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Off-Season Game Plan: Columbus Blue Jackets

Scott Cullen
4/30/2012 4:01:20 PM
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The Columbus Blue Jackets finished with the worst record in the NHL in 2011-2012 and they go into the summer with the expectation of dealing their franchise player.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at what figures to be a crucial summer for Columbus as they try to put the pieces in place to build a playoff team.

In the midst of an undeniably frustrating season, Rick Nash had requested a trade from Columbus and even though a deal couldn't get completed before the trade deadline, it does appear that a Nash deal is going to be the focal point of the Blue Jackets' summer.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, the Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings, New York Rangers, San Jose Sharks and Toronto Maple Leafs were on Nash's approved trade list prior to the trade deadline and while it's possible that other destinations will be seen as more desirable by summer, Nash's camp was adamant that the list would not grow (which, admittedly, may have been a ploy to force a trade before the deadline).

If the Bruins would include David Krejci or the San Jose Sharks would offer Joe Pavelski, those seem like viable deals, even if neither team is rich with prospects to fill out the rest of the deal. The Rangers were reportedly in on Nash prior to the deadline, with the New York Post suggesting that the Blueshirts offered LW/C Brandon Dubinsky, D Tim Erixon, C. J.T. Miller, RW Christian Thomas and a first-round pick. That report has been denied, but could at least offer some idea of a framework for a deal that might appeal to Columbus.

With the makings of a competent defence, the Blue Jackets ought to be aiming for upgrades to their forwards and goaltending this summer and while some of those could come via a Nash trade, the Blue Jackets will also need to make some savvy moves on the free agent front.

Considering their losing tradition, Columbus isn't exactly a marquee destination for free agents, so GM Scott Howson will ought to look for players that will benefit from the opportunities available -- a chance to earn playing time on a scoring line can be appealing for a veteran forward coming off a down season -- and any investment needs to be done with the understanding that even if the Blue Jackets weren't as awful as their record suggested last year, they are likely not going to turn into a playoff team based on one off-season.

To the former point, Columbus ranked 17th in the league in shot differential, but were undone in many respects by subpar goaltending, so if Columbus can fix their goaltending issues, that could bring about significant improvement.

As if trading their star and finding a new goaltender isn't enough on the plate of GM Scott Howson, he also has to decide on whether Todd Richards is going to remain as the head coach. The Blue Jackets played better after Richards took over from Scott Arniel, but not well enough, apparently, for the Blue Jackets to assert that he's going to be the bench boss in 2012-2013.

Considering how flat the Blue Jackets fell last season, despite making aggressive acqusitions last summer -- trading for Jeff Carter and signing James Wisniewski, it seems that the rebuilding process will have begun in earnest when they deal Nash and start re-stocking the shelves.

That doesn't offer a great amount of hope for next season, but the Blue Jackets don't have a track record of success with Nash either. Maybe changing directions, and payroll allocation, can eventually bring better results.

The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus and the biggest stars will be over 80. Evgeni Malkin finished at the top of the regular season ratings with a 93.12.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

 

GM/COACH
Scott Howson/Todd Richards

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Rick Nash 74.17 82 30 29 59 -19 $7.8M
Vaclav Prospal 68.96 82 16 39 55 -11 $2.5M
R.J. Umberger 68.24 77 20 20 40 -10 $4.6M
Derick Brassard 64.52 74 14 27 41 -20 $3.2M
Mark Letestu 62.95 62 11 14 25 -9 $625K
Ryan Johansen 60.28 67 9 12 21 -2 $1.945M
Colton Gillies 54.54 75 2 6 8 -9 $625K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '11-'12 Cap Hit
Derek Dorsett 61.06 77 12 8 20 -11 RFA $562.5K
Derek MacKenzie 59.27 66 7 7 14 +4 UFA $600K
Ryan Russell 53.46 41 2 0 2 -7 UFA $525K
Darryl Boyce 53.28 37 1 4 5 -8 UFA $700K
Jared Boll 52.46 54 2 1 3 -8 RFA $725K
Kristian Huselius 46.99 2 0 0 0 -2 UFA $4.75M

As long as he remains on the Columbus roster, Rick Nash is the one forward that can put pressure on the oppositon. A seven-time 30-goal scorer, Nash's 59 points represented his lowest since 2006-2007 and his minus-19 rating was his worst since 2003-2004. He turns 28 this summer so he should be a prime producer for the six years that remain on his contract.

