for the team lead in scoring, despite producing at a slower pace than he has the last two seasons. NOTE: THIS IS NOT ME SUGGESTING RYAN JOHANSEN BE TRADED. Far from it, in fact. However, I do think this is the reason that the current front office is not hanging up when other teams call and inquire about Johansen’s availability. When Nash was traded, the team was able to bring in two players who helped to turn the culture of the team around. If another team were to offer a similar package for Johansen, it would be wise of the front office to listen (though I believe he should not be traded, because #1 centers don’t grow on trees).
In addition to the aforementioned similarities, both teams featured a coach losing his job during the course of the season. Obviously, in the current season, Todd Richards was fired after a winless start to the season. He was replaced after 7 games by coach John Tortorella, who has gone 11-12-3 (as of the writing on Thursday afternoon, before the game against the Arizona Coyotes). In 2011-12, Scott Arniel was fired after an 11-25-3 start to the season and replaced by Todd Richards, who took the team and went 18-21-4 to close the season, and earn the full time position. Both teams (this year, to this point) responded to the firing of the head coach by playing just under .500 hockey for the rest of the season (whether these Blue Jackets can keep up the pace remains to be seen).
So, what can we glean from this? Obviously, this was an entire front office ago, but lessons can be learned with so many similarities between the two seasons. The Blue Jackets we saw in 2011-12 struggled at both ends of the ice, collapsed late in games, and lost a head coach during the course of the season. Sounds familiar, no?
One thing to expect moving forward, almost certainly, is the trading of several pieces going forward. One rumored piece, especially in light of his healthy scratch on Thursday night, is Ryan Johansen. Just 23 years old and RFA going into the 2017-18 season, Johansen would command a huge price on the open market. Is Jarmo willing to trade the young center? Well, we at least know he listening to offers, as any good GM should. However, I am of the opinion Ryan Johansen should not be traded. He may appear lazy on the ice this season, he may not be scoring at the expected rate, but he is a talent like this franchise has never had. To ship him out when he isn’t even 24 years out would be a mistake, in my opinion. So, assuming he is not traded, what other options are we left with?
One option teams could look at around the Trade Deadline would be Scott Hartnell. Hartnell currently leads the team in both goals and points, tallying 13-10-23 in 32 games played thus far. While his salary cap hit is high ($4.75 million through the 2018-19 season), Hartnell is having an excellent season on a down team, and this may be the only opportunity for the team to get out from under his contract. It may require the CBJ bringing a piece back to make the salary work, but said piece would likely be for a shorter term than Scott Hartnell, freeing up cap space earlier. One hindrance to trading Hartnell is that he currently has a no-movement clause in his contract; he would have to agree to any potential move out of town.
Cam Atkinson presents another attractive option to teams looking for scoring help. Tied for third on the team in scoring at 9-9-18 on the season, Atkinson comes with a manageable cap hit of $3.5 million per year until 2018. Teams looking for a cheap 2nd or 3rd liner to bolster their run to a Stanley Cup could certainly call about Atkinson. Under Tortorella, Atkinson has shown an ability to be valuable on special teams as well, so he could contribute in all situations.
Following the season, it is almost certain that the team makes moves to trade other players or to attempt to free salary. Jack Johnson and Matt Calvert are guys with manageable salaries who could be moved. Rene Borque’s contract comes off the books. Unfortunately, the team also will have to re-sign Ryan Murray, Boone Jenner, and William Karlsson. In addition, Andrew Bodnarchuk, Justin Falk, Kevin Connauton, and Dalton Prout will be restricted free agents. Whether any of them are re-signed or replaced with players from the Lake Erie Monsters remains to be seen. In the near future, the team is heavily invested in players including Fedor Tyutin, Nick Foligno, Brandon Dubinsky, and David Savard, all of whom except Savard have full no-trade clauses in their contracts, per Spotrac.
Looking to the future, it does not appear that the team, barring an unexpected move or the trade of Ryan Johansen, will be able to make the sort of splash move the team made in 2011-12 and the following summer to shake up the core of the roster. John Davidson and Jarmo Kekäläinen have picked their bricks, and have elected to sign them here long term, giving the big money players on the team contracts that make them difficult to move.
Thus, it falls to the coaching staff to get the most out of the players currently on the roster. Tortorella has admitted to using the same approach that he started with in Tampa Bay to begin to reshape the Blue Jackets. "There was a lot of stuff going on there in Tampa and you need to break that, get those habits out of the way and then start building,’’ Tortorella said. "Very similar here, at least in my mind.’’ It may take the rest of the season and the offseason, but Tortorella is confident that building the habits of a winner can help this team turn the corner. It remains to be seen if he is correct.
There is no easy fix going forward. As laid out, the team is in trouble with the cap going forward (even if it does rise, as it is expected to). The core is highly paid, and likely here for the foreseeable future. Barring an unexpected trade or a sudden offensive explosion from any number of players on the roster who have underperformed this season thus far, the Blue Jackets will look very similar when they hit the ice next fall. The question is, will anything meaningful have changed?
So, let’s hear from the Cannon members in the comments. What do you think the team should do at the deadline or in the offseason to address their issues? Would trading one of the big name players like the 2011-12 team did be enough of a help, or should the Blue Jackets stay the course?