Take one last look at summer – it’s time to drop the puck on the 2011-12 National Hockey League season for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The long, hot summer at times seemed as if it would never end, and all of the excitement generated during the offseason only made the five-month break that much more difficult. When training camp opened for the Blue Jackets on September 16, it was time to put rubber to the road on one of the most anticipated seasons in Blue Jackets history.
First, there was All-Star center Jeff Carter’s acquisition from the Philadelphia Flyers. A few days later, it was James Wisniewski signing a six-year contract and agreeing to lead the Columbus defense while forgoing unrestricted free agency. Then it was young, up-and-coming goaltender Mark Dekanich and reliable defenseman Radek Martinek.
When the team found out winger Kristian Huselius would miss a significant amount of time due to injury, general manager Scott Howson was proactive in signing free-agent Vinny Prospal – a skilled and experienced player who is no stranger to putting up points on good hockey teams.
Head coach Scott Arniel certainly has more weapons at his disposal than he did in his first year as an NHL head coach. He’s excited about the possibilities that lie ahead for the Blue Jackets in 2011-12, including adding more skill to the lineup. Something he can thank General Manager Scott Howson for.
“We wanted to improve our skill level, first and foremost,” Howson told BlueJackets.com. “And we had two big acquisitions to do that, but even a guy like Cam Atkinson and Radek Martinek improve our overall skill level.
“That was sort of the objective we took into the summer.”
Columbus finished 2010-11 with a record of 34-35-13, good for 81 points and 13th in the Western Conference. The end result was disappointing, but there was no denying the team had made strides with its style of play and organizational philosophy under Howson and Arniel.
With the head coach entering his second year on the job, Howson has seen a marked improvement across the coaching staff including the new addition (Todd Richards).
“Aside from adding Todd, the whole coaching staff has been through a year together now,” Howson said. “They probably understand more about what the NHL is about, and Scott (Arniel) certainly saw that as an assistant coach in Buffalo.
“But they know our personnel better and our personalities. They know when to push buttons and maybe when not to push buttons. That’s an important factor to consider as we begin the season.”
One might wonder if Howson is still catching his breath from the offseason, but we can attest he is here and ready to go. With several key acquisitions arriving in Columbus for this season, BlueJackets.com takes a look at each of them.
Jeff Carter (Center): The Blue Jackets had their eyes on Carter well before they executed the blockbuster trade on June 23, 2011. Howson said after completing the deal that trade talks with Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren dated back to January, and with several back-and-forths in between it was a complicated trade process. But in the end, Howson got his man: a big-bodied, 35-goal scoring center that will line up next to captain Rick Nash. Carter is a former NHL All-Star and has one of the best wrist shots in the game. His presence on the top line will certainly be felt right away, and the Blue Jackets see Nash and Carter developing into one of the league’s top tandems.
James Wisniewski (Defense): For the most part, successful power plays in the NHL have one thing in common: a booming shot that commands the respect of penalty killers. The Blue Jackets lacked that aspect in their power play unit, and Howson sought to rectify it in the offseason. Shortly after acquiring Carter, he traded for the rights to Wisniewski from the Montreal Canadiens and signed him long-term. He was one of the highest-scoring defensemen in the NHL last season, posting 10-41-51 in 75 games with New York Islanders and Montreal.
Mark Dekanich (Goaltender): This summer’s free-agent market for goaltenders was perplexing to say the least, but the Blue Jackets were able to land one of their top targets in Dekanich. Howson said the Blue Jackets wanted to find a left-handed catching goalie to team with Steve Mason, and all of the club’s scouts had Dekanich rated very high. He was a standout at Colgate and worked under renowned goaltending coach Mitch Korn with the Nashville Predators organization to begin his professional career. Dekanich may be lean on NHL experience, but he’s got lots of game and thinks he can push Mason this season.
Radek Martinek (Defense): This guy could very well end up being one of the most underrated signings of the NHL offseason. Martinek, 35, spent the first nine years of his career with the Islanders and quickly became a fan favorite for his “all or nothing” style of play. He has drawn criticism for that style because it has led to injuries, but Howson and staff are confident in his ability to be a top-four defenseman for the Blue Jackets. He’s a cool customer who never looks under duress, and he is an effortless skater. Martinek can jump up in the rush, play the power play and shut down opponents at even strength and on the penalty kill. Arniel envisions him forming a shutdown pair with Marc Methot.
Vinny Prospal (Forward): There’s nothing like versatility, and that is exactly what Prospal brings to the Blue Jackets lineup. When Huselius was lost to a torn pectoral muscle, Howson and Arniel both knew they wanted to bring in Prospal. In fact, Arniel mentioned they were interested in signing Prospal even if Huselius was able to start the season. They’re glad they did, too. Prospal brings high-end vision and playmaking ability to the Columbus top-six, and can play both wings and center, as well. He’s seen time with Nash and Carter on the top line, as well as preseason action with Antoine Vermette and Cam Atkinson. Prospal’s experience and offensive skill were welcome additions to the Blue Jackets locker room.
It has definitely been upgraded since the end of the 2010-11 season, most notably with the addition of Carter in the middle. One of the organizational goals for the offseason was to get stronger at center ice, which has been a position of weakness for the Blue Jackets in recent years. Howson was able to achieve it in a big way by landing Carter.
“Before we acquired Jeff, in the last decade, only two (top centers) were traded,” Howson said when he introduced Carter and Wisniewski to the media. “If you look at all the top teams in the NHL, all the top contenders, they’re strong down the middle.
“We feel now that with Jeff, Antoine Vermette, Derick Brassard, Sammy Pahlsson, Derek MacKenzie and Ryan Johansen coming… we have a chance to be very strong down the middle.”
