Wednesday, September 18, 2013

DBJ Season Preview 2013: The Kekalainen Gambit

In case you missed it over at FOX Sports Ohio, I started my season previewing with the suggestion that the Columbus Blue Jackets' placement in the Western Conference, and its hellacious divisional lineup, made it impossible for 1) The CBJ to win much, and 2) The CBJ to get noticed by anyone as a result.  Thus, the CBJ have been largely overlooked and are, I suggest, underestimated by their new Eastern Conference (and Metropolitan Division) foes.

I predict that the Blue Jackets will most likely be a bubble team when it comes to the Stanley Cup playoffs this season.  If they get in by a hair, I won't be surprised.  If the miss the playoffs by a hair, I won't be surprised.  I will be surprised if they dominate their new schedule, just as I will be surprised if they engage in another round of Greatest Tank Battles.

Jarmo's big gamble had best pay off,
or we're going to be agonizing over evenings of
Creepy Huntington Bank Ad Guy with no payoff at the end.
That prediction presumes that everything, more or less goes right in Columbus this season.  By that, I mean that the team avoids catastrophic injuries, that coaching stays competent and that players continue to develop as NHL players do on a career continuum.  Keep in mind, this is Columbus...and those things are not to be taken for granted.

Beyond the standard caveats, I have one more huge "IF" to toss into the ring - one that I do not think has been discussed previously.  That is what I call The Kekalainen Gambit...and it must pay off in order for the team to achieve any degree of success this season.

The Kekalainen Gambit has two key components, both of which need to be successful.  I'll do my best to explain both.  

- - - - -

Jettison the Big Brothers

As long as I've been following the Columbus Blue Jackets, they have been a team that has been so desperate for genuine NHL talent to fill out the roster that they have, almost without fail, pushed draftees and young talent too quickly to play in The Show.  Of the team's first ten first-round picks in the NHL Entry Draft, it could be argued that only Rick Nash lived up to his billing while in Columbus.  Sure, the picks themselves were questionable in a few of the cases, but one-for-ten is really quite terrible.  Even more damning is that every one of those ten individuals is no longer playing in Columbus.  Throw in other notable flameouts, like that of Calder Trophy winning goaltender Steve Mason, and you have a serious problem.

The Blue Jackets' "Junior Woodchucks" needed
a den leader...badly
I'm fortunate in that I wasn't around much when Doug Maclean was the team's majordomo, so I can't speak to how he handled his youngsters.  I was around for Scott Howson and note that his approach was to slow the development process with his picks (sending them to major juniors or the American Hockey League for seasoning), but he then had to figure out what to do with Maclean's promoted-too-soon youngsters.  These kids may or may not have had raw talent, but they had no idea how to live and work at the National Hockey League level and had no one to show them the way.  They didn't know how to win - it could be argued that if they knew what it took to win, they appeared unwilling to make the effort.  To call this team immature would be generous.

Howson's answer to the predicament - one I heartily support - was to strategically inject what I'll call "Big Brothers" into the roster.  By Big Brothers, I mean veteran players, especially those with leadership credentials and/or championship/"Big Game" experience.  It started with the likes of Mike Peca, who played in Columbus after serving as captain on the Buffalo Sabres team that went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1999 and playing with the Edmonton Oilers in their improbable Finals appearance in 2005.  By most accounts, Peca was a vital component of the Blue Jackets' 2009 playoff team, keeping the young players' heads on straight and serving as a buffer between the irascible Ken Hitchcock and his roster.  Peca was not retained after that season, as Howson went with his talented youth, and the team began its slide into the NHL's sub-basement.

Whether Howson regretted jettisoning Peca probably will never be known, but Howson's actions seemed to indicate that he did.  Before the 2009-10 season was over, Howson traded Jason Chimera away to obtain the Washington Capitals' captain, Chris Clark.  The following season, Howson brought in Edmonton Oilers captain Ethan Moreau and, midseason, Buffalo Sabres captain Craig Rivet.  It was obvious that the young talent lacked maturity, and that Howson was dead-set on injecting it into the locker room with these Big Brothers (whom I affectionately called "The League of Ex-Captains").  These three players didn't make tremendous impacts on the CBJ, however, and they all were gone by the end of the 2011-12 season.  

