Friday, April 23, 2010

Pool Outlook for Columbus

A couple steps forward in 2009 brought them into the playoffs, but a few steps back took the Columbus Blue Jackets back out of the playoffs and a 27th place finish in the standings. It wasn't the best of years for the Jackets, who struggled to find the back of the net, struggled playing a defensive system in front of a sophomore goalie that didn't quite seem the same as his Calder Trophy season previous. The coach was fired, a few potential free agents got moved and there was a little bit of life in their goaltending by the time the season ended, but it was much too late to salvage anything about it.

It wasn't exactly a banner year for the team's top scorer, but at least he got to finish on top of the team's pool scoring, which he fell out of last season. Rick Nash only managed to pot 33 goals in the 2010 season, which is a far cry from some of his better seasons, and he only finished with 67 points in 76 games. Nash is a guy that usually generates his own brand of offense, taking the puck to the net, but it just wasn't happening for him on the same levels he's usually working at. Without a doubt, he should be considered a point-per-game player, but his currently pace of .88 per game only ranked him 50th in pool scoring this year, down from 26th a season ago. I would consider it an off-year and move him up the rankings for the Draft next season.

There were some old faces on the way out this year and some new faces brought in through the last calendar year, which means the Jackets did try to address some issues in the year, while having a tough year. One of the fresher faces through the season, Antoine Vermette, didn't disappoint anyone, as he finished 2nd among Jackets forwards in scoring with 65 points (27 goals & 38 assists) in all 82 games. His season was quite good, as he took on a little bit more responsibility in the line-up and ran with it. Kristian Huselius, R.J. Umberger and Jakub Voracek were no slouches during the year, but they really didn't dazzle too much. Not too sure if they were stifled early, but Voracek did his best to turn it around after coach Hitchcock was fired. There is plenty of upside there now, I think.

The Blue Jackets added some offensive help to their blueline just before the season started by picking up Anton Stralman through a trade and that was a pretty nice bright spot in the Columbus season. He finished as the team's top blueliner with 34 points (6 goals & 28 assists) in 73 games, which is a shade under half a point per game. That isn't too bad at all. Fedor Tyutin and Kris Russell rounded out the top three defenders for the Jackets and I would imagine that they will all have a place in the Draft at some point next season.

It was a pretty rough year for the Jackets goaltending, as Steve Mason didn't quite pan out to what his Calder Trophy season had him forecasted at. Granted, there was a lot of excess pressure put on the young keeper because of his good season, but unfortunately, he was only able to post 20 wins, 5 shutouts and 2 assists for 52 points this year. By no means was it a bellyflop of a year, but his expectations had him doing much better and the Blue Jackets in better contention for a playoff spot, if not holding one and playing right now. Mathieu Garon did try to stop the bleeding a little, but that really didn't seem to work out either, since he only picked up 12 wins in his time in the crease.

2011 Season Outlook
The fingerprints of Ken Hitchcock are all over this team, which is fair, because we're not too long past his departure from the team and the league is in such an economic climate that change is not the easiest thing to accomplish, by any means. If change is going to happen for this team, it won't come too quickly, but the Hitchcock model isn't terrible... it just needs to find some new applications with the same tools.

Rick NashFedor TyutinSteve Mason
Antoine VermetteKris RussellMathieu Garon
Kristian HuseliusJan Hejda
R.J. UmbergerMike Commodore
Jakub VoracekMarc Methot
Derrick BrassardRostislav Klesla
Chris Clark
Sami Pahlsson
Derek Dorsett
Andrew Murray
Nikita Filatov

Columbus is one of those teams that is believed to have a club-imposed budget and salary cap, so saying that there is lots of room for the Jackets is kind of a moot point, but having 19 players already signed at a cap hit of $49.3 million is an awfully tempting number to try and tackle over the summer. If the addition of Nikita Filatov to the line-up can actually happen, the salary cap number might not have to be adjusted too much in their adjustment for more scoring.

Well, with 19 players already signed on for next season, there won't be much talk of free agents from the Columbus side of the ledger, especially after they dealt Jason Chimera, Fredrik Modin and Raffi Torres away, they really lightened their load when it comes to potential free agency. The biggest free agent concern going into the Summer would have to be Anton Stralman, but he's going to be a restricted free agent in July, so all they have to do is qualify him and then he's theirs unless the dreaded offer sheet comes out.

The biggest unrestricted free agent this season is likely going to be Nathan Paetsch, as he was acquired from Buffalo in the deal for Torres. He didn't figure too much into the Jackets system down the stretch, but he should be able to fit in somewhere in the top six, I would think. Letting him go might not be the worst idea either, epsecially if he's taking up a spot for a valuable young player.

Well, I hesitate to say 'finally,' but it really does feel like it's taken forever for Nikita Filatov to start paying off for the Blue Jackets since his 6th overall selection in 2008. Despite his small-ish stature, his offense almost seemed like he would be a lock to make the Blue Jackets straight out of the Draft, but then he ran into the hardest coach to play loosey-goosey offense for and Filatov found himself on the outside looking in more often than not. I have already seen some reports suggesting that Filatov is ready to make his impact on the NHL and the Jackets should have themselves a coach that can facilitate that wish, so things are looking up. The Jackets are also looking towards some more defense, as John Moore, Nick Holden and Grant Clitsome have all made some good leaps and bounds towards an NHL career. I don't think their offensive numbers will come right away, but they are ones to watch.

What I said at this time last year: "The Jackets keep themselves in good standing with a low budget heading into the year, but a playmaking centre for Nash and a puck-moving defenseman could bring the team into some good company. Still, looking at the team they have from a fantasy perspective, they have plenty of talent to go around and they may see their players fill in some important gaps on fantasy teams this coming year and for good reason. Both Mason and Nash bring immediate impact points, while Voracek and Filatov will use their youthful talents to their advantage. Don't be afraid of Columbus anymore."

Well, the Jackets didn't get their playmaking centre for Nash, but Vermette didn't do too badly, although Nash wasn't an impact player like he usually is. The puck-moving defenseman came in Stralman, but he's still got some time yet to mature into what they really need. Mason was an impact player, but not in the positive way. Voracek did use his talents to his advantage, but didn't have much help, as Filatov booted back to Russia for the season to escape the evil regime of Hitchcock. 2010 was not the season I thought it was going to be for Columbus, but changes during the season have renewed my hope for them.

For 2011, I'm expecting to see the leash loosened significantly in the forward ranks of the Jackets. Huselius, Voracek, Brassard, Umberger and Filatov should all be allowed to skate with Nash at will and hopefully be allowed to be creative. That being said, I would have to expect a lot more defensive responsibility from the team's defense, in order for that to work expertly. I'm also thinking that Mason will have a Summer of Reflection to bring himself back to centre, where he has known to be his best. If these are the things that come out of the Jackets next season, I am prepared to say right now that they are playoff material again.

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