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.

Gulutzan thinks Flames can be ‘a 100-point club’

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Calgary Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan covered a wide array of topics in a great Q & A with the Calgary Sun’s Wes Gilbertson, with his discussion of how well 2017-18 could go possibly being the most interesting note:

“The challenge, for sure, is managing expectations. We weren’t a 5-10-1 team to start last year, and we weren’t a 16-5 team to end,” Gulutzan said. “We finished with 94 points. I think, realistically, we can do better than that. But to make a jump from 77 to 94 to 118 isn’t realistic. So we have to manage that expectation. Our goal is we think we could be a 100-point club. That’s kind of what I think a lot about in the summer — trying to manage that expectation but also have something in mind that we think we could be.”

Interesting.

Adding Travis Hamonic to a defensive mix that was already quite impressive should raise Calgary’s ceiling to begin with. It doesn’t hurt that many of their best players are in the meat of their primes, from Johnny Gaudreau to Dougie Hamilton to Sean Monahan and more.

Gulutzan praised the size, character, and “play” of new goalies Mike Smith and Eddie Lack, yet that might once again be the reason to wonder if the Flames can make that next step from a team fighting for a playoff spot to a team legitimately contending.

(The jury’s still out on Gulutzan, too, though he makes a reasonable point that 2017-18 could be more stable as his second season after the “mega changes” of his debut season.)

There are some other interesting bits in this interview, which is worth your time, including:

  • Micheal Ferland is slated to start the season as Calgary’s first-line winger alongside Gaudreau and Monahan.
  • Hamonic will likely pair up with T.J. Brodie to begin; Gulutzan says that while Hamonic isn’t a “void” on offense, he expects Hamonic to open things up for Brodie.
  • Gulutzan expects a “big leap” from Sam Bennett.

Check out the full back-and-forth at the Calgary Sun.

If you need even more Flames action, there’s also this:

Francis hopes Hurricanes live up to hype

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This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

The Carolina Hurricanes haven’t been able to make the jump that some have been anticipating for a while, but that hasn’t shaken GM Ron Francis’ confidence in head coach Bill Peters. At least not yet.

Francis had high praise for Peters and other facets of this Hurricanes team in a detailed interview with Chip Alexander of the Raleigh News & Observer.

And, oh yeah, Francis also doesn’t have an issue with the Hurricanes being a dark horse candidate in many eyes.

“It all starts with us and we have a lot of belief in our players and we think we’re capable of having a good year and doing some good things,” Francis said. “I have no problem with people talking about that and putting those kind of expectations on us. Hopefully, they’re right.”

Even so, Francis had some interesting things to say about the makeup of the team, including the fact that while he’s comfortable with where Carolina stands, he’s also open to making a move if an opportunity comes up.

Don’t expect him to bash what they have, though.

Take the team’s set of centers, for instance.

“If you look around the league and you say ‘This guy is a legitimate No. 1, top-line center,’ there’s probably 16 of those guys in the entire league,” Francis said. “They are not easy to find, and a lot of time you have to draft those guys and develop them. We’re hoping we have that kind of guy in our system already, but I certainly feel the guys we have in the middle are elite center men.”

Francis reasonably views Jordan Staal as a sturdy “horse” for the team, and doesn’t seem too concerned by Victor Rask‘s uneven 2016-17 season. Even in also flattering depth options, those two will indeed play a role in Carolina taking the next step, as long as some big changes – Scott Darling getting a significant contract, Justin Williams coming back – end up working out.

That said, file this under “Easier said than done,” as the Hurricanes must navigate the brutal Metropolitan Division to get a “foot in the playoffs.” For all we know, that might not work out even if this group makes some big strides in 2017-18.

Either way, it’s enjoyable to get Francis’ perspective on the team, being that he was one of the most cerebral players of his era. Read the full article here.

Looking to make the leap: Haydn Fleury

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This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

The Carolina Hurricanes have built an impressive stockpile of young defensemen, arguably the best in the NHL.

