In the first three parts of our series on the Columbus Blue Jackets, we've looked at a few different thingswhether they're really as bad as their record would indicate, the underlying reasons for their terrible shooting/save percentages, and which players are getting the job done at even strength. Now, we'll look at the most pressing question: what exactly should the Blue Jackets do about their current position?
Realize that 2011-12 Is Effectively Over
The sad truth is that recent NHL history has taught us that teams digging such a deep hole early have almost no chance of getting themselves out of it. Last year, the Dallas Stars finished with 95 points and missed the playoffs. Had the Stars won their final game, Chicago would have missed the playoffs with 97 points. As it stands, the eighth-ranked team in the West is on pace for 94 points. Assuming 95 points as the cutoff, the Jackets would need to record 81 points in their final 61 games; if we further assume that the Jackets continue to pick up a point for overtime losses once every seven games or so, that works out to a record of 36-16-9 just to maybe squeak into eighth in the West. It's exceedingly unlikely the team can put that kind of run together.
That means that the club might as well focus on a strong draft pick and moving out impending free agents. Guys like Samuel Pahlsson, Vaclav Prospal, and Radek Martinek would all undoubtedly attract interest, and if Kristian Huselius is healthy and puts in a strong performance prior to the deadline, he can be added to the list. None of them should expect to end the season with the Blue Jackets. There's a lot of high-end talent available in the draft this summer, so the tank should probably start in earnest as soon as possible. It's an unfortunate situation, but sadly it makes sense.
Realize that 2012-13 Hasn't Even Started
While this season, by virtue of the Blue Jackets' start, is not redeemable, the same is not true of next season.
The Blue Jackets are better than their record. Goaltending has been a huge problembut because the Blue Jackets' goaltending has been so very bad somebody even halfway competent will make a huge difference. Curtis Sanford's been more than halfway competent since taking over the top job, but that probably won't lasthis career suggests him as the very picture of replacement-level goaltending. Even so, if he can match his career numbers, he'll be better than Mason has been. The Blue Jackets have the rest of the season to find one decent goalie out of Mason, Sanford, and Dekanich; if they can find one, he can split time with a free agent option (one of Vokoun, Biron, Emery, Harding, Turco, Nabokov, Niittymaki, or Leighton might be a fit in the short term) in net for 2012-13. If the Jackets can get average 'tending, it will have a massive impact on their goals against.
On another tack, Adam Proteau's piece for THN does a decent job of reflecting much of the opinion outside of Columbus: that the Blue Jackets need to start a painful rebuilding process, and that process should include moving Rick Nash to a city where he can see some playoff action. It's the sort of thing that sets rumor sites ablaze and fuels the fantasies of 29 other fanbases, but it doesn't make sense for the Jackets. Rick Nash, Jeff Carter, and James Wisniewski are, by virtue of their contracts, franchise cornerstones. All are signed long termNash has six seasons left on his dealand all could be key figures in what should be a quick turnaround. If they're willing to stay, they should be retained.
Other veteransVermette, Umberger, Tyutin, and Methotare competent, also signed to reasonably long-term deals, and not at a high point in their respective trade values. In a long-term rebuild, they might be moved; in a short-term rebuild they should only be moved if they bring back a) comparable value or b) allow the team to gain valuable assets while shedding cap space. Shooting percentage, which has been the bane of Vermette and Umberger in the early going, will turn around.
A long-term rebuild is not the solution. The franchise's entire existence has essentially been a long-term rebuild. There's young talent in the systemRyan Johansen, for exampleand a lottery pick from a properly executed 2011-12 tank job would help a lot. Those are players the team can build around in the long term. In the short term, the current roster really isn't that bad on the wholestar power was added in the offseason, and the club also boasts some useful veterans. It's not a superb group, but ridiculously bad goaltending and terrible shooting percentages have made it look worse than it is. Some fixesa reliable goaltending tandem, some help on the penalty killalong with some patience for the percentages and the lottery pick listed above could help make this team competitive for a playoff spot as soon as next season.
Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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