THW Panel: Blue Jackets Face Big Questions This Offseason

Two months ago Blue Jackets fans were speculating whether Nate MacKinnon or Jonathan Drouin would look best in Union Blue. The late season surge ended that talk and have Jacket Backers entering the offseason with a most unfamiliar emotion: hope.

Expectations have never been higher for the only NHL franchise without a playoff win after ending the season a tiebreaker out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and loaded with re-signed youngsters and three, count ‘em three, first round selections in June. For all the momentum and optimism the 2013 Blue Jackets earned, there is just as much uncertainty.

With so much to consider this offseason, I posed seven burning questions for my fellow Blue Jackets writers here at TheHockeyWriters.com.

 

Q: John Davidson suggested the sting of missing the playoffs will serve as positive
motivation for this team going forward. Do you agree or is he simply attempting to ease the
pain?

JEFF LITTLE: There is no question that this will be a positive motivating force. While everyone will say
that the playoffs were the goal, there was no rational EXPECTATION of a playoff slot this year.
Davidson ‘s “brick by brick” metaphor means that building the team will be done thoughtfully,
but it also means “don’t expect miracles right now.” A shortened, intense season favors clubs
with lots of returning players, and hurts teams like the Blue Jackets, who were both the youngest
in the NHL and needed to incorporate lots of new players. The poor start was to be expected.
The 15-5-5 finish was not. This was more than “one brick at a time” — a big piece of the wall
went up this year.

John Davidson --Columbus President of Hockey Operations (Jamie Sabau/Columbus Blue Jackets)

John Davidson –Columbus President of Hockey Operations (Jamie Sabau/Columbus Blue Jackets)

HARRY KAMDAR: I believe that JD is genuine in sharing his thought about the sting of missing the
playoffs serving as positive motivation. He is also indirectly making reference to lessons-learned
in so narrowly missing out on an invitation to Lord Stanley’s annual gala. Even if he didn’t say a
word, this particular Jackets team has shown that it will not be denied and will continue to build
on this season’s success and learn from its shortcomings, most notably in the first half of the
season.

ROARKE BOES: Initially Davidson had to be as shocked as everyone else concerning the
Jackets improbable playoff run. By the deadline, though, Davidson made it clear he
believed this team could win in 2013 via the acquisition of superstar Marian Gaborik.
The Jackets convinced themselves they deserved to be in the playoffs and missing out
on a technicality will long serve as motivation for this young team. Davidson is right, it’s
hard to see this proud, feisty team using their failure as anything but motivation.

 

Q: Is Sergei Bobrovsky the longterm solution in goal or another one year wonder?

JEFF: Anybody who claims the ability to predict future goalie performance is lying. Goalies
are to hockey what left-handed pitchers are to baseball — wacky, unpredictable . . .and essential.
Any General Manager who gives a goalie a contract over four years is insane. See DiPietro, Rick, Bryzgalov, Ilya and, to a lesser extent, Rinne, Pekka. Large, long contracts seem to adversely impact the goal stopping ability of most goaltenders.

Sergei Bobrovsky

Sergei Bobrovsky (Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports)

That being said, Bobrovsky should not be measured by Mason. When you listen to the
teammates, coaches and opposition, Bobrovsky is universally heralded as one of the hardest
working players — not just goaltenders — in the league. Mason – – -not so much. Bobrovsky
has a maturity and work ethic that Mason could not grab onto, and seems to have that ability
to “forget” a bad goal or a bad outing. There’s a reason that the average starting goalie in
the NHL is 29 years old — it takes experience and a mature approach to know how to handle
adversity and the pressure of being THE guy in net.

Davidson & Kekalainen acquired Leighton for a reason, so let’s see what he shows in the off
season. In the meantime, Dansk is working his way up, McElhinney is in the organization, and
the European crop is advancing. Goaltending is the rarest commodity in the NHL, so nurturing
these assets is vital.

HARRY: This franchise cannot repeat the mistake it made with Steve Mason by putting all
their eggs in one basket, so to speak. Mason was in a similar situation during his Calder Trophy
winning season as Bobrovsky this season.

Former GM Scott Howson was enamored by young Mason and committed to him as the
franchise goalie even in subsequent years when the lad’s performance dropped off significantly.
When Howson finally signed Bobrovsky, it was too late to save his career in Columbus.

The moral of the story is that the Jackets must have a solid back-up goalie as Bobrovsky is going
to ride the peaks and troughs like anyone in his situation.

