September 08, 2011
It's going to be another year of blockbusters and huge flops in the NHL. Which teams blew out their budgets for big name stars and gigantic special effects to score Michael Bay-levels of box office gold? Which teams are bloated action retreads and terrible sequels? Find out in Puck Daddy's 2011-12 NHL Season Previews, running throughout the month.
The Blue Jackets began last season with two strong months, losing only five times from Oct. 8 through Nov. 24.
Then came a 3-9-3 stretch, following by a five-game losing streak to start 2011. Meanwhile, the rest of the conference was winning and winning and when they got tired of that they won some more.
The offseason saw some major additions to bolster the team's offense and its blue line; are they enough to get Columbus back into the playoffs for the second time in franchise history?
The Jeff Carter(notes) trade was the boldest move of GM Scott Howson's tenure: Dealing RFA Jakub Voracek(notes), the No. 8 overall pick (Sean Couturier) and No. 68 overall pick (Nick Cousins) in the 2011 Draft to the Philadelphia Flyers for a player that has an 11-year contract. But he's the star offensive center the Blue Jackets have always lacked, a sniper and someone who should bolster their power play.
Also brought on to help the power play: James Wisniewski(notes), a puck-moving defenseman with a little sandpaper in his game, too. After the Jackets acquired his rights, they inked him to a 6-year, $33-million deal that was one of the most debated of the summer. It's easy to see why: He had one outstanding season (51 points) and it was in his walk year. But 29 power-play points from a defenseman is something the Jackets aren't used to.
Among the other acquisitions for Columbus: Center Vinny Prospal(notes) from the Rangers, signed to a 1-year deal after Kristian Huselius(notes) went down with an injury; center Cody Bass(notes) from Ottawa; goalie Curtis Sanford(notes) from Montreal; and defensemen Aaron Johnson(notes) (Nashville) and Radek Martinek(notes) (Islanders).
Other Blue Jackets that moved on via free agency included forward Scottie Upshall(notes) (4-year deal with Florida), goalie Mathieu Garon(notes) (2-year deal with Tampa Bay), defenseman Sami Lepisto(notes) (1-year deal with Chicago), forward Ethan Moreau(notes) (1-year deal with Los Angeles) and forward Chris Clark(notes) (tryout deal with Boston). The team also cut ties with defenseman Mike Commodore(notes), who signed with the Red Wings.
At forward, Rick Nash(notes) finally gets his centerman, and not a moment too soon. The star power forward's stats have flat-lined at 0.43 goals per game and 0.88 points per game in the last two seasons after a career year in 2008-09. There are some questions about how Jeff Carter — a sniper in his own right with 181 career goals in 461 games — will co-exist with Nash as a No. 1 center. He's not Adam Oates; but there is a sense that Nash can collect a few more rebound chances with Carter firing away on his line.
With Kristian Huselius out 4-6 months after being assaulted by a demonic barbell, Prospal could get the nod for top line left wing. Antoine Vermette(notes) can also play a little left wing and is coming off a 47-point campaign, but he was a valuable faceoff man for the Blue Jackets (55.6 percent) too.
Nash played the majority of last season with Derick Brassard(notes), whose points jumped by 11 from year to year. He could be slotted with R.J. Umberger(notes) (25 goals, 32 assists) on a second line. With 20 points in 42 games, Matt Calvert(notes) was a nice development last season on left wing.
The wild care offensively: Center Ryan Johansen(notes), the team's No. 4 overall pick in 2010, who could make the team this year and make an immediate impact. But coach Scott Arniel says it won't be on the wing.
Derek Dorsett(notes) remains a fascinating player for the Jackets on right wing: a fighter and pest who might have more offensive upside than his 17 points in 76 games shows. He'll share those duties with Jared Boll(notes), who amassed 182 PIM in 73 games last season. Samuel Pahlsson(notes) will be back as a defensive pivot, winning 52 percent of his draws.
On defense, Wisniewski arrives as the puck-moving offensive defenseman they've desperately needed, especially on their inconsequential power play. Fedor Tyutin(notes) earned a new 6-year contract after leading the Jackets in TOI with 22:41 per game. He joins Marc Methot(notes) and promising Kris Russell(notes) has holdovers from last season; famously named Grant Clitsome(notes) ended up averaging 21:16 per game in 31 appearances for Columbus. Joining the cast is Radek Martinek, the blue line's elder statesman (35 years old).
In goal … well, as usual, the fate of this team is tied to Steve Mason. Perhaps even more so than in the past. After a sophomore flop, Mason struggled again last year to the tune of a 24-21-7 record, a 3.03 GAA and a .901 save percentage. But he's their guy, as Scott Howson has hitched his wagon to Mason according to Puck-rakers:
That doesn't mean Howson has made the wrong decision. It's just means the near futures of the goaltender and general manager are irrevocably intertwined. Howson is banking on the improvement of a fourth-year pro who has the pedigree and skills. To make the playoffs, the Blue Jackets don't need Mason to be a great as he was in 2008-09, but they need him to be much better than he's been the past two seasons.
"Prince of Persia." A star that everyone thinks is slumming, leading a highly-budgeted production that could easily flop despite its charms.
Arniel was the Blue Jackets' fallback choice as head coach after Guy Boucher spurned them for the Lightning gig. The Bolts went to the conference finals, and the Jackets went back to the lottery. D'oh.
Not that Arniel was a disaster or anything. It's just that the deck he was handed didn't mesh well with the attacking style he wanted to play. Now that he's got a few more veteran offensive options, can the Jackets roll three lines and put a few more goals on the board?
And not to belabor the card-playing metaphor, but Howson's gone all-in this offseason. The Carter trade cost future assets and adds a "lifetime" contract to the roster. The Wisniewski deal was overpayment. He put his faith in a young goaltender that hasn't rewarded it since his rookie season. Howson's one of the more intelligent men in hockey management; this season is a vital one for his future.
If Johansen makes the roster, he's a no-brainer here. But assuming he doesn't, then we'll go with Grant Clitsome for the sheer fact that he can handle significant ice time, he has offensive upside, and it's life's rich joke that a player named Grant Clitsome is going to be part of our lives for the foreseeable future.
"I heard you've got a problem with Blue Jackets stinking up your home, ma'am. I mostly deal with air-breathing arthropods, from the Arachnida class. But I'm willing to make an exception. Fair warning: I don't roll on Shabbos."
If the offseason additions and maturation of roster players in front of him still has Steve Mason posting a GAA over 3.00 and sporting a save percentage hovering around .900 … well, the word "flop" is going to be tossed around a bit, no?
In case you were wondering how R.J. Umberger carries the flag.
The power play. Let's say Carter and the Wiz are able to help turn this unit's fortunes around from a 14-percent conversation rate to something ranging closer to professional competency; how many points in the standings is that worth?
The Jackets finished with 81 points last season, 16 out of the No. 8 seed and 23 points out of the Central Division lead. They'll be better than that, but what does that mean in the Conference Of Death? In the East, the Jackets are a playoff team. In the West, barring a miraculous turnaround from Mason, they're squarely on the bubble, probably below it.