It’s a little bit past the halfway point of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ 2013-14 NHL season, and we’re facing nearly a week with no CBJ hockey game to discuss. The NHL schedulers continue to baffle me, but I suppose they’re doing the best they can when forced to place games around things like the circus, tractor pulls, Justin Timberlake and bull riders in 30 of America’s most busy arenas.
When we started the season, I proclaimed somewhere that I would be happy if the Blue Jackets would be a .500 team by the time Nathan Horton finally healed up and hit the ice for actual game play. From early estimates of recovery time, I figured he wouldn’t debut until mid-January. Instead, we received an early Christmas present in the form of Nathan Horton (replete with a goal in his first game back) on January 2nd. The team was 17-19-4 when Horton was activated, a touch behind my preferred pace but nowhere close to the disasters real (see: Buffalo) and emerging (see: Edmonton).
DR. DAVIDSON, DR. KEKALAINEN, YOU ARE NEEDED IN THE E.R. – STAT!
What this presumed, however, was that Horton would join a largely healthy team. You always figure a player or two will be hit with The Injury Bug, but it seems at times as if the Blue Jackets have been forced to ice a hybrid AHL roster just to get through the week. Most glaring among the losses is Matt Calvert and Marian Gaborik. Two players, at opposite ends of the roster spectrum, each with a huge impact.
Marian Gaborik is one of this young team’s elder statesmen in a locker room that needs veteran leadership, but he’s only played 18 games this season due to injuries.
Calvert, as I’ve mentioned "just a few times", is one of the young (24 years old) motor guys on the Blue Jackets roster. He’s not the highest paid – just under a million dollars of salary cap hit – but boy, does his presence count. Along with Nick Foligno (26) and the really young Boone Jenner (20), the Blue Jackets have a trio that can light a fire under the most complacent of forward lines. They push up the ice, drive to the net and just never stop when they’re out on the rink. So losing any of them hurts, and the team has lost all three at one point or another this season. After 43 games, Foligno has missed six (due to complications after the birth of his daughter), Jenner has missed nine (injury) and Calvert has missed 26 (injury). You can almost perfectly chart the lulls in Blue Jackets performance to the losses of these players, Calvert arguably the most impactful at this point and therefore the most missed.
Then there’s Gaborik. At $7.5 million, his cap hit dwarfs the next highest paid Blue Jacket (James Wisniewski at $5.5 million).He was brought in, more or less, to replace Rick Nash as a dynamic scoring threat that can churn out points and, just as important, draw opposition attention away from the CBJ’s other forwards. At 31 years old, he’s one of this young team’s elder statesmen in a locker room that needs veteran leadership. And….he’s played in 18 games this season.
I’m not going to begrudge him his broken collarbone or his knee injury…or any other injury I may have missed (like his abdominal injury from late last season). He’s just the victim of bad luck on a team that could use some luck as it works its way back into the Metropolitan Division playoff race in earnest. It just kills me to see eleven percent of the team’s entire salary budget sitting out when we fans need to see Gaborik scoring goals, making plays and leading the Blue Jackets to long-overdue glory.
THE JOHAN EMERGES
Columbus has been hard on its best prospects, pushing them through the development system perhaps a touch too quickly in the name of filling roster spots. Very few players have survived this experience and emerged better for it – past Rick Nash, can you name any? And 21-year-old Ryan Johansen was among the more recent, skipping the American Hockey League altogether and jumping straight from the major junior system to the NHL.
The Johan (or RyJo, if you will) had a very bumpy ride to get started. He played in 67 games in his rookie season of 2011-12 yet could only put nine goals on the board (21 points on the season). In 2013’s lockout-shortened season, he played in 40 games and scored goals on five occasions. Then he went and got scratched from the AHL playoffs this past spring, drawing unexpected commentary from highers-up in the Blue Jackets system. This, from the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft.
With that as a backdrop, I expected little to nothing from Johansen this season. I’m not sure what it was – perhaps better conditioning, perhaps the cold hard stare of the stale nachos in the press box in Springfield in April, perhaps just having the game slow down that much more for him – but 2013-14 has been a revelation. Johansen has played in all 43 games, scoring 16 goals and putting up 16 assists. He’s scoring in the shootouts, too, for good measure.
Folks, our little pony has started to emerge as a thoroughbred. Not a moment too soon, as this is a contract year for him!
THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES, CRAIG
News came out of Nationwide Boulevard that senior advisor Craig Patrick has moved along to serve in a similar capacity for the rebuilding Buffalo Sabres franchise. Patrick arrived in Columbus in December 2011, I believe at the behest of the NHL, to help the management team of Mike Priest and Scott Howson pull the Blue Jackets out of their post-2009 tailspin. It’s hard to pin down precisely what contributions Patrick made for the Blue Jackets, but memory suggests that it was Patrick that urged Howson and Priest to hold out time and again for a greater return for Rick Nash once Nash demanded a ticket out of town.
I don’t know if you recall where things were at in December 2011, but it was pretty grim. Patrick’s arrival suggested that change was in the air, that the front office was improving as a precursor to future improvements on the ice. And his presence alone calmed a number of rabid Blue Jackets down.
It’s a different Blue Jackets team now, what with John Davidson, Jarmo Kekalainen and Bill Zito all having arrived since Patrick did. While I don’t think it’s ever a good thing to see a Hall of Fame mind like Patrick’s move along, I’d like to think that the team is in a much better place now because of his efforts.
TAKING A BREAK
I’ll be stepping back for a couple weeks as of this post, returning for the Carolina game preview on January 27th. Let’s hope that the Blue Jackets are in the thick of it when I get back!