Back in November, I wrote a two-part article titled ‘Who’s to Blame for Columbus Blue Jackets’ Mess?’ – in part one, I identified senior Blue Jackets management as the primary culprit to the mess. However, team majority owner John P. McConnell has expressed his full support of Blue Jackets team president Mike Priest and General Manager (GM) Scott Howson during meetings with the entire ownership group.
It should be noted, however, that McConnell’s proclamation incensed the fan base to the point of staging a mass protest demanding that changes be made to these two specific senior management officials. Given the apparent “vote of confidence” by McConnell, any changes to this sector of the organization don’t appear imminent.
But that is not to say that changes cannot be made to improve the fortunes of the Blue Jackets, albeit they won’t be recognized until next season at the earliest.
So the question is, how do you improve the fortunes of the NHL’s worst team (14-32-6) one with a disgruntled center in Jeff Carter, one who is rumored to be on the trading block, a downtrodden, fragile locker room, a rapidly dwindling fan base and possessing no prospects – for the remainder of the regular season – beyond qualifying for the number one overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft?
Simple, you ‘blow it up.’ However, this approach will not be as easy as it sounds given the dwindling faith the fan base has in Scott Howson and Mike Priest to make the necessary moves, effectively. These concerns are primarily based in Howson’s overall approach to building the Blue Jackets, that being the model he employed while the Assistant GM for the Edmonton Oilers from 2002-2007 a stretch in which they made the Stanley Cup playoffs only once during this six-year span. The shortcomings of this model are that of a pre-lockout methodology, one which doesn’t give consideration to building a team via a slew of high lottery draft picks as the Edmonton Oilers is currently employing and which built the Pittsburgh Penguins to their current level of prominence.
But if Howson can show a different type of patience as is being well received by Oilers fans and can depart from his risk-adverse approach of the past three seasons, the Blue Jackets rebuild can be done successfully. The fan base will be patient so long as they know it’s being done in a proven, effective manner.
So how do the Blue Jackets fix this mess?
First of all, it requires the most difficult of decisions: Do you keep or do you build around Rick Nash? It is no secret that Rick Nash is one of the NHL’s elite talents but it’s also no secret that the Blue Jackets have not effectively built the team around their talented forward. Adding Jeff Carter over the summer has proven to be an ill-conceived fit as he and Nash have not meshed nor does it appear that Carter had ever wished to come to or remain inColumbus.
So, if you can’t build around Rick Nash then perhaps the solution is to trade Rick Nash. While the mere mention of doing so can be equated to heresy, it can be successful if Howson can garner a fair return or possibly exceed a fair return for Nash – i.e. a King’s Ransom. But this requires a courage of conviction and a combination of swagger and savvy that greatly exceeds Howson’s previous moves with the organization, but it can and has been done.
What could Rick Nash gather in a trade? That is the subject for a separate article but it’s safe to say that Nash could garner a slew of overall top draft picks and young, proven NHL-level and NHL-ready talent, something akin to what the Blue Jackets would receive if an offer sheet were to have been extended during the summer of 2009 as was speculated by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But I do believe that while the Blue Jackets could and should consider trading either Nash or Carter, I also don’t believe Howson will trade both All-Stars.
Beyond Nash and Carter, what players should be considered to be offered up in a trade to change the landscape and direction of the Blue Jackets? I offer some candidates and what the possible return could be:
Vinny Prospal – outside of Nash and Carter, Prospal is easily the Blue Jackets’ biggest trade deadline bargaining chip. Although Prospal has recently struggled, he still displays the offensive acumen and veteran savvy that is highly attractive to a team set to embark on a Stanley Cup playoff quest. As Prospal is an Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA), he will be strictly viewed as a highly-valued rental and should be able to garner a 2nd round draft pick.
Antoine Vermette – to say that Vermette has mightily struggled is an understatement but his skill set as a checking, north-south, speed forward with elite face-off abilities cannot be questioned. Vermette can garner either a late 1st or 2nd round draft pick or a top-four pairing defenseman.
RJ Umberger – see Antoine Vermette. It’s difficult to ascertain why Umberger’s abilities have diminished so quickly this season – is it an injury that a tough athlete like Umberger hasn’t disclosed, a level of disinterest based on the team’s overall performance or is it an expressed doubt in the organization’s ability to be successful in the near term? A player of Umberger’s historical abilities can provide a similar return to Vermette or can provide a NHL-ready prospect that the Blue Jackets can employ for seasons to come.
Samuel Pahlsson – the impending Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) is believed to be in demand for a team who is positioning themselves for a Stanley Cup title run, one who is in need of a shutdown center that Pahlsson has demonstrated in Anaheim and in Chicago but has not had the opportunity to demonstrate with the struggling Blue Jackets. Pahlsson should be able to draw a mid to later round draft pick.
Kristian Huselius – Huselius is also an impending UFAwho could provide an offensive playmaker to a playoff-contending team. The problem is that Huselius has only played two games this season and his return to action is unknown at this time. A healthy Huselius could garner a 2nd or 3rd round draft pick but any team interested would have to do so at a great risk. If Huselius doesn’t return until after the NHL’s trade deadline, the Blue Jackets will opt not to renew his contract.
Derek MacKenzie – MacKenzie is also slated to be a UFA at season’s end and although the previous career American Hockey League (AHL) lifer has been a successful checking center who provides a great deal of energy and character to the team, he also doesn’t appear to be in the Blue Jackets long-term plans. MacKenzie can nab a return of a late-round draft pick or can be part of a multi-player package with a more attractive player.
Jared Boll – Boll has struggled with injuries and Derek Dorsett’s rise as a leader, scorer and agitator, rendering Boll’s value to the Blue Jackets to be somewhat obsolete. Boll would obtain the same return as MacKenzie and could also be part of a multi-player deal.
Steve Mason – It’s hard to fathom that the 2009 Calder Trophy winner as the NHL’s top rookie’s stock has fallen this far, but Mason’s numbers don’t lie: he has been the NHL’s worst statistical goaltender over the past three seasons. Any team willing to take a risk on rehabilitating the large netminder would have to do so as part of a long-term reclamation project. It’s believed Mason will either be waived or will be assigned to the Blue Jackets AHL affiliate inSpringfield,MAfor the remainder of his contract which runs through next season.
While constructing what the ‘new look’ Columbus Blue Jackets would look like after this seismic overhaul is the subject of a separate article, what’s apparent is that the direction and composition of this team would be that of a young, energetic, passionate team that’s grounded in a stingy, defense-first philosophy with an emphasis on obtaining and developing an elite starting goaltender. The Blue Jackets need look no further than their Central Division rivals, the Nashville Predators.