Friday, 29 June 2007

Close, But No Cigar

As my examination of teams who missed the playoffs last year continues, I am intrigued by the Columbus Blue Jackets. They have a very good pool of young talent, yet seemingly fall short of expectations every year. Why is this? I have not the slightest idea. I'm not saying that they are a Stanley Cup contender... yet. Since joining the NHL in 2000-01 as an expansion team, they have yet to appear in the playoffs. So where have the Jackets gone wrong? Where do they need to improve? Is there hope on the horizon?

It appears that the Blue Jackets may have finally found a top tier goalie in Fredrik Norrena. Norrena will be 33 this season, but is still capable of being a starter in this league. He posted a 24-23-3 record last season with a 2.78 GAA and a .904 save percentage with three shutouts. Those are very good numbers for team that only won 33 games last year. The job is his, and it's his to lose come training camp.

Norrena's backup this season should be Pascal Leclaire, but there is a feeling he may start for the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL if he starts the 2007-08 season like he played last year. The 24 year-old posted a 6-15-2 record with a 2.97 GAA and an .897 save percentage with one shutout. Clearly, 6-15-2 is not a good record in the NHL. The other option is Brian Boucher. Boucher has seen better days as an NHL netminder, but a job is a job. If he wants to be in "The Show", he needs to perform better than his 2-11-3 overall record from 2006-07. He did go 1-1-0 with the Blue Jackets, but his 3.79 GAA and .866 save percentage are simply brutal. If I haven't made it clear, the Blue Jackets have no backup goalie at this point that they can rely on to help Norrena.

The Blue Jackets finished last season with 249 goals-against for the season, placing them 17th overall in the NHL. They were better than the Tampa Bay Lightning, who made the playoffs, at keeping the puck out of the net. The problem is that they were 28th overall in goals-for. They tied with the Chicago Blackhawks, and were only better than the Edmonton Oilers. That, by all means, appears to the problem. You won't win many games if you can't outscore your opponents.

David Vyborny led the team last season with 64 points - 16 goals and 48 assists. Rick Nash was second in scoring, and Fredrik Modin was tied for third with Sergei Fedorov. Those four are expected to be contributors up front. The problem is that Sergei Fedorov has an acute case of "Alexei Yashin Syndrome" where he seemed to be invisible for most of the season. Nikolai Zherdev looked like he wanted to play hockey on a shinny rink rather than in an NHL system, and that's not going to help your team win. When Jason Chimera and defenseman Ron Hainsey outscore Zherdev, there's a problem with the way he's playing the system. Especially when he's far more offensively-gifted than both Chimera and Hainsey.

Why is it that the most gifted Russian talents seem to turn invisible? Besides Fedorov and Zherdev, Alexandr Svitov didn't do much for scoring last season either. Granted, he is a younger player, but the third overall pick in the 2001 Entry Draft has done little to shed himself of the "role player" label. Svitov has played in 179 NHL games, and only posted 13 goals and 24 assists for a paltry 37 points. Incredibly, the Blue Jackets traded defenseman Darryl Sydor for this guy. Citing "vast potential", Doug MacLean made the deal that enabled Tampa Bay to add a major piece of their Stanley Cup win when he made the deal on January 27, 2004.

Do you want to know why Doug MacLean is no longer employed by the Blue Jackets? The term "vast potential". "Vast potential" would mean Svitov had more than four goals and seven assists for 11 points in 74 NHL games for the Tampa Bay Lightning. "Vast potential" would mean he would do more than play a checking role. Too many times was the term "vast potential" was used when Doug MacLean was making deals. I have yet to hear Scott Howson, his successor, utter that term once.

In terms of potential, I like Gilbert Brule. Brule was a pretty good scoring forward for the Vancouver Giants in the WHL, and the 20 year-old seems to be getting more comfortable in the NHL. Dan Fritsche will be a good player for the Blue Jackets for years to come. His 27 points in 59 games showed potential, and, as a 21 year-old, his stock should rise. Rick Nash's 57 points was a little bit of a disappointment last season, but Nash is a bonafide star, and he will only get better as he matures. The 22 year-old has the look of a young Cam Neely right now, and we all know that Neely was the premier power forward in the game during the late-1980s and early-1990s. Zherdev, despite his woes above, is an offensive talent that could be comparable to Alexander Ovechkin. The key term in that last sentence, though, is could be. Zherdev simply doesn't look interested in using a system, and always tries to do too much when he's one-on-one, one-on-two, and one-on-three. A good player can make a move. A great player uses his teammates to burn the opposition. The 22 year-old shows a huge side of potential, but he never comes close to showing the climb to greatness. Geoff Platt looks like a promising young player, and Joakim Lindstrom could be a decent player too.

