2011-2012 season preview: Columbus Blue Jackets

2010-2011 record: 34-35-13, 81 points; 5th in Central, 13th in West

Playoffs: Did not qualify

After another last-place finish in the Central Division and losing a ton of money last season, the Blue Jackets management knew they needed to do something to shake things up this offseason. Mission accomplished. They went out and acquired a bona fide top-line center in Jeff Carter and signed pending unrestricted free agent James Wisniewski to help bring points and mobility from the back-end. The good news is that there’s much more buzz around the team than your average 13th-place team. The bad news, of course, is that they were the 13th-place team in the West last season.

Offense

Offense should be the strength in Ohio’s capital this season. Jeff Carter joining Rick Nash gives the Blue Jackets one of the best pure scoring duos in the entire league. In fact, over the last four seasons, Carter and Nash are among the league leaders in goals (5th and 6th respectively). Any right wing the team chooses to put on the top line with the pair should instantly become one of the more feared lines in the league.

It’s not just the top line either. The center situation in Columbus is better than ever with the Carter addition, Derick Brassard possibly making the permanent move to center, and Ryan Johansen making the jump to the NHL. Youngsters Matt Calvert and Cam Atkinson will join veterans Kristian Huselius, Antoine Vermette, and R.J. Umberger to give the Blue Jackets some decent forward depth this season.

Defense

The Blue Jackets think they answered their defensive questions for the next few seasons by bringing in James Wisniewski and Radek Martinek to man the blue line. They also were able to sign Marc Methot to a four-year extension in the offseason to keep the puck out of their own net as well. As long as the Jackets understand that Wisniewski is not a shutdown defenseman and put him in the position to succeed as an offensive blueliner, they should be happy with what he brings to the table. They haven’t had an offensive blueliner with Wisniewski’s skill set to take care of the point on the power play in a while — maybe ever; Wisniewski will join Grant Clitsome to create offense. The major question at this point is whether the stay-at-home defensemen will be able to hold their own throughout the season. Methot and Fedor Tyutin will be key to the Blue Jackets success.

Goalies

This is the biggest question mark in Columbus — maybe the biggest question mark in the entire Central Division. Steve Mason was once again handed the keys to the car this offseason. With Mathieu Garon leaving town via free agency, it’s the former Calder Trophy winning goaltenders team to lead. Since the Blue Jackets went out and signed unproven Mark Dekanich to a one-way contract as their back-up, it’s clear that it is Mason’s job to lose.

Everyone will be happy in Columbus if Mason can rediscover the form that showed he was a legit No. 1 goaltender in the league. His 2.29 goals against average is almost a full goal lower than his 3.02 goals against average he’s posted in the two seasons since. Simply put: the difference between the 2008-09 goaltender and the last two years, is the difference between a team fighting for a playoff spot and one fighting for a top draft pick.

Coaching

Scott Arniel wasn’t the most successful guy in his first season with the Blue Jackets, but most around the team will tell you that it wasn’t his fault. He’s been able to get the team to buy into his system and play hard on a nightly basis. The problem was that last season the team simply didn’t have the talent or consistent goaltending to win on a nightly basis. As most people will tell you: a coach is only as good as the players he has on the ice. With the high-profile acquisitions and increased expectations, Arniel must find a way to put more wins on the board.

Breakout candidate

The boom-or-bust candidate is unquestionably Johansen. The No. 4 overall pick has made the team out of training camp and will be in the lineup on opening night. The coaching staff has also said that Johansen’s training camp is ongoing and they haven’t closed to door to sending him back to the Portland Winterhawks (WHL) for another season in juniors. If he sticks with the big club, he could push for a role on a scoring line before the end of the season. He’s a big, rangy center with spectacular vision that has impressed just about everyone who has seen him play. With the talent the Blue Jackets should have on the wing this season, Johansen could be racking up the points in no time.

Best-case scenario

If everything falls right for the Blue Jackets, they could fight for a playoff spot. Carter and Nash will have to prove their styles can work together (both shoot a ton) and Wisniewski will have to prove that he can be responsible on both ends of the ice while playing big time minutes. If the newcomers produce to the level management expects and Mason can find the game he’s lost the last two seasons, the Blue Jackets will have a shot at one of the final playoff spots.

Reality

The Blue Jackets have a lot of questions they need to answer before we can call them playoff contenders. Martinek needs to figure out a way to be health, Brassard needs to take advantage of the opportunity as second-line center, and Clitsome and Methot need to prove that they can be top-four defensemen for an entire season. Even if all of those questions are answered, the season still will hinge on Mason’s ability to stop the puck. If he can’t, there is no safety net to speak of. Those are a lot of questions for a team playing in one of the most difficult divisions in the NHL. They should do better than last season, but the playoffs still look like they could be out of reach.

In prepping Vegas for draft, McPhee cites ‘outstanding’ record with Caps

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George McPhee is a veteran of the draft process, having presided over nearly 20 during his time with the Caps.

This year, he’s in a unique position — spearheading the first draft for the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights — and he suggests his past success should set him up well for the future.

