While most were sleeping — and even I succumbed to the Sandman in the wee hours while the talks were ongoing — the NHL and NHLPA reached a tentative agreement to the 113 day lockout, announced at about 4:45 A.M. Eastern Time this morning. As this goes to press, the specifics of the season & schedule are up in the air, but the consensus is that a 48 or 50 game season is in the offing, with the specifics forthcoming in the next 48 hours or so. Bottom line — hockey returns to Nationwide Arena! I’ll address the fiasco that was the 2012-13 Lockout in an in-depth Overtime piece, but this is all about the Blue Jackets, what the return to hockey means in Columbus, and the key things to look for as season that will be more sprint than marathon. Let’s dig in . . .
The Post-Nash Era Begins
With the acrimony, disgust and apathy engendered by the lockout, the fact that Rick Nash is no longer a Blue Jacket has almost faded from consciousness. Yet in approximately two weeks, the Blue Jackets will take the ice without Nash, but with a plethora of new, intriguing faces. Nick Foligno, Brandon Dubinsky, Adrian Aucoin, Tim Erixon, Artem Anisimov and Sergei Bobrovsky will all make their debuts — with Erixon more likely to make the big squad, in light of the injury to Ryan Murray.
The Great Nash Debate need not be rehashed here. It’s a done deal, and the focus is on the guys that are here. However, count me among those who are excited by the transition, as I think it means an entirely new style of play that will a) be more exciting to watch and b) ultimately prove to be more successful. For years, the offensive end of the ice has been dominated by Nash. Younger players passed up opportunities to pass the puck to him, and the style of play was dictated by his “power forward” style. Taking his rookie season out of the equation , Nash averaged 34 goals and 30 assists — nice numbers to be sure, but coming at a cost, in terms of development of younger players, who have dominated the roster for the last several years.
The new roster promises to bring a “scoring by committee” style to the Blue Jackets, with no single player dominating any line. Can this work? Absolutely! Consider last year’s Nashville Predators, who had precisely two players with 20 goals or more. Two. Are Brassard, Umberger, Prospal, Dubinsky, Foligno, Anisimov, Atkinson and Johansen all capable of generating 20 goals? You betcha. Even if half of those guys produce 20 goals, and the defense contributes, the Blue Jackets will be ahead of the game. The “as goes Nash, so go the Jackets” phenomenon will also be a thing of the past. Players have ups and downs, but when Nash went on a dry spell, the Blue Jackets suffered. With the reconstituted lineup, there is less pressure on any one guy to contribute, and percentages dictate that some will be up while others are down.
So Who Plays Where?
With a projected one-week training camp, few auditions are going to be conducted. Expect the training camp roster to be largely the guys who will start the season, with just enough
prospects to make hard practices and scrimmages feasible. The pressure will be particularly severe for teams like Columbus, who are welcoming large numbers of new players. With only 48-50 games, teams will need to hit the deck in stride, and teams that have played together for awhile will have early advantages. One of the big mistakes that Howson and Arniel made last year was having 60+ guys in camp, and taking a long time to winnow the roster. There will no similar mistake this year.On the forward lines, look for Audy-Marchessault, Drazenovic and Calvert to get a look in camp, with Boone Jenner also a likely candidate to appear. While Calvert may get the early nod, due to more NHL experience, do not be surprised if Drazenovic and Audy-Marchessault see significant time on the big squad, particularly if scoring is in short supply. They have both been productive in Springfield, have the full range of skills, and will be contributors sooner than later. I’m thinking that Jenner will get a look, but ends up from Springfield, with the potential for call-up later in the season. Otherwise, look for a blend of youth and experience, speed and size. (While a “gnat line” of Calvert, Atkinson and Audy-Marchessault would be tempting, it’s not happening — at least not at the beginning of the season.) My projections are as follows:
1. Brassard, Dubinsky, Atkinson
2. Johansen, Anisimov, Prospal
3. Umberger, Foligno, Calvert/Audy-Marchessault
4. Dorsett, MacKenzie, Letestu
Boll and either Calvert or Audy-Marchessault would fill out the forward slots. Umberger might start out on the first line, but his game is really suited more toward the third line. I’m projecting that the fourth line will be used more as the “shut down” line, hence Dorsett starts there. It’s obviously a lot of speculation at this point, but Richards will make the moves necessary to develop chemistry and production.
