Resolving Lockout a Major Key to Turning Around Struggling Columbus Blue Jackets
The National Hockey League's labour strike spells trouble for every fan, player and organization on a variety of platforms. The first is obviously the absence of watching any games being played. Then there are the financial aspects of the dispute that have been the very cause of this ugly stalemate that now threatens to drag an entire season off the calendar.
However, for the Columbus Blue Jackets, the lockout could become more than just an unfortunate dispute. It now has the potential to jeopardize the future of their franchise.
For a team that has struggled to string together stretches of winning hockey, sell tickets or the sport in its home city, it needs a resolution to come quickly. The reason? The upcoming 2012-13 NHL entry draft scheduled to be held next year in June.
Columbus currently holds three first-round draft picks to that event, one that's boasting a very deep talent pool and the opportunity to bring some game-changing talent home that could help turn its misfortunes into a bright future.
Coming off a blockbuster trade of their former captain and franchise star, Rick Nash to the New York Rangers, it's clear that this team knows it needs to come away with some quality assets or its going to continue to struggle with both attendance and on-ice success.
The Blue Jackets have the pieces in place, all they need now is a shortened season to begin sooner rather than later and to finish dead last at the conclusion of it. The good news for them is that both scenarios look possible.
The Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Draft Day
Before getting into the importance of this year, I'm going to do a quick background briefing on the Jackets' entire history with drafting, for those unfamiliar with the debacle.
Columbus joined the league in 2000 as an expansion team. It has qualified for the playoffs just once since its inauguration, a berth in 2009 that resulted in a first-round exit.
That year marks the only time in franchise history that the team hasn't had a top-ten, first-round draft pick with one other exception in 2011, when it traded its No. 8 pick to Philadelphia.
The Blue Jackets' first-round draft picks have been as follows:
|2000||4th Overall||Rostislav Klesla|
|2001||8th Overall||Pascal LeClaire|
|2002||1st Overall||Rick Nash|
|2003||4th Overall||Nikolai Zherdev|
|2004||8th Overall||Alexandre Picard|
|2005||6th Overall||Gilbert Brule|
|2006||6th Overall||Derick Brassard|
|2007||7th Overall||Jakub Voracek|
|2008||6th Overall||Nikita Filatov|
|2009||21st Overall||John Moore|
|2010||4th Overall||Ryan Johansen|
|2012||2nd Overall||Ryan Murray|
Of the 11 players listed above, disregarding John Moore, Ryan Johansen and Murray, it's safe to say that only Rick Nash developed into the kind of franchise player the team hoped for on draft day.
Unfortunately for Columbus, though, he gave up hope after a decade of service and was dealt this summer to the Rangers after he approached the team's management and asked to be traded
It's hard to believe that only one offseason ago, the very same Columbus team broke the bank on two expensive free agents and looked to be making a strong push for the postseason.
Those two players were of course, James Wisniewski and Jeff Carter.
The former remains with the club for now, however, Carter was moved to the Los Angeles Kings last season after an underwhelming year and obvious discontentment.
Despite landing some young talent, and a pair of first-round picks in those trades, the Jackets have holes all over their roster that will have to be filled through the draft, and that is why their focus must be on utilizing their impending opportunity.
With the three first-round selections they currently hold, the Blue Jackets have to be looking at landing some top-six talent, given how weak their current crop of forwards are.
In fact, if the season were to begin tomorrow, on paper the team could be icing a top line consisting of veteran Vinny Prospal, depth center Derick Brassard and sophomore Cam Atkinson. Needless to say, a last-place finish has never looked more attainable.
Their effort to restock could be wasted if a season can't be salvaged, though, since a lost season would cause next summer's draft order to be determined by a lottery system that would likely cost the team a look at a potential top-three draft choice.
This would be catastrophic given the fact that Nathan MacKinnon and Seth Jones both look to be franchise altering prospects and invaluable commodities for a struggling club like Columbus.
Then there's the fact that this is regarded as a very good year for prospects, with notable forwards like Curtis Lazar, Hunter Shinkaruk, Sasha Barkov, Sean Monahan and Jonathan Drouin available too.
It comes down to this, Columbus needs MacKinnon and at least one other top-six forward out of this draft to ensure that it can reverse its franchise woes and start trending in the right direction.
