September 09, 2010
Colorful characters,revered championships, staged fights ... the rink shares plenty with the squared circle. So here at Puck Daddy, we've decided to preview the 2010-11 NHL season with the help of old-school wrestling icons, images and lingo. It's a slobber-knocker, Mean Gene ...
Last Season (32-35-15, 79 points. Fifth in the Central, 14th in the West.)
On Feb. 4, the Columbus Blue Jackets franchise changed course. That was the day on which Ken Hitchcock was fired after having guided the Jackets to their first playoff berth in franchise history in 2009. That was the day when the Hitchcockian defensive system that had characterized Blue Jackets hockey was removed from their DNA.
Interim Coach Claude Noel went 10-8-6 after that, and the Jackets finished 14th in the conference. Star winger Rick Nash's(notes) stats regressed. Franchise goalie Steve Mason(notes) went from rookie of the year to the year's most disappointing player. A team that seemed poised to challenge the best in the West became the "same old" Blue Jackets instead.
Enter Scott Arniel, the AHL Manitoba Moose coach who agreed to take over the Jackets after Hamilton Bulldogs Coach Guy Boucher turned them down in favor of Tampa Bay's opening. Can he snap last year's underachievers out of their funks, and get the Jackets back into contention?
Nikita Filatov(notes) is back from Russia and looking forward to playing in the NHL free of
defensive responsibility the restrictive nature of Ken Hitchcock's coaching. The explosive winger could be a key contributor to a lineup that finished 21st in goals scored last season.
Ethan Moreau(notes) was claimed on waivers from the Edmonton Oilers, for a $2 million cap hit. The left wing, who turns 35 this month, managed 18 points in 76 games last season, as Edmonton fans asked themselves what, exactly, happened to Ethan Moreau?
Nothing of significance outside of interim coach Claude Noel.
Wrestler That Best Personifies the Team
Jacques Rougeau, even if we're not dealing with a Canadian franchise. Because, you see, he went from being a technically proficient, tedious tactician (RE: Hitchcock Blue Jackets) to something a bit more up-tempo and entertaining (RE: Arniel Blue Jackets, in theory). Also, he used to agitate people with a cattle prod (RE: Jared Boll(notes)).
Rick Nash played the majority of last season with Kristian Huselius(notes) (63 points in 74 games) and with Antoine Vermette(notes) (27 goals, 38 points for a career-best 65 points) as his center. His 33 goals and 34 assists -- a 7-goal, a 12-point decline from the previous season -- began a new chorus of "Get Rick Nash a center" in the media this offseason. But Arniel likes the Vermette/Nash chemistry, so expect that combo at the start.
R.J. Umberger(notes) (23 goals) had a career-best 55 points but skated to a minus-16. He skated at times with Nash but could see time again with center Derick Brassard(notes), who will attempt to rebound from a lackluster sophomore season (36 points in 79 games). Jakub Vorcek (50 points) will contribute offensively, and the Jackets hope Filatov bolsters the offense.
Samuel Pahlsson(notes) averaged about 16 minutes per game, but played tough minutes as the primary checking center. Chris Clark(notes) and Moreau will be among the veteran grunts; Jared Boll (149 PIM) is the chief enforcer, but it's Derek Dorsett(notes) (14 points in 51 games) who has shown flashes of being a ruffian with some skills.
The Jackets retained the services of Anton Stralman(notes) with a 1-year, $1.95 million deal, avoiding arbitration. He led the Columbus blue line in scoring (34 points) and was their point-man on the power play.
Second in power-play ice time was Fedor Tyutin(notes), who led all Blue Jackets with 23:31 average TOI per game. He had32 points in 80 games, skated to a minus-7, and dropped his PIMs from year-to-year by 33.
Marc Methot(notes) and Jan Hejda(notes) were another frequent pairing last season, with Hejda second on the team in shorthanded ice time (3:28) to Rostislav Klesla(notes) (3:34), who was limited to 26 games due to injuries. It was the second-straight injury-filled year for Klesla, whose been with the franchise since 2000-01.
Kris Russell(notes) has been on the verge of breaking out for the last two seasons, scoring 22 points in 2009-10. Veteran Mike Commodore(notes), meanwhile, struggled in his second season with the Jackets, playing only 57 games and to a minus-9.
It's difficult to conceive how night-and-day Steve Mason's freshman and sophomore years were in the NHL. A runaway winner of the Calder and second-place in the Vezina voting as a rookie, Mason's GAA rose from 2.29 to 3.05; his save percentage went from a .916 to a .901; and he went from 10 shutouts to 5.
What did Mason learn? Conditioning. He admitted it was an issue in Year 2 and dropped about 15 pounds this offseason. He's worked hard to reclaim his lofty accolades as a star goalie of the future. Can a third-year player win comeback player of the year, one year before RFA status?
If Mason falters, Mattieu Garon is the other option betweenthe pipes.
Match We'd Pay To Watch
Umberger vs. Hamburgler. There can be only one ...
Jakub Voracek(notes) scored 22 points in his last 25 games last season, putting him on the radar of fantasy hockey prognosticators. Depending on who plays with Nash, and where Nash plays, Voracek could be a top-liner this season, according to Chris Nichols.
"If Derick Brassard can rebound" is a mandatory phrase in every Blue Jackets preview ... but what if he can't? What if 25 points in 31 games was a promise he can't fulfill, and the former No. 6 pick overallf inishes below 40 points again? Because he's on the payroll for three more seasons after that ...
That Rick Nash certainly can finish on a breakaway:
The Jackets were a respectable 14th on the power play with a 18.2 percent conversion rate, and were 17th on the kill (81.7 percent), killing off 28 of 29 penalties to start the season. Arniel coached the power play as an assistant in Buffalo and waseffective at it. So perhaps that, plus the potential of Filatov seeing special teams time, could improve the man advantage.
Arniel has a winning pedigree, outstanding player-communication skills and, above all else,perspective:
"I don't want to put expectations and say, all of a sudden, we've got to get into the playoffs or be here by January," Arniel told NHL.com. "I'm going to move forward and take things day by day. Guys are going to know their job and their role and what I expect them to do and how I want them to play. There won't be any secrets; I have to let things evolve and allow these players to go out and show me in person."
Ashe told The Sporting News: The biggest challenge isn't a tactical one but a psychological one. Arniel needs to change the mindset in Columbus back to one of a team on the verge of contention.
GM Scott Howson made a few bold moves in 2009 that didn't result in a playoff team in 2010. There are still significant upgrades in talent this team needs on defense; he made some cost-effective decisions this offseason that gave the Jackets over $6 million in cap space to address that need and others during the season.
2010-11 Preseason Report Card:
Goaltending: C+ (until proven otherwise).
Special Teams: C+
Main Event or Dark Match?(Prediction)
They're in the wrong division for a total reversal of fortune. Unless Steve Mason is lights-out again or Arniel is one of those transformative first-year coaches, the Blue Jackets are going to miss the postseason cut in the West.
Entrance Music: For a scrappy Midwestern team, we'll go with the ramblin' theme song to Kevin "Diesel" Nash from his WWF days. Which, as we hear it again, sounds suspiciously like the theme song to "Roseanne" as well ...