6 Reasons the Columbus Blue Jackets Could Miss the Playoffs Once Again
At the end of last season, the Columbus Blue Jackets missed the playoffs for the ninth time in their 10-year franchise history.
General manager Scott Howson knew if he didn't make some necessary changes, he could soon be out of a job.
Howson promised that changes would be made at the end of the year and he kept to his word, making a huge splash by acquiring All-Star center Jeff Carter right before the NHL entry draft.
Howson was not done as the team acquired the rights to defenseman James Wisniewski days before the free agency period began and signed him to a six-year extension just hours before other teams had a shot at signing him.
Columbus has clearly improved the outlook of the team with the new additions, and they'll surely need it playing in the very strong Western Conference. The hype that surrounding the city is to the point where anything but the playoffs would be seen as a disappointment.
As competitive as the Blue Jackets have become, most believe that they will fall just short of their second playoff berth in franchise history.
There are still several questions surrounding the team that could be the downfall of the Blue Jackets after such a monumental offseason.
Jeff Carter and Rick Nash Can't Gel on the First Line
Almost immediately after the Blue Jackets acquired Jeff Carter, he was already penciled in on the first line with captain Rick Nash by head coach Scott Arniel.
Rick Nash finally has the top-line center that the Jackets' front office had been looking to acquire since Nash was drafted.
The only issue with pairing Carter and Nash is the fact that both are proven scorers. Although Carter has averaged 33 assists in the past three seasons, he has a shoot-first mentality, as does Nash, and one wonders if there will be enough shots for the both of them.
In past seasons, Nash's teammates put a lot of the weight on his shoulders, relying on Nash to do all the scoring. This caused the All-Star winger to try to do too much to try and put points on the board, which lead to one or two goals a night at best.
However, if the two cannot gel early on in the season, all of the hype that Scott Howson brought to the city of Columbus will disappear as quickly as it arrived.
James Wisniewski Falters Under Pressure of Being Quarterback of the Power Play
After the Blue Jackets acquired the rights to James Wisniewski, "The Wiz" traveled down to Columbus to meet with the front office to try and hammer out a deal before the free agency period began.
He left after their meetings with a deal in hand, but no one was really sure if he would sign or wait to test the free-agent waters.
Being from Michigan, the chance to play for his hometown Detroit Red Wings started to make Jacket fans weary that he may be staying home.
However, just hours before free agency began, Wisniewski decided to sign with Columbus for one reason: Columbus wanted him.
Before signing with Columbus, captain Rick Nash, center Jeff Carter and former junior-league teammate Jared Boll called Wisniewski to tell him that he could fill a major piece in the puzzle.
Wisniewski will quarterback the Jackets' power play and their will be a lot of pressure on him to earn the six-year, $33 million contract he received.
He has never been in a situation where he has lead the defense, and taking on that new responsibility could cause him to under perform.
The 27-year-old had a career year last year with highs in goals, points, power-play goals and shots. If he can't put up similar or better numbers next year, he could go down as one of the busts of free agency.
Injury-Riddled Free Agents Fall Victim Once Again
If anyone has read my past offseason articles, you'll see that I don't have a lot of faith in the health of Radek Martinek.
Martinek is a underrated defenseman who plays the role of shut-down defenseman well. He has no problem laying down, blocking a shot and preventing an opposing team from generating a scoring opportunity.
That type of play can prove costly for any player, and the list of injuries for the Slovak have piled up in his 10-year career.
The list includes broken legs, torn ligaments and a concussion/spinal injury that occurred last April during the World Championships.
The team and fans hope that Martinek can stay healthy, but if he goes down early, the Jackets will have to turn to their young prospects or sign an emergency replacement.
Martinek isn't the only player the Jackets signed this offseason that is coming off of injuries.
After winger Kritisan Huselius tore his pectoral muscle during training, the Blue Jackets went out and signed veteran winger Vinny Prospal.
Prospal played with the New York Rangers last year and a knee injury forced him out of the lineup for most of the season, only playing 29 games of the 82-game season.
A knee injury is a tough injury to come back from and the Jackets would be smart not to throw Prospal right into the fire.
Columbus is already thin at the winger position with Huselius out until January. If Prospal re-aggravates a past injury midway through the season, the team could struggle to fill the holes while continuing to compete on the same level.
