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We last left this tale at the end of the glorious 2008-09 season, when the Columbus Blue Jackets lifted the playoff stigma from their resume, and made the post season for the first time.
By virtue of their strong showing, they picked 21st in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, selecting Defenseman John Moore. In the off season they parted ways with Freddy Modin, Michael Peca, and Jason Williams. Optimism was high, the pundits largely picked the squad to finish where it had the previous year, much as they are picking the 2011-12 CBJ to finish where they did last year (shocking newzzzz!)
Much hope was placed on the continued development of Derick Brassard, returning from the shoulder injury he incurred the year before, and of Jakub Voracek.
The 2009-10 season, an Olympic year started well. The CBJ went 6-5-1 in October, and 7-4-3 in November, for the hottest start in franchise history. Then the bottom dropped out, and the team imploded in a 2-9-5 December. Howson responded at this time by trading Jason Chimera, a popular player and voice in the locker room, to Washington for their Captain, Chris Clark and Milan Jurcina. Jurcina returned from the Olympics with a groin injury, and saw limited duty in Columbus. Clark was the first 'former Captain' Howson would bring to Columbus to try to help the 'room'.
The team went 7-8-0 in January, but were already out of the playoffs. Soon after an away Colorado game where the listless team coughed up 2 short handed goals to Colorado on a double minor penalty against Colorado, coach Ken Hitchcock was fired.
Claude Noel (good luck this year coach!) took over the team, and guided them to a 3-2-1 February, a 7-4-3 March, and a 0-3-2 April. An ugly finish to an unexpectedly ugly year. The CBJ finished 32W-35L-15OTL to garner 79 points, 5th place in the Central Division, and 14th in the Western Conference. The 79 points raised them to the level of the third best squad in franchise history.
Rick Nash lead the offense with 67 points, in goals with 33, finishing with 33G-34A-67P, -2 +/-. Kristian Huselius lead the team in assists with 40. Derek Dorsett lead the team in plus/minus rating with +6, and Jared Boll once again lead the team in penalty minutes.
Rick Nash lead in power play goals with 10, and Nash and Antoine Vermette tied for the lead in short handed goals with 2. Nash had 6 game winning goals. It is easy to see from these numbers how one dimensional the team was starting to become. Vermette lead in face off percentage with 54.2% won.
Anton Stralman lead defensemen in points with 34, Kris Russell lead defensemen in goals with 7. R.J. Umberger had a hat trick. Fedor Tyutin lead all players with 23:31 time on ice, and Rick Nash lead the forwards with 20:56 TOI.
Steve Mason lead the goaltenders with 58 games played. Mathieu Garon lead the team in Goals Against Average (GAA) and in Save Percentage with .903. Steve Mason lead goal tenders in wins with 20, the lowest number since Ron Tugnutt lead goal tenders in wins with 12 in the dismal 2001-02 season. Steve Mason lead the team with 5 shut outs.
So ends the consensus 'most disappointing season' in franchise history. The hopes for a repeat playoff appearance are shattered, and the off season begins with a search for a new coach. The only consolation is that the poor play in April resulted in the CBJ obtaining the 4th overall pick in the entry draft.
The search consumes much of the early off season, and Howson takes a gamble and offers the job to wunderkind AHL coach Guy Boucher, who opts for Tampa Bay instead. Going to his solid next pick, Howson hires Scott Arniel as the CBJ's next coach.
On to the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, and Howson induces a fan-base wide WTF? moment when he selects dark horse Ryan Johansen, a center, with the 4th overall pick in the draft. (note to Granny. WTF stands for What's That Fred?? ,a euphemistic expression of shock and surprise. In case you were wondering.) As it turns out, Johansen's star is rising so fast that it makes the sunrise look like a gibbous moon. It will be interesting to see how this selection turns out in time.
The Stagnation Continues
The off-season continues when Howson picks up Ethan Moreau, another former Captain on waivers from the Edmonton Oilers. Moreau was picked up to provide grit and leadership. He showed grit when possible, but his leadership possibilities were cut short by frequent injuries. Other than that, there was little change in the roster.
Interesting off-season news is the announcement that the CBJ will begin their season by playing in Sweden. I celebrated this beginning by driving like a fiend all day so I could watch the game on a 19 inch TV at Captain Jack's Bar in Sodus Point, NY. If you think this is weird, you are correct.
The 2010-11 season begins with the CBJ splitting a couple of games in Sweden with the San Jose Sharks. The team follows up this solid play with a 6-4-0 month of October, which is followed by an 8-4-0 November, to notch the best start in franchise history. The hot play of November includes a West Coast sweep against LA, Anaheim and San Jose, a franchise first. This hot start culminates in a November 26, 2010 game in Nationwide against Detroit, with first place in the Central Division on the line. Detroit wins this game 2-1, but its not that close. Detroit validated this disappointing loss 2 days later in the Joe. This was followed by a road loss to Nashville, a road loss to Buffalo, and a humiliation at the hands of the Penguins in Nationwide, and the team was in a tailspin. A December record of 6-7-3 meant that playoff hopes were not lost yet.
