Gameday Preview: Stuck in the MIddle with Blue (Jackets)

COLUMBUS,OH - DECEMBER 11: R.J. Umberger  of the Columbus Blue Jackets celebrates after his teammate Antoine Vermette  of the Columbus Blue Jackets scored a power play goal against the New York Rangers on December 11, 2010 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)


The Blue Jackets are one of those few clubs technically within reach of the Flames this year, with 33 points and a couple of games in hand. It’s a familiar position for Columbus, who have perenially battled (and mostly failed) to find the post season for years now. The club’s inception and initial years of operation were marred by the boobery of Doug MacLean, but the franchise managed to shake off the stink of failure when they replaced him with Scott Howson. At least enough to be competitive.

The reasons the organization has never been able to make the step from middling to contender are numerous, some beyond the control of Howson et al. While MacLean wasted a lot of years and assets signing bad contracts and making bad draft choices, the club was eventually able to cobble together a decent enough roster. Unfortunately for the Blue Jackets, the Central division grew up around them and faster: once considered the softest division in the West outside of the Red Wings, the recent emergence of the Blackhawks, Blues and continued competitiveness of the Predators a much more difficult schedule for the BJ’s. Gabriel Desjardins recently took a look at this issue recently and concluded:

The bottom line: Columbus started out with a good team, but bad scheduling, bad goaltending and bad luck kept them from competing.  If we re-played the last three seasons a million times and put the Blue Jackets in any other division, we’d be talking about a successful franchise today.

Bad special teams is mentioned by Gabe here and that area continues to be an achilles heel for the club this season. Their success rate is a putrid 10.9% with the man advantage (!!), good for 29th overall (the Panthers are somehow even worse). Now, I find it hard to believe that any team in the league is that bad a man up, so we’re probably talking about some shooting percentage issues here. That said, the fact that Colmbus is almost never good at this side of the game indicates it’s not merely bad luck sinking the PP.

Part of the issue may be the lack of former Kristian Huselius, who has been out since game 7. Described as soft and streaky during his time here, Huselius has spent his CBJ days playing a lot with Rick Nash against tough competition and running things on the Columbus power play. Huselius almost always finishes above water in terms of possession and the Flames haven’t had another player score at a similar rate on the man advantage (aside from maybe Mike Cammalleri) since Juice left the team. He’s a fairly intergal piece to the Blue Jackets and his return has meant a lot of shuffling up front.

COLUMBUS, OH - DECEMBER 01: Rick Nash  of the Nashville Predators skates in warmups prior to the game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the Nationwide Arena on December 1, 2010 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The primary big gun remains Rick Nash, although he continues to remain a notch or two below the truly elite players in the league. I can only assume that Columbus fans will soon adapt the common Calgary refrain and start demanding a true "number one" center in order to push Nash over the top. The former Rocket Richard winner is midly under water this year in terms of possession (-2 corsi/60) despite a positive zone start. That said, he also spent some time skating with kids Jake Voracek and Derek Brassard for awhile, which probably didn’t help things. Voracek is a kid I have a lot of time for and I think will develop into a capable NHLer at some point. Brassard, on the other hand, still has problems holding his own in this league and probably has a significantly lower ceiling than his draft pedigree suggests.

Antoine Vermette, RJ Umberger and Sami Pahlsson remain quality complimentary pieces. Pahlsson is getting buried in terms of zone starts and such (as is his custom) while Vermette and Umberger have been placed in more scoring-friendly roles, particularly in the absence of Huselius. Neither guy will beat you by himself, but I wouldn’t kick either of them off my team.

The contentious Nikita Filatov was recently demoted to the AHL after floundering for the second straight time in the bigs. Ken Hitchcock caught a lot of heat for supposedly not handling the former sixth overall pick "roperly in 08-09, but the truth is the kid wasn’t ready for prime time then and he still isn’t now. That’s not a crime at 20 years old, of course, but the on-going background drama concerning Filatov’s status with the club vs. potentially fleeing to the KHL will probably continue to be an issue until he finally makes the leap (or leaves for good).

On the back-end the BJ’s continue to be mediocre, at best. Kris Russel has yet to turn into Brian Rafaksi, so the PP QB duties have fallen to Anton Stralman, who is probably better cast as a third pairing/second unit guy. Jan Hejda remains un unheralded shut-down defender while the rest of the blueline brigade is all so-so, middle tier gentlemen: Mike Commodore, Fedor Tyutin, Rusty Klesla, Marc Methot. You get the picture. It’s not ANA bad, but there’s no world beaters here for sure.

