The pundits have mostly written off the Jackets’ chances already this season. Another losing season in 2006-07, combined with no real big moves in the offseason (in terms of player personnel, at least. There was that one big move that happened…) has led to the assumption that it’s going to be more of the same this season. Or that even if it gets better, the playoffs are still several years away.
Much as I really want to disagree vehemently with the national media on this one, it’s hard to come up with supporting evidence for why they’re wrong. So what constitutes a reasonable projection for the 2007-08 Jackets?
I’d start with the baseline of .500. That’s about where they were last season under Ken Hitchcock. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect they’ll at least match that, although over the entire season this time. Also, given that Hitch has had half a season plus an offseason now to instill in the guys what they have to do in order to play his game, and given the new emphasis on conditioning, I would expect that’s maybe worth a handful more points. So I see the Jackets finishing in the vicinity of 90 points. Not quite to the playoffs, but in the race beyond November. I would call that my reasonable expectation for the season.
And my unreasonable expectation? Well, if some players have break out seasons, others in contract years play to get the big bucks, there’s some better luck with injuries, and the team just all-around plays over their heads (a la the 2000-01 original Blue Jackets), they could surprise a few teams, and maybe sneak into that #8 spot. But there are a lot of ‘ifs’ in that, so we’ll call that my dream projection for 2007-08.
Now, a look at the players:
One of the most obvious weaknesses or question marks hanging over the Jackets going into this season is the lack of a true first line center. When Doug traded for Sergei Fedorov, he was meant to fit into that position, but age and injury have slowed him to the extent that he just can’t be seen as a true #1 anymore. With budgetary considerations weighing heavily on the Jackets this off-season, there was no hope of going after the Scott Gomezes, Chris Drurys, or Daniel Brieres of the world to fill that #1 center slot. Instead, the position is pretty much wide open in training camp. Some of the candidates who could claim it:
- The afore-mentioned Fedorov. Since coming over from Anaheim in 2005-06, Feds has been one of the poster-children for everything that was wrong with the Maclean regime: old, overpriced, and on a long-term deal. It’s hard to disagree with that assessment, but none of that has really been through any fault of Fedorov’s. He still obviously has more hockey sense than probably any other Blue Jacket, and while he would be forgiven for slacking off given the circumstances, he really has been working hard out on the ice. His body just seems to be betraying him. In particular, he was hampered by elbow injuries in 2006-07 that made taking faceoffs impossible, and wound up playing defense for most of the latter part of the season. The addition of Mike Peca gives the Jackets another option on the PK, which should give Feds more time to rest and recover. With less ice time he could yet prove himself to be a viable first line center in this, his last year under contract with the Jackets.
- Gilbert Brule: The Jackets’ first rounder from 2005 has had a snake-bitten NHL career so far. He came into camp in 2005-06 and played well, earning the customary 10-game tryout in the NHL. Unfortunately, he was injured during that stint. When he recovered, instead of going ahead and returning him to his junior team, the Jackets decided to continue the audition, and Brule was injured again. When he finally got well and went back to his junior team in Vancouver, he dominated the WHL. That led to Doug Maclean loudly trumpeting Brule as the second line center in Columbus in the off-season, talk that he would be a serious Calder contender, etc. Brule had a poor camp in 2006-07, and never really got untracked, falling far short of the expectations heaped upon him by Doug and others. He likely would have benefited from a stint in Syracuse, but was prevented from playing there by age restrictions. The talk about Brule leading into 2007-08 has been more cautious, and it’s not yet clear where he’ll be playing. He could wind up anywhere from centering the top line to playing in Syracuse. What seems most likely is that he’ll wind up playing on one of the wings in Columbus, but he is still a candidate for #1 center.
- Jiri Novotny: One of the few free agent signings of the summer for new Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson. Novotny is something of a reclamation product, having been drafted high by Buffalo in 2001 but never blossomed. He’s yet to appear in camp due to visa issues. He’s more likely to center the third or fourth line, but with everything as open as it is, could get a shot on the top line.
- Derrick Brassard: the first rounder from 2006 suffered a serious shoulder injury in a preseason QMJHL game and missed most of last season. He did put up good numbers in junior when he returned from injury, and has looked very good in camp. He’s a strong skater with great hands and really good patience with the puck. Given the flak the team took over the Brule situation last year, there’s an understandable reluctance to bring Brassard right into the NHL without more seasoning at the QMJHL or AHL level, but he could make it hard to leave him out of the lineup. I think it’s fair to say, though, that if he’s not deemed ready to center one of the top two lines, he won’t be in Columbus this season.
- Dan Fritsche: the pride of Parma, Ohio. It feels like he’s been around forever, so sometimes it’s hard to remember that Fritsche is only 22. He plays with lots of energy and not much fear, but has been slow to demonstrate the offensive ability he showed in juniors at the NHL level. He started to pot some goals regularly after Hitch took over last year, but a gruesome wrist injury ended his season early. It remains to be seen if he can successfully break out this year. Fritsche has been used extensively on the wing in Columbus, so he could wind up there again.