The former Blue Jackets captain recognizes
perhaps the finest Big Brother in team history
Howson brought in a couple more Big Brothers: Vaclav "Vinny" Prospal (born 1975, now 38 years old) arrived for the 2011-12 season.  Prospal was the team's second-leading scorer in 2011-12 and led the team in 2013.  My DBJ post prior to Vinny's Columbus debut aches with yearning for leadership...for a Big Brother to help show this rudderless team the way.  And Prospal did just that once the shadow of Rick Nash was lifted from the team.  I cannot overstate the value that I believe Vinny Prospal brought to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Prospal's value was both statistical and intangible for the team as a whole, but another Big Brother joined the Blue Jackets in 2013 and helped provide critical on-the-job mentorship for the team's young defensemen.  Adrian Aucoin (born 1973, now 40 years old), who arrived from Phoenix, had been around the block but apparently was attracted to the idea of helping develop the likes of John Moore, David Savard and Tim Erixon.  Aucoin played in 36 of the team's 48 games in 2013, generally pairing with one of those three and providing a mature, calming influence that kept the game from getting away from the team when the kids took the blue line.  With Prospal and Aucoin (and minus many of the young talents whom the team never were able to properly cultivate), the Columbus Blue Jackets finally had a team with a mature backbone.  

I'll let you decide for yourself if the team's Big Brothers were important in helping the team toward their improbable in-season turnaround of 2013.  I have my opinion, and you'd have to be daft not to infer it.  Jarmo Kekalainen may or may not have an opinion about 2013, but his actions since suggest where his mind is at when it comes to what's needed going forward.  Simply put, the Big Brothers are gone.  The oldest player on the Columbus Blue Jackets roster as I type is 32-year-old Derek Mackenzie.

The logic in moving Aucoin out appears simple: With the ascendancy of Dalton Prout and the apparent readiness of the likes of Ryan Murray, Tim Erixon and other Springfield Falcon blue liners, there simply are too many promising defensemen for the team to hold onto a 40-year-old veteran who wasn't adding to the stat line and who doesn't fit into the Blue Jackets' longer-term plans.

Dismissing Prospal, on the other hand, is another story altogether, one that I suggest plays to the other half of The Kekalainen Gambit.

- - - - -

The Desperate Pursuit of Scoring

Sergei Bobrovsky was incredible last season, but
the poor guy needs goal support in the worst way.
The Columbus Blue Jackets were 25th in the National Hockey League in goals for during the 2013 season.  

Let's repeat that: The Columbus Blue Jackets were 25th in the National Hockey League in goals for during the 2013 season.

I'm no expert on the National Hockey League, but I cannot conceive of a way that any team can achieve success when it is 25th in the league in goals for.  I have to think that Jarmo Kekalainen feels the same way, and John Davidson brought him in to win.  

Kekalainen played the market since arriving in Columbus, functionally replacing the team's only scoring powerhouse, Rick Nash, with Minnesota Wild-turned-New York Ranger Marion Gaborik, whose contract expires at the end of the season.  Beyond that, Kekalainen and the Blue Jackets locked in early and hard on Boston Bruins power forward Nathan Horton, signing him to an seven-year contract at the start of the 2013 free agency signing period.  

Presuming he's healthy, Gaborik is a 50 to 60-point player possessing speed and skill that you just don't see every day in the National Hockey League.  

Presuming he's healthy, Horton is a 50-point player with toughness and skill that you need to win championships.  

Presuming they are healthy.

That's the catch.  When you're a market like Columbus, a long-time doormat that is on the cusp of breaking through to regular competitiveness, you don't get to pick and choose the cream of the talent crop when looking to upgrade your roster.  You look at the available talent and go from there.  And when the teams with pending unrestricted free agents started locking the talent down before the signing period opened, the available talent pool was so thin that David Clarkson (!) was considered the cream of the crop.  

Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets had little worthwhile to move in trade.  Derick Brassard was the embodiment of enigma.  Derek Dorsett had a pretty clear ceiling on his talent while fighting his way into an early retirement.  John Moore couldn't find his way back into the defensive rotation once Prout emerged as a legitimate blue liner.  Steve Mason still has the physical tools that won him the Calder Trophy, but he's gone deep into a mental rabbit hole.  Other players had oversized contracts that value-conscious teams wouldn't dream of assuming.  It was a weak hand, one that wouldn't land a top-tier player.  So Kekalainen packaged Brassard, Dorsett and Moore to get Gaborik.  If that wasn't a sign of desperation on Kekalainen's part - giving up two first rounders and a classic "heart and soul" guy - to get a genuine scorer, I don't know what is.  

