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.
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.