Columbus Blue Jackets: 10 Biggest Surprises from the Season so Far

Patrick Drottar@pdrottarCorrespondent IDecember 9, 2011

Columbus Blue Jackets: 10 Biggest Surprises from the Season so Far

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    After what was the Columbus Blue Jackets' most aggressive offseason in franchise history, it was predicted that the Union Blue would finally emerge from the basement of the Western Conference and contend for the playoffs.

    General Manager Scott Howson stepped out of his comfort zone–building his team through the draft–and traded away the team's first round pick and talented youngster Jakub Voracek for All-Star center Jeff Carter.

    Carter finally filled the top-line center role that the team has been searching for ever since they drafted captain Rick Nash back in 2002.

    Howson was not done there, as he also fixed the issue that was the Blue Jackets power play. Just hours before the start of free agency, the team locked up defenseman and powerplay quarterback James Wisniewski to a six-year deal.

    For the first time in a long time, it seemed that the Blue Jackets had a powerful and dangerous man-advantage.

    However, as we all know, the start to Columbus' season has not gone as planned as two months have passed and the Jackets remain the worst team in the NHL with only seven wins.

    The team was without both Carter and Wisniewski for durations at the start of the season as Carter suffered a fracture in his foot and Wisniewski served an eight-game suspension for an incident during the preseason.

    The Blue Jackets have struggled to score this season averaging only 2.4 goals a game, which has forced the team's goaltenders to be at their best night in and night out.

    No. 1 goaltender Steve Mason has been anything but that and has found his way to the bench for the time being.

    Although there has not been a lot to write home about this season, there have still been some interesting surprises along the way.

The Dismal Start to the Season

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    After the Blue Jackets traded for Jeff Carter and signed James Wisniewski, many believed that this was the last thing needed to turn the Jackets into a playoff contender.

    With a top-line center and a power play quarterback, the Union Blue would now be a force to be reckoned with and would help put Columbus on the map when it came to playoff hockey.

    However, unfortunately for the Blue Jackets as well as the city of Columbus, it has been more of the same out of the team this season as they got off to the worst start in franchise history.

    In the first eight games of the season, the Blue Jackets could only get one point, which was from a shootout loss to the Colorado Avalanche, when Columbus blew a late lead (something they have become accustomed to this season).

    The record for the month of October was atrocious as the team could only put together two wins.

    A lot of the Blue Jackets' early struggles can be attributed to Wisniewski starting the season with an eight-game suspension, Carter on the sidelines with a fracture in his foot and Steve Mason continuing his history of inconsistency.

    Since then, Wisniewski has returned, Carter is finally 100% healthy, and Steve Mason has found an open spot on the bench thanks to the play of Curtis Sanford.

    The Jackets have played better and have collected a few more wins, but it already may be too little too late.

Mark Letestu

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    One of the most positive surprises this season so far has been the play of Mark Letestu.

    Letestu was acquired by the Jackets back at the beginning of November to fill in for the struggling Derick Brassard.

    The 26-year-old had spent the last two seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he totaled 15 goals and 14 assists in 85 games.

    His stats were not jaw dropping, but the Blue Jackets saw something in the young veteran that they felt could create a spark for their team.

    That was one decision by the Jackets' front office that proved to be the right one as Letestu scored two goals in his first three games.

    In 14 games, Letestu has scored four goals and has earned himself a permanent spot on the team's second line.

    With RJ Umberger and 19-year-old Ryan Johansen beside him, the Jackets' second line has become maybe the best line on the team.

    Although the acquisition of Letestu created a surplus at the center position, the trade has paid off for the Jackets.

Derick Brassard Watching from the Press Box

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    As mentioned in the previous slide, the move for Mark Letestu created a surplus at the center position.

    On the Jackets roster, there are currently eight centers, which has forced head coach Scott Arniel to move some of them to wing positions, including Antoine Vermette, Cody Bass, and rookie Ryan Johansen.

    Unfortunately, the team has too many players and not enough spots and one player that has found himself a healthy scratch several times is Derick Brassard.

    Brassard, the team's former No. 1 center, has been a healthy scratch for seven of the past 12 games.

    In the 20 games he has played in, the 2006 sixth overall pick has struggled, recording four points and a plus/minus rating of -10.

    Many believed that the reasoning for Brassard spending so much time in the press box was because the team was looking to trade him, which turned out to be true.

    The Jackets' front office has been looking to create a spark to try and save this season, but because of Brassard's play, as well as his $3.2 million per season contract, Columbus has struggled to find a buyer.

    Brassard's agent, Allan Walsh, went to the press about the situation, blaming Arniel for making his client the scape goat for the team's early season struggles.

