That said, let me offer the word of caution that I referenced in the title to this post:
OVERLOOK LEADERSHIP AND MATURITY WHEN ASSEMBLING YOUR BLUE JACKETS ROSTER AT YOUR OWN RISK.
Let's now discuss why I say that.
I've been a Blue Jackets fan since the 2006-07 season. I've actually been a hockey fan for the same amount of time - as in, I wasn't into hockey before I got into the CBJ. And while I've followed it voraciously for the last six-plus years, I don't have the Canadian Hockey DNA Implant that many have (or at least profess to have).
If you know anything about the CBJ, that means I've seen all of one Stanley Cup Playoff appearance. I won't call it a "run," seeing as the team couldn't win a single game in the playoffs. But it was an appearance, so that makes the 2008-09 season the franchise's high water mark.
The 08-09 team was a funny beast in retrospect. It had some top-level drafted talent on it: Rick Nash, Derick Brassard, Marc Methot, Steve Mason (remember, he was pretty darned good in that season, not just winning the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year but also a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as best goaltender) and Jake Voracek. It also had some veteran skill: Antoine Vermette, R.J. Umberger, Fedor Tyutin, Jason Chimera, Raffi Torres, Mike Commodore (who was well-suited for Hitch Hockey) and others. There was some talent. Good enough to win the Cup, no. But good enough to get to the playoffs, definitely.
That team also had genuine leadership ability in the locker room. I'm sure there were other skull-crackers, but the one that immediately comes to mind was Mike Peca. Peca was reputed to be not just a motivator but also a filter in the locker room between the cantankerous Ken Hitchcock and the frah-gee-lay youngsters.
But the team got swept, Scott Howson made the genius move of deciding that the team couldn't get any farther and scattered the older vets (like Peca) to the wind like so much birdseed. He promoted the kids, the kids couldn't deal with Hitchcock and the team sank to the NHL sub-basement over the course of a few seasons.
It wasn't just that they sunk, it was how they sunk. Rick Nash was promoted to the captaincy, probably too early, and he proved over his years as captain that he was incapable of truly motivating his charges to do much of anything beyond adopt his "I'm so talented that I don't need to work hard" attitude. Of course, the rest of the team wasn't as talented as he, and the results speak for themselves. (And Scott Arniel proved that he couldn't coach his way out of a paper bag. Can't overlook that. Have fun, Rangers.)
Then Nash does his whole "Trade me" bit, and Howson outs Nash. The trade deadline loomed. Arniel was canned. Todd Richards took over. And I wanted to see how Richards coached his team, so I went to a practice. Both Nash and Jeff Carter had the day off. The difference was incredible. Seriously, go read that piece and marvel at my slack-jawed awe.
The guys started playing hard. They played for each other, not waiting for Nash to bail them out yet again (but, strangely, he didn't bail them out as often as anyone would have liked). They went on their nice little "We're totally out of it, so we might as well play hard now" run of the end of 2011-12, and then Nash was gone.
The team far, far exceeded expectations this season - well, at least in the second half of the season. Why? I'll suggest it was a convergence of a couple of factors. One was coaching. Todd Richards assembled an NHL-caliber coaching staff, and the team was prepared every night. It still blows me away that Richards learned so many hard lessons from his stint in Minnesota and practically reinvented himself here in Columbus. Incredible.
The other factor - and this is where my note of caution fits in - was the emergence of genuine, mature team leadership. The embodiment of said leadership was Vinny Prospal. Prospal spoke the truth, both in the locker room and outside, offering direct praise and criticism when warranted. He demonstrably pushed his teammates on the ice and celebrated the team's successes with his teammates like nobody else in hockey. If anyone questioned Vinny, I didn't hear about it. He even was the last man on the ice for games, a position reserved for the team captain on a team with a captain.
Oh yeah, he was the team's leading point scorer, too.
And get this: Even with a team that I think I'd be reasonable in arguing was worse, skill-wise, than the 08-09 squad, Prospal (and Richards) got them to play harder and more confidently. These guys went all out for 60 minutes, and they nearly defied all expectations - overcoming an abysmal first third of the short season to snag a playoff spot.
Prospal, an unrestricted free agent, has not yet been offered a contract. I'll add my voice to Martini Hockey's and say that I do not understand why the team would kick him to the curb.
More importantly, I do not understand where mature leadership on the level of Prospal's would come from with the roster that John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen have on hand. Maybe, MAYBE Brandon Dubinsky...but he was hurt enough of last season that I can't judge. Nobody else on the roster could sharpen Vinny's skates. And I mean nobody, so put away your Captain America costumes.
There are other veteran leaders out there in free agency land - Jaromir Jagr chief among them - that make signing Vinny Prospal less of an imperative. Jagr, it's been told, helped mold Jake Voracek into the player that we always wanted him to be in Columbus (and he did it in one season). His non-game work ethic has become the stuff of legend. And surely there are other players (Daniel Alfredsson would be one, I suppose, but he's apparently off to Detroit) who could fill the role.
Point being, it was Vinny Prospal who picked up the locker room pieces after Nash left town and helped turn the team into a bona fide winner. Without "a Prospal", I shudder to think that the team could backslide into the mess that we saw during the Nash captaincy. We've seen what happen when this team doesn't have an adult to help guide the kids. It's an avoidable problem, one surely worth holding a single roster spot to address.
Vinny Prospal is sitting at home, right now, waiting for a phone call.