One of Scott Howson's most pressing priorities in the last few years has been to reshape the Blue Jackets defense. When he took over as general manager in 2007, he inherited a group that could best be described as "one-dimensional," and severely lacking an element of elite offensive skill.
Howson and his hockey operations staff knew it wouldn't be something they could change overnight, but more of a continual process in which the club would be persistent in pursuing all options via trade, development, and free agency in order to upgrade their mobility and skill level. Roughly five years later, Howson has assembled a group of seven defenseman that, according to newly-signed Adrian Aucoin, can stand up to any club in the National Hockey League.
The Russian Tandem
Let's rewind a few years.
The process began on July 2, 2008 when Howson sent Nikolay Zherdev and Dan Fritsche to the New York Rangers in a deal that brought Fedor Tyutin to the Blue Jackets. Howson had been after Tyutin for a while, and coveted his ability to play both ends of the rink and log heavy minutes in all situations. That brand of blue liner doesn't grow on trees, and the Blue Jackets got a young player they could build around, and who was signed to a multi-year contract not too long before the deal.
Tyutin signed a six-year extension with the Blue Jackets prior to the 2011-12 season, and you can lock him in as a top-four defenseman for the foreseeable future in Columbus.
His defensive partner, Nikita Nikitin, was also acquired in a trade. Howson sent Kris Russell to St. Louis this past November to acquire the hulking Russian rearguard, who was struggling to get playing time under both Davis Payne and Ken Hitchcock. The Blue Jackets wanted to add size (Nikitin is 6-foot-3 and nearly 220 lbs.) to the mix on the blue line, and they felt Nikitin had more to give on the offensive side of the puck -- and they were right. Nikitin put up 32 points in 54 games with Columbus, and was rewarded with a two-year, $4.3 million deal a few weeks ago.
One of the more difficult decisions for the Blue Jackets was to let good man and good soldier Jan Hejda go to unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2011. Hejda was one of Howson's first signings with the Blue Jackets five years ago, and had developed into one of the more underrated defensive defensemen in the NHL. At age 32, it was Hejda's time to get security and a long-term deal, and with the Blue Jackets looking to add offense on defense, there wasn't a fit for both parties.
Howson dipped into the free agent pool, acquiring James Wisniewski's negotiating rights from the Montreal Canadiens and signing him to a six-year contract. Wisniewski was coming off a 51-point season in Montreal, and was poised to play a bigger role on his next team. Despite battling through injuries and a suspension in 2011-12, Wisniewski put up decent offensive numbers and showed he can defend as well as he can shoot it from the point. The Blue Jackets' power play will benefit greatly from a healthy Wisniewski in the fall, and fans caught glimpses of the magical puck movement he and Jack Johnsondisplayed late in the year.
Speaking of Johnson, he was easily the biggest bright spot during an otherwise disappointing season for the Blue Jackets. When the club decided to move Jeff Carter along just prior to the trading deadline, acquiring a key piece in any potential deal was of paramount importance. Howson parlayed Carter (a routine 30-goal scorer) into Johnson and a conditional first-round pick from the Los Angeles Kings. Johnson stepped right on to the blue line and was a "plus" player (+5) in the 24 games he played with the Blue Jackets, pairing with Wisniewski for an All-American tandem they dubbed "controlled chaos."
The Blue Jackets had high hopes for Marc Methot as an emerging shutdown defenseman and signed him to a four-year extension in July 2011, hopeful to solidify him as a stay-at-home fixture on the blue line. There were flashes of potential and, at the same time, glimpses of a player that seemed to be "staying put" at age 27. But the confidence from the organization was still there, and despite missing the latter part of the year with a fractured jaw, Methot recovered and played well for Team Canada at the World Championship.
Master and Padawan
Opportunity arose for the Blue Jackets as July 1 dawned less than two weeks ago, and a team that desperately needed to upgrade its forward group saw a chance to do so in trade. An Ottawa native, Methot appealed to the Senators and GM Bryan Murray because of the departures of Matt Carkner and Filip Kuba to free agency. Murray envisioned Methot pairing up with star defenseman Erik Karlsson and being the safety valve needed for the flashy Swede. Howson was willing to move Methot in order to get a young forward in Nick Foligno, whose offensive game still has room to grow.
With the selection of Ryan Murray at No. 2 overall (2012), Howson and the Blue Jackets knew right away that the 18-year-old will have a legitimate opportunity to crack the roster out of training camp. Every draft analyst, expert or scouting service agreed that Murray is the sure-fire pick to be able to contribute at the NHL level this season. They signed a 17-year NHL veteran in Adrian Aucoin to a one-year deal to help young players like Murray and John Moore along as they adjust to the NHL.
For historical perspective, here is the Blue Jackets' group of defensemen from opening night 2007, a 4-0 win over the Anaheim Ducks:
Ron Hainsey - Duvie Westcott
Jan Hejda - Adam Foote
Kris Russell - Ole-Kristian Tollefsen
A year prior, before Howson assumed GM duties with the Blue Jackets, this was the opening night defense corps:
Hainsey - Foote
Aaron Johnson - Tollefsen
Anders Eriksson - Westcott
The dramatic change and immense upgrade in both skill and competitiveness have made the Columbus defense one of the more well-rounded and balanced in the Western Conference, and quite possibly in the NHL. There's not a "superstar" on the back end by any means, but there are six (potentially seven) players who are NHL defensemen and capable of playing at a high level every single night.
As we enter opening night 2012, let's take a look at the Blue Jackets defense:
Fedor Tyutin - Nikita Nikitin
Jack Johnson - James Wisniewski
Ryan Murray/John Moore - Adrian Aucoin
In that group, there is size, mobility, rockets from the point, and exquisite passers of the puck. You have defensemen like Johnson who are unafraid of joining the "second wave" of attackers and creating odd-man situations inside the offensive zone. It's not irresponsible hockey or riverboat gambling -- it's opportunistic and aggressive hockey, which is how the good teams win in the NHL. They create scoring chances by activating their defense.
The Los Angeles Kings would fall into that category, as do the Vancouver Canucks, Chicago Blackhawks, Philadelphia Flyers and the Detroit Red Wings. Their defense jumps up, pinches hard, and utilizes a quick transition game to get the puck moving in the right direction.
With the signings, trades and draft selections made since 2007, the Blue Jackets now have that ability.