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Howson is looking to add center for playoff push

by Dan Rosen
Scott Howson isn't playing poker with his fellow general managers. The Columbus Blue Jackets' boss is out front and center with his team's needs and wouldn't mind doing some dealing before the NHL trade deadline, which is March 4 at 3 p.m. ET.

"We've been pretty clear that center ice is the position we're trying to add to, probably at the higher end," Howson said on a conference call Wednesday. "Although, there doesn't seem to be a lot out there available at the higher end."

The Blue Jackets have been searching for a No. 1 center ever since Rick Nash joined the team in 2002. If they were to get one now, they would look much more stable heading into the stretch drive as they pursue their first ever playoff berth.

Howson said he has talked with some teams about addressing the need, but nothing has materialized yet.

"There was just never the right fit," he said. "We weren't comfortable. It felt like we were robbing Peter to pay Paul. We weren't going to do that at that time."

The Jackets have used R.J. Umberger in the middle between Nash and Kristian Huselius this season, but Howson admits they'd prefer to keep Umberger on the wing. Manny Malhotra recently has been the pivot on the top line, but he's not the long-term solution, either.

Derick Brassard was looking like he had the potential to be the first-line middle man, but the rookie center went out with a season-ending shoulder injury Dec. 18.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, the Jackets practiced Wednesday with Jason Williams as the top-line center, and Huselius was replaced by Jakub Voracek. Huselius moved to the second line with Malhotra and Umberger.

Clearly it looks as though Howson is up against it to find that middle man to stabilize the entire top six in this playoff push, but that's not how the GM feels.

Even though a couple of playoff games in Columbus would continue to put a jolt into the budding hockey market, Howson refuses to do it at the expense of some of his younger players. He also is not willing to part with upcoming first-round draft picks unless the return is a solid NHL player with long-term potential.

That means Brassard, Voracek, Kris Russell, Nikita Filatov and No. 1 goalie Steve Mason all are off limits at this year's annual swap meet. Of course, Nash is not on the market, either, even though he'll need a new, lucrative contract at the end of next season.

"We really believe in our young group of players coming," Howson said. "It starts with Steve Mason and Kris Russell and Voracek and Filatov and Brassard. Nash is still a young guy. So we think we've got a bright future. We're certainly not going to touch that future in the next five days. If we can add something to make us better now without touching that future, that's what we're going to try to accomplish."

If he can't, Howson still likes his team's chances of not only making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, but being a tough out once they get there.

Entering Wednesday, the Jackets were sixth in the Western Conference with 66 points despite back-to-back losses. They have 21 games to play, including three before the trade deadline.

"You start with goaltending in the playoffs, and I think we've got a great young goalie," Howson said of Mason, who is first in the NHL with seven shutouts and second with a 2.19 goals-against average. "He's going to have his bumps as he goes through the young part of his career, but we have a lot of faith in him. That gives you a chance.

"Our team is big, has some size, a little bit of quickness, too. So I think we would be a handful for any team. But the challenge for us is going to get there because, as you guys all know, it's so tight right now. If we get in, we think we can present a challenge for any of the top four teams."

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