ROARKE: Goaltending is the most important individual player to their team in all of
major professional sports. Oh, you think it’s the quarterback, eh? The difference between
quarterback and goalie is that a team with, say, a Trent Dilfer-level talent between the
pipes has never and will never win sixteen games in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

You can’t win without goaltending. Columbus learned that the hard way. Bobrovsky is
a safer bet going his second season than Mason was for several reasons. Bobrovsky
is not a rookie, he’s battle-tested. Bobrovsky was much more stable this season than
Mason was in his playoff year. Bob’s .936 SV% and 2.00 GAA tower over Mason’s
08-09 totals of .916 and 2.29. Mason allowed 4 or more goals 13 times in 61 regular
season games (and three more in the Wings playoff sweep). Bobrovsky allowed 4 or
more just three time in 37 starts. Bobrovsky has already proven himself better than
Mason ever was. Let’s hope he can keep it up.

 

Q: Rumors persist that Columbus may deal one or more of their first round selections in
June’s Entry Draft. What’s the right move for this team going forward: trade up for one of
the top players in the draft, move picks for an established NHL player who can help right
away, or exercise all three first round picks and stock up on talented prospects?

JEFF: These are the types of questions that are lots of fun to speculate about, but are ultimately
unknowable, because we don’t know who other clubs might make available by way of trade. So,
we have to go with what is known. First, the Blue Jackets have strength on the blue line, both
on the big club and in the minors/juniors. They need more offense, as Bobrovsky’s heroics made
up for the offensive shortcomings. However, even that improved as the season went on. They
have a very good starting goaltender, but the back-up is a question mark, though there are several
possibilities.

The Blue Jackets are already the youngest team in the NHL, and simply adding more youth
through the draft would seem to be an unlikely stratagem. Their three picks will likely fall
between 14 and 25, and historically picks at these levels are no locks. If the Blue Jackets could
move up to one of the top 3, maybe the club does that, but I think it’s far more likely that they
get a solid player at 14, and package the other two picks with players to get some more veteran
offensive help, and perhaps more goaltending depth. This is going to be a dynamic situation that
will likely change with every phone call that Kekalainen and Davidson get.

HARRY: Remember, when JD uttered a particular set of words repeatedly in his inaugural
speech as the new President of Hockey Operations that quickly became a household phrase in the
Columbus area? “One brick at a time” has become as affable in Columbus as another household

phrase, “three yards and a cloud of dust” made famous by Woody Hayes, an iconic college
football coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes from a bygone era.

I guess this is just another way to state that the Jackets will hang on to their first round selections
if there are no earth-shattering deals to be made. With Boone Jenner, Ryan Murray and a
handful of others in Springfield waiting in the wings to join the Jackets next season, I would
think the team could afford some attrition.

Accordingly, I would expect Kekalainen to move forward with a trade if an impact player or two
could be had without giving up the farm. We know that the team could use additional scoring
weapons along with an NHL-proven goalie that can successfully backup Bobrovsky.

ROARKE: Columbus must put more pucks in the net. It’ll be back to square one next season if
they don’t because Bobrovsky can’t be expected to carry the team through an 82 game season.
With Gaborik in place, Columbus will target a young scorer this offseason to learn from
Gabby and grow with their improving young core.

Loaded with picks, Columbus could move up to the top three in the
draft and select a dynamic forward. Drouin and MacKinnon are the bluechip forward prospects and one will be available as low as Tampa Bay’s three pick. If they play their cards right, based on most NHLDraft value charts, Columbus could walk away with Drouin / MacKinnon in addition to one of their later first rounders. Throw a budding star onto this up-and-coming Jackets team and Columbus will be the “it” team when it comes to predicting playoff teams next preseason.

Boone Jenner, Oshawa Generals

Q: Will Boone Jenner and/or Ryan Murray make the Columbus roster to start the 2013-14
season?

JEFF: Everybody wants to see Boone in Columbus, and Ryan was expected to challenge this
season, but let’s step back and take a deep breath. Again, Columbus is already the youngest club
in the league, and the model of relying upon a slew of young colts on the forward lines has not
proven to be a recipe for success (see Oilers, Edmonton). True, the Blue Jackets have a better
defense than Edmonton, but “brick by brick” also applies to developing young talent. Calvert
and Atkinson are good examples. Calvert was an animal in the last half of the season, but was

frankly bad early on, and even now makes some bad decisions in his own zone. Atkinson is
a better decision maker, and was hampered by the high ankle sprain much of the year, but his
game remains a work in progress.

