Blow Up The Blue Jackets.

A season of hope has quickly deteriorated into a nightmare for the Blue Jackets. With no apparent sign of improvement in the near future, and attendance in decline,  it may be time for a massive overhaul.

Time for an overhaul in Columbus.

It’s all falling apart for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Entering this season, there was anticipation this team, with the additions of first line center Jeff Carter and puck-moving defenseman James Wisniewski, might be able to finally show substantial improvement, perhaps even put themselves into playoff contention, something this franchise has only in position to attain once since joining the NHL in 2000.

A month into 2011-12, it’s apparent this team is going nowhere fast.

One hates to write off a team so early in an NHL season, when there’s still plenty of hockey to go in a long season that stretches to next April, and plenty of time for a reversal of fortune.

But less than fifteen games into this campaign, there’s little to suggest this is a team which will rebound and save their season.

As of this writing (November 6th), the Jackets hold the worst record (2-11-1) in the NHL. They’re dead last in the Western Conference, and the overall standings.

They’ve given up the second-most goals-against, and sit 24th in goals-scored. They have the second-worst power-play, and the third-worst penalty kill.

Apart from Rick Nash, Vinny Prospal, Wisniewski and rookie forward Ryan Johansen, there hasn’t been a lot about this roster worth following.

Carter, brought in to finally provide Nash with a top flight center, played only five games, and is out indefinitely with a broken bone in his right foot.

Veteran forwards Antoine Vermette and R.J. Umberger are on pace for their worst performances in years.

Defenseman Kris Russell, once projected to become a top-pairing offensive blueliner, is on pace for his lowest points total since his rookie season four years ago.

Center Derick Brassard, who  showed promise of becoming a first line center in his rookie campaign three seasons ago until sidelined by injury, looks lost this season.

Goaltender Steve Mason, winner of the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 2008-09, whose stellar play in that season was chiefly responsible for the Blue Jackets making their first and only appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs, has struggled to regain that form.

Head coach Scott Arniel is doing everything he can, juggling lineups, switching players around, but nothing is working to staunch the bleeding.

GM Scott Howson,  hailed three seasons ago for his efforts in building the Jackets into a playoff contender, now appears paralysed, unable to find any deals or make any moves to improve his sad sack team.

Ownership has given Howson and Arniel votes of confidence, and last week denied reports the pair were on the verge of being replaced, but one has to wonder just how much longer this can continue until one or both are shown the door.

Blue Jackets attendance has been on a slow but steady decline since its peak of 18, 136 per game in 2001-02, their second season in existence. In that season, the Blue Jackets were 8th overall in the league in attendance.

Last season, they were 27th,  where they find themselves again this season.

The club is bleeding money, has been for years. Their current arena deal won’t stop them losing money this season, it’ll only make the losses “more bearable”. And why are they losing money? Because they’ve been a terrible team for all but one season of their existence.

Howson tried his best as general manager, and  in the past didn’t have the luxury of big payrolls, but this season, his Blue Jackets have the sixth-highest payroll in the NHL, yet it’s obvious the money has not been well invested.

Yes, there were misfortunes. Kristian Huselius – remember him? – has yet to return from an injury suffered during off-season training. Wisniewski’s lengthy suspension to start the season and Carter’s absence to injury certainly haven’t helped.

But other teams have lost key players this season and fared better than the Jackets.

The problem is there really isn’t sufficient depth on this team to be a competitive club.

Howson gambled on Mason regaining his Calder-winning form, and lost. It now appears that season was a fluke, and Mason probably won’t ever regain that form.

Worse, Howson compounded the problem by failing to bring in an experienced backup to tutor Mason and spell him off when he got into trouble.

Brassard, on a deeper team, and with better linemates, perhaps might one day evolve into a capable second line player, provided he can stay healthy. On this version of the Jackets, he’s not second line material, and maybe never will be.

Fedor Tyutin has been pressed into service as a top pairing defenseman, whereas on a deep club, he’d be best suiting on the second pairing.

Russell is on the third defense pairing, and it’s looking like he might never become that top-pairing blueliner he was once envisioned to be.