A January record of 3-6-2, however put those hopes to rest. January began with a road trip in which the opponents scored 4,4,6,6 and 4 goals in consecutive games. Needless to say the CBJ did not match that pace. In particular, they were throttled by west coast teams, probably insulted by comments made by Scott Arniel when they swept the west coast swing earlier in the year.
With the team in a tailspin, the fans rose up. A frustrated fan tweeted that he would put $20 'on the board' for a win against Detroit in the next game. (Note: it is a hockey tradition that a player will write up on the white board in the locker room how much he will kick in for a win, or a game winning goal if a game is particularly important to him). Lori Schmidt picked it up, and by the time the game came around 3 days later, CBJ fans had put $5,000 to charity on the board for a win against Detroit. They players matched the money, and dug out the effort, and won in a shootout with a stirring effort against the Redwings.
The team went up to Detroit the next night, and played a great game, falling in OT at the Joe. The team then headed out on a road trip, the 'Dad's trip' in which the players fathers accompany them. The team kept clawing its way out of the tailspin with an shoot out loss to Tampa, and an overtime win in Florida.
The resurgence of late January carried into an 8-3-1 record in February to put the CBJ back in the hunt for the playoffs. In a trade deadline move, Howson traded original Blue Jacket Rusty Klesla to Phoenix for Scotty Upshall and Sami Lepisto. Although Upshall and Lepisto played reasonably well, this move fell really flat, and as other teams stepped it up a notch for a playoff run, the CBJ were unable to match that, and they faded, finishing with a 3-7-6 record in March, and a dismal 0-4-1 in April.
The CBJ finished 2010-11 with a record of 34-35-13, for 81 points. This was good for 5th in the brutal Central Division and 13th in the Western Conference. It was also good for the 6th overall draft pick in the 2011 entry draft. (foreshadowing).
Once again Rick Nash lead the offense, with 66 points, 32 goals, and 34 assists. The CBJ had become truly one dimensional. Derek MacKenzie lead the team in plus/minus at +14, and Derek Dorsett lead the team in penalty minutes with 184. R.J. Umberger lead in Power Play goals with 8, as well as leading in short-handed goals iwth 3. Rick Nash lead with 7 game winning goals.
Antoine Vermette once again lead in face off percentage with 55.6% won. Fedor Tyutin lead defensemen in points with 27, as well as with 7 goals.
Matt Calvert, Kristian Huselius, and Rick Nash all had hat tricks. Fedor Tyutin lead all players with 22:41 TOI, and R.J. Umberger lead all forwards with 19:12 of ice time. This was the lowest leading ice time since Steve Heinze lead this category with 18:49 in the inaugural season. Slight signs of balance emerge!
Steve Mason lead goal tenders in games played with 54. Mathieu Garon lead in GAA with 2.72 and Garon and Mason tied with a save percentage of .901, the lowest save percentage lead since Ron Tugnutt's .900 in 2001-02. Steve Mason lead in wins with 24. Mason and Garon both had 3 shutouts.
After the Blue Jackets attained the playoffs, there followed a period of relative stagnation. Contract status was such that the General Manager did not have a lot of flexibility, particularly going into the 2010-11 season.
As has been graphically illustrated in the summer of 2011, the General Manager, Scott Howson, did not waste his flexibility. The stunning ascension of talent this summer has been well documented elsewhere, and I lack the time and endurance to include it in this history.
To summarize the history of our beloved Columbus Blue Jackets, I would characterize it as a woeful inaugural team with great spirit and energy that accomplished marvelous things. Over the next two years the franchise essentially upgraded to second tier talent, with the sole exception of the acquisition of Rick Nash. Could there ever be a truer definition of a franchise player?
In the first major leadership turnover of the franchise, we acquired a coach well adept to coaching the type of talent we had, which was unfortunately more appropriate for the pre-lockout NHL.
In our first major talent ascension, the General Manager acquired R.J. Umberger, Antoine Vermette, and we had a goal tender win rookie of the year. That propelled us into the playoffs for the first time, as Hitch squeezed every last drop out of the team, aided by savvy veterans like Michael Peca. The loss of Peca to father time hit the franchise hard, and a two year period of stagnation ensued.
Attempts to replace Peca's leadership in the locker room with various other former Captains were unsuccessful. This left only one other alternative. Upgrade the talent. It remains to be seen whether Howson was successful in this endeavor, as it has yet to be proved on the ice. But no one will be able to argue that he did not try.
And, in closing, I am really excited to be ready to watch the result, starting tomorrow morning when the puck drops in the Ice Haus!