Jenner was sent back to juniors this year not because he lacks the talent, but because his game
lacks maturity. It’s easy to see big numbers in juniors or the AHL and say “Come on down!!” ,
but it’s not that easy. Players are not created equal, and some have more fragile psyches than
others. Success breeds success, but better to bring them along slowly, if the organization can
afford to do it. Murray and Jenner will certainly both be in prime contention for slots, and much
will depend upon the other moves the club makes. The emergence of Prout and the solid play of
Goloubef and Erixon made John Moore expendable, and we could see another defenseman move
along to get a big return. Murray could help provide that flexibility.

If I have to make a prediction, I think that both start the season in Springfield, but see plenty of
time in the NHL next year.

HARRY: Yes! Period! I cannot wait to see Boone Jenner and Ryan Murray in a Jackets uniform
on opening day of camp. Can you imagine how well-stocked the Jackets organization would be
if Kekalainen is able to snare a few more prospects of this caliber in the entry draft especially
with the three 1st round picks? Oh, mama! Can’t wait for camp to start.

Ryan Murray

Ryan Murray

ROARKE: Jenner’s chance to make the roster will improve as the Falcons keep winning in
Calder Cup playoffs. He’s gaining great experience and playing alongside with current Jackets
Prout and Johansen. Boone will be a camp favorite, and likely will win a spot, but don’t expect
Jenner to see much playing time right away. Ideally, he provides a spark of offense on a grinder
line to start.

Ryan Murray was expected to make the roster this season, but shoulder surgery delayed his
much anticipated debut for Columbus. It would be a shock not to see Murray on the Blue Jackets
opening roster in the fall. In fact, Columbus might even move a more senior defenseman to make
room for the highly-touted prospect on their crowded blue line.

 

Q: Will Vinny Prospal be on the roster in 2013-14?

JEFF: Barring significant injury or change of heart by Prospal, or an “offer you can’t refuse”
from another club, I fully expect Vinny to play one more season. He is a vital cog of veteran
leadership, and a backbone of character for a young organization. He seems to be the type of
player that Davidson likes, and is at the point in his career where he does not want to move. I
think that leading the Blue Jackets to a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference would be the
perfect cap to a great career from his perspective. He is the Ernie Banks of hockey, and is a
terrific leader and ambassador for the club. He’s back.

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

HARRY: My sense is that “Mr. Prospal” is happy in Columbus and that he still has that fire in
his belly to play. What he lacks physically due to his age, he makes up in terms of intangibles
such as a vocal leader, enthusiasm and work ethic. It wouldn’t surprise me if JD and JK strike a
similar gentleman’s agreement with “Mr. Prospal” as did Howson, on joining the front-office in
the future.

ROARKE: Vinny Prospal was struggling to keep up at the end of season. The condensed
schedule and extended April road trip would be tough on any player, especially one as long in
the tooth as the 38-year-old Prospal. I can see Prospal wanting to go out with a playoff run and
Columbus seems poised to make one next season. If old Vinny does stick around, his days as an
every night starter are over. As an injury sub / rotational player, Columbus will get the best out
of whatever Prospal has left in the tank.

Q: With the switch to the Eastern Conference Columbus trades rivals St. Louis, Nashville,
Chicago, and Detroit for Carolina, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Washington, Philadelphia, the
Islanders, and the Rangers. Will this change help or hurt the Jackets playoff chances in
2013-14?

JEFF: Historically, the Blue Jackets have matched up well against the Eastern Conference, and
in fact have a winning record vs. the East over the life of the franchise. The roster is full of
guys with deep experience in the East, so there will be some significant familiarity. Clearly, the
reduced travel will be a big help, and it will be easier for locals to establish a presence at away
games. Attendance at home will significantly improve, and with the general Eastern bias, they
should see more national media next season.

The NHL East vs. West disparity is a bit like the National League vs. American League
differences in baseball. Historically, the National League has been the league of the hit &
run , the bunt, the stolen base, the squeeze play. Tightly played, well-pitched games with no
designated hitter. The AL is all about the DH and the 3-run home run — Earl Weaver’s favorite
play. In hockey, the East is a more free flowing, offensive oriented style, with lots of odd-
man rushes and end-to-end play. The teams in the West tend to be more system oriented, more
defensively aware, and more capable of playing differing styles as the situation warrants. These
are generalizations, of course, but they generally hold true. The CBJ have that ability to play
multiple styles, so I like the Blue Jackets’ chances in the East.

