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.
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.