Blue Jackets continue to change and evolve
One five-year plan out the window and now apparently it’s time for a new one in Columbus.
The Blue Jackets were all about potential when former general manager Doug MacLean called the shots and stockpiled one top-10 draft pick after another.
From 2000-2005, and under MacLean’s direction, Columbus took defenseman Rostislav Klesla (2000, No. 4 overall), goalie Pascal Leclaire (2001, No. 8), right wing Rick Nash (2002, No. 1), right wing Nikolai Zherdev (2003, No. 4), left wing Alexandre Picard (2004, No. 8), center Gilbert Brule (2005, No. 6) and center Derick Brassard (2006, No. 6). That was an opportunity to horde a bunch of talent, but the potential did not turn into reality.
And that’s probably the biggest reason why MacLean was replaced by Scott Howson before last season. After working through 2007-08 with his hands somewhat tied because of contract obligations, the new GM is in the process of performing a major makeover of the only franchise in the league yet to appear in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Howson, fetched from the Edmonton front office, has his own ideas, and he’s working with coach Ken Hitchcock to assemble the right mix of players to fit the mold of a younger, faster, stronger and more tenacious team.
It’s hard to argue with Hitchcock’s success in Dallas and Philadelphia as a coach, not to mention during international play as a member of the Team Canada management. Hitchcock wants his players to play one way, even if that means sacrificing a little on the offensive end to be more responsible and dependable on defense. If you don’t fit the mold, you’re gone.
While the team showed improvement last season under Hitchcock’s first full season with the Blue Jackets – cracking 80 points in the standings for the first time – it still left Columbus double-digits out of the final playoff spot and the once-strong support for and novelty of hockey in a huge college town is wearing off.
With attendance declining for five straight years, the Blue Jackets are now near the very bottom of the league in attracting paid customers. Nationwide Arena has drawn raves for the entertainment experience, but that must not include the product on the ice. It’s high time that changes. Just don’t hold your breath that it will happen this season.
Last season: 34-36-12, 80 points, fourth place Central Division, 13th place Western Conference. A franchise-best point total still left the Blue Jackets 11 points from reaching the playoffs for the first time—that’s all seven years of franchise history and counting.
Imports: C R.J. Umberger (2007-08 team: Philadelphia Flyers), LW Raffi Torres (Edmonton Oilers), D Mike Commodore (Ottawa Senators), D Fedor Tyutin (New York Rangers), D Christian Backman (New York Rangers), LW Kristian Huselius (Calgary Flames), LW Mike York (Phoenix Coyotes), D Jonathan Sigalet (Boston Bruins), LW Craig MacDonald (Tampa Bay Lightning), LW John Vigilante (Nashville Predators), C Steve Kelly (Minnesota Wild).
Exports: RW Nikolai Zherdev (New York Rangers), D Ron Hainsey (Atlanta Thrashers), C Gilbert Brule (Edmonton Oilers), C Dan Fritsche (New York Rangers), LW Joakim Lindstrom (Anaheim Ducks), LW Matt Marquardt (Boston Bruins), C Zenon Konopka (Tampa Bay Lightning), RW David Vyborny (available free agent), D Dick Tarnstrom (available free agent).
Three keys to the season: First, the Blue Jackets, who might consider changing their name to the Columbus doughnuts, have a need to fill an obvious hole in the middle. The offseason depth chart lists newcomer R.J. Umberger as the team’s No. 1 center. Now that’s interesting. Umberger was the super utility forward in Philadelphia last season, a versatile forward who could play a number of roles, but he never really settled on one line, and despite an outstanding postseason in which he flashed a goal-scoring side he’d been hiding his whole career, Umberger found himself on the trade block.
This is a major concern for the Blue Jackets, who have one of the game’s best young left wings in Nash. Nash, however, is going to have far less of an impact without someone to create and get him the puck. The 20-year-old Brassard is more of the prototype top-line center, but he’s only got 17 games of NHL experience so that’s too much to ask at the outset of the season, if at any point this year. Howson worked to acquire an experienced top-line center, but he quickly learned that the team’s that have them don’t want to give them up. Either he’ll have to keep trying or somebody better step up big time to fill this hole.
Second, it’s a much different look on defense, and the unit has to not only do the job in its own end, but also be more mobile and skilled with the first pass to help the offense. Ron Hainsey and Dick Tarnstrom followed Adam Foote (trade deadline departure) out the door as the team welcomes two ex-Rangers – Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman – along with Mike Commodore to the reshaped unit that includes young vets Jan Hejda, Ole-Kristian Tollefsen and Klesla.
Third, the team really needs some of its blue-chip young talent to emerge and contribute. It could be any forward from an impressive group that includes Jakub Voracek, Nikita Filatov, Tom Sestito, Derek Dorsett, Stefan Legein, Brassard, defenseman Kris Russell or even goalie-of-the-future Steve Mason.
On the hot seat: Leclaire set the bar pretty high with the season he had in goal last year. He was second in the league with nine shutouts and constantly worked under the impression he wasn’t going to get a lot of goal support. He was right, and he still played well. Now there are expectations that the 25-year-old is a potential All-Star and the man who maybe can do more than should be expected. His results are very much tied to how the defense and team as a whole performs in front of him, but Leclaire has a bit of an injury-plagued history so he’s going to have to avoid that bug and be ready to show he can follow a year of success with even more success.
Poised to blossom: Nash was a one-dimensional player before Hitchcock arrived. That one dimension was pretty good, of course. Nash scored 41 goals during his second season in the league at the tender age of 19. But like Hitchcock did for Mike Modano in Dallas, he set out to do the same with Nash last season &ndash transform a superstar offensive threat into a strong two-way player. Nash suddenly found himself challenged defensively by playing on the penalty kill, and he responded. Next, Nash was named team captain late last season shortly after ex-captain Foote was dealt. It is with the opportunity to lead, to show his all-around game and to continue to pile up offensive numbers that Nash embarks with a strong purpose on 2008-09.
Analysis and prediction: The center-ice problem figures to be significant because there are so many difficult match-ups at that position, not only throughout the Western Conference but also particularly in the Central Division – think Detroit and Chicago. You can never put it past Hitchcock to tweak and devise a winning formula, but it’s just hard to imagine the Blue Jackets can come far enough to finish in the top eight this season. In fact, they won’t, despite getting close.