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Johansen, Murray, '13 draft offer hope in Columbus

by Corey Masisak

To be clear, the challenge in front of new general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and president John Davidson is an ample one. The new regime for the Columbus Blue Jackets will try to mold a franchise with zero Stanley Cup Playoff victories (and four postseason games) in its history into a consistent contender.

Though there is not a vast wealth of young talent to dream on like, say, in Edmonton or Florida, Kekalainen is not starting from scratch. Former general manager Scott Howson began the rebuilding process last season, and there are a few places to look on the Blue Jackets' organizational depth chart and see reasons for hope, even if more patience might be required.


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Howson thought the team was ready to contend in 2011-12 and he went for it, signing defenseman James Wisniewski to a hefty contract and trading a first-round pick and Jakub Voracek to the Philadelphia Flyers for Jeff Carter. Wisniewski was suspended, Carter (and several others) got injured, and the season was an unmitigated disaster.

That the Blue Jackets did fail so badly may be a long-term blessing in disguise. Had Columbus hung around the fringes of playoff contention, it is unlikely Howson would have started the rebuilding process.

Now Kekalainen has some young assets to build around and draft picks to further replenish the talent base. As's Adam Kimelman wrote, Kekalainen knows his way around a draft board.

Columbus has three first-round selections in the 2013 NHL Draft, its own plus picks from the Los Angeles Kings (for Carter) and New York Rangers (for Rick Nash). All three picks would be in the top 16 if the season ended Tuesday, but obviously the expectation is the Rangers and Kings will improve and those picks will drop. Kekalainen's teams have a history of picking well late in the first round: St. Louis added T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund and David Perron in successive years with selections in the mid-20s.

The Blue Jackets will have to give up their third-round pick (which could be in the low 60s) if the Rangers do not reach the 2013 Stanley Cup Final as a condition of the Nash trade, but that still leaves Kekalainen with potentially four of the top 40 choices.

Depending on where the Blue Jackets finish this season, there might not be a more important player moving forward for the franchise than center Ryan Johansen. The No. 4 pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, Johansen has been considered one of the top prospects in the sport since his days as a dominant player in the Western Hockey League.

Blessed with size at 6-foot-3, Johansen has the skill and hockey sense to develop into a true No. 1 center in the NHL. The start of his career with the Blue Jackets has been rocky, but figuring out the way to maximize Johansen's potential has to be a top priority for Kekalainen and Davidson.

Johansen doesn't turn 21 years old until July. There is still time for him to blossom, but whether he does or not could drastically change the timeline for playoff contention in Columbus.

Defenseman Ryan Murray also will be a critical fixture moving forward. The No. 2 pick in the 2012 draft, Murray probably would be logging big minutes for the Blue Jackets right now if it weren't for a season-ending shoulder injury.

Johansen, Murray and possibly a high pick in the 2013 draft could form the foundation of the first great Columbus team, but fans in central Ohio have seen many top picks fail to reach lofty expectations before.

A big reason these four picks in the 2013 draft are so important is there aren't a lot of guys in the organization who could develop into core players behind Johansen and Murray. Center Boone Jenner and wing Cam Atkinson represent the best bets from the next tier. Each could prove to be a top-six forward at the NHL level and might be able to reach that potential in the near future.

New Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen isn't starting from scratch, but he and president John Davidson have much work to do to make the team a contender. (Photo: Getty Images)

Though Howson didn't land an elite prospect when he traded Nash this offseason, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov are young enough to be integral top-nine forwards for several years. Toss in Derek Dorsett and Nick Foligno and the makings of a solid forward corps are there -- Columbus just needs a frontline player or two. Obviously those are the toughest to acquire, but Johansen and a top pick in June (Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin or Aleksander Barkov) could be the answer.

There are other forward prospects with potential (T.J. Tynan, Matt Calvert and Jody Audy-Marchessault) but they project more as complementary parts.

Depth on defense is a strength, both at the NHL level and in the system. Murray has the potential to be an anchor. Though advanced metrics have never been kind to Jack Johnson, he can log a ton of minutes to help the Blue Jackets through this transition and ease the pressure on Murray next season.

With Nikita Nitkinin, John Moore and David Savard, the Blue Jackets have defensemen under the age of 27 with significant NHL experience who could fit nicely in a second- or third-pairing. Tim Erixon, Cody Goloubef and Mike Reilly could offer further blue-line depth.

One of the big question marks for the long-term health of the franchise remains in net, but there are options. Sergei Bobrovsky and Steve Mason are each 24 years old, and 2012 second-round pick Oscar Dansk is seeing plenty of shots on one of the worst teams in the Ontario Hockey League.

Howson already dealt some of the valuable veteran assets (Nash, Carter and Antoine Vermette), and a couple of interesting assets (defensemen Fedor Tyutin and Adrian Aucoin) have no-move or no-trade protection. But Kekalainen could look to move veteran role players for extra picks before this season's trade deadline.

If he and Davidson aren't sold on some combination of Johansen, Jenner and Derick Brassard being viable long-term centers on the team's top two lines, using some of the franchise's depth on defense and the extra draft picks to pursue a trade for a young center could be an option. TSN's Darren Dreger reported Colorado Avalanche restricted free agent Ryan O'Reilly could be available, and Adrian Dater of the Denver Post has made it clear he doesn't expect O'Reilly to play another game for them.

Fans in Columbus need to be patient, something they've been told for years. But the track record for Kekalainen and Davidson is strong. They may need to get creative, and they absolutely need to improve the franchise's draft record, but there could be reasons for hope sooner rather than later for an organization that needs it.

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