Goaltending was a problem for Columbus last season, but so far, so good this year. Steve Mason has a competent .924 ES SV% through 18 games while backup Garon sports a gawdy .940 ES SV%. I don’t know how much sustain there will be to either of those figures long-term, but the club isn’t being sunk by it’s puck stoppers this time around. For now.

  • BobB


    Anyone else feel like we’re collectively out of breath?

    Darryl still here, Brent still here. No trade.

    Maybe it’s just me, but somehow, this weekend felt like everyone was waiting for the hammer to drop.

    I’m not in the first action is to fire Darryl camp. I, maybe surprisingly, think firing him is reactionary. I do think he deserves his fair share of blame.

    However, saying: “THIS game, certainly, is a must win” is getting a little tired.

    Jump fishy jump.

  • Resolute

    Well, the local media certainly has decided to really drive the “fire Darryl” bandwagon in the last couple days. I think that if we lose tonight, George Johnson will crack a smile for the first time in his life.

    We are fortunate to still be anywhere close to the race, and given the opposition over the next two weeks, we need to go on a major run right now. If we do lose tonight, then it might just be the time to relieve Brent of his duties. I’m not interested in getting into a “wrong Sutter” debate, but firing the coach is very often the last trick of a desperate hockey team.

    The team is running out of “must wins” and “last chances”.

    • True. And with a 9.5% chance of merely making the play-offs, the team will have to make a MASSIVE run to simply finish 8th. Which will probably mean being swept aside by the Red Wings in short order.

      I don’t think the Flames are 15th bad. I fully expect them to go on a run at some point. If they choose to go all out and eschew a sell-off, I think their ceiling is probably 10th in the conference, considering the hole they’re in.

      At some point, the difficult decision probably won’t just be about the coach and GM: it’ll be about what do with this season. Continue to charge for a playoff spot and hope for the best? Or face the inevitable and start to re-tool before the off-season?

      • PrairieStew

        “the team will have to make a MASSIVE run to simply finish 8th. Which will probably mean being swept aside by the Red Wings in short order.”

        If they made a massive run, one would assume that they are playing very well and would be competitive come playoff time.

        What is worse is starting well and fading after Valentines day and either missing the playoffs ( last year) or slipping a couple of spots and playing poorly in the playoffs ( year before).

        • icedawg_42

          I found myself wondoring this morning, if knowing they’re out of the playoffs (come on – we know it) in December is better or worse than not knowing until the last game of the regular season?

          • PrairieStew

            It is very likely that we will be put out of our misery soon, unless they win 6 of the next 7. Then the misery could be extended.

            It sure will make for an entertaining time on the blog sites if they go in to blow up mode.

            The Winter Classic clearly is a factor, my guess is that any management moves are delayed until then.

  • icedawg_42

    I think the Flames ran out of must wins 3 losses ago. Hope for the Flames is entirely a mirage cast by the scheduling that has them playing 1-3 more games than anybody else sitting in 6-15 in the West. The only team getting more mileage than the Flames out of that is the Ducks.

    If we did the standings by point percentage the standings would be 1. DET (0.73) 2. VAN (0.64) 3. DAL (0.62) 4. LAK (0.61) 5T. PHX (0.61) 5T. NSH (0.61) 7T. CLB (.59) 7T. STL (.59) 9T. SJS (0.59) 9T COL (0.59) 11. CHI (0.56) 12. ANA (0.55) 13. MIN (0.52) 14. EDM (Who cares) 15. CGY (Vomit)

    I will mostly keep watching the games because I am frankly cheering for a lot of the players on this team that I like to watch and hope they play well. I suppose stranger things have happened, but the realistic odds of making the playoffs at this point have be between slim and none. And slim just got on his horse.

    PS – If we projected those percentages out over 82 games, the 8th place team would have 96-97 pts and two teams with 96 pts (SJS and COL) would be out of the playoffs. I went back to look at standings since the lockout and the only precedent I can find close to that at the end of the season is 06-07 where Calgary got in with 96 and Colorado was out with 95. Is there some scheduling quirk that is going to lead to lower totals by the end of the season (more games against the East early in the season)? Are there just that many more overtime games? I just can’t see how there is that many games to win to go around.

    • PrairieStew

      Could be an East West thing that has the points required looking so high. The Flames have had their Eastern trip, perhaps other western squads have had as well and they got their points out of the east, and the head to head in the congerence over the second half will bring the overall % down a bit.

