When the final horn sounded in a mostly empty Nationwide Arena on Tuesday October 18, the remaining crowd let out a resounding groan. The Columbus Blue Jackets had lost the game 3-2 to the visiting Dallas Stars, their fifth regulation loss in their first six games. While exiting the bench Jackets head coach Scott Arniel engaged in a brief verbal altercation with a fan that he refused to comment on in his post-game press conference. If this isn’t rock bottom for the team, you may want to put the children to bed. This was not the way this season was supposed to start, not for the revamped Blue Jackets. Much had been written in the offseason about the moves general manager Scott Howson had made to improve the roster. From acquiring a first-line center and a powerplay quarterback, to acquiring more organizational depth at nearly every position, the roster was viewed as vastly improved. There was a positive buzz for this team that hadn’t been felt since the first few years of the fledgling franchise. There were more jerseys spotted in public, people who didn’t know hockey were mentioning the Jackets and their excitement over the new season. The local sports radio network which many fans openly deride for their lack of Jackets coverage was devoting segments to the team and the NHL in general. So what went wrong? Why is this team dead last in the league?
The problems start in the net. Most pundits picked the Jackets to finish anywhere from 13th to 10th in the Western Conference. To a person, the reason they all cited for their lack of faith in the team was goaltender Steve Mason. Since his surprising Calder Trophy-winning season Mason has gone 44-46-16 with a 3.04 GAA and a .901 save percentage. His save percentage ranked 62nd and 57th in the league and his GAA ranked 66th and 65th in the league for the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons. There are questions not only about his ability, but also his mental toughness and preparation as he has been pulled from a league-high 13 games over the past two seasons. To be fair the defense in front of Mason has not been spectacular. The Jackets have never had a true number one defenseman, instead they have consistently relied upon players to play above their skill limitations, and they are still doing it. The bottom line is that Mason is not making the saves he needs to make to win games. As bad as their defense is, they ranked 11th and 17th in shots allowed per game, so no worse than average in the league. So far this year Mason has been even worse, his stats are mind-numbingly awful at 3.34 GAA and .883 save %. To add to the Jackets woes in net, Mark Dekanich the backup goaltender they brought in during the offseason to push Mason for playing time is on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain. Dekanich, a product of the Nashville Predators goalie pipeline, has been an excellent goaltender in the AHL, last year posting a 23-12-5 record and a 2.02 GAA and .931 save %. In the realm of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction, the goaltender they signed to mentor their prospects in Springfield, Curtis Sanford pulled a groin muscle in practice and is out two to three weeks, and Allen York a promising prospect from RPI had a shoulder injury and missed a week. With literally zero depth behind Mason the Jackets were forced to call-up Mathieu Corbeil from Canadian junior hockey to backup Mason against the Stars. York has since recovered and was called-up to Columbus which forced Springfield to sign Manny Legace to a professional tryout offer. Until the situation in net is resolved, it’s tough to believe the Jackets have much faith in their goaltenders.
In five years of being a head coach Scott Arniel has never had to deal with a situation like this. Arniel started his coaching career as an assistant with the Manitoba Moose of the IHL in the 1995-96 season. After a four year stint as an assistant with the Buffalo Sabres, Arniel returned to the Moose (now in the AHL) as the head coach. In his four years the Moose never won fewer than 40 games, and were in the Calder Cup finals in the 2008-09 season. The Moose lost in the finals to the Hershey Bears, but Arniel won the Louis A. R. Pieri Memorial Award as coach of the year. Arniel coached many current NHL players during his tenure with the Moose, and many of them credit him with helping their development. While Arniel has paid his dues, he is an inexperienced NHL coach, and this is his first true test of adversity. The team played poorly at times last season, but they were never expected to compete for a playoff spot. With expectations riding high this season, Arniel is finding that fans are not going to be patient for the team to find itself. During the offseason two new assistant coaches were brought in with two very different purposes. Ian Clark was brought in to be a full-time goaltending coach. Todd Richards is the other assistant added to the staff, he was brought in specifically to work on the power play. So far both coaches are having a rough time with their new jobs. The power play started the season 0-20 and is now a meek 2-30 (6.7%) which is 4th-worst in the league. The coaching staff is experienced, so you have to believe they will work to get this team back on track, the real question is will the players listen?
After an exciting and well-attended development camp held for their prospects, there was building excitement around the young talent being cultivated in the organization. Talent like Cam Atkinson, Ryan Johansen, Tomas Kubalik, John Moore, and David Savard seemed ready to push for spots in training camp. There were also returning young players like Matt Calvert and Maksim Mayorov that impressed at the end of last season. It was thought that the development of the younger players and the steady presence of the veterans in the lineup would mesh into a cohesive mixture of young and old. Unfortunately that has yet to happen. After starting the season with Columbus, wingers Atkinson and Calvert have been sent back to Springfield. Johansen is still with the team, but only because they can’t send him to Springfield, and sending him back to his WHL team would mean losing him for the entire season. Kubalik suffered a concussion near the end of the preseason and was demoted as well. Young defenseman John Moore was considered not ready and started the year in Springfield, and when currently suspended defenseman James Wisniewski is back, Savard may find himself demoted as well. Despite the veterans not performing well, the young guys just haven’t been able to supplant them in the lineup. There are some bright spots among the younger players. Defenseman Grant Clitsome has been a steady presence on the blueline and Mayorov has played well in a checking role in limited minutes. For this team to succeed they need the young players to step-up.
Having stated that the youth needs to step-up, what really needs to happen is the veterans of this team need to start earning their paychecks. Aside from the first line (Rick Nash, Jeff Carter, Vinny Prospal) the only players with more than one point are Savard and Clitsome. So far forwards Derick Brassard (1-0-1 -2), R.J. Umberger (0-1-1 -3), Antoine Vermette (0-0-0 -3) are simply not producing. Those three players scored a combined 151 points last season, and the Jackets need them to score, especially while Kristian Huselius is on IR with a torn pectoral muscle. On the defensive end the Jackets obviously miss the booming shot and quarterbacking ability of Wisniewski. After Fedor Tyutin’s (0-1-1 +1) productive preseason during which he scored seven points in five games it appeared that the inconsistent defenseman may have turned a corner in his game, but he has been mediocre to start the season. With the young players unable to push the veterans, and the veterans not producing this team simply has no scoring depth to compliment the first line.
While it is still too early to write this season off, the Jackets need to string together some wins, and soon. Historically teams that are out of the playoff race by Thanksgiving usually don’t get back into it. Injuries to Carter, Boll, and Huselius and the suspension of Wisniewski have depleted their ranks, but every team must deal with the injury bug. Pittsburgh is playing without Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Brooks Orpik and they are still winning games. The good news is the Jackets are losing games by one goal, they are close. The power play will come around, the injured players will return. But will it be too late?