At the risk of sounding obvious, Monday’s trade of Rick Nash marks a new era for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
It goes beyond the “face of the franchise”, “best player in team history” and captain themes we’re all well aware of.
It goes further back than the initial trade request made by Nash back in January.
The root of this problem really began to take hold in the 2009-10 season.
I’m talking about player accountability.
Let me be clear up front, I’m not suggesting that Rick Nash should be blamed for this problem, or even that the captain should be held accountable for the actions of the entire team since he is seen as the leader.
What I am saying, is that with Nash now in New York, there is no deference from the rest of the room on anything on or off the ice.
Trailing by a goal with ten minutes left to play, there won’t be 11 other forwards scrambling to get the puck to Nash and get out of the way in hopes that 61 could pot the tying goal.
If something needs to be said in the dressing room, there’s no more tip-toeing around the soft-spoken captain, who preferred to lead by example (again, not meant as an indictment of Nash).
Coming off the franchise’s only playoff appearance in 2009, the Blue Jackets had what appeared to be a bright future. Nash had just signed an eight-year contract extension that looked to keep him in Columbus for his entire career. There was a young nucleus of players, led by Calder Award winner Steve Mason, Derick Brassard and Jakub Voracek.
As we all know, that 2009-10 squad was a major disappointment, costing Ken Hitchcock his job in February. The message sent by management was that Hitch couldn’t get the most out of the players anymore.
That same core group of players showed some promise in 2010-11, but ultimately drove newly appointed head coach Scott Arniel nuts. While some significant player movement occurred last summer, it wasn’t enough to save Arniel’s job, either.
Now the onus is squarely on the players. In the past three seasons, there wasn’t enough pressure on that group. No matter what, Rick Nash was going to be on the top line, play 18-20 minutes a night (which wasn’t enough, but I digress), while Steve Mason was going to be between the pipes. There was no threat of R.J. Umberger or Antoine Vermette having a seat in the press box for a game or two to clear their heads.
However, the development of young players was continually sacrificed. It’s easy to yank Brassard around with fourth line duty and healthy scratches. Same thing with Ryan Johansen, but in either case, was that what was best for the player?
At this point, there is wide open competition for every forward spot on the Blue Jackets’ roster. Honestly, with the possible exception of Derek Dorsett as a third line wing, and Derek MacKenzie as fourth line center, which Columbus forwards can be pegged into a specific place, let alone line?
You want to be a top line forward in the NHL, and the ice-time that comes with it, here’s your opportunity. You want to be the guy with the puck on his stick late in the game, here’s your chance. But guess what? If you don’t produce, there’s another guy ready to try and seize the opportunity.
I’ll concede that the Blue Jackets don’t have any true (at least this point in their careers) top-line forwards. However, I think there are several (Vinny Prospal, Brassard, Umberger, Nick Foligno, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Cam Atkinson, Johansen) that could be solid second-liners. On a good team, most of those guys would be on a third line (like Dubinsky and Anisimov last year with the Rangers).
So while there is little in the way of dynamic scoring, there’s the potential for several consistent performers. How many times in the past did we see the Blue Jackets’ scoring fortunes depend solely on Nash and the top-line? There’s a chance this coming season that there will be more of a boost from lines 2-4. Again, it’s not enough to suddenly transform Columbus into a playoff contender, but it’s a start.
Now factor in the defense. With Jack Johnson, James Wisniewski, Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Niktin, you can send out a top-four defensive group that you can depend on. Adrian Aucoin figures to be in the third pairing along with John Moore, Tim Erixon, Ryan Murray or David Savard.
Of those four youngsters, you figure only two of them will make the roster, meaning two will go to Springfield. That’s true roster competition, which only makes the team better.
It’s the same thing up front. Unlike last year, when the Blue Jackets had little to gain by sending Ryan Johansen back to Portland of the WHL, they could easily assign him to Springfield and let him truly learn to play center. I’m saying it will happen, in fact it’s extremely doubtful, but it is a possibility.
Guys like Jared Boll, Colton Gillies, Mark Letestu and even MacKenzie are in battles to just make the opening night roster, let alone dress.
I’m not trying to put lipstick on a pig, here. This team is still a long way from being good, especially when you consider the goaltending situation.
However, with Rick Nash now gone, and some semblance of hope for proper player development, there’s some cause (yet again) for optimism.
At the risk of sounding obvious, I hope Blue Jackets’ fans have the patience to see that pay off someday. It’s long overdue.