If Jakub Voracek can have a strong camp, he could provide some very good creativity while bringing some decent size to the team. He is considered one of the most NHL-ready players from this year's draft, and Howson will give him every opportunity to make the team. The first-round pick of the Jackets is expected to be in the opening night lineup.

What do they need? A bonafide scoring, passing center to play alongside Rick Nash and David Vyborny. Brule doesn't have the experience, Fritsche is probably better suited for the second line, and Fedorov just isn't the Fedorov of his Detroit days any longer. Daniel Briere would be an excellent fit in Columbus. Scott Gomez would excel between Nash and Vyborny. The Jackets would also be wise to go and get a guy like Ryan Smyth. Smyth would be the veteran leader up front that can score and help the younger guys, much like he did in Edmonton. And the Columbus fans would come to love his mullet in front of the net.

Clearly, though, the Blue Jackets have a pile of good young talent up front.

The Blue Jackets also have youth in their defence. Ron Hainsey is a great offensive defenseman, but needs work on his defensive play. Rostislav Klesla is still playing at an underwhelming level, but he is defensively better than he was a few years ago. Duvie Westcott is starting to round into form, but certainly needs more NHL experience. Ole-Kristian Tollefsen looks to be a diamond in the rough, so to speak, at 22 years-old, but brings plenty of upside. 20 year-old Kris Russell is looking to crack the lineup this season as well.

Of course, Adam Foote, the captain of the Blue Jackets, is the heart and soul of the defence. The 35 year-old is an anchor on the blueline, providing grit, toughness, determination, and some scoring. 32 year-old Anders Erikkson is a defensive defenseman who brings some grit to the table. His defensive side is certainly his best side. 30 year-old Bryan Berard should not be allowed to step on the ice for Columbus ever again. Berard was a project gone bad from the moment he put on the jersey.

I believe that the starting six defensemen for the Blue Jackets this season will be Foote, Erikkson, Hainsey, Klesla, Westcott, and Tollefsen. Young Marc Methot could push Westcott for his spot. They'll be young, fast, and gritty, and that's good for the team. They need Hainsey's offensive contribution from the back, and it would a huge help if Klesla turned into Brian Campbell of this past season. Klesla has been given every opportunity to perform at a high level. It's time to start cashing in.

While I give Columbus a shot at winning more than 33 games this season, I don't see them making the playoffs due to their overall team inexperience. However, Ken Hitchcock is a great coach and motivator, and he could have this team playing at a higher level than what is being expected for a building team. The Columbus fans are hungry for the playoffs, and this team, if it follows the path they are on, are probably a year or two from a playoff spot.

Get ready for some fast, exciting hockey this season, Jackets fans. Your team may not make the playoffs, but I believe that they could be vastly improved from last season with the right free agent signings. The pieces are in place for them to be good. They just need those "glue guys" that bring everything together now. And that's what every team wants to hear: they have a chance.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Anonymous said...

Hey Teebz, great post (I also like your posts on the Uniwatch blog). I think the biggest acquisition by the Blue Jackets was the hiring of Ken Hitchcock. He's a proven winner and a great teacher. Under Hitchcock's system, Rick Nash's play improved dramatically towards the end of this last season and started playing in PK situations (he even scored a couple short-handed goals).
We definitely eed a #1 center, but it will be difficult getting one in FA this year. Unfortunately, a good chunk of CBJ's salary is tied up in about 4 players, 3 of whom haven't produced much over the last couple seasons (Foote, Federov, Zherdev). They probably don't have the money this year to honestly pursue one.
I think you hit the nail on the head when you say there's talent there, but it's in a lot of young, inexperienced players. It probably will be a couple years before the Blue Jackets are making noises in the playoffs

Bethany said...

Hey Teebz, great post! Not only was Norrena discovered as our nummber 1 goalie...he was the first goalie in CBJ history to post a .500 record pretty impressive for his first year in the big leagues eh?! Boucher, is a free agent as of tomorrow at noon, he won't be back with us..and as much as I can't stand Pascal, he will be our backup.

I agree with Jeff that Nash's play improved tremendously at the end of the season. I am really hoping that Brule developed a lot over the summer and that he will come back and play on the top 2 lines but only time will tell.

Anyway, I could go on for days...haha great post!


Read this before considering a job relo to Seattle. I am a Canadian that moved to Seattle two years ago. At the recommendation of my AAA Bantam coach, I joined SKAHA. Currently under investigation by USA Hockey, SKAHA is one of the most corrupt organizations in America. They also train in a grocery store with rats....truly a miserable experience that I want anyone to think about before moving to Seattle. Beautiful city, yes, but worst hockey imaginable

Spread the word so other Canadians can avoid a miserable experience in Seattle!!