Ah, the Blue Jackets. Long the Central Division's punching bag, Columbus decided they had had enough of being pushed around (metaphorically speaking) by the Red Wings, Blackhawks and Predators and decided that they wanted to be the bully, not the victim.
After years of futility, the Blue Jackets broke through and finally made the playoffs in 2008-09, only to run into a Wing team that quickly showed them that postseason hockey is much different than the regular season, sweeping the BJs out of the playoffs without allowing Columbus to have the lead in any of the 4 games. Despite the rough initiation into hockey beyond 82 games, expectations were high for the Blue Jackets heading into 2009-10, but lackluster play and lack of development of key players resulted in another disappointing finish.
The BJs seem determined to make their mark in the Central, and they went out and got themselves a whole mess of new players. Will it pay off? Let's analyze the Columbus Blue Jackets and find out.
2010-11 was supposed to be the year the BJs bounced back after an awful 2009-10 campaign, Scott Arniel was only able to do so much with so little, and the Jackets found themselves once again staring longingly at the TV in April and May, wondering what hockey during warm weather feels like. Rather than continue to wait for their players to develop, GM Scott Howson was given some latitude to go out and sign some free agents, and suddenly the Jackets look like they might contend for a playoff spot.
Arrivals: Jeff Carter, James Wisniewski, Vaclav Prospal, Radek Martinek
Departures: Nikita Filatov, Jakub Voracek, Scottie Upshall, Jan Hejda, Mathieu Garon
Key Stats in 2011:
Points: 81 (24th NHL, 13th West)
Goals For: 210 (24th NHL)
Goals Against: 250 (26th NHL)
Power Play: 14.0% (29th NHL)
Penalty Kill: 80.2% (22nd NHL)
Offense: It's no secret that the Jackets' offense begins and ends with their captain (and my non-Wing hero) Rick Nash. He has topped the 30 goal mark in 6 of his 8 years, and did it again last year when he scored 32 of Columbus' 210 goals. For years, the Jackets have been trying to get a center that can complement him and give the team a potent 1-2 punch on the same line, in the same vein as Datsyuk/Zetterberg or the Sedins. They are hoping that search is finally over with the trade for Carter. In him, the Blue Jackets finally have a legitimate number 1 center, and the hope is that he and Nash can develop some chemistry and form that dangerous scoring line that Columbus has been lacking since they came into existence.
Even with the arrival of Carter, however, the offense is still pretty thin. Kristian Huselius is going to miss the next 4-6 months with a torn pectoral muscle, but the arrival of Prospal could counter that. The Jackets have a decent set of forwards in Carter, R.J. Umberger, Derick Brassard and Antoine Vermette, but none of the latter three are true offensive stars. Ryan Johansen, the #4 pick in the draft, is expected to make a run at a spot on the team, and he's one of the early picks to be in the running for the Calder trophy. However, beyond the top line, this is still a thin group of forwards without a ton of pure offensive talent. The Jackets will be hoping that they can get 5-6 players in the 30-50 point range, rather than 3-4 in the 70-90 range.
The addition of Wisniewski should bolster a power play that was worse than everyone in the NHL except for Florida. He signed that monster 6 year, $33M deal after Columbus acquired his rights, and he is going to be the new quarterback on the power play. He's a smooth-skating player who can move the puck very well, and he will be a welcome addition to the team.
Defense: While Wisniewski is a clear upgrade over anyone currently on the Jackets' roster offensively from the blueline, he's never been known as a great "defenseman" in the traditional sense of the word. He's been known to take penalties at inopportune times and has had some brushes with the disciplinary committee. However, despite being 5'11" and 208 lbs, he plays like a big man and is not afraid to throw his body around.
Beyond the Wiz, the Jackets' defense is still very much a work in progress. As with their forwards, there are no big names to be found, as they rely on players like Fedor Tyutin, Martinek, Kris Russell, Marc Methot and the amazingly-named Grant Clitsome to guard the Jackets' zone. Tyutin is probably the best of the rest, as he's employed most often as the "shutdown" defenseman for Columbus. He recently signed a 6-year extension, but there's no word on whether he and Wiz will team up to form the pairing of the future for the Jackets. Methot is a big man with little-to-no-offensive upside while Russell is a small d-man with good hands but still developing defensive ability. The addition of Martinek gives Columbus a decent all-around defenseman to eat up minutes while playing different roles.
Goaltending: The jury's still out on Steve Mason, as he's got to show that he's the goalie from his rookie season when he won the Calder Trophy and not the flailing, mediocre goaltender he's been the last 2 years. Since his amazing first season in 2008-09, he's posted 2 straight years of +3.00 GAA and a .901 SV%. If he were Chris Osgood, he'd be run out of town for being awful. However, the Jackets really have nowhere else to turn, so this year is likely a make-or-break season for him as he proves that he's a legitimate NHL goaltender and not Andrew Raycroft 2.0. In Mason's defense, it's not like he's had a ton of help in front of him for the past 2 years, but there's no question that he needs to be better if the Jackets are going to make a push for the playoffs.
Columbus got really solid goaltending from Mathieu Garon in a backup role for them last year, posting 3 shutouts in 36 games behind Mason. Garon left for Tampa Bay to play for Stevie, so the Jackets are going to have an untested backup in Mark Dekanich or a journeyman in Curtis Sanford backing up Mason (as an aside, how many of you have the Sanford and Son theme song running through your head right now? Me too)
The Skinny: Despite the moves the Jackets made, they still reside in one of the toughest divisions in hockey, and they will be hard-pressed to make up any ground against their divisional rivals. However, they have definitely improved their roster, and the additions of Carter and Wisniewski together with Nash give the Jackets that star winger-center-defenseman combination that allows a lot of teams to be successful. It remains to be seen whether these moves translate into a significant enough improvement in the standings to get the Jackets in the playoffs, but they will be a tougher team to play against next year. Most importantly, it's a sign to the fans of a struggling franchise that management is committed to improving the quality of the product on the ice, never a bad thing to tell your paying customers.