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Off-Season Game Plan: Blue Jackets

Scott Cullen
5/5/2008 9:45:37 AM
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The fans in Columbus can hardly be called long-suffering, but when the franchise has never made an appearance in the NHL playoffs, but there is a sense that they aren't quite getting the full NHL experience.

It's time for that to change, said head coach Ken Hitchcock.

"This is the way it's going to be," Hitchcock told the Columbus Dispatch. "It's going to be a mandate from ownership, from the president, from the general manager that we've entered a new phase, and the phase is 'Win now.'"

Off-Season Game Plan looks at what the Blue Jackets may do this summer in an effort to compete for a playoff spot next season.

While the Blue Jackets have only $22-million committed to salaries for next season, leaving approximately $20-million in the budget for acquistions, that's not as much as it might sound.

If Columbus is going to re-sign their own free agents, most notably defenceman Ron Hainsey and goaltender Pascal Leclaire (who is restricted), that will eat into the budget.

But, that should still leave room for Columbus to get out on the free agent market and go after a couple of scoring forwards and a quality defenceman to help stabilize the roster.

After finishing 29th in the league in goals per game, it's imperative that the Blue Jackets address their offensive shortcomings. That might be at odds with Hitchcock's style, but it's just unreasonable to expect success from a team with only two 20-goal scorers.

So, if the management in Columbus does have the mandate to get to the playoffs in 2008-2009, they'll have to get busy and make significant improvements to a lineup that simply doesn't have enough punch.

GM/COACH
Scott Howson/Ken Hitchcock

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Salary
Rick Nash 81.56 $6.5M
Nikolai Zherdev 72.52 $3.25M
Fredrik Modin 68.20 $3.5M
Jason Chimera 65.05 $1.875M
Manny Malhotra 64.64 $1.5M
Jiri Novotny 61.08 $800K
Andrew Murray 60.79 $600K
Jared Boll 57.48 $570K
Gilbert Brule 57.03 $765K
Derick Brassard 55.70 $850K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '07-'08 Salary
Mike Peca 66.12 UFA $1.315M
Dan Fritsche 63.84 RFA $750K
David Vyborny 62.10 UFA $2.2M
Joakim Lindstrom 60.92 RFA $525K
Derek MacKenzie 57.30 UFA $500K

Top Prospects: Jakub Voracek, Adam Pineault, Alexandre Picard

Goals don't come easily for the Blue Jackets and it means that they have to lean extra hard on their few proven finishers.

While Rick Nash hasn't been terribly consistent over his career, he's still just 23 and already has 154 career goals. Coming off a season in which he scored 38 goals, his most since 2003-2004, Nash is starting to live up to his expectations as a franchise winger. Now, he just needs some help.

Nash's running mate, Nikolai Zherdev, has also been up-and-down throughout his career, but the skilled Russian scored a career-high 61 points last season. With 26 red lights last season, Zherdev is also the only other Blue Jackets forward to notch as many as 15 goals so he remains a vital part of the Blue Jackets attack.

The 2007-2008 season was a total loss for Fredrik Modin, the reliable veteran winger who was limited to just 23 games. When healthy, Modin is a big forward with a heavy shot, capable of scoring 20 goals.

Not surprisingly, given Hitchcock's focus on defensive play, Columbus' checking forwards are pretty solid.

Jason Chimera has outstanding wheels, toughness and manages to chip in some offensively, but the durable winger hasn't topped 36 points in a season so his level has been established.

Similarly, Manny Malhotra has proven his worth as a reliable checking centre. It's never going to be enough to live up to being the seventh overall pick in the 1998 draft, but the veteran has fashioned a solid career.

Jiri Novotny is a young forward with some skills, but he didn't produce nearly enough (22 points) for the ice time (17:43 per game) he got last season. He should fit into the mix next year, but maybe as a fourth liner who has the upside to fill in higher up the depth chart when necessary.

Playing half of a season as a 26-year-old rookie, Andrew Murray showed pretty well in a limited role. While expectations aren't going to be high for Murray, he can compete for a regular job.

One of the league's most aggravating players, in a very short period of time, Jared Boll made his mark as a rookie. The league's leading fighter, with 27 bouts, Boll finished second in the league with 226 penalty minutes.

Dan Fritsche is a solid young two-way forward, but his production dipped a little last season and he should be capable of handling more than the 12:20 per game he was getting.

Prospect Joakim Lindstrom may be the quintessential Quadruple-A player who is too good for the minors, but may not have what it takes to play in big leagues after scoring eight points in 37 career NHL games.

That leaves two young guns. Gilbert Brule has 32 points in 146 career NHL games and it might be about time to take a step back in an effort to rebuild his confidence. After getting 10 points in a 16-game stint with Syracuse of the AHL, Brule went scoreless in the first six games of the AHL postseason . Next season might be one to just see how many points Brule can pile up in the AHL.

On the other hand, the offensively-starved Blue Jackets may want to consider injecting Derick Brassard into a bigger role even though he had just two points in 17 games with Columbus last season. Brassard ripped through the AHL with 51 points in 42 games, but only saw nine minutes per game with the Blue Jackets. He's the kind of playmaker who should get a shot at a second-line role.

