Columbus Blue Jackets: Five Questions Heading into Next Season
The Columbus Blue Jackets attempted to improve this off-season.
While they most certainly upgraded on paper, the on-ice product has yet to be seen.
The additions of James Wisniewski and Jeff Carter have added two very important and desperately needed pieces to the Blue Jackets puzzle. The moves gave Jackets fans hope for the first time in ages and, ever so slightly, raised the profile of the Central Division basement dwellers.
They also added a few new coaches to help with goaltending and the power play. Both areas have been issues for years now and are hoped to be headed in the right direction with the changes.
Along with the additions, the Jackets offloaded some of their under-performing and headache players. Some like Jakub Voracek and Mike Commodore didn't play as well as expected. Others like Ethan Moreau and Chris Clark didn't bring the wisdom and leadership they were supposed to. Finally there was Nikita Filatov who threatened every year to go back to Russia if he didn't get to play in the NHL.
So while the Blue Jackets have tried to improve their team, questions remain. Some questions are new, while others have been around for years.
Who Will Replace Kristian Huselius Until He Returns?
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The first and most recent question to pop up is who will replace Kristian Huselius. Down with a torn pectoral muscle, he may not see action until November at the earliest. A top-six forward and the expected linemate of Rick Nash and Jeff Carter, his injury has left a hole that will be a priority to fill.
This may be answered by the time this slideshow is published, but could linger until just before the season starts.
Most signs point to the Jackets looking to free agency or a trade to fill the hole in the top six. The free agent bin is almost bare in terms of front end talent, but a few guys could fill a spot if needed (Vaclav Prospal, Sergei Samsonov). Some names are familiar to Jackets fans and will most likely be avoided (Nikolai Zherdev).
The trade route seems to bring the most interesting names. Well, mostly name at this point (Ales Hemsky), but still interesting nonetheless.
The option to not sign anyone and let a younger, inexperienced player take the spot is open as well. Guys like Ryan Johansen and Tomas Kubalik could be given the opportunity to shine and show their worth to the organization.
A quick resolution to the problem would seem to be the best solution at this point.
Will the New Jackets Play as Well as Advertised?
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The Blue Jackets have played for years without a couple of useful, if not necessary pieces, a puck moving defenseman and a big time center.
This offseason they remedied that by picking up James Wisniewski and Jeff Carter.
On paper the Jackets look like a better team. Carter is a 70-point-per-year guy and Wisniewski is coming off the best offensive year of his career.
Both have tremendous upside, but will that equal results on the ice?
Carter could still be upset about the move from Philadelphia and it may affect his play. He also has known off-ice issues that may lead to headaches for the rest of the team. If problems start to pop up, it could be a messy situation.
Wisniewski, on the other hand, doesn’t have any known off-ice issues. He does have a history of on-ice issues, though. Suspended on a few different occasions for illegal hits and rude gestures, he seems to play the game with a chip on his shoulder. He’s also still largely unproven as an offensive asset as well with last season being his first over 30 points.
Both will be saddled with enormous expectations and the hope is that they can both fulfill their promises to help make the team better.
Will Rick Nash Finally Become One of the NHL's Elite?
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Rick Nash is an excellent hockey player. A goal scorer who plays defense almost as well as offense, he is an asset whenever he is on the ice.
That being said, he's not an elite player. Not yet, at least.
Throughout his career he's mostly flown under the radar of the NHL, surfacing for early career accolades (Rocket Richard Trophy in 03-04) and utterly amazing goals.
So far he's been paired with the likes of Manny Malhotra and Sergei Federov as pivots. Both were pretty good, but neither were the right fit. Malhotra was always more at home killing penalties and blocking shots. Federov was nearing the end of his career and was looking to score goals himself rather than set up Nash.
Jeff Carter may be the answer the Jackets have been looking for. While he does shoot the puck a lot, it may end up being a good thing as Nash is a net crasher anyway. More rebounds may mean more goals.
They could also end up hitting a groove together and pass and shoot effectively as a unit. Even if they don't play on the same line together, the pressure taken off Nash due to another high quality player being on the team will create more chances for him.
With a star quality center and an as yet to be named other line-mate, it may well be the year for him to score more than 80 points and join the ranks of the NHL's upper echelon.
Will the Power Play Be Decent for Once?
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One of the many struggles from early in the Jackets history which has dogged them until now is their ineffective power play.
Anemic is the best word to describe it. Other words would be horrible, terrible, scary (in the bad way) and dead.
Columbus has nearly always finished at the bottom of the league in PP efficiency, so any improvement would be welcome.
James Wisniewski was brought in to provide a spark in that regard. He has good vision on the point and a rocket shot that should provide more scoring opportunities. A much better PP quarterback than Anton Stralman, his addition should help out.
Todd Richards, most recently the head coach of the Minnesota Wild, was hired to give life to the PP as well. His Wild teams may not have been the best all around, but his PP units were usually pretty good, even with sub par personnel.
The Blue Jackets aren't looking to become the leagues best power play team overnight, but these move should make them improve. Even finishing in the top 20 in PP efficiency would be better than where the Jackets usually end up.
Will the Jackets Get Reliable Goaltending?
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Easily the biggest question facing the Blue Jackets next year involves the play between the pipes.
Steve Mason’s first year with the Jackets showed what he could be if everything went right. He not only won the Calder trophy, but also garnered support for the Vezina. Good defense under the Ken Hitchcock system helped, but ultimately he made the saves that kept the puck out of the net. He deserved every accolade he got.
Since that season, however, it’s been a mostly bumpy road.
The flashes of brilliance he showed during his rookie year gave way to second guessing and the urge to try to do too much. A good many games last year were decided in the first period when he did his best impression of a sieve. He’s been struggling to become an average goalie again, let alone an elite one.
Enter Mark Dekanich, a 25 year old who was brought up through the Nashville Predators vaunted goaltending system. He’ll most likely start out as a backup, but could take the starting spot away if Mason has hiccups.
The Jackets have been suffering through poor to merely adequate goaltending for the last couple of years.
If the Blue Jackets want to compete for a playoff spot it’s an area of the game that has to improve. If neither Steve Mason nor Mark Dekanich can provide a solid backstop then the Jackets offseason moves will have been for naught.
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The Blue Jackets will hopefully find out the answers to these questions quickly.
Renewed interest in the team due to their offseason moves should provide good support for the first few games of the season.
If the Jackets don't find answers to these questions, however, the fans may not stick around. Years of losing and mismanagement have given them a very tight rope to walk and this may be one of the last years they can stay up on it.
If Steve Mason isn't the answer in goal and the new players aren't the keys to being a winner, then the Jackets will have a hard time keeping people in the building. The frustration of the fans can only be tolerated for so long before they will give up.
Here's hoping that the Jackets find all the answers they need.