I became something of a closet Blue Jackets fan a couple of years ago when Rick Nash emerged and Kristian Huselius was signed by the club. Nash, in some ways, reminds me of a young Jarome Iginla when the latter was finding shouldering the load on a team that found it tough to compete on a nigh-to-night basis. Huselius is just a player I’ve always liked.
In addition, Scott Howson seemed to be a fairly rational guy, as far as NHL GM’s go. Although he’s not without his missteps (Commodore ar 4+ per year comes to mind) he made some nice under-the-radar pick-ups (Jan Hedja) and trades that were outright robberies (Vermette for Leclaire). Howson’s okay track record through the first portion of his tenure helped the Blue Jackets gain some traction, but the high water mark remains their only post-season appearance (and rapid exit) a couple of years ago. Ken Hitchcock plus a month of insane goaltending from Steve Mason pushed the BJ’s into the playoffs that year, but it wasn’t enough to sustain them going forward. Mason fell back to earth, Hitchcock was canned and the Blue Jackets have done little more than run in place since. That’s not good enough in a central division featuring the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and the always competitive Nashville Predators. With the Blues making strides every season, Columbus is going to have start taking steps forward themselves, or else risk getting left behind entirely.
No steps were taken by Howson this summer however. In fact, the ex-Oiler exec had probably his worst off-season as the Blue Jackets GM thus far. He claimed Ethan Moreau off of waivers, despite incredibly poor results in Edmonton and a grossly inflated salary. He then prematurely re-signed Steve Mason to a contract that was above market value for a kid who has had precisely one month of remarkable results in his career thus far. He was quiet otherwise.
Which is bad news, because Columbus needs help everywhere. The top end of their forward corps is pretty good, featuring Nash, Huselius Vermette and, in a strong supporting role, RJ Umberger. Sami Pahlsson is still a decent enough third line checker, although Scott Arniel still tends to match Nash et al against other teams top lines on occassion.
The rest of the line-up is in rough shape. Nikita Filatov and Derek Brassard are high-end prospects, but they still haven’t found their footing at this level yet. They tend to spend a lot of time chasing the puck around in their own zone, especially since they’ve been playing on the same line at ES this year. Jakub Voracek is probably the most functional youngster on the kid line right now, but even can’t make that trio float. They will be the main soft spot for the Flames to exploit this evening.
On the back-end, the Blue Jackets lack a truely elite talent, whether we’re talking about a Dan Boyle PP type or a Robyn Regehr shut-down type. Jan Hejda is unheralded in his ability to play tough minutes and guys like Fedor Tyutin and Rusty Klesla aren’t terrible, though they wouldn’t be anything more than second pairing defenders on a contending team. Commodore was playing with Hedja in a shut-down role when he arrived in Columbus, but a rough season last year had him fall out of favor. He’s also currently injured.
Kris Russel and Anton Stralman are the third pairing youngsters who get the soft minutes and the PP time. Stralman, a Flame for about two weeks, led their blueline in scoring last year with 34 points and is a decent enough option on the point, although his ceiling is probably limited. Russel is a smaller defender the BJ’s rushed to the big leagues for whatever reason so although this is his 4th professional season, he’s still just 23 years-old. A big point producer in junior, Russel’s career high in the show is just 22 points, which he managed last year.
In net, the Blue Jackets have the suspect duo of Mathieu Garon and Steve Mason. There was plenty of cheap help on the free agent market this year but Howson chose the status quo, even though goaltending was probably the team’s biggest Achilles heel last season. Mason, for all his rookie accolades, was dreadful in his sophomore season and it remains to be seen if he’s anywhere close to as good as his debut suggested. He’s been decent enough so far this season with a .920 SV%, but any NHL goalie can look okay in a 4 game sample.
Like last night, the Flames will see their top line go PvP against the other teams big guns, while hoping their depth can outcompete their counter-parts. The difference is, the top-end for the BJ’s isn’t quite as good as the Red Wings, while their depth is probably even more suspect. It’s a winnable contest if Nash can be contained and the Flames can overcome the inetivable issues that are associated with playing two games in two nights.