Jan 102012
 

If someone you know is in a car crash, the first thing you want to know is how badly hurt they are.

The 2011-12 season of the Columbus Blue Jackets has been an epic car crash.

But in the grand scheme of things, they’re not too badly hurt.

Why? Just like someone struggling with addiction, sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to start your way back to the top.

For the Blue Jackets, this year has been rock bottom – and the path to the top is pretty clear.

Here’s why the future isn’t all that dark in Columbus:

1. The first overall pick this year is a dandy.

Nail Yakupov has been heralded as the best Russian prospect since Alex Ovechkin and has drawn comparisons to Pavel Bure. Unlike many of the Russian forwards that come to play in the NHL, Yakupov has strong on-ice vision and knows how to use his teammates (witness the 4-assist game against Canada in the World Juniors). A torn meniscus shouldn’t dampen his NHL future, and he’s already stated he doesn’t want to play in the KHL. If the Blue Jackets remain as the worst team in the NHL and don’t lose their first overall pick in the draft lottery, Yakupov could have the same impact as Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have had on their respective teams.

2. They already have a veteran superstar to build and market the team around.

Rick Nash has never had an elite centre to play with, and for the most part has been almost a lone-gunman his team’s attack, making it easy for the opposition to defend against him. However, he remains an elite talent, with great speed for a power forward and terrific goal-scoring hands. In many ways, he could become what Jarome Iginla came to mean to the Calgary Flames, both on the ice and in the community. The Blue Jackets would be fools to move him. Besides, teams when trading a superstar of Nash’s standing rarely get equal value back in a trade (witness the Joe Thornton deal from Boston years ago).

3. Their attendance woes are greatly exaggerated.

One of the great myths propagated by hockey media (particularly Toronto hockey media) is that Columbus is just another failed NHL expansion team destined to move.

Well hold on a minute.

From 2000-2004 Columbus was actually a top-15 market attendance-wise in the NHL, peaking at 8th overall in the league in 2001-02. Granted, years of on-ice incompetence eventually wore the lustre off of going to Blue Jackets games. But if you look at the history of the franchise (2000-present), they’re actually only 21st in league attendance:

RankTeamAverage Attendance (2000-present)
1Montreal Canadiens20,837
2Detroit Red Wings18, 859
.........
21Columbus Blue Jackets16,168
22Boston Bruins16,083
23Florida Panthers15,625
24Carolina Hurricanes15, 441
25New Jersey Devils15, 157
26Anaheim Ducks14, 988
27Nashville Predators14, 935
28Atlanta/Winnipeg14, 714
29Phoenix Coyotes13, 823
30New York Islanders13, 090

The success or failure of a hockey market can only truly be measured once the local team has experienced both sustained success and failure.

Columbus has only known failure. It’s not a stretch to think the team will fill their building again once the team enjoys some success.

4. It doesn’t take a rocket science to see where this team needs to improve.

Let’s get this out of the way first. Scott Howson has been at best mediocre, at worst a failure, as Blue Jackets general manager. The remainder of this season, and what he can accomplish in the off-season, will decide if he remains the team’s architect in 2013.

Howson has already stated Columbus is open-for-business. There’s a nice breakdown of who could be moved here. Who the team ships out though is almost secondary to the importance of what it brings back.

In this case, the only acceptable return is a goalie who can make a difference night in, night out at the NHL level.

The Steve Mason era has to end. Other than during Mason’s rookie season, the team’s goaltending has been among the league worst. A great team can win with average goaltending. A rebuilding team can only win with great goaltending.

The Blue Jackets need to find that goaltending – that is priority no. 1. Maybe it’s Jonathan Bernier in Los Angeles; Cory Schneider in Vancouver; Thomas Griess in San Jose; Anders Lindback in Nashville; or Sergei Bobrovsky in Philadelphia. Maybe it’s 2012 unrestricted free agents Tomas Vokun in Washington or Ray Emery in Chicago. Maybe it’s a a draft pick like Andrei Vasilevski. Maybe it’s prospect Mark Dekanich, who has been knocking on the door in Columbus for awhile but can’t seem to stay healthy.

Whoever it is, the Blue Jackets must turn that perennial weakness into a position of strength for the team to turn around.

The most consistently successful teams in NHL history are those that build from the goaltender out. It’s time Columbus followed the blueprint.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • One final Blue Jacket thought - the time to fire coach Scott Arniel was two months ago, when the season was still somewhat salvagable. Letting Arniel try to change the team’s on-ice philosophy on the fly during the season only further muddled the direction of the team. As stated above, the future could be rosy in Columbus if the right moves are made right now. Howson’s handling of Arniel though creates more doubt he’s the GM to right-the-ship.
  • Can’t stop laughing at the headlines involving Dustin Penner’s injury while eating pancakes. With only four goals and 15 points in 50 career games now with Los Angeles, he could be moved at the trade deadline. The question is – who would want him? Love these unasked follow-up questions to Penner about his injury too.
  • This is why expansion is coming soon to the NHL – it would address the “unbalanced” conference issue the NHLPA has with the league’s proposed realignment. Adding two teams to the proposed “East” (say Metro Toronto and Quebec City) would give every conference eight teams. Such a move would also add a lot of profits to the league, which in turn benefits both owners and players.
  • If the NHL does expand let’s hope they reduce the roster size. There’s not enough talent for 30 teams, let alone 32.
  • Here are ESPN’s first-half grades.
  • The Emperor has no clothes Part #1 – Here’s why the Washington Capitals do not make the playoffs this year: Dale Hunter is in over his head as coach; beyond Alex Ovechkin and Niklas Backstrom, the team is overrated offensively; the team lacks the discipline to commit to a defensive scheme; GM George McPhee has made the critical mistake of overvaluing players on his own roster.
  • The Emperor has no clothes Part #2 – It sure looks like the Edmonton Oilers, despite all their high draft picks, are on the fast-track to nowhere. They’re likely the worst team in the league right now. Sure that can happen when your team’s best players get hurt. It’s more likely to happen when you ice an AHL-level defense and feature only adequate goaltending.
  • “We’re in the people business too, and I would look like an idiot not to put him in” says Ken Hitchcock about giving Jaroslav Halak the start in Montreal. Funny how this comment made me think about how the Canucks chose to start Cory Schneider against Boston over the weekend. Sure Vancouver won, but it was probably bad people business for Roberto Luongo.
  • One last Canucks thought: Sami Salo had been playing some of the best hockey of his career before getting hurt against the Bruins. Vancouver’s rolling right now, but defensive depth must remain a trade priority if this team intends to make a long Stanley Cup run.
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