directory Light the Lamp - a Columbus Blue Jackets blog: Columbus Blue Jackets Offseason Analysis

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Columbus Blue Jackets Offseason Analysis

Its getting close to crunch time (no pun intended to Syracuse) for Scott Howson and his Columbus Blue Jackets. The draft is just over 20 days away with Unrestricted Free Agency just over a month away.

With 7 losing non-playoff seasons, a dwindling season ticket base, over 20 million to spend and expendable assets to trade with most would say this is the biggest off season in this history of the franchise.

..and they will be absolutely correct. The time to win is an unequivocally now!

So what needs to happen this off season to build a playoff winner not only for now but for the future as well?

As M.C. Hammer would say, lets break it down.

As much as we want to win now the philosophy towards building a winner can't change. There are no quick fixes. The franchise needs excellent coaching, smart drafting/development and the core of the team must be built through the draft and supplemented with smart trades that help today and tomorrow. The gaps are then filled via Unrestricted Free Agents.

The coaching is there with Ken Hitchcock who is a Stanley Cup winning coach and has established an identity for this team. He has also let Rick Nash, Nik Zherdev and Pascal Leclaire to their best seasons by far as pros. At the same time he's really exposed the games of previous long standing Jackets as David Vyborny and Duvie Westcott. Given some talent, Hitch knows what it takes to bring home a winner and is a career coach.

The drafting has been an achilles heal of this franchise and is only just now beginning to find its way not only in terms of the first round talent but also in later rounds with the likes of OK Tollefsen, Andrew Murray, Kris Russell and Jared Boll making solid contributions to the big team. Mining NHL caliber talent in later rounds must continue to sustain long term success.

We know the roster as its currently formed is not a playoff team. Hitch took this group as far as it could go. Howson knows this as he's now had plenty of time to evaluate this group. Gone already are Vyborny, Shelley, Foote, Fedorov & Tarnstrom with others like Ron Hainsey to follow. All indications point towards expecting major personnel changes and around 7 to 8 new faces in the lineup next season.

Part of the core are there with Rick Nash being the centerpiece. Pascal Leclaire has shown the ability last year to be that franchise goatlender but needs re-signed. Rusty Klesla, while he won't live up to the potential that made him the 4th overall pick in 2000, has found his niche as a shutdown d-man who eats key minutes at a reasonable price. Jason Chimera has been locked down for the next four years and will provide leadership, size and 3rd line scoring for the foreseeable future.

These guys need help though and its Howson's job to get it for them.

Lets take a look at how he'll get there by first examining the draft, trades, free agency and then his own house.

The Jackets own 9 selections including two in the first round (6th & 19th) and one in the second (36th) in this draft.

As I mentioned earlier there are no short-cuts to building a consistent contender and to get there the draft plays a big big role.

I expect Howson to retain at least one of the 1st round picks and likely the second round pick (36th) for that very reason. A team in a market like Columbus who can't spend to the cap must keep its prospect pipeline stocked and flowing. Its the cheapest way to supplement your roster with quality talent and its the best way to build loyalty towards a franchise in a new market with next to no hockey history.

To get some of the key missing pieces for this team though I fully expect one of the firsts to be used as trade bait. As to which one it will all depend on the player(s) offered. This draft is strong, real strong, so those picks will hold a lot of value. Howson will not sacrifice or give away these picks for the sake of short term fix though.

As far as who may be the newest 1st round pick come draft day -- well here are a couple of names to keep an eye on:

6th - Luke Schenn, Nikita Filatov, Alex Pietrangelo, Tyler Myers, Colin Wilson, Mikkel Boedker, Cody Hodgson

19th - Colten Tuebert, Mattias Tenenby, Michael Del Zotto, Joe Colborne

Outside of maybe Filatov or Schenn, none of those names are expected to make the jump to the NHL next season.

We've been told by Scott Howson to prepare for a lot of press conferences this summer. To CBJ fans that is cannon fire to our ears.

Lets not kid ourselves though, Columbus is not the first city or team that comes to mind for Unrestricted Free Agents so until this team makes some noise in the win column they are going to have to look towards trades to fill their holes....or should I say GAPING holes.

