No, I'm not trashing on the Columbus Blue Jackets. Instead, I'm commenting on the personnel bind that the Blue Jackets are starting to find themselves in as this offseason gains steam.
With a healthy nod to Stealers Wheel, I'll break this down into two groups:
|When one has a Dark Blue Toddler, it's easy to visualize|
"Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right."
- Midseason pickup defenseman Brett Lebda appears to be on the verge of signing a deal to play for the (more or less Russian) Kontinental Hockey League's Barys Astana.
- Former Blue Jacket blue liner Sami Lepisto signed to play for the KHL's Locomotiv Yaroslavl.
- Perhaps most pertinent to the Blue Jackets, goaltender Curtis Sanford also inked a deal with Locomotiv Yaroslavl.
- These are all marginal NHL players who are looking at a $600-700,000 payday in the NHL. If they get bumped back to the minor league AHL, however, the paycheck is more like $100-150,000. Why not take the NHL-size salary with no potential of downside?
- The NHL is staring the possibility of a lockout straight in the face. It would not surprise me in the least if agents are telling their lower-paid players to pass on the risk of a lockout and get a guaranteed income while the NHL and NHLPA let it all play out this season.
- As to Lebda and Sanford (not Lepisto), I'm guessing that KHL teams are smartly targeting the NHL's least successful teams and their demoralized players first. Might as well pick the low-hanging fruit of players who probably wouldn't mind a change of scenery.
There also are stories of Russian players going back to play for KHL teams, but I'll overlook those because I appreciate that some players just like playing in front of the home fans. Patriotism isn't dead.
While the loss of Lebda and Lepisto probably won't keep Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson up at night, the Sanford signing might. Not only did Sanford play reasonably well in goal last season when Steve Mason faltered, the goaltender options are drying up quicker than quick for a team that needs at least one if not two new netminders. Which brings me to...
The Pittsburgh Penguins just swooped in and snatched potential starting goaltender Tomas Vokoun as a presumed backup (albeit an expensive backup at $2 million a year) - a guy who potentially could have been a starter in Columbus. The "elite" teams like the Penguins have the cache and, thanks to a rising (for now) salary cap. And they're feathering their nests at the expense of teams like Columbus.
I worry that it's going to keep going that way - especially when looking at the skilled, game-changing free agents that the Blue Jackets probably need to be competitive in the short run. A team with more allure and a little cap space that needs a goalie might be a more attractive option than Columbus for, say, a goaltender like Josh Harding of Minnesota. Which means that Columbus will have to overpay. Again. (But wait - the Blue Jackets are spending down their cap space - and fending off the Clowns? - with the new bottom six contracts!) Yet even with an offer of an overpayment, there's still a chance that a player will go for the glamor and/or comfort of playing with an established powerhouse team.
Will it be this way through the entirety of free agency? Or might a combination of obscene money and the Blue Jackets' "Our players really like it here!" PR message actually pay off? I'm dubious, but who knows?
[UPDATE: The Big League Media has started to put two and two together about the forthcoming free agent goalie shortage. An offer sheet for Cory Schneider?]
STUCK IN THE MIDDLE
Realistically, I see two approaches to fending off the bottom feeders in the KHL and the NHL's elite in the wars for the top talent: Trading and talent development.
We're living in an age where free agents have no emotional ties to the Blue Jackets. That being the case, the way that the team will get its top tier talent is through trading.
Trading is the ultimate crap shoot. Ask Jeff Carter, the talented, skilled scorer who apparently had no desire to be be here. But you can also ask Jack Johnson, the minute-munching blue liner who seemed practically giddy to be returning to the midwest...or Mark Letestu, the forward buried on the Penguins depth chart and happy to get some meaningful playing time. The team will "win" some trades and will lose some others. It's bound to happen. At the same time, trading is a way to get talented players in the door...albeit against their will at first. In this light, the potential trade of Rick Nash carries yet more importance...like it was possible.
Longer term, it's all about scouting, drafting and talent development. Get the right kids in the pipeline and let them grow. When they're ready for the NHL, bring 'em up to the show. And not a moment too early.
This hasn't been the salad days of CBJ talent identification, however. The 2010 draft, in particular, has yielded terrible results. Second round forward Petr Straka, fourth round goaltender Mathieu Corbeil and fourth round blue liner Brandon Archibald all will be going back into the draft instead of signing pro contracts with the Blue Jackets.
Let's get this straight: The NHL's 30th place team - with a non-playoff qualifying minor league team - thought so little of their own draftees that they skipped on signing the kids to contracts at all. No wonder Scott Howson left his scouts at home during the recently-concluded NHL draft combine in Toronto. And don't be surprised if the scouting house gets cleaned after the draft.
Talent development? When your team is a virtual M*A*S*H corps and you're 30th out of 30, there really isn't much actual talent development. You're plugging holes, crossing fingers and shipping cigars to Hockey Jobu by the case...gutting your minor league team all the while.
It's a hard road to take (Did someone once say "No way but the hard way?"), but that's how it has to be when your team is getting picked apart at both ends. You trade for the short run fixes of higher-end talent, you develop your in-house talent pool to relieve the pressure to overpay bottom-half roster players (and turn lottery picks into genuine NHL stars).
Pull that off, and you've beaten the clowns and the jokers.