Editor's note: This is the latest installment of a weekly column from BlueJackets.com writer Rob Mixer, which will be featured exclusively on the CBJ Today blog. Be sure to follow Rob on Twitter at @RobMixer.
Even before free agency opened a year ago, the Blue Jackets made James Wisniewski their primary target.
With determined effort to upgrade the skill on the blue line, GM Scott Howson swung a trade with the Montreal Canadiens to acquire the negotiating rights to Wisniewski a few days prior to July 1. In a market with two prime defensemen (Wisniewski and Christian Ehrhoff, who would eventually sign in Buffalo), Howson knew it was imperative to make a strong impression on the 28-year-old Michigan native.
It didn't take long to realize the feeling was mutual. Wisniewski drove down to Columbus from his summer home and got a first-hand look at the Blue Jackets facilities and spent a lot of time at Nationwide Arena, getting to know staff and even meeting a few of his soon-to-be teammates. The six-year deal he signed less than hour before the official start of free agency provided yet another building block for the Blue Jackets, but misfortune struck before the regular season got under way.
Wisniewski was involved in an incident during a preseason game in Minnesota, in which he got tangled up with Wild forward Cal Clutterbuck near the blue line. The NHL's Department of Player Safety ruled heavily on the matter, and though Clutterbuck was not injured, Wisniewski was suspended for a total of 12 games (including the first eight of the regular season).
While it's not accurate to place the club's sluggish start solely on Wisniewski's absence, the Blue Jackets desperately missed his puck-moving ability and that rocket shot from the point. He made his regular-season debut on Oct. 25 vs. the Detroit Red Wings at Nationwide Arena, on a night when Columbus earned its first victory of the season.
There were some memorable moments along the way (how about the thrilling overtime winner at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville?), but for the most part, 2011-12 was a season to forget for both Wisniewski and the Blue Jackets. Two significant injuries -- a facial injury and a broken ankle -- limited his playing time the rest of the way, and Wisniewski was only able to see time in 48 games. But in those 48 games, he was an impact player: Wisniewski tallied six goals and 21 assists in that span, which roughly equates to a 45-point pace over a full season.
The year before he joined the Blue Jackets, Wisniewski totaled 51 points -- good enough to place him in the top-five for defense scoring in the NHL.
And in order to get off to a better start in 2012-13 and get the Blue Jackets on the winning side of the ledger, they will need a healthy and productive Wisniewski to help make it happen.
He can be a game-breaker when he's on top of his game, and at times last year, the Blue Jackets and their fans caught glimpses of Wisniewski's elite skill level with the puck. He can bomb the one-timer or make a quick, deft pass in traffic that gets the puck out of trouble and up the ice in transition.
If he's in the lineup and contributing on a regular basis, the Blue Jackets will be a much better team not only on the power play, but also at even strength.
Say, for discussion's sake, the Blue Jackets go with the following defense pairs:
Tyutin - Nikitin
Johnson - Wisniewski
Murray/Moore - Aucoin
With a healthy Wisniewski in the mix from the get-go, they will have their No. 1 power play unit set -- and with Johnson being a left-handed shot and Wisniewski right-handed, they should also set up well for one-timers across the blue line. In previous years, the Columbus defense employed a bevy of left-handed shooters, making the point men easier to defend and the threat of one-timers was not as prevalent.
At the end of last season, we got to see (at least a preview) of what Wisniewski and Johnson can do when paired together on the power play. They make the puck sing on the back end, opening up passing and shooting lanes with their footwork and vision -- something the Blue Jackets power play had been missing for a long, long time.
We're only a couple of months away from the 2012-13 season getting started, and as much as Blue Jackets fans are excited to get the ball rolling, you can bet no one is more eager than James Wisniewski.