Mike Knuble, Steve Mason

Blue Jackets’ rebound hopes ultimately rest on Steve Mason’s shaky shoulders

Their financial struggles might not draw the same amount of attention as the New York Islanders or Phoenix Coyotes, but the bottom line is that the Columbus Blue Jackets are in a pretty desperate situation themselves. They’re hoping for some government help to keep them from hemorrhaging even more money and maybe even move the team, but one of the most important things that could help them turn around is a deviously simple proposition. They need to put together an actual contending team for once.

Simply put, the Blue Jackets have fallen well short of that mark for just about their entire existence, with the only minor exception being their spirited run to the playoffs in 2008-09 that was immediately squashed by a brutal sweep at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings.

Mason brings down Blue Jackets with him

In a way, that dispiriting sweep highlighted the disturbing possibility that Steve Mason’s impressive rookie season might have been a mirage. Mason has been the definition of a mediocre NHL goalie since then, sporting the save percentage of a backup (.901) and a middling record (44-47-16) during the last two seasons. And to be honest, Mason’s numbers tailed off quite a bit even in that first season; a .916 save percentage would represent a down year for Tomas Vokoun, a goalie the Blue Jackets should have at least flirted with.

Aaron Portzline points out a disturbing fact from the 2010-11 season: Brian Elliott is the only NHL goalie with 50+ starts whose save percentage and goals against average ranked lower than Mason’s marks. While the Blue Jackets are tying a pivotal season to Mason, Elliott might not even win a battle to backup Jaroslav Halak in St. Louis.

Garon’s departure removes face-saving safety net

Speaking of backups, the Blue Jackets took a problematic step back in that department, raising their risk factor that much more. Mathieu Garon escaped to Tampa Bay this off-season after producing virtually identical numbers to Mason last season. Their odds-on backup is Mark Dekanich, a prospect who has exactly one game of NHL experience to his credit.

Looking at this awfully questionable situation, it’s not surprising that Portzline thinks that if Mason goes down in flames, Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson will go down with him.

Before the Twitter neophyte introduced new additions Jeff Carter, James Wisniewski, Vinny Prospal and Radek Martinek to his 5,821 followers, Howson needed to decide whether Steve Mason was still the Blue Jackets goaltender. Not an easy choice for a general manager who has to know another season without the playoffs is likely his last.

Mason was the Calder Trophy winner in 2009 leading the Jackets to their only playoff appearance. He’s been among the league’s most inconsistent players since. He’s resembled a franchise building block on some nights and a guy trying to swat a swarm of bees on others. Of goaltenders with 50-plus appearances, only Brian Elliot had a worse goals against average and save percentage last season.

That doesn’t mean Howson has made the wrong decision. It’s just means the near futures of the goaltender and general manager are irrevocably intertwined. Howson is banking on the improvement of a fourth-year pro who has the pedigree and skills. To make the playoffs, the Blue Jackets don’t need Mason to be a great as he was in 2008-09, but they need him to be much better than he’s been the past two seasons.

I’m not so sure that Mason doesn’t need to be great, at least if you define the complete body of work that was his overrated rookie season as “great.” James Wisniewski and Jeff Carter should give the Blue Jackets more offensive punch, but neither are the kind of two-way players who dominate at both ends. In other words, an already suspect Columbus defense might be even worse next season, especially after they lost a decent defenseman in Jan Hejda and traded one of their other better ones in Rostislav Klesla last season.

The team’s formula calls for them to score a ton of goals while being just good enough in their own end. That all hinges on Mason – and quite frankly – I really don’t like their chances. What do you think, though? Will Columbus make a much-needed run to the playoffs? Let us know in the comments.

Conditional trades ‘in vogue’ in the NHL

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 17: Patrick Eaves #18 of the Dallas Stars skates against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on January 17, 2017 in New York City. The Stars defeated the Rangers 7-6.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The NHL trade deadline can make for some conflicting interests come playoff time.

No one outside Minnesota is cheering harder for the Wild than the Arizona Coyotes because they get a second-round pick if Martin Hanzal helps Minnesota reach the third round. The Tampa Bay Lightning would love nothing more than Ben Bishop leading the Los Angeles Kings to the Stanley Cup Final.

Conditional trades based on a team’s playoff success, and a player’s part in it, are all the rage right now in the NHL.

Already, four pre-deadline deals include draft picks contingent on how far a team goes in the playoffs. There were 13 such trades combined at the past four deadlines.

“It’s in vogue,” Florida Panthers president of hockey operations Dale Tallon said. “It’s a creative way of doing things. If you have success, you don’t mind paying more. If you’re successful and go deeper, you don’t mind giving up an extra asset or more of an asset.”

Trades conditional on playoff success sometimes happen in the NFL, like when the Minnesota Vikings acquired quarterback Sam Bradford from the Philadelphia Eagles last year, but they’re virtually nonexistent in other North American professional sports leagues outside of protected picks in the NBA. They’ve become commonplace in the NHL, in part because they’ve worked out swimmingly a few times.

When the Chicago Blackhawks won it all in 2015, they didn’t mind sending an extra second-round pick to the Flyers for Kimmo Timonen for reaching the Cup Final and the defenseman playing in at least half their games. A year earlier, the Kings gave the Columbus Blue Jackets an extra third-round pick to complete a trade for Marian Gaborik after the winger helped them win their second title in three seasons.