Looking at their current NHL roster there isn’t one defensemen under contract for this season that is over the age of 26, while three of their best — and youngest — are all signed to long-term deals. Not only are they young, they are also already really, really good and just need a more stable goaltending situation behind them to help the Hurricanes take a big leap forward this season.

For as good and promising as that group already is, there is another young player in the pipeline that hasn’t even had a chance to make an impact yet in 2014 first-round pick (No. 7 overall) Haydn Fleury.

The 21-year-old Fleury is coming off of his first year of pro hockey, spending the 2016-17 season with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers. Other than missing part of the season due to injury it was mostly a successful pro debut for the young rearguard, appearing in 69 games and scoring seven goals to go with 19 assists and showing considerable improvement down the stretch following a slow start.

The logjam of young defensemen already in Carolina is going to make it tough for Fleury to crack the lineup, but the No. 6 spot on the blue line does seem to be up for grabs between him and Klas Dahlbeck. Even if he doesn’t grab that spot at the start of the season it seems reasonable to assume that at some point during the season — whether it be due to injury, a trade, or just a lack of performance from somebody else — that he is going to make his NHL debut.

When he does it will be just another promising young player added to a defensive core that already boasts Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. Given the contracts Faulk, Slavin and Pesce are signed to, and the fact Hanifin and Fleury are still on their entry level deals it gives the Hurricanes a ton of flexibility when it comes to constructing their roster. Any of them would be attractive pieces in trade talks to make improvements elsewhere, or they can be the foundation of the defense — and the team itself — for the next six or seven years for a remarkably affordable price.

Scott Darling will be the key to the Hurricanes’ season

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This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

A few numbers to keep in mind about the Carolina Hurricanes as they prepare to enter the 2017-18 season:

  • Over the past three seasons only one team in the NHL — the Los Angeles Kings — has allowed fewer shots on goal per game than the 27.3 allowed by the Hurricanes. An impressive number, especially given how young their defense has been during that stretch.
  • Despite those low shot totals the Hurricanes are only 19th in the NHL in goals against. The are the only team in the top-eight in shots against that finished outside of the top-12 in goals against and the only one that has not made the playoffs at least once. Two of those teams have made the Stanley Cup Final at least once. Four have made the the Conference Finals at least once.

So how is a team that is so good at suppressing shots so bad at preventing goals and winning games?

Goaltending.

They are hoping that newly acquired goalie Scott Darling, getting what will be his first chance at a full-time starting job, will be able to help fix that issue.

Over that same three-year stretch mentioned above, Hurricanes goalies — a revolving door made up of Cam Ward, Eddie Lack, and Anton Khudobin — have not managed a save percentage that placed them higher than 26th in the entire league in any one season. That is a pretty significant problem and it has been, perhaps, the single biggest factor in the team’s lack of success on the ice. No one position in hockey can impact the fortunes of a team more than a goalie. Carey Price has taken an average Canadiens team and made them a contender. The opposite has been happening in Carolina.

Let’s just look at this past season as an example, when the duo of Ward and Lack finished with a .904 mark, with Ward (playing in 61 of the games) leading the way at .905.

If the Hurricanes had been able to replace Ward’s performance with a league average number (in the .912 range) in his 61 starts the Hurricanes would have allowed 12-14 fewer goals right off the bat. A league average duo across the board would have cut close to 20 goals off the board over 82 games. That is a potentially significant swing and Darling is the newest goalie that will get a chance to make it happen.

Darling spent the past three seasons serving as Corey Crawford‘s backup in Chicago and playing at a level that made him one of the league’s best No. 2 goalies. Among the 58 goalies that have appeared in at least 60 games over the past three seasons Darling’s .923 save percentage has him sixth in the NHL behind only Carey Price, Matt Murray, Antti Raanta (another backup getting a chance to start this season), Devan Dubnyk and Braden Holtby.

The test for him is whether or not he can maintain that level of play — or anything close to it — when he is counted on to be the No. 1 goalie that gets the top teams every night.

If he can be, the Hurricanes are going to have a great shot to end that eight-year playoff drought given how good their defense already is and how many young, talented forwards they have in their lineup.

If he is not, it will probably be more of the same — a promising young team that just seems to keep falling short in the regular season.