There’s a right time to rebuild and there’s a wrong time to rebuild. For the Jackets, the time just never seems to be right for either or. Blessed with one of the best snipers of his generation in Rick Nash, the Jackets just seem to float around in obscurity, having zero playoff appearances in its short history. The biggest problem for the Jackets was always trying to find the right players, and even when they thought they did, they saddled themselves with undesirable contracts (Sergei Federov) that they had trouble getting rid of. They’ve stayed in purgatory for most of its time, and this season is no different.
First, hiring Ken Hitchcock was a great move for the Jackets. Having no other real scoring threat other than Nash, a defensive system was the way to go (at least for now), and Hitchcock is one of the best coaches at doing that. His players buy into his system, and as a result the Jackets’ defense ranks 8th and penalty kill ranks 9th (also a well-deserved nod to Pascal Leclaire‘s breakout season). A testament to the team’s dedication to defense considering that their two best defensive defenseman last year were the relatively unknown Jan Hejda and Rostislav Klesla. However, offense is where it starts to get ugly, real ugly. With Nikolai Zherdev‘s departure, along with his 26 goals, the next highest total from a returning player is Jason Chimera‘s 14. That’s 24 goals less than Nash’s total, who accounted for 20% of Columbus’ goal total. That’s staggering, so it’s no surprise that Columbus’ offense was ranked second-worst in the league. Scott Howson stepped up and attempted to solve this problem by acquiring RJ Umberger, Raffi Torres, and Kristian Huselius, but this summer was not the summer to splurge on free agents – there wasn’t any forward that was worth throwing big money at. While the three new players definitely bring some more offensive punch to the Jackets, Nash is still without a bona fide set-up man. Umberger had an incredible hot streak in the playoffs and it is unlikely that he can keep scoring at that pace. As a centre, he’s not quite the complimentary player Nash needs, but without a doubt he’s penciled in as the new number one pivot. Torres was bothered by injury and will be looking to bounce back, as will Huselius, who toiled under Mike Keenan in Calgary. You have to wonder how Huselius, who had trouble adjusting to Calgary’s tougher game, will figure into Hitchcock’s plans, who expects his players to give it all on their ice without doing anything too flashy. The players to watch for this year are rookies Derick Brassard and Jakub Voracek, who may have a shot at centering Nash should Umberger falter. The two junior standouts are expected to chip in here and there, but not make any significant contributions offensively. Don’t expect the Jackets to open any eyes with their offense, that’s for sure.
Ron Hainsey was their biggest weapon on defense. Now, that spot’s up for grabs. None of the Jackets’ top six are considered powerplay quarterbacks, and that’s fine if Hitchcock wants to play a tough game, but you can’t win if you can’t score. Fedor Tyutin and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen bring more than enough sandpaper, and the Jackets seriously lack a good puck-mover. Kris Russell could develop into that player, but not this year. The lanky defenseman needs more experience and bulk up on his 5’10″, 165 lbs. frame before that happens. That could cause problems when they’re breaking out of the offensive zone, but I’m sure that for Hitchcock a good hard-and-out off the boards strategy will do just fine. The problem with that is, Nash won’t be seeing any breakaways anytime soon.
Leclaire has proved himself to be an able number one, although he did miss some time due to injury. Jackets fans were in for a little scare this summer when talks seem to have stalled, but at $3.8m/year that’s a great bargain. The Jackets don’t have anything to worry about here, especially with an able backup in Fredrik Norrena and some youngster named Steve Mason waiting in the wings. This is one area in which the Jackets’ patience has paid off, and they’re reaping the dividends.
The Jackets declared this summer that they have a “win now” policy, after realizing that Ohioans weren’t paying to see a mediocre product (Jackets attendance was ranked 28th). It’s nice to see that a team that has slowly inched towards the right direction made a couple big moves over the summer, but it doesn’t seem to be the right ones. There’s a lot of question marks surrounding the new players, as well as producing offense from the blueline. Unfortunately for management and Jackets fans, the Jackets won’t figure into the playoff picture. The Jackets have some valuable pieces they can move at the deadline to stock up picks and prospects in Mike Peca, Manny Malhotra, and Christian Backman, but also have some cap room ($10m) to make some serious noise at the deadline, should the need arise.
Rick Nash – RJ Umberger – Kristian Huselius
Fredrik Modin – Mike Peca – Raffi Torres
Jason Chimera – Manny Malhotra – Jared Boll
Mike York – Alexander Svitov – Jiri Novotny
Jan Hejda – Mike Commodore
Fedor Tyutin – Rostislav Klesla
Ole-Kristian Tollefsen – Christian Backman
Pascal Leclaire – Fredrik Norrena
scratches: Kris Russell, Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek
GM: Scott Howson
Coach: Ken Hitchcock
Predicted finish: 4th Central, 13th West