“I think we have an outstanding staff,” McPhee said, per the club website. “I think our draft record in my previous job was outstanding.”

Assessments like these are always up for debate — draft success is somewhat subjective, and there are inevitably a bunch of misses among the hits — but McPhee does have a strong history of drafting and developing players, and could point to the current Capitals as validation to his claim.

The active roster has 11 players that were original draftees (Braden Holtby, Philip Grubauer, Dmitry Orlov, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Tom Wilson, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky and Nicklas Backstrom), with goalies Holtby and Grubauer — both fourth-round picks — emerging as pretty good finds.

McPhee’s strategy? Go big or go home.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever played it safe going to the draft,” he explained. “I believe in swinging for the fences, and trying to find someone who can be a real difference maker. The difference makers are those core guys on your team, those 4-5 players that become elite players are the ones that can really take you a long way.

“They are hard to find. Those are the ones I’d like to swing for.”

At this year’s draft in Chicago, Vegas should have a shot at landing an impact guy. The club will have the same odds of winning the lottery as the team that finishes with the third fewest points this season and, though it’s considered a weak draft overall, there is some serious talent at the top end.

WHL Brandon’s Nolan Patrick, QMJHKL Halifax’s Nico Hischier and OHL Windsor’s Gabriel Vilardi are all considered high-end prospects and — importantly — all three play center. For a team that’s building from scratch, filling that position is of vital importance.

McPhee acknowledged this is a weaker draft, but contended those are the ones “where the best teams excel.” He theorizes that with fewer quality players available, the strongest teams emerge with the good ones.

He also shared how the Golden Knights plan to land ’em.

“We’re really aggressive,” he said. “We try not to play it safe very often.”

B’s ink prospects Fitzgerald, Johansson to entry-level deals

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Boston has brought a pair of talented youngsters into the fold.

Forward Ryan Fitzgerald, who just wrapped his senior season at Boston College, and defenseman Emil Johansson — who spent this year playing in the Swedish Hockey League — have signed their entry-level deals and will begin playing with the club’s AHL affiliate in Providence.

Fitzgerald — who’s father, Tom, is the assistant GM in New Jersey — scored 31 points in 34 games for BC this year, serving as an alternate captain. He was originally taken by Boston in the fourth round (120th overall) of the ’13 draft.

Johansson, 20, was a seventh-round pick in ’14 that’s panned out pretty well. He scored a career-high seven goals and 17 points in 49 games for Djugardens this year, appearing in three playoff contests.

 

 

Ducks send Stoner to AHL on conditioning loan

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Clayton Stoner is going to play some hockey again.

The Anaheim Ducks announced today that the 32-year-old defenseman has been assigned to AHL San Diego on a long-term injury conditioning loan.

Stoner has not played since Nov. 15. He had abdominal surgery in December, at which point the Ducks said he’d miss an additional 4-6 weeks. But a setback in his recovery extended the time frame.

“The setback was kind of just me trying to get back maybe a little bit quicker than I should,” Stoner told the O.C. Register recently. “And I wasn’t ready. Things have been good here for a little while so hopefully I’m just trying to string some days together and earn a spot back and kind of prove that I can be healthy and stay healthy.”

Panthers didn’t want to trade Crouse, but Bolland contract was ‘strangling’ them

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Interesting note here from Florida head coach Tom Rowe who, last night, watched former Panther prospect Lawson Crouse play in Florida for the first time since being traded to Arizona.

Crouse was the price the Panthers had to pay to unload Dave Bolland‘s contract on the Coyotes last summer. Rowe wasn’t involved with the Bolland signing, but was involved in dumping the contract — he was Florida’s assistant GM at the time the deal went down.

His take, from the Miami Herald:

Florida traded Crouse to the Coyotes last summer as part of a salary cap dump; Arizona took on the final three years and $16.5-million of Dave Bolland’s contract in exchange for a top prospect — in this case, Crouse.

“We got criticized for giving up on a great young prospect but we had to,” Rowe said. “That contract was strangling us, cap-wise. …

“When we traded him, our scouts were furious. I’m not going to lie. But we had to do something and that was trade Lawson. I’m sure, to this day, he’s still sour about it.”

Crouse, who Florida took 11th overall at the 2015 draft, has five goals and 11 points through 64 games this year, averaging 11:50 TOI per night. Those numbers don’t jump off the page, but they do need to be taken in context — Crouse is only 19 years old, and the 10th-youngest player to play in the NHL this season.

Bolland, meanwhile, hasn’t played since December of 2015, due to a variety of back and ankle injuries. His time in Florida was largely forgettable — after scoring the $27.5 million pact, he played just 78 games in a Panthers uniform, scoring 28 points.  It’s widely regarded as the worst deal GM Dale Tallon has made during his time with the organization.

Shortly after taking on his contract, Coyotes GM John Chayka said Bolland wouldn’t be healthy for the “foreseeable future.” The 30-year-old has two years remaining on his deal, at $5.5 million annually.