Blue Jackets try to be next season's Panthers | Hockey | CBC Sports

NHLBlue Jackets try to be next season's Panthers

Posted: Monday, July 23, 2012 | 06:39 PM

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Jack Johnson, left, and James Wisniewski figure to be among the dressing room leaders for a Columbus group that features several new faces and young players. (Jay LaPrete/Associated Press) Jack Johnson, left, and James Wisniewski figure to be among the dressing room leaders for a Columbus group that features several new faces and young players. (Jay LaPrete/Associated Press)

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Columbus general manager Scott Howson has overhauled the team's roster in the last year or so, but it will a big challenge for the Blue Jackets to emulate the kind of turnaround Florida enjoyed after a similar change in cast members.

Not much has gone swimmingly for Scott Howson since he took over as GM of Columbus in 2007.

As of this writing, 77 per cent of visitors to our trade poll say that the Rangers came out ahead in the Rick Nash deal.

Hockey fans have a reason to be skeptical. Howson has been criticized in the last 12 months alone for, among other things:

  • Overpaying for well-travelled defenceman James Wisniewski
  • Not shoring up the goaltending ahead of 2011-12 despite a shaky Steve Mason campaign.
  • Not gauging how jacked Jeff Carter would be about joining the Jackets (not much at all, it turned out)
  • Not getting enough from the Kings when he embarrassingly had to move Carter, of the marathon contract, mere months later.

Then they finished last in the standings but had to settle for second pick in last month's entry draft because of a lottery ball.

But damned if Howson isn't trying in recent months, since a dreadful start ensured that the Blue Jackets were going nowhere fast last season. His job is on the line and the casual fan is losing interest in Ohio's only NHL town.

Could they be this year's summer version of the Florida Panthers, who last year under GM Dale Tallon radically overhauled the roster?

Many hockey observers scratched their heads over Tallon's moves and believed it would take much time for all those new faces to gel. That didn't happen. Florida wasn't great, but they landed their first playoff berth in a decade.

That's the kind of modest goal that the Blue Jackets, host of next year's NHL All-Star Game, would be ecstatic about.

Whenever next season begins, Columbus figures to have at least eight players in the lineup not there 12 months earlier, a description that also applies to a coaching staff headed by Todd Richards.

When you go back 18 months, to the end of 2010-11, there's just a handful of players who remain.

Here's a rundown of the moves:

Goalie

Howson last month acquired Sergei Bobrovsky from Philadelphia for the 45th overall and 117th overall selections in the 2012 draft along with a fourth-rounder (from Phoenix) in 2013.

Bobrovsky had a terrific 2010-11 campaign before getting the yips in those playoffs. Philly bailed out quickly based on a six-game playoff sample size, signing veteran Ilya Bryzgalov to a mega contract. Bobrosvky struggled again last season, but is just 24 whenever next season begins.

Defence

A radical re-make. Since the end of 2010-11 the club has said goodbye to Jan Hejda, Kris Russell, Mike Commodore, Sami Lepisto, Grant Clitsome and, most recently, Marc Methot and Aaron Johnson.

Only Fedor Tyutin is a multi-year holdover.

Nikita Nikitin was among the few bright spots for Columbus last season, scoring 32 points in 54 games after coming over for Russell from St. Louis.

Nikitin is among a crop of young defenders. John Moore (67 games as a rookie last season) is a former first round pick, as is Tim Erixon, acquired Monday in the Nash deal.

And then there's Ryan Murray, selected second overall in the June draft just weeks after playing with and against NHLers on Canada's world championships squad.

The club hopes Wisniewski will bounce back from a injury marred campaign that also included an out-of-the-gate lengthy suspension, with Jack Johnson expected to munch up minutes in all situations as the No. 1 man.

Adrian Aucoin was signed as a free agent. The 39-year-old doesn't bring the offensive numbers to the table anymore, but he was a plus player in three seasons under Dave Tippett's system in Phoenix.

Forward

The Jackets landed Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov in the Nash deal, both under 26.

Howson said on Monday's conference call that he likes the fact both can play centre, and can take assignments on both special teams.

Last month, Methot went to Ottawa for tough forward Nick Foligno.

Two other forwards have service of one year or less with the Jackets.

Ryan Johansen was selected fourth overall in the 2010 draft and had the kind of rookie season one would expect on a floundering team (21 points in 67 games, a modest 12 minutes per game, but a solid minus-2). 

Depth forward Mark Letestu came over during 2011-12 from Pittsburgh.

More on the Florida comparison

One fairly significant difference between the Blue Jackets and Panthers is that Florida's rehaul skewed older last season.

It wasn't the first time changing addresses for the guys who headed south to the Miami area via trade or free agency.

To contrast, most of the older players on Columbus are returnees - Vinny Prospal, R.J. Umberger and Tyutin.

The recently acquired are all, or presumably not yet, in their prime.

How will some of the new guys, traded for the first time in their NHL career, react to a change in scenery, let alone one to a club at the bottom of the standings? 

Howson said at Monday's media conference that he's not looking to move a defenceman, but believes he now has the depth at the position on the NHL roster and in the pipeline should yet another move need to be struck. 

(You can't help but wonder if Columbus and the young forward-rich Oilers - should they both struggle again next season - eye each other as trade partners).

The centre crop now potentially features the two guys from the Rangers, plus Johansen, Letestu, Derek Mackenzie and Derick Brassard in the mix.

That's hardly awe-inspiring and Howson and Richards clearly will need a bevy of guys to to score 15-25 on a suddenly star-less team.

The other big impediment to Columbus duplicating Florida's improvement? They weren't exactly world beaters in the Southeast Division for the Panthers to contend last season, with Carolina, Tampa Bay and Winnipeg all struggling and finishing out of the playoffs, and the previously mighty Washington Capitals barely making it to the post-season.

Yes, Nashville and Detroit look a bit less imposing now due to the loss of star players, but they're still formidable and well coached. There's also the talented but enigmatic (since their Cup win) Chicago Blackhawks and last year's big risers, the St. Louis Blues. 

Most importantly, the Panthers last season said goodbye to 2010-11 members like Tomas Vokoun, Bryan McCabe, Cory Stillman, etc.

Nary a Rick Nash-like figure to be found in the names of the departed.     

The new faces on the Blue Jackets will certainly have their work cut out for them. 

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