Time To Push The Panic Button?

Coming off of another disappointing season, their second season of not making the Stanley Cup playoffs after making it for the first time in their history (2008-2009 season), Blue Jackets General Manager (GM) Scott Howson realized that the recurring themes of patience, building from within, the status quo and sub-mediocrity had worn completely thin with their fan base.  The fan base exhibited their distain by staying away in droves, last season, with a 2,000 plus drop in overall attendance and the team experienced their largest financial losses in their brief history of over $25 million.  The time for action and change was now.

To his credit, Howson displayed the aggressiveness of the 2008-2009 playoff season, altering the makeup of the Blue Jackets via trades and free agent acquisitions.  Howson acquired Philadelphia Flyers sniper Jeff Carter weeks before the NHL unrestricted free agency (UFA) signing period by trading away Jakub Voracek, a high-energy winger who teased but ultimately disappointed the Blue Jackets last season, as well as trading away the rights to their first round draft pick (8th overall) in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft.

Both portions of the deal represented radical departures for Howson: trading away one of the players Howson drafted – Howson traded away most of the Blue Jackets’ first round draft picks from his predecessor, Doug MacLean, but this was the first time he dealt away one of his own first round picks (note: in fact, this was Howson’s first ever draft selection when he assumed the reigns as GM); and trading away a first round pick in an upcoming draft.  Historically, Howson values draft picks like fine gold, but as they say, desperate times call for desperate measures.

Howson then shocked Blue Jacket fans by trading away one of his most prized draft picks, Nikita Filatov, to the Ottawa Senators, for a 3rd round draft pick.  Filatov was rated as the 2nd best overall prospect by the International Scouting Service (ISS) and the no. 1 prospect – European skaters – by the NHL Central Scouting Bureau.  Filatov had dazzled at times during his rookie campaign, highlighted by his hat trick against the Minnesota Wild during his brief nine-game NHL campaign.  In fact, coming into the following season, Filatov was ranked as the top prospect in the NHL by The Hockey News for their 2009-2010 Future Watch.  Filatov’s struggles with the organization have been documented in previous articles, but it was quite evident that his future with the organization was in doubt.

Howson saved his most aggressive move for the UFA signing period by obtaining the signing rights to high scoring defenseman James Wisniewski from the New York Islanders then signing Wisniewski for an astronomical $33 million contract over six years.  Acquiring Wisniewski not only helped address their most glaring weakness – a puck-moving, power play specialist – but it also sent a signal to the NHL that the Blue Jackets were to be taken seriously.  Howson also acquired via UFA Radek Martinek, a talented yet oft-injured defenseman, to help shore up the defensive corps, something the departure of stay-at-home stalwart Jan Hejda provided for the prior four seasons for Columbus.

But perhaps Howson’s most curious and risky move was in signing goaltender Mark Dekanich in free agency.  Dekanich, albeit a highly-regarded goalie, had only one NHL game of experience to his credit.  What that signaled was that Howson was going to ‘roll the dice’ in staying with starting netminder Steve Mason.  Mason, who captured the NHL’s Calder Trophy as its best rookie in the 2008-09 season, had struggled mightily in the two seasons that followed, ranking as the second worst goalie, statistically, in the NHL.  Howson did replace Mason’s goaltending consultant – Dave Rook – with a full-time goaltending coach in Ian Clark with the hope that a full-time goalie coach, particularly one credited with helping develop Roberto Luongo into one of the top goalies in the NHL, would help Mason regain the skills exhibited in his rookie season.

All of these off-season moves had the makings of a promising team, one slated for competing for the Stanley Cup playoffs, once again.  Additionally, Blue Jackets’ ownership upped the ante by having the NHL’s fifth-highest team payroll, thus showing their commitment to building a competitive team on the ice.  Blue Jackets’ ownership and management were also able obtain a solution for their long-running arena lease situation, one which exacerbated the mounting financial losses.  It appeared that, for once, the organization had finally exorcised the ghosts of seasons past, both on and off ice.

Flash forward to game five of the 2011-12 season…

The Blue Jackets stand at 0-4-1 and continue to search for their first win of the season.  Wisniewski is serving an eight-game suspension for a headshot to Cal Clutterbuck during an exhibition season game against the Minnesota Wild, so the Blue Jackets are unable to utilize their first legitimate power play specialist.  Mason continues to struggle with a 3.40 goals-against average and an .899 save percentage.  Some analysts have stated that Mason has not received much in the way of defensive support or offensive, goal-scoring support.  While that may be true in part, Mason has also not made a key save to keep the Blue Jackets in a game – the elite goalies in the NHL do make those key saves, an example of which is Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne’s stellar saves against the Blue Jackets on opening night.  The defensive unit continues to exhibit breakdowns in coverage, allowing far too many breakaway and open net goals.  With the exception of the first forward line, the rest of the Blue Jackets forward lines have scored only four goals through their first five games.

So, is it too early to push the panic button?  Well, the answer to that is ‘yes’; however, if a sense of urgency hasn’t hit the Blue Jackets’ locker room or the front office, it had better soon.  Wisniewski has to sit out three more games of his suspension, backup netminder Dekanich has been on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain for several weeks, so both the defense corps and Steve Mason has to step up their efforts rather quickly or the season will be lost before long.

One potential move could be for Howson to acquire a veteran goaltender to push Mason for the starting job as well as to possibly save the season.  The New York Islanders started goaltender Evgeni Nabokov last night with the intent to display him for a team in need of a veteran goaltender, as Nabokov doesn’t appear to be in the Isles’ long-term netminding plans.

Another potential move could be, if the rumors are believed to be true, is to trade center Derick Brassard to the Phoenix Coyotes for center Kyle Turris.  Brassard has been rumored to be of interest to the Toronto Maple Leafs but it’s uncertain as to what Leafs GM Brian Burke would be willing to offer, in return.  Brassard, the sixth overall pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, is similar to Voracek in that he has also teased yet disappointed the Blue Jackets with his play, as Brassard is currently manning the fourth forward line.  All the while, Turris, the third overall pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, sits in limbo and remains unsigned with the Coyotes.  Turris had a solid second tour of duty with the Coyotes after being sent to the AHL during the 2009-2010 season; however, Turris often was mired in the bottom two forward lines for the Coyotes.

Whether it’s a trade or two to shake up the Blue Jackets roster, a ‘players only’ meeting with the team’s leaders or any other method to awaken the Blue Jackets from their early season slumber, the heat, if not already on Scott Howson and head coach Scott Arniel, will soon be applied.  Combined attendance for the last two home games – 18,173 – was less than its opening night attendance mark of 18,247, evidence that their faithful are already getting restless.

So, while a bit too early to panic, the Blue Jackets have painted themselves in a corner of upcoming ‘must win’ games.

Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash said it best, “We’ve got to stop this thing, instantly.  We’ve put ourselves in a hole.  It’s going to be tough to get out of.”

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