The Columbus Blue Jackets have gone two seasons without a captain since they traded Rick Nash.
“I’m comfortable (without a captain),” Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards told the Columbus Dispatch in October. He didn’t want to conform to a timetable when it came to making his choice, instead saying that he would hand out the ‘C’ only “when the time is right and if you’ve got the right player and he’s ready at that time.”
In other words, either the timing wasn’t right last season or they didn’t have any player that was ready for the responsibility. Perhaps that’s changed.
Brandon Dubinsky, who came to Columbus in the Nash trade, has emerged as one of the team’s leaders and has made a long-term commitment to the franchise by agreeing to a six-year, $35.1 million contract over the summer.
“Everybody’s anxious to have a captain, but we have a lot of guys who lead,” Dubinsky argued after signing that deal. “Everybody leads in their own way, but collectively we play hard for each other and find a way to get it done. It’s a big honor to be in this position and have this role with this team, but there’s a lot of guys on this team, and it’s much bigger than myself.”
Defenseman Jack Johnson is another contender for the role. He’s got two-plus seasons under his belt with Columbus now and is signed through 2017-18. He’s also one of the biggest workhorses in the league as he ranked 13th in minutes per game in 2013-14.
The Blue Jackets have some other noteworthy veteran leaders locked up to long-term deals like forwards Scott Hartnell and Nathan Horton, but Hartnell is a new addition and Horton has only played in 35 games thus far.
The Blue Jackets made a big splash in the summer of 2013 by signing Nathan Horton to a seven-year, $37.1 million contract, but he wasn’t able to do much to help Columbus in the first season of that deal.
Of course, when the Blue Jackets signed him, they did so knowing that he would need shoulder surgery and consequently miss at least the first two months of the season. It proved to be worse than that though as he wasn’t able to make his Blue Jackets debut until Jan. 2 and was eventually shut down again in April, this time so that he could undergo abdominal surgery. The end result was that Horton played in just 35 games and missed the playoffs entirely.
He’s had a full summer to train and hopes that will lead to him having a strong campaign. Given that he’s projected to be the team’s highest paid forward in 2014-15 (keep in mind that Ryan Johansen’s still a restricted free agent), the Blue Jackets need for that to be the case.
Horton does have a significant injury history even if you ignore what happened last season, so he’s not a mortal lock to stay healthy even if he’s available for the start of the preseason. Moving past that though, there are questions about how high his ceiling is.
He’ll turn 30 in May and has been a relatively consistent producer throughout his career when healthy. He’s averaged about 55 points per 82 games, which is good, but not remarkable, especially given his contract. At the same time, he’s excelled in the playoffs, which begs the question: Can he step up in the regular season as well to be an offensive leader for a Blue Jackets team that doesn’t have much in the way of top-tier goal scoring threats beyond Johansen?
Keep in mind that while the Blue Jackets made the playoffs last season, it’s going to be a fight for them to get back there. Being able to perform in the playoffs is important, but the Blue Jackets also need Horton to play a key role in getting them there in the first place.
If he can manage that, then Horton will be giving them plenty of bang for their buck.
It was a long and often painful journey, but Columbus has finally joined the 28 other teams that have won a playoff game (leaving the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets’ franchise in the cold). That accomplishment shouldn’t be belittled given how far the Blue Jackets had to come over the last couple of seasons to reach this point, but it’s also not cause for contentment.
Making the playoffs is great, but players don’t grow up dreaming about winning a first round game and fans don’t long for the day their team will last six contests before bowing out of the postseason.
“The goal isn’t just to make the playoffs here,” Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson asserted, per the team’s website. “Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup. There were good intentions here in the past, but we go into every game now with the expectation to win. We expect to play well, and we expect to achieve success.”
Blue Jackets president John Davidson was equally optimistic during an interview in July. He pointed to Nathan Horton as a potential difference maker after the former Boston Bruins playoff hero was forced to miss most of the 2013-14 campaign and all of the postseason because of shoulder and abdominal problems.
More importantly, Columbus has a promising young core that’s led by forward Ryan Johansen and blueliner Ryan Murray. They also have a solid defense and a strong goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky.
Their offense was nothing special last season, but if Horton and their primary new addition, Scott Hartnell, have solid seasons and 21-year-old Boone Jenner is able to step up in his sophomore campaign, then that might change.
Clearly the Blue Jackets still have some significant question marks and on paper they don’t look like a Stanley Cup contender yet, but the bar has been raised. We’ll find out soon enough how they respond.
Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Blue Jackets looked lost just a couple years ago. They finished the 2011-12 campaign with a 29-46-7 record and were forced to trade Rick Nash in July 2012 because he could no longer stand to play for the Blue Jackets.
After the trade, Columbus was written off as one of the worst teams in the league and the franchise’s first playoff win still looked like a distant goal. Then the Blue Jackets’ defense clicked and Sergei Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy. Although they finished a hair from making the 2013 postseason due to their 5-12-4 start, the tone had changed.
But was that a fluke? Could Bobrovsky live up to his breakout performance? The Blue Jackets’ hot finish only added to the questions surrounding them going into the 2013-14 campaign. They answered by squeaking into the playoffs in 2014 and not only earning their first postseason win, but also making the heavily favored Pittsburgh Penguins sweat in the six-game first round series.
Following that accomplishment, the Blue Jackets decided to keep their roster relatively intact. One notable exception was the trade of R.J. Umberger and a 2015 fourth round pick to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Scott Hartnell.
Beyond that, they’re hoping to get a full season out of Nathan Horton after he started the 2013-14 campaign on the sidelines due to a shoulder injury and wasn’t able to stay healthy once he did come back.
The Blue Jackets also inked Brandon Dubinsky to a six-year, $35.1 million contract extension this summer. They aren’t done yet though as 33-goal scorer Ryan Johansen remains a restricted free agent.
Nathan Horton’s first season with the Columbus Blue Jackets wasn’t exactly one to remember.
While he was part of a team that went to the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history, recovery from offseason shoulder surgery and other injuries held him to just 35 games in the regular season and none in the postseason.
“It’s nice having a (full) summer where I can train. I haven’t had one in a while,” Horton said. “It’s different than the last few years that I was in Boston. I’ve got the whole summer, I can make myself stronger and work on things that I need to work on and get healthy.”
Horton signed a seven-year, $37.1 million deal with the Jackets last summer. It was a deal that raised some eyebrows then given his injury history and the fact they knew he was getting shoulder surgery as it was. Still, a healthy Horton in the Columbus lineup makes a big difference and could help make them contenders in the Eastern Conference next season.