10 years of hard times for the Blue Jackets

BY foxsports • April 9, 2011


Ten years can seem a long time or it can seem a short time, but it is most certainly enough time to draw conclusions about the past and future of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The CBJ put the wraps on their first decade Saturday night with a 5-4 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, who one night earlier welcomed back 85 living alumni for a raucous party that ended with the Sabres clinching a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

That's the kind of celebration the Jackets would like to throw, but it's hard to get sentimental over a past that includes over-priced and under-performing free agents, veterans whose primary motivation is one last large paycheck, rookies thrust into the lineup too early and young talent too enamored with its junior career to take coaching.

That's been the hallmark of more Columbus teams than its loyal and passionate fan base deserve, but say this for the boys in Union Blue: they sure know how to close a season in a style that typified the past six months.

The loss to Buffalo completed a 3-12-7 conclusion to Year 10, mocking the Blue Jackets' marketing slogan for the season.

After all, who's "Gotta See It Live" when you already know what's likely to happen?

If there's been one constant to the maddeningly-inconsistent performance the Blue Jackets have produced on a nightly basis since their inception, it's been a penchant for folding when the pressure thickens.

Whether it's in overtime or in shootouts -- two notorious weaknesses since the NHL returned from its lockout six seasons ago -- or at the most crucial point of the year, Columbus typically comes up smallest in the biggest moments.

Two such watershed points occurred this season, first on Nov. 26 when the Blue Jackets played host to Detroit with first-place in the Western Conference on the line. It was an intoxicating time for the CBJ, riding a wave of success through 20 games under new coach Scott Arniel. But a 2-1 loss that night grew into five straight defeats and a 2-7-3 stretch that imperiled the Jackets' post-season hopes.

By Feb. 25, Columbus had clawed back to within two points of the eighth and final playoff spot, only to lose its next seven games.

That 0-4-3 stretch morphed into the eyesore of a finish that concluded with the spirited loss to Buffalo, ending Season 10 without a post-season berth for the ninth time.

"I don't know what went wrong," said forward R.J. Umberger, the heart and soul of the team emotionally and its hardest worker. "It's something that's happened the last two years. We get on a losing streak and we're not able to end it quick enough."

It's easy to blame attitude, heart, competitiveness or some other intangible for that, but sometimes the search for answers is far more complicated than the solution.

Truth be told, after a decade of indifferent drafts on which the CBJ has hit on almost nothing consequential outside its annual pick in the Top Ten, the Blue Jackets still don't have enough depth or talent.

Rick Nash, the No. 1 overall pick the year Columbus traded up to get him, is a phenomenal player in the World Championships or on the Olympic stage when surrounded by other elite players.

As a Blue Jacket, Nash often endures lengthy stretches without finding the net, as he did during an 11-game goal-less streak that coincided with the start of the Blue Jackets' late-February retreat from playoff contention.

A decade in, Columbus still hasn't drafted, developed, signed or traded for an elite center. Granted, such players are difficult to find, but they're not so elusive 10 years is an unreasonable time frame to locate one.

That brings us to the CBJ's front office, which four years ago turned from inaugural general manager Doug McLean to Scott Howson.

McLean was a carnival barker with lots of bluster who did some head-scratching things in the draft and said even more outrageous things, among which was his infamous statement that he wouldn't trade his entire roster for that of the Detroit Red Wings.

Thankfully, that deal was not on the table so he could turn it down.

Howson is the anti-McClain: soft-spoken, thoughtful, measured and low-key.

But the difference between McLean and Howson in terms of performance isn't that discernable. After all, one person can yell at you in Latin and another can whisper Latin in your ear. The latter might be less annoying, but it's no less understandable, as are some of the moves Howson has made in succeeding McLean.

It's Howson who's on the hook for two more years of defenseman Mike Commodore's contract, even after Commodore toiled in anonymity this year in minors.

Howson also signed Kristian Huselius as a free agent, hoping he would replace the scoring of former Russian problem child Nicolai Zherdev.

Huselius has proven as allergic to contact as his predecessor and more injury-prone, which makes the additional year left on his deal hard to swallow.

Howson can blame former coach Ken Hitchcock for the Commodore signing, but at least Hitchcock found a way to wrangle the only playoff spot in franchise history out with the slow-skating Commodore on the blue line.

Hitchcock was dumped in the middle of last season amid a revolt by the younger, petulant Blue Jackets who tired of his demanding style and felt stifled by it.

The youngsters have had the better part of a season-and-one-half to prove their freedom will translate into wins, but for that the wait continues.

Howson has the backing of team ownership as he enters the off season with four restricted and eight unrestricted free agents on the roster.

An extreme makeover seems warranted, and likely.

The blue line faces the biggest remodel, with only Fedor Tyutin and Kris Russell having contracts for next year.

The minors may hold a wealth of hope, but the pitch for patience is wearing thin with season-ticket holders.

McLean told everyone to wait until Russell, Derek Brassard and some other draft picks matured. Now those guys have gone from prospects to fixtures in the lineup and the payoff hasn't been there.

Howson hasn't been in Columbus long enough to have as many spectacular failures as McLean. The enigmatic Nikita Filatov, however, gives Howson an empty first-round choice to rival any of his predecessor's whiffs in the draft.

Some of that could be because Blue Jackets' prospects have often been rushed to the NHL before they're ready, but the numbing regularity of misses on prospects also calls into question the team's scouting and its developmental system.

It's fair to wonder how much rookies David Savard and John Moore can help the Blue Jackets' defensive unit next year when their minor league club in Springfield, Mass., was so bereft of coaches specializing in the blue line that Commodore took it upon himself to tutor them this year.

It's too early to grade Arniel, but the first-year coach's style off the ice surely must be applauded. He sat veterans, withheld ice time and juggled lines to get the message across that laziness, indifference or stubborn refusal to play the system wouldn't be tolerated.

The mystery is whether changing just one thing will fix the problem and turn the Blue Jackets into something other than a franchise annually scraping for the eighth spot in the West.

A hockey czar -- a Bill Parcells-type -- would best be able to tell whether the issue is scouting, player development, management shortcomings or something else that combines with lack of talent to leave Columbus looking up in the standings most every year.

There seems no inclination toward adding such a person to the mix, however, and the depth of the Blue Jackets' division doesn't help.

Detroit has a hammerlock on the Central. Defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago may miss the playoffs this year, but Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane aren't going anywhere. Nashville has made the playoffs five of the last six seasons and owns the Blue Jackets on the road, having won 17 straight in its building.

"It's disappointing for everyone," Howson said. "We had a great start to the year, but we just weren't good enough. That's the bottom line."

As it has been, all but once in 10 years.

Email Bruce@brucehooley.com

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