- Geoff Platt: This kid is already a feel-good story, and if he can claim a fulltime NHL place, he will be all the more so. He came to the Traverse City rookie tournament last year as an undrafted, unsigned OHL graduate looking to win an ECHL contract. He played well enough to win an invite to the CBJ camp, and ultimately a two-way NHL contract. He made it into 26 NHL games last season, and is a dark horse to center one of the top two lines in Columbus this season. He’s undersized, but has good speed and offensive instincts. If he’s not on one of the top two lines in Columbus, he’ll likely be on the top line in Syracuse.
- Nik Zherdev: This was an unexpected contender for the top line center position, but Hitchcock has been experimenting with playing Zherdev between Nash and Vyborny. I’ve spilled enough pixels in the past about this moody forward, so suffice it to say that Zherdev is the Petr Klima of the Blue Jackets — all the talent in the world, but constant off-ice drama and sulking and lazy play has frustrated Blue Jackets’ fans no end. He’s running out of chances in Columbus, but what could he bring in a trade?
Those players are the most likely contenders for the top line center position. Other centers in the mix for the second, third, and fourth lines include:
- Mike Peca: Free agent signee who will be expected to add leadership and grit. His recent injury history is a concern. It’s worth noting that Peca was one of the players to whom Gilbert Brule was compared when he was drafted, so he could be a mentor for Brule this season.
- Manny Malhotra: Former high draft pick, plucked off waivers from Dallas. He’s developed into a useful player, but Malhotra could be a victim of numbers, especially if one of Brule or Brassard proves capable of playing center in the NHL this year. He’s popular with fans and active in the community.
So that’s the universe of players competing for slots down the middle with the CBJ. At least things are a little clearer on the wings..maybe.
- Rick Nash: the franchise player in Columbus. It is fair to say he still has some work to prove himself, however. After a breakout year winning the Rocket Richard Trophy in 2003-04, and attracting all kinds of hyperbole playing in Switzerland and for Team Canada during the lockout, the past two seasons have been less memorable for Nash. 2005-06 was injury shortened and hampered, and last season also fell below expectations in terms of offensive output. What most outside observers did not notice last season, though, was the extent to which Nash really did work on becoming a more complete player after Hitchcock took over. He’s no longer completely one-dimensional, and even had some success playing on the PK. It still remains to be seen if Nash can put together responsible two-way play and scoring 40 goals again. He is reportedly in the best shape of his young career, which should help, as his conditioning and effort have been suspect at times in the past. If Nash does manage a big season, the Jackets could be a much better team than people are expecting.
- David Vyborny: Surely one of the most underrated players in the league. On a team that has lacked consistency for seven years (at least they’ve been consistent in that), Vybes has been Mr. Consistency. He works hard at both ends of the ice, is good for 20 goals and 60 points a season, and often seems to score the big goals when they’re needed. He has good chemistry with Nash. This is the last year of Vyborny’s contract, and he had previously signaled his intent to return to Europe after this season, which would have made him a likely rental target for some team at the deadline. However, he’s since announced that he’s changed his mind because his family apparently prefers the myriad charms of Gahanna to Prague, and he wants to sign a long-term deal. Howson is taking the decision slowly, but hopefully we’ll see Vyborny retire as a Blue Jacket. A knee injury suffered in the first preseason game fortunately appears to be nothing serious.
- Fredrik Modin: Acquired from Tampa in the Marc Denis trade, Modin had a bit of an up and down year in 2006-07, but ultimately put up decent numbers. And then signed a long-term deal to stay in Columbus. He should provide some offense on the second line and also veteran leadership. He seemed at times last year to be developing good chemistry with Brule, so that pairing may continue.
- Jason Chimera: He’s got incredible wheels, but his hands always seem to be a step behind. Chimera’s developed into a useful third liner who adds some secondary scoring. Nothing more, nothing less. He’s apparently a popular guy in the room.
- Jody Shelley: This guy is a fan favorite, and legitimately so. He works his butt off, and has worked hard to improve every year he’s been in the organization. He’s articulate and personable off the ice. He’s reputed to be a leader in the room. But he just doesn’t have a whole lot of talent. Every year the fans debate what role Jody should have. The conclusion is usually that he ought to play when it’s a team with which there’s a history of bad blood or known agitators who might take liberties without an enforcer on the ice, but that he ought to be a healthy scratch at other times. Yet he still winds up dressing for most games, so obviously the coaching staff sees something there the fans don’t. We’ll see what this year holds for Jody.
If I were to take a stab at how the lines might look at the start of the season:
Other forwards who might factor in:
- Alexandre Picard: 2004 first rounder, the Jackets traded down to get him, and passed up Andrew Ladd, Alexander Radulov, and Andrej Meszaros (just among players whose first names start with ‘A’). Picard plays hard and hits anything, but he’s yet to score a goal in his extended auditions in Columbus, so he’s getting the ‘bust’ tag applied more and more. A serious knee injury suffered at the end of last season in Syracuse will keep him out of action for several months at least, but he’ll likely show up in Columbus at some point in 2007-08.
- Jakub Voracek: Jackets’ first rounder in 2007. He was tagged as one of the most ‘NHL ready’ players in his draft class. He’s looked decent at camp, but not special enough yet to warrant fulltime NHL duty. He may get the 10 game taste of the NHL, but I would expect him to go back to Halifax for most of the season.