With plenty of room to add free agent forwards, the Blue Jackets should dip into the free agent market to find some proven scorers. Having never made the playoffs, Columbus won't be the most desirable free agent destination, but they should have the money to go after some scorers.

Jason Williams, Radim Vrbata and Michael Ryder are younger free agent forwards with offensive upside while any number of veterans (say, Pavol Demitra, Martin Straka or Miroslav Satan) might be more suitable short-term options for a Blue Jackets team looking to upgrade their puck skills.

If adding youth isn't a contravention of the win-now philosophy, the Blue Jackets could also give Jakub Voracek a long look after he tallied 101 points in 53 games with Halifax of the QMJHL.

Seeking muscle to replace Jody Shelley, Tom Sestito is the enforcer-in-waiting.

If Columbus is looking at a forward in the draft, they might be happy to scoop Nikita Filatov, but may prefer Cody Hodgson or Colin Wilson in order to avoid any Russian transfer issues.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Salary
Jan Hejda 70.14 $2.0M
Rostislav Klesla 70.03 $1.65M
Duvie Westcott 61.75 $1.85M
Kris Russell 61.32 $575K
Ole-Kristian Tollefsen 60.58 $750K

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '07-'08 Salary
Ron Hainsey 70.68 UFA $900K
Dick Tarnstrom 63.88 UFA $2.0M
Aaron Rome 62.03 RFA $495K
Marc Methot 60.05 RFA $475K

Top Prospects: Andrei Plekhanov, Ben Wright, Ted Ruth

The blueline needs improvement and it could be in serious trouble if Ron Hainsey leaves as an unrestricted free agent.

Rostislav Klesla is coming off the first "plus" season of his career and paced the Blue Jackets with more than 23 minutes per game. He's a solid top-four defenceman, but the Jackets are using him on the top pairing so that means a lot of support is needed.

After signing as a free agent from Edmonton last summer, Jan Hejda turned in an outstanding defensive campaign, registering a team-best plus-20 while playing more than 21 minutes per game. Hejda was subsequently rewarded with a new three-year contract extension, so he's set as a top-pair defensive cornerstone for the Jackets.

After those two, the questions get more serious.

Duvie Westcott is trying to work back to the form that he showed in 2005-2006 when he was a stalwart on the blueline. Concussion problems have hampered him in recent seasons, but he was effective with Syracuse of the AHL (27 points, plus-6 in 37 games) so that could warrant another chance. The 30-year-old is still under contract for two more seasons, so it's worth seeing if Columbus can get anything more out of that investment.

Smooth-skating Kris Russell was overpowered frequently and didn't get to fully display his tremendous puck skills while in a limited role. Unless Russell makes a quantum leap next season, it's conceivable that the win-now mandate could see Russell get some seasoning in the American Hockey League.

Norwegian tough guy Ole-Kristian Tollefsen is fine as a depth defender. He plays hard and is relatively effective in a limited role.

Hard-nosed blueliners Aaron Rome and Marc Methot have a little bit of NHL experience and should compete for roles with the Blue Jackets next season, but they are third-pair guys at best.

With no blue-chip prospects on the horizon, Columbus will have to dip into the free agent pool. The first priority should be re-signing Hainsey, but there will be other options out there.

John-Michael Liles, Michael Rozsival, Brad Stuart and Mark Streit are all puck-moving defencemen that would be able to handle a prominent role on the Columbus blueline but, ideally, they would be handling that role with Hainsey also returning to the fold.

Should the Blue Jackets look to the blueline with the No. 6 pick, Alex Pietrangelo or Luke Schenn would be high-calibre defenders to groom for the future.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating Salary
Fredrik Norrena 59.80 $900K

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating Class '07-'08 Salary
Pascal Leclaire 88.33 RFA $1.4M

Top Prospects: Steve Mason, Dan LaCosta

The goaltending situation was improved dramatically by the emergence of Pascal Leclaire. While the 25-year-old was bothered by a number of nagging injuries, he still ended up playing a career-high 54 games and his 2.25 goals against average ranked seventh in the league. He'll be the backbone for Columbus going forward.

Leclaire's backup, Fredrik Norrena slumped in his second pro season but, considering some of the backup options around the league, he's just fine in that role for another season.

There's more help on the way, as Steve Mason is a top-flight prospect coming out of junior, though he may be slotted to spend the season in the American Hockey League so that he gets to continue his starter's workload at the pro level.

DRAFT
6th - Alex Pietrangelo, Nikita Filatov, Luke Schenn, Cody Hodgson

20th - Colton Teubert, Joe Colborne, John Carlson

FREE AGENCY
The Blue Jackets have approximately $28-million committed to salaries for next season.

Needs: Two top six forwards, two top four defencemen, one additional defenceman

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

Who did they add? Mike Peca, Jiri Novotny, Jared Boll, Jan Hejda, Kris Russell

TRADE MARKET
Malhotra, Novotny, Brule, Norrena

Scott Cullen can be reached at scullen@tsn.ca 



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