Nash and Umberger signed long-term deals to stay with the Blue Jackets, believing they could help build this team into a contender. They deserve a better fate than what they’re currently going through. They obviously care, they’re obviously trying, they wanted to stay, as difficult as that was for some observers to believe, but they simply haven’t been rewarded for their loyalty.

The Blue Jackets, put simply, are a bad team, one that isn’t going to get better anytime soon. There’s no magic trade or free agent signing which can turn things around. They have few players of value, and moving them via trade takes away at least a bit of foundation upon which to rebuild.

This club needs a serious overhaul. It needs management and coaches with experience in rebuilding teams, and an experienced scouting staff to assist them in that process. It needs depth everywhere in the roster.

If ownership hasn’t begun its search for new front office and coaching staff, it should start right away. Don’t waste time looking for AHL or junior hockey people. Find those with genuine management, scouting and coaching experience, with a proven record of improving teams.

They should be in place prior to December, giving them two full months to evaluate this roster, and then, starting in mid-January and running up to the February trade deadline, start shedding as much salary as possible, loading up on promising young players, prospects and high draft picks.

It’s not pleasant to advocate firing a coach or general manager, and one certainly shouldn’t wish ill of Howson and Arniel, but it’s time for a real change in Columbus.

The Blue Jackets are in serious trouble. They cannot continue losing money year after year. If this keeps up much longer, they could become a candidate for relocation.

The next three to five years are going to be important ones for this franchise’s continued existence in Columbus. They need to bring back the fans, and to do that, they need to give them belief the Blue Jackets are going in the right direction, that it is genuinely building toward not just playoff contention, but one day, Stanley Cup contention.

It’s time to begin the rebuilding. Not in January. Not in April. Not in June. Not next season. Right now.

14 Comments

  1. Strong article Lyle. I agree, it’s never a nice or satisfying proposal to dump the GM, Coach, or anyone else clearly trying. That said, there comes a point in any industry that one must accept that all the best efforts in the world from certain individuals won’t be enough to turn the tide and I too believe this front office is at their wit’s end.

    I hate to offer plugs when clearly a greater overhaul is required but I still believe, if for no other position, a swap from Mason to a goaltender of elite status could stop the free fall (though likely not the bleeding). Mason has looked downright awful and is far more deserving of the “lost in the woods” comment than Bryzgalov ever was.

  2. Second only to college football, the sports fans of Columbus love hockey. The problem is we know this organization is a fraud. The President is an accountant with no hockey experience. The GM was an assistant in Edmonton. The coach comes from a salary-advantaged team in the AHL. Rick Nash is Scottie Pippen, but being promoted as Michael Jordan. Steve Mason has been riding 2 months of great hockey for an NHL paycheck for 2+ years now. But hey, this is OUR year! Before ANYTHING happens, ownership should start by being HONEST with those who support them.

  3. The Blue Jackets prove the theory that a decade of icing a lousy product will drive away fans, regardless of whether or not it’s a “hockey market”. The NHL should be thriving in Columbus, but ten years of mediocrity is killing the product in that market.

  4. I’m having a hard time differentiating between what happened in Atlanta and what’s happening in Columbus. The only real difference I see is while the owners in Atlanta were completely apathetic, the owners in Columbus are somehow incompetent. At any rate, the end result is no different. If things don’t change in Columbus they’re going to end up pitching a For Sale sign out front. Pending serious change by the ownership, the only thing that keeps them in Columbus is new ownership willing to make said serious changes.

  5. There should never have been a franchise placed in Columbus in the first place.

    That said, your assessment is bang-on, Spector. If the team is ever going to have any success, they need to blow everything up, STAT.

    (As a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, I know the difference between a REAL rebuild and lip service.)

  6. The Jackets cannot be a candidate for relocation until 2039, the new arena deal put in place legally requires them to stay in Columbus, so they can continue to lose money for the next 30 years and not move.

  7. STK: The arena deal means nothing if ownership decides to divest itself of the franchise. Yes, it would be costly to extricate the team from the lease, but if there’s no new owner willing to purchase the team and keep it in Columbus, and a new owner in another city who wants the franchise, it would, and could, be done.