Since it appears that Nash will be doing his scoring in another uniform by next season, however, it's uncumbent on the Blue Jackets to maximize the return they can get for him. While the bulk of the package may be prospects and picks, adding at least one viable scoring forward in return should be of paramount importance.

Veteran winger Vinny Prospal is a stabilizing presence and the Blue Jackets could use more of those. Prospal, 37, quietly put up 55 points last season, the ninth time in his career he surpassed 50 points, and his playmaking skills will help whichever scoring unit he lines up with.

R.J. Umberger is a solid contributor, having scored 20 goals in each of his last four seasons, and if he's left to a secondary scoring role, then he's in the right spot. If he's thrust into a first-line role, that's evidence that Columbus doesn't have enough talent up front.

While the Blue Jackets have to hope for better performances across the board, there is some reason for optimism when it pertains to Derick Brassard, who played a more significant role once Columbus fired head coach Scott Arniel.

After 16 points and a minus-18 rating while playing 15 minutes per game in 41 games prior to the All-Star break, Brassard finished the year with 25 points and a minus-2 rating in 33 games, while playing 18 minutes a night, after the break. It would be too simplistic to project Brassard's 25 points in 33 games over a full-season, but recording the first 50-point season of his career is a reasonable objective.

Acquired from Pittsburgh for a fourth-round draft pick, Mark Letestu is a nice complementary player. He can play wing and centre, is responsible defensively and handled a decent level of competition (per www.behindthetnet.ca) while with the Blue Jackets. Letestu's versatility allows him to slide in and out on a scoring line as needed, but in an ideal world, the Blue Jackets would have higher-end talent ahead of him.

Ryan Johansen had ups and downs during his rookie season, playing a sound two-way game in limited minutes, yet finding himself in the press box as a healthy scratch too frequently. Going forward, Johansen is a crucial part of Columbus' future, so they need to find a regular role that will allow him to flourish.

Colton Gillies has 16 points in 127 career NHL games, so he's not going to make his way as a scorer and he's still battling to establish that he's a trustworthy performer in a regular checking role. With a one-way deal for next season, that figures to give 23-year-old Gillies an opportunity to prove that he can handle the responsibilities of a full-time NHLer.

It's not as though a player can't work his way into a bigger role, though. Consider Derek Dorsett, who led the league in penalty minutes with 235, but also scored a career-high 12 goals while playing a career-high 14:42 per game. Maybe that's more than ideal for an agitator like Dorsett, but he played a lot of tough minutes for the Blue Jackets, with a lot of defensive zone starts against top-calibre opposition (www.behindthenet.ca).

Dorsett's tag-team partner, when it comes to pugilism, Jared Boll missed 28 games with a broken thumb and a broken foot, and wasn't terribly effective when he did play, but he's prolific, having fought 113 times in the last five seasons (www.hockeyfights.com). That could start to cause wear and tear, but for now Boll has the enforcer's role for the Blue Jackets.

There are several unrestricted free agent forwards, but none of them are must-haves. Maybe attracting free agents to Columbus won't be easy, but the lure of playing time and opportunity might help. Free agent wingers like David Moss, Brad Boyes, Mikael Samuelsson or Lee Stempniak might be able to offer some complementary scoring and decent two-way play at a reasonable price.