And the forward contingent is strong overall, as well. Arniel has said repeatedly he wants Nash and Carter to play together, and ultimately find a winger who complements them well on the other side. In training camp, Arniel has used Tomas Kubalik, Umberger, Prospal and others on the top line to see who is the best fit. We still have not seen the definitive answer to that question, but the chemistry between Nash and Carter got better as training camp improved.
**Read the BlueJackets.com feature on the building chemistry between Nash and Carter.**
The rest of the top six is intriguing, as well. Arniel prefers to go with a lineup featuring three skill or “scoring lines,” and round out the forwards with a checking line as the fourth unit. Samuel Pahlsson figures to have the checking line center’s job to himself, and with Brassard shifting to left wing for periods of the exhibition schedule, that could open a spot for Johansen on one of the scoring lines.
Vermette, Prospal and Umberger are three solid pieces to use on an offensive line, and they could end up as line mates before all is said and don before opening night.
But the story in camp from the forwards has been the young players. With last year’s camp an open competition, players are seeing now that jobs are there for the taking if strong play merits it. Johansen, Cam Atkinson and Maksim Mayorov all turned in exceptional performances during the preseason and have done their part to make management’s roster decisions challenging. The three of them will be on the opening night roster against the Nashville Predators.
“I knew (the young players) had a chance to be at that level,” Howson said. “But Cam was definitely the surprise, coming right out of college hockey.
“What he’s done to this point is quite an accomplishment, but the challenge for him now is to keep playing well when the tempo goes up in the regular season.”
Incumbents like Derek Dorsett and Jared Boll (out 4-6 weeks with a broken thumb), two of the better agitators in the NHL, look to continue their tormenting of the opposition once October 7 rolls around.
“All the young guys that we’ve talked about – the forwards that are fighting for spots as well as the defensemen – they’ve played well and it’s been good,” Arniel said.
“We wanted a competitive camp; I really like the competition in our team this year.”
The Blue Jackets have made personnel moves – both through free agency/trade and drafting – geared toward making them a more mobile team on defense. The incumbents such as Fedor Tyutin, Kris Russell, Grant Clitsome and Marc Methot proved last year they can play (and play well) in Arniel’s up-tempo system.
One of the offseason objectives was to find players that complement those already in place. The additions of Wisniewski and Martinek give the Blue Jackets two right-handed shooters that can skate and blast the puck from the point. Wisniewski is ready to blossom into a top-pairing, two-way defenseman in the NHL, and Martinek is a seasoned professional who always seems to be in the right place.
Training camp opened eyes across the organization as several of the club’s prospects on defense stepped up and proved they are very close to NHL-ready. The opening-night roster will include David Savard, a 20-year-old offensive blue liner whose performance in camp made it impossible to send him to Springfield. He figures to see some power-play time to open the season, and his right-handed shot and high-end skating ability will be huge assets to the Columbus defense.
The Blue Jackets are confident Steve Mason has the ability to set aside his struggles of the past two seasons and return to being a dominant, No. 1 goaltender in the NHL. Howson and Arniel have done their homework in this regard – and NHL history is evidence that while young goaltenders are prone to growing pains, some of the best in the game have gone through a period of struggle. When Mathieu Garon departed via unrestricted free agency on July 1, Howson and staff decided the club would pursue a left-handed catching goaltender.
This summer’s goaltender market was hectic, Howson said, and there were balls in the air when free agency opened. After the dust settled on the NHL’s wildest spending day of the offseason, Howson was pleased to be able to ink two goaltenders – Mark Dekanich and Curtis Sanford. Dekanich was slotted to be the primary backup for Mason, but he suffered a high-ankle sprain in the first preseason game against the Winnipeg Jets. Sanford, an NHL veteran, will begin the regular season as the organization’s No. 2 goaltender and Allen York figures to get the bulk of starts in Springfield (AHL).
Much has been said and written about the Blue Jackets’ season riding on Mason’s performance, but not everyone in the organization believes it has to be that way. Mason certainly did his part in training camp and preseason to quell doubts: he went 4-0-0 in four starts with a goals-against average below 2.00, and looked in control and confident in each game.
Arniel delivered his most telling praise of Mason’s progress after the Blue Jackets’ final home preseason victory: “(Mason) wasn’t all over the place - he was square. The rebounds were dropping at his feet and he put his glove or his pads on top of them.
“He’s just being solid in there. This will be the first chance for him to go back-to-back, and have a mindset of putting last night away and starting over again.”
Grant Clitsome (D) – Clitsome is a rare breed of NHL player that spent four years in college (Clarkson), and it appears that decision played to his benefit. At age 26, he is a bit of late bloomer but made a splash in “the show” last season for the Blue Jackets. Called up to fill a void on defense, he instantly became the go-to guy on the power play and posted 4-15-19 in 31 games. Clitsome will see regularly man-advantage time in his second full NHL season and Arniel thinks he’s only going to get better.
Vinny Prospal (F) – It was difficult to choose between the savvy scorer Prospal and the steady defenseman Martinek for this category. Both have the potential to be cogent additions to the Blue Jackets roster this season. After careful consideration, we’re going with Prospal because he could end up being the ideal liaison between Nash and Carter on the ice. Arniel said he will open the season with Prospal-Carter-Nash as the top line, and Prospal’s playmaking ability and knack for holding on to the puck could prove pivotal in the success of the big unit.
October 25 vs. Detroit – What’s not to like about an early-season tangle with a Central Division rival? The Blue Jackets’ schedule for the month of October is full of Western Conference playoff contenders, and this weeknight contest will have some added fuel with the return of defenseman James Wisniewski from suspension. Get the rivalry rolling early!