HARRY: Before I can think of playoffs, I know that I will certainly sleep a lot more next season.
Those Western Canada and California road games caused me to lose a lot of sleep as I sat in
front of the television in a half morose state. Levity aside, the competition the Jackets faced in
the Central Division was second to none in the league. So, I am glad they are now going to be in
a new division and improve their win percentage.

In terms of rivalry, it has to be a two-sided contest otherwise it’s not a rivalry. As much as Blue
Jackets fans like to think they had a rivalry against Detroit, I would submit that it was wishful
thinking. With the exception of the 2012/2013 season, the Red Wings have owned this one including the
playoff sweep. Similarly, while heated rivalries could develop against the Penguins, Rangers
and Flyers, the Jackets must win their share of the games to truly call them rivalries.

ROARKE: The move to the East will improve the Jackets playoff chances for a myriad of
reasons. The time change benefits weary players as much as fans. The new scheduling format
evens out travel so Columbus drops a franchise-old disadvantage.

Much noise has been made about the quality of the new divisional opponents, but the Jackets
have been dealing with Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and Nashville since they entered the league.
Columbus is no stranger to talented divisional foes. Further, the East traditionally provides an
easier path to the postseason.

Q: Who should be the next captain of the Blue Jackets?

JEFF: First and foremost, this is not a question for the fans. This is exclusively the province
of the players, the coaches and the front office. Period. It was very irritating to read all of the
criticism of Nash as a Captain by fans, when the fact is that nobody except the players knows
what kind of Captain he was. That all takes place in the room, on the bench, in the hotels and on
the planes. Guys have different styles, and just because one guy is loud and another is quiet does
not make one a better candidate than another.

It made tons of sense to defer naming a captain this season, for lots of reasons. The shortened
season, no training camp and the big number of new people are just a few. “Captain by
committee” was fine for this year, but you need a long term captain. While clubs have gone
without a permanent captain for more than one year now and then in NHL history, it’s really
pretty rare. These guys are pros, and the leader will emerge — as I suspect it already has.Jack Johnson

For me, it boils down to two guys — Jack Johnson and Brandon Dubinsky. Johnson has
the visible credentials — captain of Team USA, etc., but Dubinsky has that quiet, articulate
determination about him that screams “Leadership.” Not that Johnson doesn’t, but Dubinsky
seems to have more of that indefinable quality that you find in long-term, successful captains.
So, I’ll give the edge to Dubinsky, but frankly I’d be happy with either guy.

HARRY: The Jackets did splendidly this season without a captain, so is one necessary? Well,
obviously a captain will be named at some point so who will it be? I think the answer depends
on who is still here at the beginning of next season as we should expect a flurry of activity on the
trade front.

My sense is that Jack Johnson and Brandon Dubinsky have the best chance of being “Captain
Columbus”. Both have earned the respect of their teammates and are a huge reason why the
culture has changed for the better. If you had to twist my arm, I would say Johnson gets the “C”
but wouldn’t be surprised if Dubinsky is the next Captain.

ROARKE: Years from now, the moment from 2013 that will stand out in the minds of Blue Jackets fans won’t be the lockout or missing the playoffs by a tiebreaker. No, it was a rare glimpse of hope following a signature victory.

After defeating the Predators to keep the playoff dream alive, Jack Johnson proclaimed Columbus a hockey town. Jack and Dubinsky have been motivators and emotional leaders since “joining the battle.” As much a threat to drop the gloves as they are to tickle the twine, Johnson and Dubinsky are as popular in the locker room as they are in the stands.

Columbus plays with a defense-first mentality. I suspect that will play into the coaches decision when selecting the next guy to wear the “C” for the Union Blue. The captain must be a long term choice, playing rent-a-captain is dangerous game for an NHL organization. Considering all that, Jack Johnson is my prediction for captain with Dubinsky and Wisniewski as the standard alternates.

 

Wanna suggest a question for our next monthly Blue Jackets panel? Submit your query to roarkeb@gmail.com or leave them in the comments section below.

 

Roarke Boes

Roarke Boes

Blue Jackets writer since 2012, following the team since 2000-01. Former goaltender. When I'm not writing, I work as a YouTube Rights Specialist for Omnia Media of Los Angeles. I know more about Arena Football history than any man should.

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