October 15, 2011
If there's any team that deserves to grumble about Brendan Shanahan's(notes) stiff suspensions, it's the Columbue Blue Jackets. Through the first four games of the season, the BJ's powerplay has been silent as a mime, going 0-for-20 -- a scoreless streak ten opportunities worse than they've ever had to open the season.
Speaking of miming BJs (that is, members of the Columbus Blue Jackets with a history of miming, get your mind out of the gutter), James Wisniewski(notes) was acquired this offseason precisely to prevent the sort of special teams ineptitude that has played a large part in the team's disappointing 0-3-1 start.
Through two games, when the Jackets' powerplay was merely 0-for-11, Scott Arniel was willing to admit that Wisniewski's absence was the primary issue with the unit. From Scott Mitchell:
"When we laid out the first unit, we were looking at Wiz's big shot at the top," Arniel said. "Right now, I don't know if we have that big shot."
Clitsome (11:10 in power-play ice time), Tyutin (9:53), rookie David Savard(notes) (8:52), a struggling Kris Russell(notes) (4:35) and newcomer Radek Martinek(notes) (3:00) have played the points this season.
"It's really our back end that just has to find the confidence to shoot the puck and make the right plays," Arniel said.
A week of non-success later, however, the Columbus coach changed his tune. From Aaron Portzline:
Coach Scott Arniel said this week that he hasn't even thought about Wisniewski during his suspension.
This doesn't quite mesh with what he said last week, but you can understand why Arniel might go in a different direction. The Blue Jackets' powerplay is becoming a major frustration; the last thing he needs is the unit throwing up their hands and simply waiting for Wisniewski to blow in and save them.
That sort of desperation is best saved for the offseason, like when GM Scott Howson gave Wisniewski $33 million over 6 years to do exactly that.
Columbus was the 29th-ranked powerplay team in the NHL last season, converting at a ghastly 14.0 clip, which included an even more staggering conversation rate of 12.6 at home.
Needless to say, upgrades were warranted, and the Jackets made them. Howson hired former Wild coach Todd Richards -- who coordinated the San Jose Sharks' excellent 2008-09 powerplay -- as an assistant to Scott Arniel. Then, Howson traded for Jeff Carter(notes), who co-led the 2010-11 Philadelphia Flyers in powerplay goals with Claude Giroux(notes), both of whom had eight apiece.
But the coup de grace in the powerplay overhaul was Howson's targeting of James Wisniewski to quarterback the unit. Unwilling to wait until July 1, Howson acquired Wisniewski's negotiation rights two days early and offered the defensemen an absurd amount of money (again, $33 million over six years) to forgo free agency.
Because Wisniewski is reasonable, he recognized that the contract wasn't, so he took it.
The blueliner knew he was being signed primarily for his powerplay abilities. From NHL.com:
"Last year was my first year being a No. 1 power-play guy -- I always had that in me, but I just never had the opportunity to before," Wisniewski said. "The Islanders and Canadiens were not high-scoring teams, so I look at (last season) as just the beginning. Now, being on a team like this, with Nash, Carter and hopefully three high-powered offensive lines spread out, I can just keep getting better and better. I'm confident that -- through playing with these guys for long periods of time -- we can definitely do some damage.
Like Wisniewski, Blue Jackets' blog The Cannon was confident of impending damage, predicting a top ten powerplay for the Blue Jackets with a conversion rate of 19.1%.
Whether this number is a touch on the high side remains to be seen, but it seems safe to assume that Wisniewski, whose 7 powerplay goals last season are two more than the entire 2010-11 Columbus defense corps combined, is going to help this powerplay when he gets back into the lineup. He definitely can't hurt it.
But of course, like Scott Arniel said, the Blue Jackets aren't thinking about that right now.
Clearly, they're working hard not to. Here's Todd Richards, not thinking about Wisniewski.
"We don't have him right now," Richards said. "That's a fact. We don't have him, OK? So to say, 'That would have been James' shot if he were in the lineup,' is like saying, 'That would have been Gretzky's shot right there.'
"We have to focus on what we have. We have to make it work with what we have right now."
Gretzky, huh? Sounds to me like Wisniewski might be on their minds a little more than they care to admit.
Take it away, 80s pop vocalist John Waite: