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Off-Season Game Plan: Columbus Blue Jackets

Scott Cullen
5/17/2011 8:37:37 AM
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For the ninth time in their ten NHL seasons, the Columbus Blue Jackets missed the playoffs and that run of futility may continue unless the Blue Jackets' young players take the next step in their development.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a team that has potential, but will need to address a couple of important positions in order to have shot at the postseason.

Part of the challenge facing the Blue Jackets is that they have a lot of young players in prominent positions and waiting on those players to produce at the NHL level takes patience.

Perhaps the biggest concern should be in goal, where the Blue Jackets haven't been able to get consistent starter-quality play out of Steve Mason.

Mason's only 22-years-old, so it would be awfully early to give up on him, yet it's difficult enough for the Blue Jackets to compete for a playoff spot at the best of times, let alone when they are getting subpar goaltending.

Additionally, a perennial concern for the Blue Jackets has been their lack of a legitimate power play quarterback on the blueline. In the last five seasons, their top-scoring power play defencemen have been Fedor Tyutin twice, Ron Hainsey (since departed) twice and Anton Stralman, none of whom has provided even mediocre overall results.

Finding someone that can run the power play just has to be a priority for a unit that has finished in the bottom five in the league in four of those five seasons.

In addition to those most obvious concerns, the Blue Jackets have the uncertainty of not knowing if or when their top young players are going to perform at a high enough level.

Derick Brassard and Jakub Voracek have had their moments, but haven't produced consistently enough to be top-line forwards, yet. Matt Calvert showed promise early last season, but then faded. Nikita Filatov's career arc has taken a wrong turn and he's just waiting for someone to cross the "t" to label him a bust.

Prospects Ryan Johansen and Tomas Kubalik could join the club next year too and while it's encouraging to have young talent, until the young players start providing results on the ice, it can be a painful waiting game and that's about where the Blue Jackets are now.

While the Blue Jackets have generally been a money-losing enterprise, it's difficult to expect this team to get better without going out and spending some money in the offseason, to provide the right support so that the odds increase that more of these young players will start reaching their potential.

There's no guarantee that waiting will provide the desired results, either, so it may be on GM Scott Howson to be more aggressive this summer, to make a deal or two, so that Columbus can go into the 2011-2012 season with a greater sense of optimism.

After a rough year at the gate (average attendance: 13,658), Blue Jackets fans are finding out that Tom Petty was right, the waiting is the hardest part.

It would be nice if the supporting cast developed enough to make the Blue Jackets a playoff team, if for no other reason than 26-year-old Rick Nash shouldn't be wasting his prime power forward years on an also-ran; always available to pick up the phone on the first ring when Team Canada calls, asking him to play at the World Hockey Championships every spring.

GM/COACH
Scott Howson/Scott Arniel

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Cap Hit
Rick Nash 79.00 $7.8M
R.J. Umberger 74.57 $3.75M
Antoine Vermette 70.50 $3.75M
Derick Brassard 70.02 $3.2M
Kristian Huselius 68.75 $4.75M
Matt Calvert 67.27 $892K
Derek MacKenzie 66.86 $600K
Samuel Pahlsson 62.41 $2.65M
Derek Dorsett 61.74 $563K
Jared Boll 60.50 $725K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '10-'11 Cap Hit
Jakub Voracek 68.69 RFA $1.271M
Scottie Upshall 67.15 UFA $2.25M
Andrew Murray 65.20 UFA $625K
Chris Clark 62.86 UFA $2.633M
Kyle Wilson 62.55 UFA $600K
Ethan Moreau 59.94 UFA $2.0M

Rick Nash just completed his fourth straight season with at least 32 goals and 65 points, yet the face of the Blue Jackets' franchise played two minutes fewer per game than he did in 2009-2010, not playing more than 20 minutes per game until March.

Considering the inconsistency that surrounds him in the Columbus lineup, it doesn't make much sense to do anything but lean heavily on the 26-year-old power forward, but getting him some help has to be a priority.