    Regardless if Brassard is indeed the scape goat or not, he could bring a lot in return if the Jackets are able to find a trading partner.

Jeff Carter Trade Rumors

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    When the Blue Jackets acquired Jeff Carter in the offseason, they also acquired his massive 11-year, $58 million contract that he signed while with Philadelphia.

    Carter signed the deal in 2010 in hopes that he would end a long and happy career with the team that drafted him in 2003.

    In the offseason, before the trade to Columbus was made, Carter was reassured by Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren that he was not going to be traded, contrary to the several rumors that had appeared on the web.

    When Carter was in fact traded, he felt betrayed by the Flyers and decided against speaking to the media after the deal was done. Many believed that his silence was due to the fact that Carter did not want to play in Columbus.

    Carter set the record straight when he finally decided to speak and said he was happy to be going to Columbus to play with the talented Rick Nash and to help the team make the playoffs.

    However, after only playing eight games with his new team, it was reported by TSN's french-speaking sister channel RDS that the 26-year-old wanted out and had already demanded a trade.

    The Jackets' front office, as well as Carter himself were quick to deny the rumor, but an accredited source would not post something of this nature for nothing, causing people to wonder if the All-Star was really happy with his new team.

    Rumors arise every day and Carter is certainly not a stranger to them, but this was not the press the Jackets were hoping for this season.

Nikita Nikitin

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    Two days after the Blue Jackets traded for Mark Letestu, they tried to create another spark and swapped defensemen with the St. Louis Blues.

    The Blues at the time had just hired former Blue Jackets' head coach Ken Hitchcock for the same position and he wanted to bring Jackets' defenseman Kris Russell with him.

    In return, the Blues sent 25-year-old Nikita Nikitin to Columbus.

    The Russian defenseman was selected 136th overall back in 2004 by St. Louis and played 41 games for the Blues in his rookie season last year.

    In those 41 games, Nikitin scored one goal and registered nine points with 46 shots on goal.

    Now with the Jackets, Nikitin has made an immediate impact to the team's blue line.

    Nikitin has registered as many goals and assists in 13 games as he did last season with the Blues in half a season.

    The Russian defenseman ended a 40-game goal-less streak and has had key assists in the team's two December wins.

    We have seen a lot of different defenseman get ice time for the Jackets during this season, but Nikitin should be a staple for quite some time.

Vinny Prospal

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    Back in the offseason, winger Vinny Prospal was not on the Jackets radar of potential free agent signings.

    However, after first line winger Kristian Huselius was injured with a torn pectoral muscle, Columbus was forced to find a quick replacement before the start of the season and signed Prospal to a one-year deal.

    Even with the acquisitions of Carter and Wisniewski, Prospal has proven to be the team's top pickup this offseason.

    The 36-year-old has tallied seven goals in 28 games and leads the team in assists (15) and points (22).

    He has filled in for Huselius and done an impressive job of being the set up for both Rick Nash and Carter.

    When the Jackets got off to a rocky start to the season, Prospal also showed his leadership qualities when he called out the team for not being serious when it came to practices.

    Prospal battled with injuries last season with the New York Rangers, only playing in 29 games because of a knee injury.

    Many believed that the injury would end the Slovak's career, but he recovered and has shown this season that the injury is behind him.

    If Prospal can stay healthy and continue to put points on the board, the Blue Jackets would have no choice but to re-sign him.

The Play of Derek Dorsett

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    In Derek Dorsett's three seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets, he has never been known as a scorer.

    Dorsett spent most of his time on the team's third line as a defensive forward who certainly did not mind throwing the gloves down once in awhile.

    The Jackets could always count on Dorsett to get into a fight to try and turn the momentum in the Jackets' favor.

    However, this year, we are seeing a completely different side to Dorsett's game.

    Yes, he is still spends a lot of time in the box (on pace for a career-high in penalty minutes), but we have begun to see the goal-scoring ability that Dorsett brings to the ice.

    The past three seasons, Dorsett has totaled four goals each year, with his point total continually increasing.

    This season, in just 28 games, the 24-year-old has already scored six goals and could possibly record a 20-goal season.

    Dorsett is using his gritty and aggressive style of play to force turnovers and buries his scoring opportunities.

    A prime example of this was last week during the Jackets 6-3 loss to the Edmonton Oilers.

    Dorsett pressured the Oilers defenseman, causing him to miss the puck and lose his footing. Dorsett jumped on it and beat Devan Dubynk for the shorthanded goal.

    With his improved play, Dorsett is taking the next step in his career and proving to the Jackets that they should keep him around.

The Struggles of Steve Mason Continue

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    In 2008-2009, young Steve Mason emerged for Columbus and helped lead the team to it's first playoff appearance in franchise history.

