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Friday, December 11, 2009

What's Up with Columbus?

AP Photo/Jay LaPrete h/t Mile High Hockey

In the 2008-09 season, the Columbus Blue Jackets battled through injuries, illness, and arguably the toughest division in the NHL to secure the first playoff berth in franchise history. This season, the ‘Jackets were called CHASING STANLEY – IN the playoffs – by OGA upon the completion of their 20th game (19 November). Since then, Columbus has appeared hell-bent on proving OGA wrong, as they stumbled, stammered and generally stunk up the ice en route to a 2-5-4 record. Even before the recent slump, however, this team was clearly NOT last seasons’ Blue Jackets: Some nights, they would play their trademark tight defensive game, and others, they were flat-out brutal. Much like Forrest Gump’s famed box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. This begs the question: What’s up with Columbus? Let’s break it down, from goal line to goal line.

Goaltending: Last season, Steve Mason battled through mononucleosis to win the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie and was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. This season, Mason appears to have fallen victim to the dreaded Sophomore Slump. Wednesday night, Mase recorded his first shutout of the season in a 3-0 victory over Florida. That solid outing lowered his GAA to 3.29 and raised his Save Pct. to .892. This time last season, Mason had a GAA of 1.98, a Save Pct. of .923, and two shutouts. Clearly, he’s struggling this season, but the problem isn’t entirely his own…

Defensemen: 31 games into the season, and Fedor Tyutin is the only blueliner to play every game. Defensive stalwart Mike Commodore has missed 11 games, due to injury, illness, and conditioning issues due to injury and illness. Jan Hejda, who has the ‘Jackets best plus/minus over the last two seasons (+20 and +23, respectively), has missed 8 games and is just a +1. The inability of the Blue Jackets to dress the same six d-men every night has led to constant juggling of defensive pairs, which has had a noticeable impact on defensive chemistry…and the struggles of the defensive corps have only magnified Steve Mason’s slump. Don’t look for much improvement any time soon – Rostislav Klesla is out at least until January after suffering both a torn groin and a torn abdominal muscle against St. Louis on 1 DEC.

Forwards: The Blue Jackets forwards are accomplishing their primary mission: scoring goals. In fact, Columbus is averaging 3.00 goals per game, tying them with Los Angeles for 6th in the NHL. Franchise cornerstone and Captain Rick Nash leads the team with 16-16-32 in 31 games. Winger Kristian Huselius is 2nd on the team in scoring with 11-13-24 in 27 games. The increase in their productivity over last season is due largely to the addition of pivot Antoine Vermette (31 GP, 8-15-23). Unlike seasons past, Columbus can no longer be considered a one-line team, as RJ Umberger (31GP, 9-13-22), young Jakub Voracek (31GP, 7-11-18) and Raffi Torres (28GP, 10-6-16) have provided much-needed scoring depth.

The news isn’t all good, however: Derick Brassard, who showed such promise before a shoulder injury ended his 08-09 season after just 31 games, has struggled to regain his pre-injury form. As a result, he’s been bounced from the 1st to the 4th line, and everywhere in between. Brassard’s hard-working goal against Florida Wednesday night ended a 14-game goal drought, and (hopefully) signaled the beginning of better things to come from the youngster, who has the potential to be a top-line center for Columbus.

In other bad news, the Blue Jackets have been without three key forwards for long stretches this season. Freddy Modin, who plays Coach Ken Hitchcock’s brand of hockey to a “T”, was injured in the preseason and has yet to play in 09-10 (but is expected to go this Saturday against Anaheim). Likewise, injury has limited Andrew “Weighty” Murray to just 9 games, and the hard-hitting Derek Dorsett to 20 games. Along with right wing Jared Boll, these forwards represent the heart of Columbus’ physicality (and in the case of Modin, a little goal-scoring flair, as well). Without Modin, Murray or Dorsett in the lineup, the Blue Jackets aren’t anywhere near as tough to play against as they were last season. To paraphrase a line from A Few Good Men, Columbus wants these guys on that wall. They NEED them on that wall.

Coaching: Ken Hitchcock is practically revered in Columbus, and rightfully so: Hitch has done a fantastic job with this team, leading them to the first playoff berth in franchise history last season, and making the Jackets a very tough (this season excepted, for the reasons above) team to play against. As GM Scott Howson stated last week, despite the Jackets’ recent struggles, Hitchcock’s job is safe…

HOWEVER, the handling of future superstar Nikita Filatov has to be a concern. The kid is an enormous talent, but two recent interviews give a pretty clear indication of his feelings toward Hitch: Filatov doesn’t feel that Hitchcock placed any trust in him, and was very unhappy with his limited ice time (8:07 per game, with too many nights spent watching from the press box). Thus, he decided to return to Mother Russia, where he promptly put up four goals and two assists in four games to earn KHL rookie of the week honors. While Filatov says he’s inclined to return to Columbus for training camp next September, the suspicion here is that it’ll be a cold day in Key West before he agrees to play on a team coached by Ken Hitchcock.

This blogger can’t help but wonder how different things would be for young Filatov today if he had been drafted by, for example, the Atlanta Thrashers. Playing in John Anderson’s up-tempo system, with Ilya Kovalchuk as a mentor, is it unrealistic to imagine he would be on the 2nd line and an early favorite for the Calder Memorial Trophy? Scott Howson has to be thinking trade at this point, as he’s got to salvage something from the situation. Sending Filatov to an Eastern Conference team would be ideal. Columbus could use a good puck-moving defenseman to work the point on the PP (though Anton Stralman has been just fine in that regard), and Atlanta has several blueliners who fit the bill. Mr. Howson, do you need Don Waddell’s phone number? And with that, I’m through playing matchmaker for today.

Conclusion: While Columbus clearly isn’t where they need to be this season, the (somewhat surprising) fact is that they currently have a better record (14-11-6, 34pts) than they did at this time last season (14-14-3, 31pts). There are legitimate concerns about certain aspects of the Blue Jackets’ game, which have led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth among fans of the team. The fact is, though, that the number (and volume) of alarm bells going off in Columbus are the direct result of raised expectations for this team. Fans – and the team itself – expect another playoff run in 09-10. And that’s a good thing. Can the Blue Jackets right the ship and play into late April? OGA says so (and almost 90% of the time, you can take that to the bank).

Take me back to On Goal Analysis.

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