In the relatively short history of the Columbus Blue Jackets, there hasn’t really been a player that has captured the city’s attention quite like Rick Nash did. In his tenure with the club, Nash led the team to their only playoff appearance, a four-game sweep at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings in 2009, scored 30 or more goals in seven of his nine seasons, and been the only superstar that the club has ever been able to claim as its own.
All of that changed on July 23rd, however, when GM Scott Howson sent Nash to the New York Rangers in a trade that netted the Jackets Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon, and a first round draft pick in June’s NHL Entry Draft.
The move not only means that the team now has a gaping hole in its scoring attack that needs to be filled, but also means that the team has a void in its captaincy. Nash had been the captain of the club since March of 2008, when defenseman Adam Foote was dealt to the Colorado Avalanche in a deadline deal. He was the heart and soul of the team, and now that he’s been jettisoned to the Big Apple, whoever takes on the mantle of Columbus Blue Jackets Captain is going to have some huge skates to fill.
So just who on the current roster is the best candidate for that position? There isn’t a clear cut candidate for the role, and any post that suggests otherwise is dead wrong. There are several qualified candidates, however, hand many would bring multiple attributes to the table that could help this club going forward.
F Derick Brassard
Brassard has been a player that fans in Columbus hoped would develop into a nice complimentary piece for Nash for quite some time. His rookie season he came out lighting the league on fire, winning Rookie of the Month honors in October 2008 and averaging nearly a point per game. Unfortunately for him, he dislocated his shoulder during a fight with James Neal, and it ended what could have been a Calder-worthy campaign.
Nowadays, Brassard still shows flashes of the form that scouts touted when he came into the league, but oftentimes he is relegated to more of a second or third line role rather than being looked at to provide scoring punch. At only 25 years old, this could change, but it isn’t a stretch to see him becoming Columbus’ version of Chicago’s Dave Bolland either: a grinder who can score on occasion and isn’t afraid to mix it up.
D Jack Johnson
Johnson signed a seven year contract extension with the Los Angeles Kings back in the 2010-11 season, and everyone figured that he and Drew Doughty would form the nucleus of a blue line that would carry the Kings forward. Instead, Johnson found himself dealt to Columbus a year later in the deal that sent Jeff Carter to the west coast, and the Ann Arbor, Michigan native found himself abruptly placed into hostile territory.
Johnson has done well in his brief time in Columbus, notching four goals and 10 assists for the team in only 21 games. His defensive play may leave something to be desired, but with a club that is going to be searching for scoring with Nash’s departure, he could see a lot of opportunities to excel on that side of the puck, so coming to the Jackets could be a boon to his career.
F Vinny Prospal
A 37 year old who has played for seven different teams in his NHL career might not seem like an ideal fit for a captaincy, but when you are talking about a team in transition without a bonafide superstar to build around, then Prospal very well could be the guy for the Jackets.
He had a very respectable season a year ago, netting 16 goals and dishing out 39 assists in a full 82 games with Columbus. He also passed the 1000 game plateau for his career last year, and is widely regarded as a leader on a youngster-heavy team. His best days may be behind him, but a short-term appointment is something that Todd Richards and company could definitely consider.
F RJ Umberger
In his four years with the Jackets, Umberger has been a reliable secondary scoring option, netting 20 goals or more in each of those campaigns. He also potted three tallies in Columbus’ brief stay in the 2009 playoffs.
He also has the benefit of being a long-term fixture in the Columbus community, having inked a five year contract extension in the fall of 2011 to stay with the team. He also appeared in a You Can Play video, supporting the campaign spearheaded by Patrick Burke and company that strives to eliminate homophobia from sports. It is this mix of off-ice community awareness and on-ice success that makes Umberger such an appealing candidate for the captain’s role.
D James Wisniewski
Wisniewski made headlines last season when he signed a rich extension with the Jackets, paying him $33 million over six years as part of a push for the team to make the playoffs. He then made headlines for all the wrong reasons a couple months later when he was suspended for eight regular season games for hitting Cal Clutterbuck in the head after the conclusion of a preseason game. He did end up appearing in 48 games, however, scoring six times and adding 21 assists in the process.
Now, fully rested and healthy, Wisniewski is looking to become the number one blue liner that the team signed him to be, but will that be enough to secure the captaincy?
And the Winner Is….
The answer to this question is a two-fold one. If the Blue Jackets decide that they want to go in the direction of naming a long-term captain for the club, then they should go with Umberger in the position. He is talented enough offensively to warrant the attention that the “C” would bring him, and his off-ice habits are also worthy of emulating.
If the Jackets decide to go the route that the Colorado Avalanche did when they gave the captaincy to a veteran without a lot of expectation for a long-term appointment (Milan Hejduk), then they should give the role to Prospal. There are plenty of youngsters in Columbus’ system that could potentially ascend to the role in a fashion similar to Gabriel Landeskog, with Cam Atkinson and Boone Jenner potentially being the next guy to grab the reins as a franchise player.
The captaincy of teams has the potential to be given too much credence when discussing a club’s future, but as we’ve seen with guys like Dustin Brown in Los Angeles and Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh, naming the right guy as captain has the potential to set a victorious tone for clubs in this league. The Jackets are still a ways away from contending, but setting the right tone now with a smart pick for captain could go a long way to setting them on the right path.
James started out for The Hockey Writers covering the Atlanta Thrashers in 2009, and has also covered the Chicago Blackhawks, served as NHL Correspondent, and is now a Managing Editor and the site’s NHL Central Blogger. He also writes for The Golf Writers.