  8. Not enough of the focus in this mess is on goal-tending; the roster is not actually that bad, but night after night they just can’t get a save. The tender is the heartbeat of the team. They need to make an offer for Rask that Boston can’t refuse (next 3 1st’s isn’t beyond reason). I don’t think “blowing up” middling-players with big contracts will produce positive results. Just get a damn save and stick to the plan.

  9. Tux, three first rounders for Boston’s back-up?! That’s a pretty steep price to put it mildly.

  10. Might be pretty expensive, Tux. But there are some other options. Florida’s putting their Goaltender of the Future in the minors, for one or more of several good reasons. With Clemmers coming off the IR (remind me to grab him for my fantasy team), he may be in for some showcasing. I’m not sold on the idea that Florida won’t keep the kid on the big club. So if Clemmenson’s available, he’d at least be able to work with Mason as a competent backup.

    Even though I have no faith in DiPietro, there is a possibility that he and one of the two real goaltenders on the Islanders will be their tandem. Al Montoya might be an upgrade over Mason at this point. If not he, then Nabokov could fill the same role as Clemmenson to the point of sharing the starter role with Mason.

    At some point Antero Nittymaki will be healthy, though if Eklund is to be believed (TEE HEE!) he’ll be starting in Toronto or something. Not to say he’ll be the odd man out, but Thomas Griess might be. And again, Griess as a career backup might be able to help Mason find himself.

    The other option, I suppose, is tender an offer to Marty Turco.

    I mean none of these goalies are Ilya Bryzgalov. But on the other hand, you know, none of these guys are Ilya Bryzgalov …

    As far as prying Rask out of Boston, I dunno. I mean they gave away Kessel for some first rounders and something else I don’t remember what. But he didn’t want to be there. Rask, on the other hand … Both parties want to keep him there. Tim Thomas is a diamond in the rough, but he’s not ageless. Someday he’ll be Tuukka’s backup.

  11. I’m not talking about getting another crappy goalie….I mean get a REALLY good one, like Rask. Thomas has at least 3 more years and for that kind of offer they just can’t refuse. Or pay slightly less, but get it done, don’t gamble on a marginal guy…..they don’t have time to keep losing.

  12. That may or may not be feasible, but let’s just say they get a solid goaltender in there for the next four first round picks. Now what do they do about the porous defense?

    They lack a proper top pair defense. Tyutin’s the closest thing they have to one, and he’s really a second pair guy. He was forced into a top pair role with Rozsival in New York, but he was terrible at it and was booed until traded. Wisniewsky’s a second pair. I don’t recognize the other guys on the roster, but correct me if I’m wrong when I say they’re probably not top-pair players.

    So, they need a goaltender and a top level defenseman. But they also need to score some goals. Now maybe the first line is okay, but beyond that what do they have? Nothing to write home about. When everyone’s healthy and not serving suspensions, they look like the poor man’s Canucks.

    A goalie for a King’s ransom isn’t the solution. It goes deeper than that. That’s why I mentioned their management is criminally incompetent.

  13. As a Clevelander and Hockey Nut…The Blue Jackets are the closest thing Cleveland has to Hockey! And coming from The City of Losers (Our teams haven’t won since 1964, and we have the motto “There’s Always Next Year”), Cleveland would support a Hockey Team for 2 reasons…The Fans who are thick-blooded and will stay with a team no matter how hard the rains fall, and Winter Days! Think about this…having The Blue Jackets play against the Sabres at Progressive Field, that would bring many people to the masses than at The Horseshoe on New Years Day!

    So I’d rather see The Blue Jackets move to Cleveland if worse comes to worse and become The Cleveland Barons (Or call them The Steamers and have a giant steam-roller on their shirt).

  14. chaas: You are correct about your speculation regarding why Jacob Markstrom is back in the minors. Clemmer is likely to be showcased and traded. Even Dale Tallon is quoted as saying “When Jacob comes back, he’ll probably be back forever.” A lot of the fanbase in Florida felt he outperformed Theodore in his stint with the big club (and the numbers back them up). Clemmer isn’t a starter, but he’d likely be a good mentor for Mason. As Lyle has already mentioned, the Bluejackets issues go far beyond their goaltending and a true rebuild is not a bad idea if it’s done right.