If there's a word to describe R.J. Umberger, reliable would have to be right at the top of the list. For the fourth time in his career, Umberger scored at least 20 goals and finished with a career-high 57 points last season, while playing in all 82 games for the third straight year.

He plays in all situations for the Blue Jackets and will be going into the final year of his current contract, so either the Blue Jackets will get Umberger signed to an extension or else he'll be a prime trade candidate during the season. What team can't use a guy who can do a little bit of everything?

Similarly durable Antoine Vermette has missed a total of nine games over the last six seasons and he's a steady two-way performer, though his offensive contributions were down since he didn't play nearly as much with Nash last season as he had the year before.

A good faceoff man who kills penalties and can contribute offensively, Vermette is a good fit as a second-line centre with the Blue Jackets.

Of course, Vermette would be a better fit as a second-line centre if Derick Brassard was fully capable of handling the number one job.

23-year-old Brassard finished with a career-high 47 points last season, but his production was up and down throughout the year and that's not good enough to anchor the top line.

He's young, so there is time for Brassard to round out his overall game, but the sooner the better from the Blue Jackets' perspective.

While Kristian Huselius's minus-17 rating in 39 games was fairly disastrous, he did score 14 goals and had the third-best five-on-five shot differential per 60 minutes (according to www.behindthenet.ca) among Blue Jackets forwards.

Huelius is entering the final year of his contract, so he could be expendable, particularly if the Blue Jackets want to make room for younger wingers, but a seven-time 20-goal scorer shouldn't be easily given up on by a team that had two 20-goal scorers last season.

One of the young wingers who could rise into a more prominent role is Matt Calvert, the 21-year-old who scored 10 goals in his first 21 games, but then slumped with only one in his last 21 games.

Overall, though, 11 goals in 42 games, while playing under 12 minutes a game, was a promising start for a skilled young player.

There weren't a lot of pleasant surprises for the Blue Jackets, but Derek MacKenzie was certainly one. The 29-year-old played a sound two-way style, leading the team with a plus-14 rating; not bad for a journeyman who had played 64 NHL games in seven NHL seasons going into 2010-2011.

Veteran checking centre Samuel Pahlsson seems like a luxury for a team that isn't a contender. Pahlsson plays hard and takes on the toughest checking assignments but, going into the final year of his contract, his game and cap hit ($2.65-million) might be better suited elsewhere.

Derek Dorsett provides aggressive play and managed a career-high 17 points while playing a career-high 13:13 per game, but his undeniable scrappiness doesn't necessarily justify that kind of ice time and his minus-15 rating was second-worst on the team.

Between Dorsett and Jared Boll, the Blue Jackets got 40 fights -- 23 for Boll, 17 for Dorsett. Boll scored a career-high seven goals, but played a modest 7:40 per game.

Boll has dropped the gloves 95 times over the last four seasons (according to www.hockeyfights.com), often fighting up in weight class, so his willingness is a combatant can't be questioned. The rest of his game is adequate enough to play the minutes required of him.

Jakub Voracek has loads of talent, but having all that talent makes it all the more frustrating when he goes through droughts like not scoring a goal until the 12th game of the season, or not scoring any goals in the final 16 games of the season.

He's still just 21, so it's too soon to give up hope on Voracek, but the Blue Jackets are counting on him developing into the legitimate first-line scoring winger that his skills suggest he's due to become.

There are several unrestricted free agents up front that the Blue Jackets will either need to re-sign or replace. Trade deadline acquisition Scottie Upshall does add speed and scoring, while Andrew Murray is an underrated checker, so they might have the most appeal, while veterans Chris Clark and Ethan Moreau provide an honest effort, but may not fit with a generally young team that is building.

While there may be enough bodies up front, particularly if centre Ryan Johansen is ready to make the jump from junior, then the Blue Jackets may want to bolster their depth with a two-way winger like Antti Miettinen, Ruslan Fedotenko or Alexei Ponikarovsky, guys who can score a little and play both ends of the rink.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Cap Hit
Kris Russell 66.06 $1.3M
Fedor Tyutin 65.93 $2.844M
Mike Commodore 63.92 $3.75M

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '10-'11 Cap Hit
Grant Clitsome 74.21 UFA $550K
Jan Hejda 65.36 UFA $2.0M
Anton Stralman 64.56 RFA $1.95M
Sami Lepisto 64.32 RFA $800K
Marc Methot 62.92 RFA $1.013M
Craig Rivet 57.17 UFA $1.75M

Smooth-skating Kris Russell scored a career-high 23 points in his fourth NHL season, but he's a 'tweener in some ways, not offensive enough to be a big point producer and not big and strong enough to be a shutdown defender.

