Blue Jackets Standing Pat… For Now

Last season the Columbus Blue Jackets finished with a 32-35-15 record, good for fourth-to-last place in the entire NHL. Although many tried to pin the failure on former head coach Ken Hitchcock, it is obvious that there were numerous factors that contributed to the most disappointing season in franchise history.

Player regression issues (Derick Brassard, Steve Mason), fitness issues (Mike Commodore), injury issues (Jan Hejda, Rostislav Klesla, Fredrick Modin) and maybe even some mommy issues (Nikita Filatov) helped create a perfect storm that saw the Blue Jackets go from the franchise’s first playoff birth to another top eight draft pick — that’s 10 top eight picks in 11 NHL Entry Drafts for those of you keeping score.

Heading into the off-season, Blue Jackets management had a number of holes to fill: a new coach, a new coaching staff, a top line center, a puck-moving defenseman and (lest we forget) the all-important fourth line center.

General manager Scott Howson already has his coach and coaching staff filled. New bench boss Scott Arniel will be joined by his old Manitoba assistant Brad Berry, as well as former Windsor Spitfires head coach Bob Boughner and the recently retired Dan Hinote. It’s a young staff with a lot of NHL experience, just not behind the bench.

“Having some NHL experience, I think given with where our group of players is, was important to us,” Howson said. “I wanted, certainly, the head coach to have either had been a coach in the league or have played in the league.”

Arniel and his staff all fit Howson’s mold, but it is worrisome that Arniel is the only one with any experience behind an NHL bench. However, even with an entirely new coaching staff in place, the Blue Jackets still have a ways to go to reach their off-season goals. And, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the team will still be without a number one center heading into 2010-11.

“For ten years we’ve needed a kick–butt center. Unfortunately they don’t grow on trees,” Howson said. “We drafted a center (Ryan Johansen) with a very high pick this year. We certainly think he has a chance to be that type of player.”

There’s definitely a lot to like about the 6-foot-3 Johansen, but he’s likely two to three years away from breaking into an NHL lineup. He moves well and has excellent vision, but needs to improve in virtually all aspects of his game as well as adding about 25 pounds. He’s got a very high ceiling, but there’s no sugar coating it: Johansen is a project.

So with number one center problem (possibly) solved (in four years), the Blue Jackets are still in need of another puck-moving defenseman on the blue line. With the exception of the diminutive Kris Russell, the Blue Jackets’ defenders are not exactly most fleet of foot bunch.

Restricted free agent Anton Stralman has shown glimpses of puck-moving ability in his career, but unless things change drastically, he appears likely to become the first player in franchise history to successfully take the team to an arbitration meeting.

His future with the team may be in question. But it’s hard to imagine Blue Jackets management letting him walk away after a ruling, although he is a liability in the defensive zone and may not have a spot on locked down on Arniel’s power play.

“It doesn’t have to be a defenseman bringing the puck up [on the power play]. I like putting forwards on the back end,” Arniel said. “Defenseman don’t always like to hear it, but I like throwing forwards back there. Sometimes those guys do have that patience.”

Say Stralman does return to the mix. That will give the Blue Jackets seven NHL-calibre defensemen – eight if John Moore plays his way onto the roster. But, you can argue that there is not a top pairing defenseman among them. Howson has said he will pursue a defenseman via trade, but apparently he will not push the issue.

“There are a couple defensemen that are available for trade, but we’re not close on anything,” Howson said. “In my estimation there’s going to be five or six teams going for those two defensemen – or three defenseman, however many that are out there. I can’t gaurantee there’s going be a lot of changes.”

Those two defensemen are likely references to Vancouver’s Kevin Bieksa and Christian Ehrhoff. On Draft day, the Canucks added goaltender assassin Keith Ballard in a trade with Florida and earlier this month they signed Dan Hamhuis, whom many considered the jewel of the free agent defensive crop. Those additions to an already deep blue line make either or both Bieksa and Ehrhoff expendable.

Bieksa was linked with a trade to the Blue Jackets seemingly minutes after the ink was dry on Hamhius’ six-year deal. Ehrhoff appeared to be on his way to Columbus last summer, until San Jose GM Doug Wilson did a 180’ and shipped him to the Canucks for some spare parts. One thing is for sure: any rumor involving Filatov straight up for either Ehrhoff or Bieksa (or Pittsburgh’s Adam Goligoski) is garbage.

There are some positives to take away from the off-season thus far, especially on the coaching side. It also seems preposterous that the only addition of any “significance” to the team this off-season will be left winger Ethan Moreau, but that seems to be the way things are heading.

“I believe in the younger players getting better,” Howson said. “I expect internal growth first and foremost.”

All that can change with a phone call, but I won’t hold my breath.

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