Open vacancies:
1st line center
2nd line center
1st pairing d-man
2nd pairing d-man
Top 6 wing

Can Howson fill all of that in one off season? Doubtful but no reason he can't try. Out of those 5 positions there is no question that 1st line center and 1st pairing d-men are the most critical. Those will be Howson's priorities.

With more d-men and wings available this off season its likely that a center will have to be acquired via trade so that will be his primary target. A name like Patrick Marleau comes to mind.

I would say just about anything would be available (including the 6th & 19th) for the right player except Rick Nash, Pascal Leclaire, Steve Mason, Derrek Brassard & Jakub Voracek. Now if it was a top 10-15 player in this league then that list quickly dwindles down to just Rick Nash & Pascal Leclaire.

Its very unlikely the organization would move recently signed players Jan Hejda, Jason Chimera or Andrew Murray. Freddy Modin also has a NTC.

Looks for a big deal or two leading up to or at the draft table on June 20th.

Unrestricted Free Agency
The Jackets will be players this year - no doubt in my mind. The question is out of all the lines they throw in the pond, what kind of fish can they reel in?

The Jackets will push hard for a defensemen or two. If names like Campbell, Liles or Redden hit the market expect Howson to make huge offers. I could also see interest from him with names like Mara, Rozsival, Commodore & Orpik. It really depends on who is available and if he has acquired any via trade prior to July 1st.

Also look for Howson to make a heavy pitch for a UFA winger. Ryan Malone's name should be right at the top of that list along with guys like Stillman, Prospal, Brunette & Rolston. I also wouldn't rule out Huselius, Hagman or Fedotenko - not ideal guys for a Hitchcock system but could provide much needed supplemental scoring which Hitch would squeeze out of them one way or another.

Offer Sheets
Howson hasn't ruled out getting into the offer sheet business. I'm not a big fan but if he strikes out in trades and in free agency he may not have a choice and there are some potential juicy names out there including:

Jeff Carter, Patrick O'Sullivan, Pierre Marc-Bouchard, R.J. Umberger, Mike Green, Joe Pavelski, Correy Perry, Andrei Kostitsyn, Tim Gleason, Joni Pitkanen, Shea Weber & Ryan Suter.

All of those guys could help Columbus no doubt but would Howson be willing to pay what it takes to get one of them with draft picks? An offer sheet from say 4 to 5 million equates to two 1st round picks, a 2nd and 3rd. Anything above that is four 1st round picks.

The other way to fill roster spots of course is to promote from within. The two biggest names on the horizon are Derrek Brassard and Jakub Voracek. Brassard was given time to develop on the farm and he had very good year - especially down the stretch. Voracek is a guy the organization is very high on who, because of his age, is ineligible to play for Syracuse of the AHL next season so it will be either Columbus or back to Halifax of the QMJHL for him.

I expect both to be make the team but their roles won't be determined in camp. If there is one thing we've learned since Hitch and Howson arrived, its that a spot won't just be given to you.

Keep your eye on some other players as well including Tom Sestito and Derrek Dorsete. Both could pull a "Boll" and make the team out of camp with their physical and relentless style of play.

Take Care of Own House
Of course Howson has to take care of his own house as well. He's got a key RFA to sign of his own in goaltender Pascal Leclaire. That negotiation is no slam dunk and who is to say he won't receive an offer sheet?

He also has to decide what to do with RFAs like Fritsche, Methot, Lindstrom, Rome, Picard and Wilson. Then there are UFAs on the farm like Konopka, McKenzie and Smith.

Finally he needs to get Ken Hitchcock signed to an multi-year extension although I don't see that happening until after the organization proves to Hitch that they are committed to winning.


Its certainly a big off season. Look for major turnover, fresh faces and renewed optimism for this team in Columbus next year. Howson will use every tool at his disposal to get the players he seeks.

Now if only I could get my crystal ball working to make some predictions. Anyone got some AA's out there?


1 comment:

LTL said...

I know some of this is redundant to what I've wrote before in this space but I was asked to write this for another site and thought what the hell, might as well post here as well.