On defense, the situation is far more established. With a short camp, the Nikitin-Tyutin pairing will stay together, and the Wisniewski-Johnson pairing will also start the season. Aucoin will help steady John Moore, and I think Erixon will fill the seventh slot, providing relief for Aucoin and spelling any other defenseman whose production lags. Savard will be waiting in the wings in Springfield.
With a 48-50 game season, starting goaltending will be paramount in determining a team’s success, and this has been the Achilles Heel for Columbus over the past few seasons. Steve Mason has struggled since his Calder Trophy performance in 2008-2009, and the Blue Jackets have thus far been unable to provide a viable alternative. Sergei Bobrovsky steps into the blue ice this season, with Mason clearly slotted for a backup role. Bobrovsky provided reason for optimism in his KHL stint, with 18 wins, 4 shutouts, a 1.94 GAA and a save percentage north of .930. Those are numbers that Blue Jackets fans have been waiting to see for a long, long time. Curtis McElhinney has played unexpectedly well for Springfield, but his utility to the big club is marginal, given the need for him to clear waivers, except in limited circumstances. So, look for him to continue his mentorship role in the AHL.
Front Office Moves
The John Davidson era has commenced in Columbus, and his imprint will be felt early. While some argued that the Blue Jackets would have been better off had the season been canceled, under the theory that Davidson would then have had a full year to acquaint himself with the operation and the players, I disagree. Davidson needs to see the host of new players on the ice, in competition, to see what he really has. On paper, everyone is an All-Star, but the game is not played on paper. Davidson has undoubtedly used the missed portion of the season to maximum advantage, and has a good idea of the strengths, weaknesses and unknowns among his personnel. However, nothing duplicates seeing the product on the ice.
Davidson has an intriguing set of circumstances facing him. It’s a brand new club, with brand new challenges. He has seasoned assistance – in the person of Craig Patrick — at his side, and embattled GM Scott Howson on his staff. He has three first round draft picks as bargaining chips, and a trade deadline that will be staring him in the face from virtually the beginning of the season. While I would not expect to see precipitous moves from Davidson’s office, he has also not been shy to make significant moves when necessary. Other clubs are going to be looking to make some moves for cap purposes, and Davidson is savvy enough to take advantage of opportunity. Look for Davidson to be very much out front on the personnel front, with Scott Howson playing much more of a background role.
What Does It All Mean?
A curtailed season is difficult to predict, particularly since details are not yet available. Once popular theory is that the schedule will call for 5 games each against division foes (20 games) and 3 games each against the rest of the conference (30 games). Earlier rumors of Columbus and Winnipeg swapping slots for this season have apparently been denied by the NHL, and reports indicate that realignment has been pushed down the road. So, Columbus faces a formidable schedule in the Central, and loses its traditional advantage over Eastern Conference clubs. Strike One. As noted above, clubs with established rosters and chemistry will also have an early advantage, and the horde of new players coming to Columbus mitigates against that. Strike Two.
On the positive side, Columbus has had a number of key younger players playing on a regular basis in the AHL, and they should be able to hit the ground running. Atkinson, Johansen, Moore, Erixon, Audy-Marchessault, Calvert, Drazenovic and Savard are in game shape and have gained some invaluable experience. Boone Jenner has been lighting up juniors. Anisimov and Bobrovsky have played very well in the KHL. So the Blue Jackets will benefit more than many teams from real playing time by the people they will be relying upon. With John Moore (concussion) and Brandon Dubinksy (broken hand) healed and back in action, the Blue Jackets are in good health, which is another key. Clubs are going to have precious little time to recover from injuries in a shortened season. (The L.A. Kings are undoubtedly sweating reports that Anze Kopitar may be out for three weeks or more.)
So, as usual, there are plusses and minuses entering the season, and nobody will know how those will play out until they drop the puck. But, after 113 days of strife, the fact that the puck will be dropped is what matters. There is a lot to look forward to in Columbus, and the anticipation will be building rapidly. In case you need something else to put you in the mood for the season, here is another offering from Blue Jackets fan and Video Guru Tom Larrow: