Midnight August 15th came and went, and Tomas Kaberle remains a Toronto Maple Leaf. The Columbus Blue Jackets (along with half the league) made their pitch to Toronto general manager Brian Burke, but it appears that the Kaberle trade saga has come to an end. That is, until late February, as the March 2 trade deadline creeps closer and closer.
Don’t count on the Blue Jackets to get involved in Burke’s bidding war next time around as Kaberle will likely be a rental, with free agency right around the corner. A buddy of mine suggested Kaberle might refuse to waive his no-trade-clause come deadline time, and stick it to the GM that has spent the better part of three seasons trying to trade him by leaving for nothing as a free agent. Hell hath no fury, eh?
Regardless, the Blue Jackets need to improve their blue line, but at what cost? With Kaberle off the market (for the time being) the focus of the Blue Jackets, and every other team that lost out, will likely shift to Vancouver. The Canucks are reportedly shopping defender Kevin Bieksa, who has become expendable with the off-season acquisitions of Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis.
Bieksa is a strong, stocky defender listed at 6-0, 205 pounds. He owns a very heavy right-handed shot and gets the puck to the net. He led the Canucks in blue line scoring in 2006-07 and 2008-09. He missed significant time due to injury in both 2007-08 and last season. He’s also not afraid to mix things from the blue line in and is more than willing to drop the gloves.
Bieksa would without a doubt be a welcome addition to an underwhelming group of defenders. He has been linked with a move to the Jackets since early July, but his trade value increases exponentially with Kaberle staying put. And, if Vancouver GM Mike Gillis is indeed requesting young Russian winger Nikita Filatov, who was reportedly offered as part of a package for Kaberle, I have a hard time seeing the Blue Jackets bringing in the former Bowling Green standout.
“Internal growth” has been Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson’s mantra for the upcoming season. He said he believes the young core of this team will continue to improve and build off a relatively strong finish to an abysmal 2009-10 campaign. It’s a gamble that he made last offseason as well, and that obviously did not pay off.
Howson is hoping that the addition of a completely revamped coaching staff – only goaltender coach Dave Rook remains from last season – will be able to get youngsters like center Derick Brassard and goaltender Steve Mason to turn the corner after disastrous sophomore campaigns. Head coach Scott Arniel and his staff will have their hands full, but at least assistant coach Dan Hinote is confident in a turnaround.
“We’re not coming in here hoping to turn this thing around in a few years or three years,” Hinote said. “We want to do it now. We have the team, we have the guys and we have the systems.”
Whether the Blue Jackets can make such a drastic climb up the standings remains to be seen.
The only roster addition the team has made this summer was the waiver wire pick up of former Oilers captain Ethan Moreau. He appears to have a spot locked down to the left of Sammy Pahlsson on the Blue Jackets’ checking line, but Arniel has stated numerously that nothing is set in stone. What Moreau brings, aside from an ugly $2 million cap hit according to capgeek.com, is leadership and a fiery presence on the ice and in the locker room.
It should be noted, though, that the Blue Jackets made very few roster changes after the team’s lone playoff appearance two seasons ago. They brought in Pahlsson to replace the departed Manny Malhotra and signed Mathieu Garon to backup Mason. However, many pin the team’s internal issues last season on a lack of leadership with the departure of Malhotra and veteran Michael Peca.
Howson is gambling that Moreau and veteran Chris Clark, who was more or less a throw-in the December trade that sent Jason Chimera to Washington, will be able to provide the leadership core that was lacking much of last season. Of course, whereas Hitchcock’s playoff team relied on a tough defense and penalty kill, Arniel’s team will focus on playing an up-tempo, puck-possession game.
Arniel seems much more receptive to separating super star Rick Nash from mercurial winger Kristian Huselius than the former staff. That could mean that Jakub Voracek, who finished last season on a tear with 22 points in his final 23 games could get bumped to the first line. It’s a move that would allow Nash to return to left wing, his natural position, and allow Voracek to play along on of the most talented finishers in the league.
Anton Vermette and Brassard will center to first two lines, which one will center which will be decided after training camp. That leaves two winger positions in the top six and three quality candidates. For all aloofness of Huselius, the guy puts up 55-65 points a year. That can’t be understated. RJ Umberger accumulated 49 goals over the past two seasons and is invaluable with his two-way strength.
That leaves Filatov. The talented Russian is already back in Columbus, weeks before the start of training camp, and appears to be trying to make amends for last season’s disappearing act. He’s useless to the team, both as a player and a trade asset if he’s not getting top six minutes, but that doesn’t mean he’ll have a spot locked down. He has loads of potential, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him shipped. But, only for the right defenseman.
So as it stands, the Blue Jackets will enter next season with some very familiar faces and very familiar questions. Sound like deja vu? Well it seems hard for them to finish any worse than last season.