Even though this is only the pre-season, an undercurrent of grumbling was making its way through the Columbus blogs, Tweets and message boards after a 0 – 2 – 1 start. Sure, all three were road games, and they all featured unique combinations of the 70 players invited to camp, but signs of veteran leadership and spark were missing. Factor in the troubling images of Jason Chimera being wheeled off the ice on a stretcher a few nights ago in Minnesota, Tom Sestito being carried to the locker room in Nashville rather than take the stretcher, and Fredrik Modin hobbling with a sprained MCL, and the anxiety among the fan base was palpable.
Against this backdrop, the Jackets 5 – 1 thumping of the Minnesota Wild in the Columbus home debut was just what the doctor ordered. Coach Ken Hitchcock put out the projected top line of Rick Nash, Derick Brassard and Kristian Huselius, and was rewarded with a combined seven points. Raffi Torres added a goal and an assist, Antoine Vermette tallied a short-handed breakaway, and defenseman Grant Clitsome put home a laser beam feed from Brassard. In all, the offense showed speed, chemistry and the ability to maintain possession in the offensive zone for extended periods of time. Alexandre Picard and Maxim Mayorov showed lots of energy and good speed. Andrew Murray, likely the front-runner for the fourth line center slot, showed early energy, but faded as the game went on. His chief rival, Michael Blunden, failed to impress. Agitator Jared Boll looked slow and out of shape in contrast to the others on the ice – he is definitely in a battle for a job.
In goal, Steve Mason went the distance, allowing only a late wrap-around goal after a defensive breakdown behind the net. He showed the energy and agility that brought him the Calder last season.
Defensively, the Jackets overcame a first period of scattered play in their own zone to turn in an overall solid performance. Kris Russell, Jan Heda ,Marc Methot and Rusty Klesla were quietly efficient, if unspectacular. They are still getting accustomed to some new pairings, and sometimes displayed the hesitation and imprecision you might anticipate as they adjust to each other.
One defender who did not appear plagued by uncertainty was rookie phenom John Moore. The Jackets’ first round pick this year, Moore displayed a sense of calm that belied his 18 years of age. He put in some significant minutes, worked on the power play, and showed speed, precision and the ability to make quick, accurate passes to trigger the transition game. He showed his substantial speed, and was unafraid to carry the play deep in the offensive zone. This is a skill that the Jackets have lacked, and their search for an offensive defenseman has been well documented. More on this in a bit. Grant Clitsome was given extended minutes tonight, and played credibly.
Eric Belanger, who delivered the controversial hit on Chimera back in Minnesota, was wisely held out of this contest. Nonetheless, there was a tacit hostility in the air all night, and it boiled over in the third period, with 42 minutes of fighting and roughing penalties handed out in that frame alone.
On special teams, the Jackets showed a very strong penalty kill, but once again struggled on the power play, cashing in on only one of seven chances. While that one was well-executed, they could not find the solution the balance of the time, and looked slow and uncertain in a squandered 1:19 of 5-on-3 time. Players away from the puck are spending too much time watching, and are not making those small movements necessary to create passing lanes and clear shooting alleys.
Just as it is unwarranted to become overly distraught for perceived pre-season shortcomings, so too is it unwise to get too excited about warmup victories. However, the speed and the skill were impressive, and the psychological boost was well timed. While Modin is out for as long as six weeks, Chimera has been characterized as day to day, and Sestito also appears to be better than first feared. Torres caused a brief wave of panic when he did not play in the third period. It turns out that he was experiencing back spasms, and the staff decided to have him ice his back, rather than play and risk injury.
With three games left before the season opener against the same Minnesota Wild, the Blue Jackets face a number of key decisions. In no particular order, they are:
- How Much Moore? The 18 year old has wowed everyone with his skill, speed and composure. When drafted, he was headed to Colorado College. After consulting with the team, those plans changed, with Kitchener becoming his designated destination in juniors. Now, it is clear that he will be around throughout camp, and speculation is rampant that he might start the season with the big club, much as Nikita Filatov did a year ago. As with Filatov, Moore might play eight games and then be shipped to AHL Syracuse, instead of Juniors. Complicating the equation is an institutional reticence to rush young players along, a kind of backlash against the prior Doug MacLean administration, who brought an untested Rostislav Klesla directly to the NHL, probably well before he was really ready. While a nice problem to have, it represents just another uncertainty that GM Scott Howson faces.
- Offensive Defense – Assuming that Moore does not stay with the big club, Howson still faces the lack of a strong shooting, puck moving defenseman that can engineer the power play. Kris Russell and Fedor Tyutin will get their opportunities, but nobody else (short of Moore) has distinguished themselves as a likely candidate for this role. Rumor has it that Toronto is willing to shop Mike Van Ryn cheaply. He has the requisite right hand shot, and good size, but injuries have limited him to 47 games over the past two seasons. Vancouver also has a glut of defensemen. With Chimera on the mend, Howson still has a glut of wingers, which he could leverage into something, if he is so inclined. Although professing he is ready to move into the season with the current hand, word on the street is that there is some active shopping underway.
- Sorting out the Wings — While the top two lines are likely set (Nash, Huselius, Brassard, Umberger, Vermette, Voracek) there are numerous contenders for the remaining six slots. Pahlsson clearly has the third line center slot nailed down, and Raffi Torres appears to have one of the wings claimed. Murray and Blunden are the likely contenders for the fourth line center slot. This leaves Chimera, Filatov, Mayorov, Picard, Dorsett and Boll to contend for the final four slots, together with Modin, once he returns from injury. Most consider Filatov as a likely member of the big club come opening day, and a contender for a top six slot before long. While some depth can be maintained, due to two way contracts, it would not be surprising to see one or two of these players move in a deal before the end of camp.
With a plethora of young talent, combined with some key veteran leadership, Ken Hitchcock and Scott Howson have problems most coaches and GM’s in the league would love to have.