As with the forwards, there are obvious holes on the back end for the CBJs. In particular, this group is offensively impaired, and lacks a true #1 who can quarterback the PP and play well on both ends of the ice. The defensive lineup does seem more set than the forwards, although there are a couple kids who might make it interesting. Here are the expected regulars:
- Adam Foote: The captain. He had a very disappointing 2006-07 season in which he just seemed too slow for the new NHL, and took too many bad penalties. Which made his large contract all the more grating for fans. That contract is now in its last year. Foote did play huge minutes last season, and like Fedorov, he may perform better if his ice time is reduced.
- Ron Hainsey: Another high draft pick claimed off waivers (from Montreal). Hainsey is the only regular who has shown much in the way of offensive ability, which makes him valuable to the team. He’s mistake-prone, though, and could be pushed out if one of the kids steps in.
- Rusty Klesla: The first ever draft pick of the Jackets, Klesla has been snakebitten by injuries throughout his career. This has slowed his development considerably. He seems to have finally come into his own as a defender, but the offensive upside he showed in juniors hasn’t surfaced yet, and at this point may never develop. He’s a good defensive defenseman nonetheless.
- Jan Hejda: An older European rookie last season with Edmonton, Hejda was signed for Columbus by Scott Howson, who apparently liked what he saw of him with the Oilers. Based on what Oiler fans have said, he’ll be a steady presence on the blueline.
- O-K Tollefsen: One of the few Norwegian players in the NHL, Tollefsen wasn’t expected to be a fulltime Jacket last year, but he earned his spot. A hard hitter who isn’t afraid to drop the gloves, OKT really developed into a steady defenseman in his rookie year. He got better at picking his spots for hard hits and at moving the puck. He’s a poor man’s Anton Volchenkov.
- Duvie Westcott: Another player with some question marks hanging over him in 2007-08. Duvie was signed as a free agent out of the NCAA, and spent a couple years bouncing between Syracuse and Columbus. It looked like that might be his career peak, but he really broke out in 2005-06, and established himself as probably the best all-around defenseman on the team that year, becoming a fan favorite in the process (Columbus fans just love players who have “oooh” sounds in their names — Jean-Luuuuuc Grand-Pierre, Luuuuuke Richardson, Duuuuuvie Westcott). He suffered some debilitating injuries in 2006-07, including a long bout with post-concussion syndrome. And even when he did play, he didn’t look like the same player as the year before. He’s probably the defenseman most on the bubble.
Those are the most likely top six, and they’ll most likely be paired up like this:
There are a couple prospects who could claim spots on the blue line, however:
- Kris Russell: He is an intriguing prospect who put up big numbers in junior, and may be the offensive presence on the blueline the Jackets need. However, he’s a very small player — rather generously listed at 5’10″ and 160 lbs. That would raise questions for a forward, never mind a defenseman. Given the questions about his size, he’ll probably be brought along slowly in the AHL. But he’s had a good camp so far, and what he brings to the table offensively may be too much to resist. He could play in Columbus this season.
- Marc Methot: He had a cameo towards the end of last season as an injury call-up and performed with poise and confidence. Methot’s a steady defensive defenseman who makes smart plays and doesn’t panic. He’s also been having an impressive training camp that may make it difficult to send him back to Syracuse. He could displace Westcott.
Could net be the one position with no obvious holes or question marks? Sadly, no!
- Pascal Leclaire: The clearcut #1 heading into 2006-07. He played well enough in 2005-06 to make Marc Denis expendable. Injuries have been Leclaire’s bugbear. He’s yet to play a full season as a starter in the pros. Injuries derailed his season again last year, causing him to miss nearly half the season and cede his #1 standing to Fredrik Norrena. The 2001 first round pick is a talented young goalie, though, so he should not be counted out.
- Fredrik Norrena: An experienced European goalie playing his first year in North America, Norrena exceeded expectations when thrust into the starting role by Leclaire’s injuries. He became the first CBJ goalie to register a winning record on the season.
At this point, neither Leclaire nor Norrena can be said to have the #1 position sewn up. They’ll continue to battle it out in camp, and may even rotate in the regular season until one or the other establishes himself as the #1 guy. Thus far in their NHL careers, neither one has really shone as the type of goalie who can regularly steal games and carry a team on his back, but they should both turn in respectable performances.
Tomas Popperle is the #1 in Syracuse, and could see spot duty in the NHL in case of injury. He’s not ready for prime time yet, though, so if either Leclaire or Norrena should go on the shelf for an extended period, the Jackets may look for an experienced backup.
Steve Mason is an exciting prospect in goal, but he’s several years away from Columbus.
To Sum Up
This is a year of new beginnings in Columbus: new GM, new coach (kind of), new logo, new jerseys, even a new goal song (yuck). It took Doug seven years to make the mess he left behind, but Howson’s not going to have nearly the time to fix it. Fan interest, which was so strong in the first couple years of the franchise, has dwindled the past couple of years. They need to start winning to get the fans back in the building. And that really says it all.