The significance of Atlanta’s brief appearance in 2007’s Conference Quarter finals would not have been lost on the Blue Jackets board of governors. In a city obsessed with the Buckeyes hockey has been a hard sell and with Atlanta making the post season, Columbus were left as the only late 90’s expansion franchise not to make the cup run. With nearly 600 regular season games since their inception, the Blue Jackets has made next to zero progression when aligned with the same year expansion Minnesota Wild. Year after year has passed and despite several good draft picks, a result of continued poor records, that “next season” every Blue Jackets fan has been waiting for is now long overdue and dwindling attendances have attested to an organization who have shown an almost California Golden Seals attitude to drafting, scouting and developing.
The tide began to turn when storied Stanley Cup winning coach Ken Hitchcock joined the franchise in November 2006 becoming the fifth man behind the bench in six years. Extending his contract in the off season, Hitchcock’s continued involvement with the side was aided by the exit of founding GM and club president Doug MacLean in April 2007. Having signed a three year $800,000 contract to continue as the Blue Jackets GM in 2006, MacLean was bought out by an ownership group tired by years of failure as Atlanta ended their own playoff drought. At the time of MacLean’s exit Columbus were alongside Florida as the only teams not to qualify for the playoffs since the turn of the millennia.
Shouldering much of the blame for a catalogue of managerial errors, MacLean was succeeded by Scott Howson. Schooled under Kevin Lowe for whom he worked alongside as assistant GM for six years in Edmonton, Howson served his apprenticeship as a GM in Edmonton’s AHL affiliates in Cape Breton and Hamilton between 1994 and 2000. Seen as a stop gap emergency hiring in the weeks leading up to the Columbus hosted draft when a series of higher profile negotiations collapsed, Howson has since garnered a reputation for cap management and contract negotiating. He is also highly regarded at the AHL level and is believed to appreciate internal development, a talent for patience sorely lost on his prospect trading predecessor. Also, despite early judgment as an atypically toothless figures and law graduate afraid to bare his teeth, Howson has overseen a considerable restructuring of a talent-light roster.
With an active offseason seeing the team trade out a first round selection for the prolific post season scoring RJ Umberger, Howson also rolled the dice to select hot Russian prospect Nikita Filatov amidst tempestuous trade issues between the NHL and Russian. Adding both Torres and Commodore to the Columbus roster, Howson continued his defensively tilted rebuild with one of the summers most noted trades.
Unhappy with the teams slow progress since his fourth overall selection in 2003 troubled and precocious talent Nikolai Zherdev had become a poisonous, if high profile, locker room presence with a hit and miss record for offense. Tired of the Russians inconsistent work ethic and unwilling attitude, Howson shipped Zherdev to the Rangers alongside depth centerman Dan Fritsche for puck moving D-man Christian Backman and solid blueliner Fedor Tyutin. While Backman and Tyutin are a long way from spectacular acquisitions it pointed to a refocusing on depth and defensive play from a team that had always tried to make ends meet with a one line offense.
Having experienced considerable success with a Dallas Stars team famed for their strangulating defense and puck possession play, Hitchcock has now been given the keys to a team he can mould into his backend game but that’s not to say that the tactics haven’t changed. Where the Stanley cup winning Dallas Stars team operated a transitional puck moving defensive system akin to last years Detroit Red Wings, the current Blue Jackets have begun operating a 1-2-2 trap reminiscent of Jacques Lemaire’s Minnesota Wild. Exciting? No, but the workman like attitude Columbus have begun to demonstrate this season was a necessary evil from a team who finished 29th of 30 teams in goals scored last year and whose offensively tilted gameplay was not matched by an particularly deep or particularly talented offense.
With building blocks such as Rick Nash already in place, one of the leagues greatest players all too long consigned to hockey’s quintessential backwater franchise, Hitchcock and Howson have also inherited a roster that can grind with the best of the Western Conference. Jared Boll a feisty energy enforcer would not look out of place in the Pacific division while Jason Chimera is one of the most overlooked speed skaters in the league with a knack for playing on checking lines. In Manny Malholtra you have one of the leagues cult power line players and a fine gaggle of youth has immerged from the years of wasted drafts in the shape of rookie scoring leader Derick Brassard and second line playmaker Jakub Voracek.
Slowly the pieces have fallen into place for the East meets West Blue Jackets but nagging bugs threaten to derail a team just three points out of eight place. Unquestionably still in a process of flux Columbus’s twelfth overall goals per game record is being undermined by their 19th place defense still yet to gel. With the worst power play in the league at 10.8% a clear 3% lower than the 29th placed team in Phoenix, Columbus’ special teams frailty is underlined by their 8th worst penalty kill.
Whilst there may well be time to improve, the Blue Jackets unaligned geography has always been their worst enemy. Situated 167 miles west of Pittsburgh, divisional rivals Nashville and St. Louis are almost double the travel not to mention the frequent visits to the Pacific Coast. Worse still Columbus’ improvement is coming at a time of increased competitiveness within the Central division after years of Detroit dominance. With Nashville holding steady and Chicago reaping years of excellent drafting, Columbus will be hard pushed to improve upon last years fourth in the division.
Subsequently Columbus may remain a work in progress for another season yet however many will be relieved that there are finally signs of life in Ohio and with players such as Brassard and Voracek coming through Columbus now looks like a franchise going in the right direction.