The Cole Harbour native has drawn comparisons to Sidney Crosby beyond their shared home town, and with good reason. He's a can't-miss top-end player that would instantly draw attention to the team and help it rebuild sooner rather than later.
If it boils down to trading one of the draft picks supplied by the Kings or Rangers to move up in the draft, that is something that the team's management should try and do.
MacKinnon's current line mate, center Drouin is also draft eligible and would be a good fit based off of the chemistry they've already shown together in Halifax. Perhaps that's asking for too many dominoes to fall together. Still, there's talent available and the Blue Jackets have options.
They need to capitalize.
The Future Is Bright in Ohio...
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Now, despite the team's poor history with the first round of the draft, it should be noted that the team has still found ways to add prospects and players that will help it down the road.
Two notable players that came back from the New York Rangers this summer in the Nash deal were top defensive prospect Tim Erixon and young top-six forward Artem Anisimov. Both players will be important components for the team in the future, however, neither player is expected to be stand-alone talent—the kind this team desperately needs to really solidify a successful rebuild.
That will be supplied by Murray, a player the team selected this year with its second overall pick. Although he hasn't had a chance to play an NHL game yet, Murray is predicted to be the kind of young franchise leading blueliner that can help lead the team in the right direction. He's a steady, reliable player with elite skill and best of all, he's a natural leader.
With Murray joining a blue line that now has two offensively-gifted defenders in Jack Johnson and Wisniewski, and two young up-and-coming players in Erixon and Moore, Columbus has amassed enough talent to start slowing down the opposition's offense. It's the kind of welcome sight that struggling franchise goaltender Steve Mason needs to see if he has any hope of turning around his career and returning to his Calder Trophy winning form.
However, now that things are looking much improved on the defensive end of the game, the focus remains on the team's impending problems up front notching goals.
Their top six includes a few good players, most notably in Johansen, a top young center that played 67 games last year for the Jackets, posting nine goals and 21 points. He needs help, though, and complimentary forwards like Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Derick Brassard and Vinny Prospal aren't good enough to help float the team.
Boone Jenner, a solid prospect currently playing for the Oshawa Generals, will be an important player for them in a couple of years, but after him, the team doesn't have a lot of help coming.
The Jackets need to pick up some quality forwards this season to help out their young and solid defense corps.
So, How Early Could This Team Complete a Rebuild?
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Here's where things start to get hypothetical. Assuming the Jackets can land a pair of impact forwards this summer, just how close will they be to having a quality product that can turn them into contenders?
Chances are that they are going to use a high draft pick to get a player like Mackinnon, or if they miss out on him, then a player like Monahan who they can build around. This will give them the one-two punch up the middle they need, leaving their other first-round picks to be used on other forward positions, or to add organizational depth depending on what talent is available and where the team is selecting.
Any other prospect not named MacKinnon or Jones will likely need to return to Juniors for development, prolonging the completion of the rebuild and likely increasing the team's chances of another summer of high draft picks.
Regardless, the team is looking at a couple of years for its prospects to mature and for the right combination of youth and veteran leadership to come together. Odds are it'll need until at least the 2014-15 season to start producing results.
That would allow players like Murray, Erixon and Johansen to continue to gain NHL experience and allow players like Jenner and Atkinson to try and establish themselves as regulars in the roster.
The 2014-15 version of the Blue Jackets team would then look something like this:
|Brandon Dubisnky||Sean Monahan/Jonathan Drouin||Nathan MacKinnon (C/RW)|
|LW Needed||Ryan Johansen||Artem Anisimov|
|RJ Umberger||Boone Jenner||Cam Atkinson|
|Nick Foligno||Mark Letestu||Derek Dorsett|
|Ryan Murray||James Wisniewski|
|Jack Johnson||Tim Erixon|
|Fedor Tyutin||John Moore|
Now clearly that roster projection is not only purely speculation, but it includes several journeyman players that are expendable. Still, the idea is that once this team gets its center positions solidified, the addition of some gifted top-six wingers is all it needs to help get it moving in the right direction.
With the three first-round selections the Jackets currently hold for a deep draft class this summer, in theory, they could land the kind of players they desperately need to start that process.
It all comes back to the lockout, though. Without a resolution, the Blue Jackets won't have the opportunity to place poorly in the standings and avoid a draft lottery. And with the earliest starting point for a shortened season now in December, the time needed to reach a new deal is quickly running out.