      Since lockout – league average is 92.7; 93.6 in the West – the fact that things are closer this year leads me to believe it will be less than 95.

      304 loser points awarded last year – average of 10 per team with 22 of 30 teams getting between 7 and 13.

      So far 96 loser points awarded, everyone but LA and NYI past one third mark of season, so it looks as if fewer OT points to be awarded.

  • CitizenFlame

    I would like to think that this team would be taking the next two weeks to map out its plans (hopefully they have been doing this for some time and the next two weeks are finishing touches), because I still think that by New Years this team will know whether its in the hunt or not. However, with the Heritage Classic, I can’t see them doing anything too drastic. Imagine going into the Heritage Classic and all the hoopla that will entail, with an interim GM and interim coach? I think that the ownership group believes they are competitive any given night (which they are) and just hope that the good Flames show up at the Classic.

  • PrairieStew

    @ Kent.

    In regards to your reply to Resolute. Should we approach the trade deadline out of a play-off spot and both Sutters still here, do you think ownership will continue to entrust decisions to Darryl? As you pointed out, at that junction the decision is whether to still push or re-tool for next season. Already the fanbase wants D. Sutter out and more are getting vocal about Brent going with him. What would the reaction be in 2 months if we are faced with said scenario and the same people are in charge? Will ownership step in themselves to force some type of change or will they continue to allow Ken, Darryl and company to steer the ship?

    A debate can be made about owners and whether it’s good or bad if they are hands on or hands off? I guess the main question I have for some experts is if our ownership is correct to maintain a “hands off” approach at this time?

    • Resolute

      Odds are the Flames have contingency plans for any direction the season takes. If the season goes down the tubes, the team very likely already has a plan on who to dump, who to keep and what they want for players they are on the fence about. That plan would occur whether Sutter or Feaster is driving the bus.

      And lets face it, it will be one of those two men at the helm when this season ends.

      What the plan is for 2011-12, which includes the draft, is something King and his superiors are undoubtedly already considering.

  • first of all who said the sutters are or were at any time the fore fathers of hockey in alberta?everyone thinks that derwood was a genius by bringing in kiprusoff,people forget that he was a third stringer in san jose playing behind nabokov and toskala when darryl was coaching there and forever under achieving with perhaps the best team in hockey at the time.any wonder that doug wilson let him go?looking at ken king tells me that the flames ownership are not serious about hiring serious hockey people.and brent well i can tell you a story about him but i’ll leave you with this one,first off he had the luxury of coaching an extremely talented group of kids in his world jr. ride,but not to forget the rebels team that he inherited and stole right under the nose of his former partner and pal terry simpson,he then proceeds to win a memorial cup with the nucleus of that team and drafts,then shortly after being crowned as king of the jr. hockey world he gets rid of all his scouts and burns their future as well as becoming the worst jr. team in the country,what a shame that all you people have no clue as to what really happens in the world when you are subjected to the medias bias in reporting of pertinent facts that would make anyone a non believer of the so called sutter rite to hockey folklore,ps:jay feaster also another imposter of unknown hockey genius,he to inherited a team built by someone else[rick dudley] won a stanley cup then was proclaimed a genius by the ever unknowledgeable sports media and then proceeded to ruin that franchise so there you have it,any wonder we are in the shape we are in?

    • I know this isn’t the National Gramar Rodeo or anything but you aren’t taken seriously when your post looks like a UnaBomber-esque rant. Mix in some captial letters, try to end a sentence with punctuation…you know normal stuff.

  • If they made a massive run, one would assume that they are playing very well and would be competitive come playoff time.

    I was really talking about a percentages run since I don’t think the team as currently constructed is a true .650 WIN% club. So, if CGY could channel the 09-10 Avalanche and get the bounces for an extended period of time, they can make the playoffs.

    Anything can happen at that time, but the Red Wings would undoubtedly remain the favorites.

  • icedawg_42

    Kent Wilson wrote “At some point, the difficult decision probably won’t just be about the coach and GM: it’ll be about what do with this season. Continue to charge for a playoff spot and hope for the best? Or face the inevitable and start to re-tool before the off-season?”

    For a team that should make the playoffs, and an organization that could make a lot of money by making the playoffs, it strikes me as a little odd that there hasn’t been any changes yet… the re-tool option makes more sense to me than to stick it out with this team… they’re about 5 games past a major shake-up.