Blue Jackets In A Holding Pattern

At 9-12-3. the Columbus Blue Jackets currently sit in the 7th position in the struggling Metropolitan Division of the National Hockey League (NHL) and 13th, overall in the Eastern Conference.  Adding to that, they have gone 4-3-3 in their last 10 games played and concluded their five-game road trip in the following manner: a solid 4-1 win at Ottawa, an embarrassing 7-0 loss to the moribund Edmonton Oilers, a 2-1 Overtime (OT) victory against the rebuilding Calgary Flames, a 6-2 drubbing at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks, losers of five straight prior to that contest and a resounding 6-0 pounding of the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre.  To summarize, the Blue Jackets went 2-3-0 during that stretch and were outscored 15-13, an outcome which appears much less dreadful thanks primarily to the concluding 6-0 victory.

The Blue Jackets currently have six players on Injured Reserve, albeit one of the players is off-season Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) signing Nathan Horton who is recovering from off-season shoulder surgery and is expected back around New Year’s Day as well as Cody Bass who is primarily assigned to the Blue Jackets American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Springfield Falcons.  However, two of the remaining four injured players are key contributors to the team:  Marian Gaborik (sprained knee, out 4-6 weeks) and Brandon Dubinsky (bruised foot, out indefinitely) as well as Blue Jackets’ 2nd/3rd pairing defenseman Nikita Nikitin and pugilist, 4th line forward Jared Boll.

Their reigning Vezina Trophy recipient, Sergei Bobrovsky, has struggled with inconsistency, a blueline which often gets caught out of position and trying to adjust in his return to facing the Eastern Conference shooters (Bobrovsky previously played for the Philadelphia Flyers from 2010-12.  Bobrovsky’s Goals Against Average (GAA – 2.79) and Save Percentage (Save% – .907) are both ordinary at best and a far cry from his other-worldly GAA of 2.00 and .932 although it’s unfair to have expected a repeat of those dizzying numbers.

Prior to his injury, Gaborik struggled mightily, posting a lone assist and point in his last eight games played.  More disturbing was an apparent repeat of the Blue Jackets standing around, watching and waiting to see what the Slavic sniper would do in open space (on ice), something the Blue Jackets were guilty of during Rick Nash’s tenure with the organization.  One other factor in the scoring drought may also have been the Blue Jackets’ opponents often clamping down and keying on Gaborik, thus daring the Blue Jackets to beat them with their other forwards and offensive defenseman.  No matter the reason, Gaborik and the Blue Jackets are in a bit of an awkward position as Gaborik is in the last year of his contract at $7.5 million and the NHL’s trade deadline looming on March 5th, 2014.  Of course, it would help both respective parties causes if the oft-injured Gaborik could immediately contribute, offensively upon his return so as to help the team’s playoff pursuits or to drive his trade value up for the trade deadline.  Either way, the current injury and struggles don’t help either cause.

Recently, Blue Jackets General Manager (GM) Jarmo Kekalainen expressed interest in acquiring a veteran forward to help with the scoring issues that have plagued the team as well as to provide an experienced locker room presence to the NHL’s youngest team.  However, the current trade market is stagnant and the Blue Jackets decided to not renew the contract of last season’s leading scorer, Vaclav Prospal due to his age and the intent to go younger and play a faster-paced game.  One forward who may fit the bill could be Carolina Hurricanes’ forward Tuomo Ruutu, a Finnish player who has been rumored to be available for trade and could be a player fellow Fin Jarmo Kekalainen could plug in to provide some scoring punch.

There have also been recent rumblings about the job status of Blue Jackets Head Coach Todd Richards.  Although Richards did a solid job of steering the Blue Jackets through its darkest of days during the 2011-12 season as well as the furious 19-5-5 late season push towards the playoffs, his overall record with the Blue Jackets currently stands at 50-49-12.  Granted, for a team who has generally struggled throughout their 13-year history and only one head coach with a winning record during an extended tenure, a plus .500 record is generally viewed as a rousing success, for a team with increased expectations as well as a team payroll which is right up against the NHL’s salary cap would otherwise tend to lean towards desperation for a sudden change in fortunes.  However, Blue Jackets Team President of Hockey Operations John Davidson has preached a ‘brick by brick’ philosophy and Kekalainen is generally regarded as the patient type, although it can also be said that Kekalainen was also the person who ‘rolled the dice’ in acquiring Gaborik via a trade with three previous Blue Jackets starting players as well as the GM who landed one of the premier UFA targets in Horton, even with the knowledge of having to wait until January for his availability.

There are some promising signs for the Blue Jackets:  former 4th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Ryan Johansen, has begun to show the scoring proclivity and the defensive responsibility against their opponent’s top forward lines; 2nd overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Ryan Murray, has shown a scoring touch, defensive prowess and minute-munching capability far greater than his 19 years of age would otherwise suggest; defenseman David Savard, who has finally shown some of the promise the Blue Jackets organization was awaiting for the last 3-4 seasons.

What works in the favor of the Blue Jackets current holding pattern is the aforementioned overall weakness of the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference, something that its current record would otherwise position itself for next year’s NHL Entry Draft in their former membership in the tough, brutal Western Conference where they would reside near the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

However, the Blue Jackets do need to step up their efforts if they hope to make the Stanley Cup playoffs.  Although they are not far away from the 8th and final playoff position at this point of the season, six of those teams have recently caught fire and have posted a winning record in their last 10-15 games played and the other team above them, the Ottawa Senators, are a talented team projected by many pundits to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

So, unless the Blue Jackets could experience a surge in their play and fortunes, it appears that they’re stuck in a holding pattern for the time being.

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