Here's the thing about Gaborik - he's been injury-prone.  And I'm saying that kindly.  Back in 2009, the University of North Dakota fan blog "Goon's World" catalogued all of Gaborik's missed time due to injury into a single post.  It's gruesome, and that's only through 2009.  Groins, hips, abdominal injuries.  He missed six more games in 2009-10 and another 20 games in 2010-11.  and what about the games when he was part of the walking wounded - such as last season, when he played with an abdominal injury that required surgery in the offseason?  

The joke when Gaborik was traded was that "Gaborik and his groin were traded by the Rangers to Columbus."  It's very possible that the joke is on Columbus.  Fortunately, we only have to wait a year to see if that's the case...if so, I can't see how he will return to the Blue Jackets for the same level of salary ($7.5 million cap hit this season).

Creepy Nationwide Guy is just checking in to see
how Marian Gaborik and Nathan Horton are feeling.
Horton's another tough case.  Back in June, David O'Connor at The Hockey Writers put together a fascinating analysis of Nathan Horton's injury history and how it would affect his value on the free agent market.  You can see in the article that Horton has a "chronic shoulder subluxation".  I gather that means that his shoulder joint had loosened to the point that it was just going to keep popping out with increasing frequency until he had surgery done to tighten it up - presumably the surgery from which he is recovering right now, and the one that will keep him out for more or less the balance of the calendar year.  Blue Jackets fans can only hope that the surgery was successful, that Horton's shoulder socket has appropriate tension once again, and that further wear and tear won't pop the shoulder out of joint again.  

Then there are the concussions.  Horton has had a concussion in each of the past two seasons.  You know what I think about head injuries, so I won't belabor the point beyond saying that this is serious stuff, especially for a man who the Blue Jackets signed through 2019-2020 with an annual cap hit of $5.8 million.  Because despite the term and despite the cap hit, there's the quick and dirty summary that O'Connor provides: 
The sad truth is that one more concussion jeopardizes his career, one more serious shoulder dislocation will put him on the shelf for more time than it usually would.
But that's what you get in a market where you're Not Quite There Yet.  You have to take risks and sign second-line guys for top-line money...and then pray they continue to develop into top liners.  Or bring in injury-prone players and pray they stay healthy.

(For what it's worth, Vinny Prospal played in every single Columbus Blue Jackets game for which he was under contract.)

So this side of The Kekalainen Gambit is simple - jettisoning the reliable yet aging (and probably a touch slow for Kekalainen's tastes) Prospal and his 50-ish points a season for the injury prone yet much more skilled Gaborik and an injury prone Horton who can put up Prospal's numbers yet only is theoretically entering his prime playing years.  Also, I presume Kekalainen is figuring that his young forwards, like Ryan Johansen and Matt Calvert, are ready to challenge for if not assume regular roles in the top six forwards group.

- - - - -

Strategic genius or riverboat gambler?  Got me.
The Kekalainen Gambit would scare me to death had Scott Howson not beaten my hockey soul to a pulp with his mad dash from a playoff team to the NHL cellar.  Instead, I just look at what Jarmo's doing and say that I've seen this before - especially the jettisoning of Big Brothers.

We can hope that real veteran leadership will emerge from the likes of Umberger, Dubinsky, Johnson, Wisniewski et al to help the team work through the inevitable rough patches that happen in an 82-game season.

We can hope that Gaborik finds his world-caliber form and once again becomes a destroyer of dreams for teams across the league.  He did look like he was toying with the Baby Penguins that Bylsma threw out on the blue line in the first preseason game, for whatever that's worth.

We can hope that Horton fully recovers from his shoulder surgery and solves this subluxation issue once and for all while taking a dominant role up front for the Blue Jackets, both as a physical force and a scoring threat.  And we can pray that Horton stays concussion free.

And if that happens, we might just see a playoff run this season.

1 comment:

  1. Now that about sums it up and very nicely! I got excited when they got @#$!#% and rightfully so but in hindsight I was just a homeboy and refuse to bite again! This will hopefully be a great season where the young talent begins to show and the team remains competitive. Playoffs, probably not but it could happen. It also could happen we are right back to now what.

    But at least I'm not a Brown's fan too!


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