    Although they were swept in the first round in the Detroit Red Wings, the Jackets believed they had something special in Mason and that he was their future in net.

    However, the next two seasons for the Calder Trophy winner were not what was expected as Mason struggled with consistency and saw his numbers slip.

    Some nights, Mason would look like one of the best goalies in the league, stopping almost every shot and keeping the Jackets in close games.

    Other nights, Mason would let the easiest of shots by, making some believe he couldn't stop a beach ball.

    Last season, as the Jackets were making the push for the playoffs, general manager Scott Howson looked to deal Mason for the missing puzzle piece that could push the Jackets into the top-eight.

    Howson could not find a trade partner and was stuck with Mason for the rest of the season. The Jackets missed the playoffs, and it was believed that Mason's time as the Jackets' No. 1 goaltender was over.

    However, in the offseason, Howson improved the defense instead, signing James Wisniewski and put his faith in Mason, believing that he would return to the form that won him the Calder Trophy.

    As we all know, Mason got off to yet another rocky start this season, only winning three of his 16 starts and showing his issues with consistency yet again.

    It didn't help that both of his backups, Mark Dekanich and Curtis Sanford, were injured at the beginning of the season, forcing Mason to start several games consecutively without rest.

    Now that Sanford is healthy, he has quickly taken over the starting role with his impressive play and kept Mason on the bench.

    When Dekanich returns from injury, it will be interesting to see what the team does with Mason. Will they keep him as the backup or send him down to the AHL?

    Or will the 23-year-old's time in Columbus come to an end?

"The Sandman" Curtis Sanford

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    When 32-year-old Curtis Sanford was signed during the offseason by the Blue Jackets, the plan was for him to be the starter for the team's AHL affiliate Springfield Falcons.

    Sanford had the most NHL experience (5 years) of the three goalies under contract for the Blue Jackets, but the front office believed that Steve Mason and Mark Dekanich were the team's top goalie tandem.

    However, as mentioned earlier, both Sanford and Dekanich went down with injuries during the preseason and Columbus was forced to start Mason for 16 of the Jackets' first 17 games.

    Mason struggled, posting a 3-12-1 record and the Blue Jackets were forced to try and find another solution in net through a trade.

    Despite names like Winnipeg's Chris Mason, Vancouver's Corey Schneider, and Boston's Tuukka Rask popping up as potential suitors, the Jackets were unsuccessful in making a deal.

    When Sanford was finally back healthy, the Jackets decided to give him the start against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.

    Sanford played well in the 2-1 shootout loss and earned himself another start in the team's next game.

    Since then, Sanford has started every game for the Blue Jackets and has put up a 5-3-3 record.

    In just a short amount of time, Sanford has given the Blue Jackets the consistency they were looking for from Mason.

    Sanford has posted an impressive 2.24 goals against average and a .917 save percentage, which has cooled the Jackets' goalie talks for now.

    The Ontario native has helped the Jackets string a few wins together and could help the team save the season before its too late.

Rick Nash Trade Rumors

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    Almost every season since being drafted back in 2002, captain Rick Nash is involved in trade rumors.

    Year after year, when the Jackets struggle, Nash's name emerges as being fed up and the team looking to trade the star to a contender.

    However, as much as Nash's name has been brought up in trade talks, the 27-year-old has never requested a trade or said that he was unhappy playing in Columbus.

    The 2004 "Rocket" Richard Trophy winner has said in the past that he is committed to helping the Blue Jackets become a contender and proved it when he signed an eight-year contract extension before becoming a free agent in 2009.

    Nash had shown that he was committed to the Blue Jackets and it was their turn to do the same for him. To do that, general manager Scott Howson went out of his comfort zone and traded for Jeff Carter and signed James Wisniewski.

    Nash finally had his top-line center and power play quarterback and this would be the year that the Jackets were one of the most dangerous teams in the Western Conference.

    However, this season seemed to start just like any other season in the franchise's history, with the Jackets sitting at the bottom of the standings.

    Once again, Nash's name popped up in trade rumors, but this time they were different. The rumors arose quickly and they came in bunches.

    A little over a month into the new season and a fire sale in Columbus seemed to be a viable option.

    The Jackets were in desperate need of a goaltender to replace Steve Mason and possible trade partners were asking for Nash in return.

    Would Columbus be willing to trade the face of the franchise for a player like Corey Schneider or Tuukka Rask?

    Howson has denied any rumors of Nash being traded, like he does every year, but people believed that Nash would soon request a trade to a contender because he was fed up with the team's constant losing.

    Although the rumors may be the strongest they have been, Nash continues to show his committment to Columbus.

    It could be another year full of Nash rumors that are untrue, or it could be the last season we see Nash in a Jackets' uniform.