He's a legitimate NHL defenceman, to be sure, but the question is whether or not Russell is going to develop enough to play more than 17 minutes a game.

Fedor Tyutin is the ostensible No. 1 defenceman in Columbus, playing 22:41 per game, and it's a credit to him that he's capable of playing in all situations, but he's probably better suited as a No. 2 or even No. 3; at the very least, the Blue Jackets could use a more dynamic presence at the point on the power play.

Entering the final year of his contract, the versatile Tyutin would figure to be a desirable commodity leading up to the trade deadline if the Blue Jackets aren't in contention.

While Mike Commodore remains under contract to the Blue Jackets for two more seasons, it's difficult to see him returning to the NHL under the same coaching staff that buried him in the minors last season. A buyout would seem to be a possibility.

Anton Stralman might have been considered as a potential solution to the Blue Jackets' power play woes, but with the Blue Jackets' power play sitting 29th in the league last season, another answer may be necessary.

Nevertheless, Stralman is a useful NHL defenceman who has mobility and can move the puck, just maybe not as the primary quarterback on the power play.

After coming over from Phoenix at the trade deadline, Sami Lepisto was rather effective in five-on-five situations, playing the second-most (17:57) of any Blue Jacket at even strength but, oddly, wasn't used on the penalty kill the way he had been in Phoenix.

At 26-years-old, Lepisto should be hitting his prime and could conceivably play a more prominent role for the Jackets in the years to come.

He didn't score a goal in 74 games, but Marc Methot is really coming into his own as a shutdown defenceman, taking on the tough matchups, killing penalties and using his size effectively in the process. He could be due a long-term contract as building block on the Columbus blueline.

There is plenty of room for remodeling on the Columbus blueline, particularly if Commodore remains persona non grata, since Russell and Tyutin are the only ones already signed for next season.

If the Blue Jackets aren't going to go out and acquire a (likely pricey) veteran like Joni Pitkanen, Tomas Kaberle, James Wisniewski or even Anton Babchuk to man the point on the power play, then they might be just as well off bringing back Grant Clitsome, a 26-year-old who scored 10 of his 19 points (in 31 games) last season with the man advantage and giving prospect David Savard a chance to prove himself.

Player Rating Cap Hit Steve Mason 60.24 $2.9M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating Class '10-'11 Cap Hit
Mathieu Garon 63.31 UFA $1.2M

It seems like so long ago that Steve Mason was making a major difference on the Blue Jackets' fortunes as a rookie in 2008-2009, largely because his play has decidedly slipped since then.

Back-to-back years with a .901 save percentage effectively leave Mason as a weak link on the team. The Blue Jackets allowed 29.8 shots against per game, good enough for 11th in the league, yet with below-average goaltending, allowed 3.05 goals against per game, 26th in the league.

Consider, that while the Nashville Predators are lauded for strong defensive play, they allowed more shots per game (30.6) than Columbus, but with Pekka Rinne having a fantastic season in goal, the Predators surrendered 0.73 goals per game fewer than the Blue Jackets. 60 goals over the course of a season makes a significant difference in a team's fortunes.

Maybe it's not fair to expect the Blue Jackets to get Vezina-calibre goaltending but, at the very least, they need Mason to stop at least the league average (around .910) if the Blue Jackets are going to compete for a playoff spot.

Given Mason's inconsistent play over the last couple of seasons, it would makes a lot of sense to bring in a strong backup (if Mason isn't traded altogether), one that would be capable of handling a starter's workload if Mason isn't performing. If Mathieu Garon moves on, Brian Boucher, Jose Theodore and perhaps Johan Hedberg are some veteran free agents with starting experience.