The Kings could give up as high as a second-round pick if Bishop wins them the Cup this season but wouldn’t surrender much of anything if they miss the playoffs. GM Dean Lombardi, who also made the 2014 Gaborik trade, called it a “common sense” way of getting a deal done.

“If I was making a deal here or something and (someone) says, `I’m giving five first-rounders and you’ll win the Cup,’ you’ll do it,” Lombardi said. “You don’t mind paying if your team has success.”

The same is true of the Anaheim Ducks, who would give the Dallas Stars a first-round pick instead of a second for Patrick Eaves if they reach the Western Conference final and the winger plays 50 percent or more of their games. After some haggling, Dallas GM Jim Nill said that was the final piece of getting the trade done.

The idea of contenders gambling on themselves makes all the sense in the world. But trade deadline sellers also like the concept.

The Coyotes were looking to get the best deal for Hanzal , so they bet on him contributing to the Wild’s success.

“We believe strongly that with Martin, Minnesota has a chance to do some things that could be pretty special, and we want to share in some of that upside,” Arizona GM John Chayka said. “We share in the risk, we share in the upside. It’s just a creative way to try and bridge the gap and get a deal done.”

Lombardi would love to make salaries and salary-cap hits contingent on playoff success because if a team goes further it’s also making more money along the way. But the league doesn’t allow that.

Maybe that’s for the best because these kinds of trades make things complicated. Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee, who sent a conditional pick to Florida in 1998 for Esa Tikkanen the year his Washington Capitals made the Cup Final, pointed out that those trades freeze a lot of potential draft picks that could be pieces of other trades.

“The difficulty in doing that is it ties up a lot of picks,” McPhee said. “If they’re encumbered you can’t use them.”

That hasn’t stopped the trend, though, with teams hedging their bets and playing it safe.

“You give yourself a little bit of a protection, too, if you don’t quite go as far as you think you will,” Tallon said.

 

Wild prospect suspended after hallway fight on Saturday

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The AHL announced today that Iowa Wild forward Kurtis Gabriel has been suspended six games as “a consequence of his actions in a game at Chicago on Feb. 25.”

As you can see in the video, Gabriel had an on-ice and off-ice fight with Wolves defenseman Vince Dunn on Saturday.

The video shows that it was Gabriel who approached Dunn in the hallway, and it was Gabriel who initiated the altercation.

In the end, it was also Gabriel who got the worst of the skirmish, with a six-game suspension to boot.

From the press release:

Gabriel was suspended under the provisions of AHL Rule 28.1 (supplementary discipline). He has already served one game of the suspension; he will also miss Iowa’s games Saturday (Mar. 4) at Rockford; Mar.10 and Mar. 11 at Texas; Mar. 17 at Milwaukee; and Mar. 18 vs. Milwaukee.

Habs acquire Jordie Benn from Stars

DALLAS, TX - OCTOBER 04:  Jordie Benn #24 of the Dallas Stars during a preseason game at American Airlines Center on October 4, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The Montreal Canadians have acquired defenseman Jordie Benn from the Dallas Stars in return for d-man Greg Pateryn and a fourth-round pick in 2017.

The Habs had been shopping the 26-year-old Pateryn. He has one goal and five assists in 24 games this season. He’s signed through next season for a cap hit of $800,000.

In Benn, the Canadiens get a 29-year-old defensive defenseman who’s signed through 2018-19 for a cap hit of $1.1 million.

Benn, of course, is also the brother of Stars captain Jamie Benn.

Trade: Sens acquire Burrows from Canucks

Alex Burrows
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Sens owner Eugene Melnyk said he wanted GM Pierre Dorion to be aggressive in the club’s pursuit of a playoff spot.

So on Monday, Ottawa started making moves, acquiring veteran forward Alex Burrows in a trade with the Canucks.

Vancouver’s News1130 reports that Burrows agreed to waive his no-trade clause to facilitate the move and, what’s more, has agreed to a two-year extension. (TSN has also reported the extension).

In exchange, prospect Jonathan Dahlen is on his way to Vancouver. Dahlen was Ottawa’s second-round pick (42nd overall) at last year’s draft, and is currently playing with Timra of the Swedish League. He sits sixth in Allsvenskan (Swedish second division) scoring this year, with 42 points in 44 games.

“Jonathan is a very skilled player with natural goal-scoring instincts,” said Canucks GM Jim Benning. “He’s had a terrific season playing in Sweden and was a big part of Sweden’s offense at the World Juniors. His offensive upside combined with his willingness to go to difficult areas of the ice will make him a valuable player for our organization moving forward.”

Burrows, 35, is in the last of a four-year, $18 million deal with a $4.5M average annual cap hit. He’s enjoyed a decent bounce-back campaign in Vancouver, with nine goals and 20 points through 55 games. That nearly matches his totals from a disappointing ’15-16 season, when he went 9G-13A-22PTS over 79 contests.

A four-time 20-goal scorer, Burrows is no longer the effective, grating presence he once was, but can still provide energy and has enough versatility to play up and down the Ottawa lineup. What’s more, he has a truckload of postseason experience, notching 34 points in 70 career contests.

Burrows was also one of Vancouver’s top producers during the 2011 Stanley Cup Final run, with nine goals and 17 points in 25 games.

The move signals the end of an era for the Canucks — Burrows, an undrafted free agent that worked his way up from the ECHL, has spent his entire 12-year NHL career in Vancouver, appearing in over 800 regular-season contests.

He was also responsible for scoring one of the most memorable goals in franchise history.