We’re now something like 32 days out from the start of the NHL season so I figure this is as good a time as any to start doing the season previews. This is mainly for two reasons: 1) I am lazy and there’s no way I’ll do one of these every day, and 2) This is early enough that if I just stop doing them entirely you’ll have forgotten by October anyway. Oh and I guess also to show off my near-infinite knowledge of the National Hockey League. I’ll be previewing the teams in reverse order of finish in the 2007-08 season. Please note, though, that this is the opinion of one man, however smart and handsome he may be.
Columbus Blue Jackets, you’re on the clock.
This isn’t the first time the Blue Jackets have dropped big money in the offseason in hopes of reaching the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Right after the lockout, the team spent tons of cash on over-the-hill versions of Adam Foote and Sergei Fedorov. Fedorov was pulling down $6.08 million on the cap, and Foote was getting $4.6 million.
Money not-so-well spent. In the nearly three years both were with the team (they were traded at the deadline this year to Colorado and Washtington), Columbus won 35, 33 and 34 games. Ouch.
But with that $10-plus million freed up — along with a bunch more from letting some overpaid players go — it allowed the Jackets to either sign or trade for a number of players. It’s been a very busy offseason. Some of the moves help them now, some down the road, and some simply don’t.
The moves at the blue line seem nice. Free agent signing Mike Commodore is well-traveled and a very solid player. He’s well worth the $3.75 million he’ll get the next couple years, but by the end of this five-year deal, I’m not so sure. But maybe one of the best trades of the offseason for any team was what really beefed up the once-thin Jackets blue line. Offloading troublesome winger Nik Zherdev and promising but underperforming center Danny Fritsche for Christian Backman (eh) and Fedor Tyutin (hey!) addresses where Columbus really had problems. Flashy forwards like Zherdev make highlight reels but they don’t play defense, and that’s been Columbus’ problem, theoretically at least.
More after the jump.
But as bad as Columbus’ REPUTATION for bad defense is, it turns out their defense last year, from a goals-against standpoint, was pretty strong. The team’s 218 goals against was good for 10th in the league, but their offense? Just 193 goals for. Dead last in the league. And that’s why this is a bit perplexing.
The team also traded another solid prospect-y player in 21-year-old grinder Gilbert Brule for underperforming Oiler Raffi Torres, whose 11 points in 32 games last season was a full half-point per game behind his normal output.
But for those pulling their hair out over this, the Jackets traded away .46 goals created per game (a hockey-reference.com stat that I just love) and got .48 gc/g back. It’s improvement!
[A quick word on GC/G: It's a legit stat. It's .5 x (individual goals x (assists/(team assists/team goals)). Top 10 players in GC/G last year are Ovechkin, Malkin, Alfredsson, Iginla, Crosby, Zetterberg, Kovalchuk, Heatley, Spezza and Lecavalier. Pretty reasonable evaluator of a player's contribution to team success.]
However, some of these other signings are a little baffling. Kristian Huselius is an okay, if not completely streaky and frustrating, player that can dazzle at times and have fans throwing remotes at their television at others. He’s got a four-year contract worth $4.75 million per, and that’s way too much to pay a player like that. In the past two seasons, though, he has created .34 goals a game, which would have been tops on Columbus, so to the Blue Jackets, it’s probably worth it.
The only other transaction worth noting (all due respect to you, Craig MacDonald) is the trade of a first- and fourth-round pick for R.J. Umberger and a fourth at the draft. Decent move. Umberger had 50 points last year.
Overall, though, the team is about where it was last year. Losing players like Ron Hainsey, Fedorov, Foote, and a few others doesn’t really help a team. But Rick Nash is still going to be Rick Nash, even if the rest of the team is a bit heavy on left wings and there’s still no one to get him the puck. The term “R.J. Umberger: Top-Line Center” doesn’t really strike fear into the hearts of Central division foes.
Columbus will still keep goals out of the net though. Pascal Leclaire was unbelievable last season (2.25/.919 with nine shutouts!), though it’s difficult to expect him to keep up that pace. The slightly improved defense will certainly help him keep the numbers down, but those stats are too gaudy to be true, right?
Columbus is a tough team to call, simply because so many things are up in the air. They performed so-so against a strongish division, but the top two teams in said division have improved drastically and the other two stayed the same. The rest of the West is tougher as well. If the Blue Jackets were an Eastern Conference team, they’d be knocking on the door. But in the West, there’s too much talent, and that’s across every division. The Jackets will once again struggle as a result.
The Hero: Rick Nash. The kid’s ridiculous. There’s no other way to say it. Almost 38 goals in 80 games with no help at all. If this kid was anywhere but Columbus, or if he had anyone to center him, he’d be a superstar. I mean Crosby-level, endorsement-deal, in-NHL-commercials-all-the-time, get-my-games-on-Versus star. Instead he’s just vastly underappreciated, regular ol’ Rick Nash, the kid who won a Rocket Richard trophy at 19. It’s a shame. The second he hits free agency after next season, there should be a Rick Nash-shaped hole in the side of Columbus’ rink.
The Darkhorse: Ole-Kristian Tollefsen. I might be the only affirmed Ole-Kristian Tollefsen fan outside his immediate family, but I think he’s going to be very good one day. He throws his body around constantly and he’ll drop the gloves as well. To only put up four points in a season and still be just -3 is pretty solid, and his ice time should increase. This is Tollefsen’s year to step up from the third pairing and make a strong contribution.
The New Guy: Kristian Huselius. His puck distribution skills are pretty convincing, and if Ken Hitchcock finds a way to get him on Nash’s line, it could mean big things for everyone. He’s probably a little too flaky to be effective all season, and Hitchcock is probably going to spend much of his time enfuriated with Huselius, but he’s still incredibly important to this team if it wants to do anything.
The Big Question: Can Pascal Leclaire keep this team afloat despite its meager offense? He barely kept them out of the bottom five last year, and it’s not a knock on Leclaire to say I’m not so sure he can do it again.
- Acquired D Jonathan Sigalet from the Boston Bruins
- Acquired C R.J. Umberger and a fourth-round pick (used on D Drew Olson) from the Philadelphia Flyers
- Acquired D Fedor Tyutin and D Christian Backman from the New York Rangers
- Acquired Raffi Torres from the Edmonton Oilers
- Acquired 2010 conditional pick from the Anaheim Ducks
- D Mike Commodore
- LW Kristian Huselius
- LW Mike York
- LW John Vigilante
- LW Craig MacDonald
- C Steve Kelly
- LW Nikolai Zherdev and C Danny Fritsche (Tyutin/Backman deal)
- LW Matt Marquardt (Sigalet deal)
- C Gilbert Brule (Torres deal)
- LW Joakim Lindstrom (2010 pick deal)
- D Ron Hainsey (to Atlanta)
- C Zenon Konopka (to Tampa Bay)
- LW David Vyborny (to Sparta Praha in the Czech league)
Apropos-of-nothing TLP predicted finish: Still no offense, still no playoffs. Fourth in the division, 14th in the West, 25th in the league.