If the Blue Jackets are interested in going the trade route, they could dare to dream and look into acquiring a promising youngster like Jonathan Bernier, Tuukka Rask or Cory Schneider to be their number one in goal.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Ryan Johansen C Portland (WHL) 40-52-92,+44, 63 GP
David Savard D Springfield (AHL) 11-32-43,-6, 72 GP
John Moore D Springfield (AHL) 5-19-24,-27, 73 GP
Nikita Filatov LW Springfield (AHL) 9-11-20,-2, 36 GP
Tomas Kubalik RW Springfield (AHL) 24-29-53,-7, 76 GP
Cam Atkinson RW Boston College (HE) 31-21-52,+21, 39 GP
Allen York G R.P.I. (ECAC) 2.17 GAA, .924 SV%, 34 GP
Cody Goloubef D Springfield (AHL) 5-12-17,-12, 50 GP
Will Weber D Miami-Ohio (CCHA) 1-10-11,+7, 33 GP
Maksim Mayorov RW Springfield (AHL) 19-14-33,-12, 69 GP

The fourth overall pick in last summer's draft, Ryan Johansen should not only make the Blue Jackets next season, but he could be an impact player. He dominated in the Western Hockey League last season and, while he needs to get stronger, is the kind of big playmking centre that every franchise wants.

A fourth-round pick in 2009, David Savard was awfully productive in his first pro season, perhaps an indication that he's the power play quarterback that this team is looking for. Is the 20-year-old ready now, or could he use more time in the AHL?

Defenceman John Moore is a fluid skater and got a taste of NHL action in two games with the Blue Jackets last season, but his all-around game may not yet be ready for primetime as he was a team-worst minus-27 in Springfield.

Skilled winger Nikita Filatov may be better off trying his hand somewhere else, as his game has regressed since his first appearance in North America in the 2008-2009 season. Filatov didn't score a goal in 23 games with the Blue Jackets before getting demoted, and he didn't tear up the AHL the way an NHL scoring winger ought to.

Tomas Kubalik got a late-season audition with the Blue Jackets and the big winger showed his skill. He could probably use more time to get accustomed to being a go-to offensive threat, but Kubalik has a chance to become a quality scoring winger.

While Cam Atkinson doesn't have the size of Kubalik, Atkinson ripped up Hockey East while playing for Boston University, scoring 61 goals in 81 games over the last two seasons. If he can make a smooth jump to the pros (he did have five points in five late-season games with AHL Springfield), Atkinson could find his way to Columbus quickly.

Goaltender Allen York left R.P.I. after three seasons, getting into four late-season games for Springfield and playing well. The 21-year-old may be the best bet to be the Blue Jackets' goaltender of the future if Mason can't recapture his rookie form.

A second-round pick in 2008, Cody Goloubef had a decent showing in his first pro season, but he's not yet ready for a spot in the NHL. He's still just 21-year-old, though, so there is no need to rush him before he's established that he can be a defensive force in the AHL.

Collegiate defenceman Will Weber has good size and a chance to be a good pro; he also endured a scary incident early last season when his neck was slashed by an opponent's skate, leaving a nasty scar.

After three seasons in the AHL, Maksim Mayorov is still only 21, but he hasn't really had a significant jump in production, making it difficult to project him as a full-time NHLer. At the same time, he has size and skill and is young enough that he could put it together more consistently, which would elevate his status as a prospect.

Here's a look at a possible roster for next season, on www.capgeek.com, with Johansen making the squad and a couple of minor free agent additions: http://bit.ly/lCsYu3

DRAFT
8th - Ryan Murphy, Ryan Strome, Sven Bartschi.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Blue Jackets have approximately $40.1M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 14 players.

Needs: Two top nine forwards, top pair defenceman, goaltender.

What I said the Blue Jackets needed last year: Two top nine forwards, one top pair defenceman.

They added: Derek MacKenzie, Ethan Moreau.

TRADE MARKET Kristian Huselius, Samuel Pahlsson, Anton Stralman, Mike Commodore, Steve Mason.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.



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