What's really going to determine the quality of the Blue Jackets' forwards, however, is what they can get in return for Nash, along with how they use the second overall pick. If they could add a top-six forward as part of the deal for Nash and then draft a winger like Filip Forsberg out of Sweden (if Nail Yakupov is already off the board), then those would be a couple of pieces to help in the Blue Jackets' rebuilding process.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
James Wisniewski 73.01 48 6 21 27 -13 $5.5M
Jack Johnson 72.23 82 12 26 38 -7 $4.357M
Fedor Tyutin 68.53 66 5 21 26 -21 $4.5M
Marc Methot 62.20 46 1 6 7 -11 $3.0M
John Moore 59.60 67 2 5 7 -23 $965K

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '11-'12 Cap Hit
Nikita Nikitin 73.16 61 7 25 32 -10 RFA $600K
Aaron Johnson 65.99 56 3 13 16 -12 UFA $550K
Brett Lebda 62.22 30 1 3 4 -1 UFA $700K
Radek Martinek 61.94 7 1 0 1 -3 UFA $2.2M

While Columbus' forward group is a mess, particularly sans Nash, they have the makings of a decent defence.

Though both Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski have their flaws, including decision-making in their own zone, they are talented and competitive, so they are going to play big minutes against quality competition.

Wisniewski has had his share of run-ins with the league office regarding reckless hits and is a cumulative minus-27 over the last two seasons, but he is a right-shooting defenceman who can run the power play and has played more than 22 minutes per game for each of the last three seasons.

Johnson has been a plus-minus disaster to this point in his career, going minus-85 in 364 games, but he was plus-5 (scoring 14 points and playing more than 27 minutes per game) in 21 games with Columbus after coming over in the trade for Jeff Carter.

Unheralded Fedor Tyutin took some lumps while playing more than 24 minutes per game for the Blue Jackets last season. Tyutin was minus-12 in 17 games after the All-Star break, before suffering a broken hand, and ended up with a career-low minus-21 for the season. At the same time, he faced the hardest matchups and could be better off with Johnson and Wisniewski around for the full season to take some pressure off.

Marc Methot is a stay-at-home defenceman with good size and while he has shown promise, he endured a tough season, finishing with a career-worst minus-11 and missing the last 28 games of the season with a broken jaw. A fresh start next season, with a strong supporting cast, should help Methot's development.

A first-round pick in 2009, John Moore saw limited duty (15:49 TOI) in 67 games for Columbus, yet still finished minus-23, so there's room for improvement. If there aren't further changes on the blueline, Moore will likely battle David Savard for a spot in the top six.

When the Blue Jackets traded Kris Russell to St. Louis for Nikita Nikitin, they couldn't have expected the kind of production that they suddenly received, as Nikitin played 23:35 per game for Columbus, scoring 32 points in 54 games. That sudden emergence, combined with the other pieces on the Columbus blueline makes this a relative area of strength.

In addition to Savard, prospects Dalton Prout and Cody Goloubef offer some organizational depth, but Columbus may want to grab a veteran or two (or re-sign UFA Aaron Johnson) in order to have more experience on hand in the event of injuries.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Steve Mason 53.05 46 16 26 3 3.39 .894 $2.9M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Class '11-'12 Cap Hit
Curtis Sanford 69.45 36 10 18 4 2.60 .911 UFA $600K

Steve Mason hasn't been able to recapture his rookie season form, and that may bring about his departure from Columbus this summer, even if he was better in the second half last season (.908 SV% in 20 GP after All-Star break).

Mason likely needs a turn as a backup somewhere that he can be spotted into the lineup. After three subpar seasons, it's difficult to imagine that he's going to turn around his career by staying in Columbus.

The Blue Jackets had signed Mark Dekanich to play the backup role to Mason last season, but Dekanich battled injuries all year, opening the door for veteran Curtis Sanford, who played a career-high 36 games in his first NHL action since 2008-2009. He is an unrestricted free agent, but could be re-signed to backup whomever the Blue Jackets bring in to start next season.

Solving their goaltending issues will make a big difference for the Blue Jackets and they can't look internally for the answer. Allen York and Shaun Hunwick need time on the farm if they're even going to reach the NHL as full-time players, so the Blue Jackets can either trade for a backup like Jonathan Bernier, Anders Lindback or Sergei Bobrovsky or look to the free agent market.

