Thursday, August 2, 2012

A New Era

An era is commonly defined as a period of time.  Further, it can define a specific length of time delimited by a start event and an end event (thank you Wikipedia for your extravagant word usage).  The 2012-2013 Columbus Blue Jackets have entered this new era.

In 2002, the team selected forward Rick Nash as the top overall pick in the NHL Draft.  From that point forward, the Blue Jackets have been defined as Rick's Team evidenced by leading the team in scoring every year but three as well as being the team captain since the end of the 2008 regular season.  He won the Rocket Richard Trophy (tied for most goals in the regular season) as a sophomore and holds basically every prominent offensive record in franchise history.  As someone who embraced the small market atmosphere, Nash embodied the city of Columbus.  

Unfortunately, the CBJ never found that much success on the ice.  A lone playoff appearance in 2008-09 was the highlight.  Furthermore, the team that season was backed by a phenomenal rookie campaign of netminder Steve Mason.  Nash led the team in scoring with a franchise record 79 points but were swept out of the first round by the Detroit Red Wings.  Convinced the team was finally heading in the right direction, Nash signed an 8 year extension starting in 2010.  

Let's just say the team never fulfilled expectations.  Fast forward to the 2011-12 regular season and newly acquired players Jeff Carter, Vinny Prospal, and James Wisniewski all helped the team finish dead last in NHL for the first time ever.  Wisniewski's large suspension in the preseason derailed high hopes as did Carter's whining attitude.  He was later traded to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings in what amounts to the closest any CBJ player has ever got to winning it all (sorry! had to say it...).

Nash fueled the fire by requesting a trade halfway through the season in hopes to improve the franchise by getting assets for himself.  At the time it made Nash look like a hero and General Manager Scott Howson, like usual, a loser.  Nash gave the city and its team a lot to cheer for over the past decade but it seemed it was finally time to break-up.  As the trade deadline, the draft, and July 1st came and went, the CBJ still had not traded Rick and fans, media, and general hockey pundits were wondering if it was possible he would be back on the team this year.  It didn't help Nash had limited his list to only SIX teams he wanted traded to including the Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers, San Jose Sharks, and New York Rangers.  

Talk about handicapping an organization.  Let me emphasize something here.  Nash seems like a nice guy.  I only worked at CBJ for 5 months and was around him twice.  He was more than willing to say hello, especially if there were potential ticket buyers around.  Everyone loved him.  Anyone who says they don't are more angry at management than they are at the players.  Nonetheless, those 6 teams and Howson's hopes of what he wanted in return prolonged this saga longer than it should have lasted.  I understand Nash's intentions to play for a team that actually wins on a regular basis but to have said he wanted to be traded to help the team build future assets?  How does one do that by limiting it to only 6 teams?  

On July 23rd, the trade some thought would never happen happened.  Nash along with a minor league defenseman and a conditional 3rd round pick were sent to the New York Rangers in exchange for forwards Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, highly touted defensive prospect Tim Erixon, and next year's first round pick.  The five time all star is finally gone.  Mixed emotions ruled the day as fans were calling for Howson's head and the general hockey media bashed the trade in favor of the Rangers.  As a recent CBJ fan, I do not have the loyalty many fans do since the team's inception back in 2000.  However I can understand losing your face of the franchise player.  It's not easy letting go of someone who's always been there.

Here's one thing all CBJ fans should know though:  trades can't be evaluated immediately.  If Dubinsky and Anisimov both continue to struggle offensively, then yes, it's a bad trade but we won't know that until the season begins.  Nash is a proven elite scorer.  Having never played with an elite center, it's frustrating to know he might explode offensively.  However, he might not.  If he's just normal Rick Nash as a Ranger as he was with CBJ, I'd call this a win for the union blue.  Rick Nash is a winger by trade.  I cannot think of many teams built around a non-centered forward that have had mass success.  Champions are built around solid goaltending, a strong defensive corps, and 4 strong lines.  The Kings had that, the Bruins had that, the Blackhawks had that, the Penguins had that, and the Red Wings had that (5 previous Cup champs).  

Columbus was building around a guy they never should been building around in the first place.  As August creeps into September, hopefully the league will have a new collective bargaining agreement in place by 9/15 (fingers crossed!), the new Columbus Blue Jackets will take the ice.  As fans, we need to embrace the new squad.  In fact, I would argue this could be the most exciting year in franchise history minus the inaugural and the year post-playoffs.  The organization is finally out from beneath Rick Nash, the face of the franchise.  It's time to "Join the Battle" as their marketing team has coined.  I won't sit here and say "Yes, this team will be a playoff contender!" because honestly, they probably won't be.

I do know, however, that this team has finally begun to forge an identity.  With a plethora of puck moving defenseman who aren't afraid to get in your face as the backbone, the team won't stink because of lack of effort.  The forwards on the roster will grind you down and never quit.  Players are embracing this team, this franchise, and community because it deserves a winner.  Now if we could only rid ourselves of Steve Mason...

The new look Columbus Blue Jackets (my projected line up on opening night)
Feel free to share thoughts and insight on the line up or any changes you'd make!

Prospal - Brassard - Umberger
Dubinsky - Johansen - Foligno
Atkinson - Anisimov - Dorsett
Gillies/Boll - Letestu - MacKenzie

Johnson - Wisniewski
Tyutin - Nikitin
Aucion - Murray/Moore


Granted, there will be no 30 goal scorers in this line up, it is extremely well balanced and the players are very versatile.  Vinny, Brassard, Umby, Dubs, RyJo, Anisimov, Testy, and D-Mac (figure out which nicknames belong to whom yet?) are all players capable of playing multiple positions on multiple lines including special teams.  It will be up to head coach Todd Richards and his very experienced coaching staff to make sure he has the right connections on the ice.  

The defense is where CBJ's chips are lying.  This has the potential to be not only be the obvious strength of this team but one of the stronger units in the NHL.  Only 6 will hit the ice but they arguably have 10 players in their system ready to play if need be.  

Then comes the goaltending.  This is the hard part.  Bobrovsky was acquired in a trade earlier this summer from Philadelphia.  As a rookie two seasons ago he was very good but was put on the back burner when Philly signed crazy person Ilya Bryzgalov last summer.  He's the starter, no questions asked, because the team will not let Mason be the starter again come opening night.  He's the back up (if still on the roster) until Bob literally cannot stand on skates anymore.  Mason is still only on the roster because of his final year of his contract and they don't want Allen York backing Bob up a full season at this point.  

All that being said, I look forward to Saturday, October 13th.  Because let's face it CBJ land, if you're still a fan after 11 seasons of crap, you might as well stick with 'em now because it cannot get any worse than last year (dead last AND not getting the top overall pick).  Besides, who doesn't love hearing Rimer and Davidge call a hockey game to entertain you and your loved ones??

Final Thoughts:  Let's usher in the new era by naming Vinny Prospal Captain this year (his final season most likely) and determine next season who should be the new leader among Johnson, Umberger, and possibly Wisniewski or even Dubinksy.  Vinny just makes too much sense...