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Unzipping the Jackets, Part I

by Corey Masisak's Corey Masisak spent a week in Columbus with the Blue Jackets, reporting the inside story on a team with high expectations at the start of the 2011-12 regular season. Here is the first installment of his two-part report:

COLUMBUS -- Derick Brassard looked skyward, and the collective groan of fans -- the sound of anticipated elation quickly muted by frustration -- filled Nationwide Arena.
It was a familiar sound, a manifestation of feelings felt far too often here this season. The Columbus Blue Jackets, a franchise that entered 2011-12 desperate for success and fresh off a "this-is-finally-going-to-be-our-year" summer, were trailing the Nashville Predators by two goals on a recent Saturday when Brassard had one of the team’s best chances of the night to solve goaltender Pekka Rinne.
Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson added No. 1 center Jeff Carter in a trade and signed free-agent defenseman James Wisniewski to a huge contract during summer 2011. (Photo: Getty Images)
Just before Brassard was able to turn and flick the puck into an open net, one of the Predators caught a piece of his stick and altered the trajectory of the shot. The puck nestled harmlessly into an already-prone Rinne, and Nashville went on to a 3-0 victory.
It was the frustrating end of a four-game homestand for the Blue Jackets -- one in which Columbus could have won all four games, but instead prevailed only twice.
There was a time earlier in the season when one step forward and one backward a couple of times during a week would have been welcome.
The Blue Jackets are in last place in the NHL. A season that began with increased expectations started poorly and a return to Stanley Cup Playoff contention after two years away never came to fruition.
"It has been a really tough season for all of us," forward Antoine Vermette said. "It is a tough spot to be in. I don't really have a good explanation for why. I wish I did, really. It has been hard on us -- no doubt about that."
Before the season started, Columbus was one of the most fascinating teams because of the dramatic alterations the front office made during the summer. Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson added a No. 1 center in Jeff Carter in a trade and signed free-agent defenseman James Wisniewski to a huge contract.
Howson picked up veteran Vinny Prospal on a one-year deal and, just before the season began, he locked up returnees Fedor Tyutin and R.J. Umberger to long-term deals. Meanwhile, Ryan Johansen was expected to be among the top contenders for Rookie of the Year honors.
The Blue Jackets were suddenly a cap team -- the payroll would approach the ceiling of the salary cap -- and expectations soared with each addition. This franchise had made the postseason only one time before, but this was going to be the season for which the fan base patiently had waited.
"That's what we think every year -- this is going to be the year," captain Rick Nash said. "We had some huge pickups and a lot of hope. It has been a tough season, to say the least."
Added Howson: "I think there was a lot of optimism, and certainly higher expectations, going into the year because of the moves we made. We got off to a really tough start and just never could really recover from that start. When you start 0-7-1, you need to get on a roll at some point and win eight out of 10 or nine out of 10, something like that, and we just could never do that. It just built on itself, and now the reality is here. We just never recovered from it."
Saturday, January 14, 2012
The Blue Jackets won Friday, Jan. 13 against the Phoenix Coyotes to kick off the homestand. It was the first victory for interim coach Todd Richards, who had replaced Scott Arniel four days prior.
Nearly 24,000 fans took in a hockey game in this city that night -- a few more than 14,000 were at Nationwide, while nearly 10,000 more were a short drive up High Street at Value City Arena for Ohio State's NCAA showdown with rival Michigan.

"The way we lost some games in the third period and the last minute of games just kept putting knives in our backs and in our life. It was getting frustrating and hard to take." -- Derek  Dorsett

