Monday, February 28, 2011

End scene - and a preview of the second act

I was going to use some heroic shot of Rusty, but this
just tickled my fancy. (Photo from
Act 1, Scene 10

Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson officially closed the door on the first act of the Columbus Blue Jackets franchise in the midst of its 10th Anniversary season in trading "The Original Blue Jacket," defenseman Rusty Klesla, to the Phoenix Coyotes.

With that, Klesla's name and image now can finally retire to the glass cases around Nationwide Arena that celebrate past players like Odelein, Sanderson, Knutsen and Dineen (We can't forget Dineen!); team ownership and historic events in franchise history.  While he was a serviceable defenseman, he had ongoing injury issues in recent seasons that made his reliability questionable and greatly impacted his productivity.

I was not a fan of the Columbus Blue Jackets from the inception of the franchise.  In fact, I didn't start following them at all until right around the Gary Agnew interim head coaching period of November 2006.  I saw a game live during that period (largely to get a glimpse of Sergei Federov - as a recovering Red Wings fan, I never liked Adam Foote) and was hooked despite the quality of play being below most college teams.  So I never "grew up" with Rusty, never saw him play as an overmatched 18-year-old, never saw him grind it out in his early 20's, never recalled him saying this catchphrase:

Still, I will remember Blue Jacket Rusty Klesla for what he brought to the table against Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom during the CBJ playoff appearance in 2009. As I wrote back before the beginning of the season:
For all four games of the all-too-brief playoff run, Klesla manhandled the Detroit crease-monkey in ways that I've never seen done to a Red Wing. I'll fess up, I had never been overly impressed with Rusty up until the playoff appearance. So few Blue Jackets showed up to play in that series, but there was no doubt in my mind that Rusty Klesla was there to play and to win. It was a gigantic performance on what, to date, has been the Blue Jackets' biggest stage, and Scott Howson recognized it.
But, honestly, that was about it as far as my fond Klesla memories go.  So I gladly turn the page on that exhilarating but all-too-often gruesome first act in the story of the Columbus Blue Jackets.


Act II, Scene 1

Howson completed two trades at the trade deadline:

  • Phoenix's left winger Scottie Upshall and defenseman Sami Lepisto for Klesla
  • Philadelphia's minor league forward Greg Moore and junior hockey center Michael Chaput for Springfield Falcons forward Tommy Sestito
Rusty Klesla's departure comes as no surprise to me.  His recent injury history and fair-to-middling play when he was healthy made him expendable - and did not affect the on-ice chemistry of a team that was learning to play pretty well without him.  

Tommy Sestito's departure was a little more puzzling.  He was a classic "tweener" - probably a little too good for the AHL and probably not quite good enough to hold a spot in the NHL - at least in the Columbus system.   Philadelphia historically has liked their forwards a little brawnier, so he could very well be a good fit.  Still, he was the only Columbus forward I've ever seen who could be relied upon to take up residence on the crease and not be manhandled.  His most recent run in Columbus in December-January, with a few goals from that perch in front of the goalie, made him a favorite with a fanbase that has been crying out for a "Holmstrom of our own".

Linemates Scottie Upshall and R.J. Umberger
celebrating at Montreal's expense as
Philadelphia Flyers.
Scottie Upshall brings Columbus a 20-30 point per season forward that keeps the plus/minus up above zero and isn't afraid to take a penalty when the need arises.  He was a 6th overall pick of the Nashville Predators in 2002, spending just over three seasons with the big club before moving to the Philadelphia Flyers as part of the Peter Forsberg trade - where he apparently was a linemate of R.J. Umberger's.  Upshall jumped over to Phoenix in the 08-09 season in a trade for Daniel Carcillo, playing there until Howson traded for him.  

His stats this year: 61 games played, 16 goals, 11 assists, +5, 42 PIMs.  Upshall's 27 points would place him sixth on the Blue Jackets - behind Rick Nash, R.J. Umberger, Jakub Voracek, Derick Brassard and Antoine Vermette.  He's pulling down $2.25 million this season and will be an unrestricted free agent following the CBJ's playoff run.  

If you pay attention to the media reports, Scott Howson isn't that hard to figure out.  For example, The Dispatch only 15 days ago reported that Howson had taken R.J. Umberger aside to talk personnel.  So when Howson pulled the trigger on a trade that brought Umberger back together with an old linemate, can I honestly say I'm surprised?  No, because surely they're talking to each other.

What's more telling to me is that R.J. Umberger has one prominent role on this squad, one that far outstrips the "A" on his sweater.  Rick Nash may wear the "C", but R.J. has management's ear.  In subtle ways, this is becoming R.J. Umberger's team.  Upshall is a part of it.

Sami Lepisto and waiver wire pickup Craig Rivet appear to be Howson's replacements for Klesla and now-injured Anton Stralman.  Lepisto has 4 goals, 7 assists and a +7 - more goals than Stralman (1G, 10A, -5) and actually better than Klesla's 3G, 7A (but Klesla had a much of that was attributable to being paired with Marc Methot, I cannot tell).  Rivet had 1G, 2A and a -5 in limited ice time in Buffalo, in case you care. He's in the last year of his contract, making $800,000 this season, and will be an RFA in the offseason.

Point is, Lepisto is at least a lateral move and, depending on a host of factors (durability, potential for growth as a player), could be a future gem.  But package Lepisto and Upshall together, and you've got a very nice trade for Columbus.

Greg Moore used to play for the CBJ AHL affiliate, got moved and now is back.  Howson looks at him as a swap for Sestito.  Not sure we need to say too much more about him.

Michael Chaput was a third-round pick of the Flyers last year and currently is lighting it up for Lewiston in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (click on the link to see what I mean).  In his trade deadline press conference, Howson suggested that the CBJ have identified a lack of quality center prospects as a challenge in the Columbus farm system, so Chaput (along with Ryan Johansen and perhaps others of which I am unaware) helps fill that bill.

Seeing how Howson and Assistant GM Chris MacFarlane have filled the defenseman pipeline with the likes of Moore, Savard, Holden and others in relatively short order to such a degree that defensemen like Michael Ratchuk are getting farmed down to CHL Fort Wayne to get playing minutes - well, I like it when I hear that the Jackets have decided to double down on the minor league system.  It can only bode well over the years ahead - be it with strong prospects to join the Blue Jackets or with trade fodder to grow the franchise.

And so we are on our way...the chimes have been struck, the lights have dimmed, and the second act of the Columbus Blue Jackets is underway.

(Actually, a wise person could argue that it started when Tyler Schweinfurth upended the relationship between fans and team with his "Money On The Board" act of good works, which led to the current post-slump tear through the NHL...but I digress.)

I'm excited to see what comes next in this ever-unfolding drama, with a further solidified NHL roster and an ever-stronger minor league pipeline pushing the Columbus Blue Jackets to a brighter and better future.


  1. Nice Post DBJ -
    I too have wondered what the long term meaning of the Schweinfurth Gambit will be as we look at this season in retrospect.


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