While Tomas Vokoun is more accomplished, a young team like the Blue Jackets might be better off giving Josh Harding a chance to make it as a starting goaltender. Harding's .917 save percentage would make a substantial difference if he was given the minutes that Mason (.894 SV%) played last season.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
David Savard D Springfield (AHL) 4-18-22, +6, 44 GP
Cam Atkinson RW Springfield (AHL) 29-15-44,+5, 51 GP
Boone Jenner C Oshawa (OHL) 22-27-49,+12, 43 GP
Matt Calvert LW Springfield (AHL) 17-19-36, -2, 56 GP
Tomas Kubalik RW Springfield (AHL) 11-12-23, -16, 50 GP
Mike Reilly D Penticton (BCHL) 24-59-83, 51 GP
Michael Chaput C Shawinigan (QMJHL) 21-42-63,+39, 57 GP
Dalton Prout D Springfield (AHL) 4-9-13, -1, 62 GP
Cody Goloubef D Springfield (AHL) 1-11-12, -14, 48 GP
T.J. Tynan C Notre Dame (CCHA) 13-28-41, -6, 39 GP

David Savard is a capable puck-moving defenceman who has accrued 65 points in 116 AHL games and then had 10 points in 31 games with Columbus last season. Savard seems like a good bet to make the Blue Jackets next season, but it might take some time to climb the depth chart.

Scoring winger Cam Atkinson is small, but can put the puck in the net. He scored 29 goals in 51 AHL games last year, earning a chance at the end of the year with Columbus, contributing seven goals and 14 points in 27 games. Given the lack of proven scorers returning, Atkinson should have a job to lose going into next season.

A strong two-way centre, Boone Jenner is making nice progress with Oshawa of the OHL, but another season, with an opportunity to dominate at that level, may offer better long-term value than rushing him into the NHL lineup. It's conceivable, however, that he could earn a spot.

Matt Calvert scored 11 goals in his first 25 games, but he's on a 30-game NHL drought since, so he was sent back to the AHL for seasoning. The 22-year-old will likely get another look at some points, but will need to produce in order to stick.

While Atkinson and Calvert are smaller wingers, Tomas Kubalik has good size and is skilled enough, but he struggled last year (23 points, minus-16, 50 games) in his second AHL season. He's managed four points in a dozen career games with the Blue Jackets and will get a look since the Blue Jackets have openings on the wing, but he'll need to be better if he's going to make the big club.

On his way to the University of Minnesota, skilled defenceman Mike Reilly needs time to develop physically before he ventures to the pro game, but he put up big numbers B.C. and that skill makes his upside more interesting than other prospects.

Acquired from the Flyers for Tom Sestito, Michael Chaput has developed steadily throughout his junior career. He'll likely need some time in the AHL before he's ready to challenge for an NHL job, but he'll have a chance eventually.

Sturdy blueliner Dalton Prout was rewarded, late in his first pro campaign, with a five-game audition in Columbus. The 22-year-old can use more seasoning to refine his game, but he's not likely to add much to his no-frills approach.

Cody Goloubef has been so-so through two pro seasons, but he's only 22 so there's still time for him to develop into a bona fide NHLer.

Tiny Notre Dame pivot T.J. Tynan has 95 points in 83 NCAA games so he's proven he can produce collegiately. He'll face a challenge not unlike Atkinson, who does seem to be on the verge of earning a regular role and, a few years from now, Tynan could be ready for a look.

Tough guy winger Dalton Smith, defenceman Brent Regner and goaltender Allen York (2.30 GAA, .920 SV% in 11 GP with Blue Jackets) are among those that add to the blue Jackets' organizational depth.

DRAFT
2nd - Filip Forsberg, Nail Yakupov, Ryan Murray, trade down.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Blue Jackets have approximately $44.0M committed to the 2012-2013 salary cap for 13 players. Check out my potential 2012-2013 Blue Jackets roster on Cap Geek here.

Needs: Four top nine forwards, starting goaltender.

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

They added: Jeff Carter, Vaclav Prospal, Ryan Johansen, James Wisniewski, Curtis Sanford.

TRADE MARKET Rick Nash, R.J. Umberger, Derick Brassard, 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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