The next night, Columbus had a chance to win consecutive games for only the second time this season when the San Jose Sharks came to Nationwide, an arena that ranks as one of the League's crown jewels.
Despite being shorthanded because of injuries, the Blue Jackets played well enough to be level with the Pacific Division's top team late in the third period. Then disaster struck again. A well-placed shot by Joe Pavelski caromed off goaltender Curtis Sanford and onto the stick of Patrick Marleau, who fired home the game-winning goal with 2:57 remaining.
In a season of negativity, the third-period collapse stands above all others. Columbus has crammed a half-decade's worth of third-period letdowns and crushing defeats into one season.
"There were two or three nights where you just wondered, 'Why does this keep happening to us?'" Howson said. “There was a game here against Nashville when they scored twice in the last minute and won in overtime. There was a game in Nashville where we had a three-goal lead and they tied it up with 3 1/2 minutes left on the power play and they won with eight seconds left on a long-bomb pass that split our defense.
"Obviously there was the game in Ottawa. We were up by a goal with 2 1/2 minutes to go and ... they scored twice in the last minute. Those are real, real setbacks."
Columbus has lost six games in regulation in which it led entering the third period. Two other times, the Blue Jackets just postponed the agony, falling in overtime. No other team in the League has come away with zero points when leading after 40 minutes more than three times.
The Blue Jackets have allowed 28 more goals in the third period than they've scored, easily the worst ratio for any team in any period.
"The way we lost some games in the third period and the last minute of games just kept putting knives in our backs and in our life," Derek Dorsett said. "It was getting frustrating and hard to take."
Sunday, January 15, 2012
Sunday was an off day for the Blue Jackets. After six games in 10 days, not to mention a coaching change in the middle, it was a day for the team to get away from the rink.
Richards had been at his new job for only five days, but it wasn't a tough transition for him. He began the season as one of Arniel’s assistants, so he had established relationships with the players and seen the toll a disastrous first half had taken.
This also was not his first time as the big boss. Richards spent the previous two seasons coaching the Minnesota Wild.
The Blue Jackets lost two of the first three games of his tenure, but he was pleased with how the team had responded to the change.
"The past three games -- there's always a push when there's a change," Richards said. "It was unfortunate with what happened, but you get the initial push from the change. There's a new (sunrise) coming up and guys get excited with that."
The day off allowed Richards a chance to exhale, and digest some long days filled with new responsibilities. His parents already were scheduled to be in town, so he spent the day with them.
"I had a chance to watch some football," Richards said. "My dad's a Green Bay Packers fan and we got to sit down and watch the game (a playoff loss by the Packers to the New York Giants) together. It doesn't happen too often that you get to sit and watch with your dad. I enjoyed that."
Monday, January 16, 2012
Richards put his team back to work Monday with a late-morning practice. One of the many great features of Nationwide Arena is the Dispatch Ice Haus -- a second rink connected to the main one.
The Blue Jackets practice in the Ice Haus some days, but they were on the main ice surface on this day. A constant stream of youth hockey contests occupied the Ice Haus and some of the kids made the trek to the main rink -- with skate guards on if necessary -- to check out an open NHL practice.
Fedor Tyutin
Defense - CBJ
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 16 | PTS: 19
SOG: 88 | +/-: -9
One of the kids pressed a sign up against the glass asking for someone to offer a stick, and the veteran defenseman Tyutin obliged at the end of the workout.
The list of players those kids did not get to see practice Monday included Carter, Wisniewski and Umberger. Both of the team's top two offseason additions are out with injuries, and Umberger had recently joined them because of a concussion.
On this day, forwards Kristian Huselius and Mark Letestu and defenseman Radek Martinek also were not practicing.
"We've had a lot of injuries, but that's not an excuse," Dorsett said. "There is a lot of depth on this team and in this organization. We've had key players out, but it was definitely a disappointing year. We've got 30-some games here to go out and get some respect back. We want to finish strong."
Few teams have enough depth to survive the injury issues the Blue Jackets have dealt with this season. Huselius, who would have been a cinch for a top-six forward role, has played only two games because of a pair of major injuries.
Carter has missed 17 games and now is out with a separated shoulder. Wisniewski missed eight games because of a suspension levied for a hit in the preseason and now is out with a broken foot. Martinek played only seven games and has been shut down for the season because of a concussion.
The Blue Jackets may have begun the season with a payroll hovering around the $60 million mark, but almost $22 million worth of players were sidelined for this entire four-game homestand because of injuries.
"We had our full lineup for one night, in Montreal, and I think we beat them in a shootout," Howson said. "We've had some challenges with the injuries and the suspension to James, but all the good teams overcome those things.
"We just couldn't find a way to keep our heads above water during those tough times to give yourself a chance when things do turn for the better in terms of injuries. Good teams find a way. We didn't."

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