Steve Mason Continues to Struggle with Consistency
During the Blue Jackets previous season, rumors emerged that Scott Howson was looking to deal Steve Mason. The 2008-2009 Calder Trophy winner struggled with consistency over the past two seasons and was among the league's worst in save percentage:
"He’s resembled a franchise building block on some nights and a guy trying to swat a swarm of bees on others," said Tom Reed of The Columbus Dispatch.
"Of goaltenders with 50-plus appearances, only Brian Elliot had a worse goals against average and save percentage last season."
Many thought that Mason's time in Columbus was done, but in the end, Howson couldn't find a deal that he found suitable enough to part ways with the team's third-round draft pick in 2006. After the trade deadline, Mason continued to struggle and was only able to win two of his last 14 starts.
At season's end, there was talk of whether or not Mason could be the team's franchise goaltender. Do they give the 23-year-old another shot or do they admit they made a mistake and cut their losses like they did with Nikita Filatov?
The draft, as well as the bulk of free agency, has passed and Mason is still a Blue Jacket. The team showed that they were committed to him when they signed the inexperienced Mark Dekanich to back him up instead of someone who would challenge Mason for his job.
The Jackets also hired a full-time goaltending coach in Ian Clark, which is an improvement from their previous coach who would only coach during certain periods of time instead of the entire season.
Even with the coaching upgrades, as well as the big additions in Carter and Wisniewski, a bulk of the pressure of the Blue Jackets' success still lies on Mason's shoulders.
With the likely increase in goals, Mason will not be required to stand on his head night in and night out like he has in previous seasons. However, only he can show the front office that he can still play like he did when he won Rookie of the Year honors.
If Mason can't turn it around and his consistency issues continue, the Jackets could be in a world of hurt, especially since their backup has only 50 minutes of NHL experience under his belt.
Prospects Struggle Under Pressure
There is no one more ready to see Ryan Johansen in the NHL than Johansen himself.
Johansen spent last season in Portland with the WHL's Winterhawks and had a stellar year.
In only 63 games for the Winterhawks, he has registered 40 goals and 52 assists, and continued his impressive year by leading the team in scoring and points in the WHL playoffs.
There is really nothing left for Johansen in the WHL, and he does not meet the AHL age requirements, so it seems that it's Columbus or bust for the 19-year old.
With the departures of players like Scottie Upshall, Chris Clark, and Andrew Murray the Jackets will most likely fill the open roster spots with prospects, Johansen being one of them.
Seeing that Columbus has a surplus at the center position (Carter, Derick Brassard, Antoine Vermette and Derek MacKenzie), Johansen may begin his NHL career at a winger position.
Other young prospects that could get playing time include Tomas Kubalik, John Moore and Cam Atkinson, who has impressed during the team's development camp.
The Jackets' scoring has improved with their first-line additions, but they can only do so much. It will be up to the youngsters to keep the team competitive while on the ice.
Unlike Moore and Kubalik, the other mentioned prospects have yet to experience NHL play and it could take some time to get used to the enhanced speed of the game.
Weaker Western Conference Teams Have Also Improved This Offseason
The Jackets weren't the only team to improve themselves in the offseason.
It seemed that the already strong Western Conference got even stronger; just look at the two teams pictured above for example.
Minnesota went out and traded for two of San Jose's most talented players in Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi.
The Sharks didn't favor too bad themselves with these deals as they acquired star defenseman Brent Burns, as well as Martin Havlat.
The Avalanche answered their offseason goaltending questions with their acquisitions of both Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Colorado could very likely have one of the best goaltending tandems in the league in the upcoming season.
Things haven't gotten any easier for Columbus in their own division, either. The Central division continues to be one of the stronger divisions in the conference.
The Red Wings and Predators were able to lock up their stars for at least one more year, keeping Nicklas Lidstrom away from retirement and locking up Shea Weber, respectively.
St. Louis didn't make a lot of noise in the offseason, but they were able to re-sign the talented TJ Oshie, as well as add two former captains in Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner.
These are just a couple examples of how the Western Conference will be even more competitive next year, and there will be little room for error if the Blue Jackets want to stay competitive.
If the Blue Jackets stumble out of the gate in the beginning of the year, they may not be able to recover.
Another year of missing the playoffs could have Scott Howson in a lot of heat and Columbus begging for a move over to the East.