Despite a massive offseason in 2011, the Blue Jackets found themselves at the bottom of the NHL last season.
The "gutsy" move to trade the eighth-overall pick and 2007 first round selection Jakub Voracek to Philadelphia for talented center Jeff Carter exploded midway through the season, leading to his reunion with Mike Richards in Los Angeles.
The "aggressive" move to trade for negotiating rights with pending UFA defenseman James Wisniewski (and locking him up to a 6 year, $33 million deal) backfired almost immediately after NHL disciplinarian used a pre-season altercation between Wisniewski and Minnesota’s Cal Clutterbuck to declare that there was a new sheriff in town.
Unable to win for sophomore head coach Scott Arniel, the club hit rock bottom shortly after the new year when rumors began to circulate that franchise winger and team captain Rick Nash was on the trading block, beginning a long process that eventually saw him depart for New York in late July.
Despite these pains and frustrations for a fanbase that has never seen a playoff victory, there are signs of life within Nationwide Arena. The club responded extremely well to interim head coach Todd Richards, earning him the permanent head coaching position this offseason. With Nash increasingly moving out of the spotlight, players like Vinny Prospal, R.J. Umberger, and Cam Atkinson stepped into the void, leading the club through hard work and opportunistic scoring.
The club seemed to turn up their physical play and embrace the value of hard work the more that Nash’s influence waned, and the room seemed to unite around a new leadership core.
With such extensive roster turnover, it’s likely that the club will take time to gel, but it’s possible they might be more competitive than many pundits expect.
Trading Weaknesses for Strengths
Even before the season turned into a nosedive, Scott Howson began making moves to improve his team’s blue line, sending the undersized Kris Russell to St. Louis in exchange for Nikita Nikitin, and demanding Jack Johnson as the major return for Carter. The season also served as a baptism by fire for young pros John Moore and David Savard, giving each a chance to gain valuable NHL experience.
Since the end of the season, Howson drafted talented young defenseman Ryan Murray, making him an early favorite to join the club out of camp, received Tim Erixon in the Nash deal, and signed veteran Adrian Aucoin to serve as a mentor for his young blue line.
With Murray, Erixon, Savard, and Moore all set to compete for a bottom pairing spot, Howson took advantage of his depth to deal the reliable Marc Methot to Ottawa, acquiring Nick Foligno in the process.
With Foligno looking to step into a larger role in Columbus, he brings the potential to replace some of the lost offense from Nash. The additions of Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov also show some of the new identity the club seems to be forming. Hard working, high energy, physical players capable of taking on tough defensive assignments while still contributing offensively, each could be used in a top six or checking role, giving Todd Richards much more flexibility as he reorganizes his lines.
The club saw positive signs from agitator Derek Dorsett, who led the NHL in PIMs while recording a career high 20-point season, and former Penguin Mark Letestu, who was effective throughout the lineup and when asked to work as part of the club’s special teams, particularly the penalty kill.
Howson’s other major move this offseason has been the trade for Sergei Bobrovsky from Philadelphia, setting him up to compete for the starting job in net with the beleaguered Steve Mason. Declaring that the team currently has the number one job up for grabs, it could be exactly what both players need, pushing each other to perform and bringing stability to their net presence for the first time since the 2009 season… or it could be the latest misstep in net since Mason failed to develop following his Calder-worthy rookie season.
Prospect goaltender Allen York is also in the pipeline, after filling in for several games at the end of the season, but the organization is understandably loath to put their faith in a goaltender with less than 20 games of real NHL experience.
With Columbus hosting the NHL All-Star Game, the club is putting all of their hopes behind a roster that will need to play with passion and aggression each night. Barring a developmental leap from players like Atkinson, Ryan Johansen, or Anisimov, it’s likely that scoring will be a committee affair, and that the club will need their defense to help them win a lot of 2-1 or 3-2 games.
If Howson has finally found the right answers to the Jackets’ problems on the ice, it could spark a strong return of interest from the Columbus community, and the All Star Game might be a chance for the club to declare they’re on the right path.
On the other hand, if the club suffers another cascade of failure like last season, it seems likely that changes will be coming to the front office, and doubtful that Howson could escape with his job yet again.
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