From the outside, we look at the Columbus Blue Jackets as a team that’s gone 2-11-1 to start the season, putting them on pace for just 29 on the season, well-below the 54-point threshold set by the expansion Atlanta Thrashers in 2002, which is the lowest mark set by a team in the 30-squad NHL.
Furthermore, Columbus look to be in freefall mode. After an offseason signing a number of key defensemen—James Wisniewski, Marc Methot, Fedor Tytin—to long-term, big-money deals. They brought in 30-goal scorer Jeff Carter from Philadelphia and began the year with the fifth-highest payroll in hockey. There was a lot of reason for optimism in Columbus.
But the luck the Jackets have suffered is atrocious. They went 5-3-1 in the preseason, and from all accounts, Carter and longtime superstar Rick Nash looked terrific together, putting up points in the games they played. They each had a goal in a 4-2 win over Minnesota in the last exhibition game the two played in together. But then came the big dance, and the Jackets started out with a loss to Nashville and then lost to Minny. Then to Vancouver. Colorado, Dallas twice, Detroit and Ottawa all beat the Jackets. One of those losses was in a shootout, and four more came by a single goal.
It was until Saturday night against Philadelphia that the team, now without Jeff Carter on the injured reserve, took a 9-2 pumping that the team really got busted open. It was Quentin Tarantino directing a scene from The Walking Dead sort of bloody.
Even before the 9-2 drubbing, here is what Daniel Wagner had to say about the Blue Jackets:
In a previous Bottoms Up, I opined that the Blue Jackets couldn’t possibly be as bad as their record indicated. I was right: they hadn’t won any games yet and they won 2 of their next 6. So they’re not abysmally awful, they’re just terrible.
The Blue Jackets are getting brutally outscored 44 to 29, a league-worst minus-15.
That night they’d lose 9-2. To make matters worse, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier, the two major pieces used to pluck Carter from the Flyers, had three goals between them, with Carter watching from far away nursing his right foot instead of playing in his old stomping grounds.
Columbus are spending just under $65M on their roster that has yet to net them three wins. Their goal differential sits at by far the worst in the NHL at -22. It’s proof that money can’t buy success. You have to spend it all in the right places. Mike Commodore is making $1.4M from Columbus to play for their division rival Detroit. Marc Methot, a player who is simply not a journeyman defenseman by virtue that he is too young to be a journeyman defenseman, is being paid $3M. Samuel Pahlsson, signed as a defensive specialist in 2009, is playing like anything but, and is one of the worst-ranked Corsi players on the Jackets, and is not earning his $2.65M.
But while there are a number of players attached to dollars that could be cut out of the Jackets roster, another key issue lies between the pipes: Steve Mason. The same goaltender who stopped 95.1% of pucks to lead Canada to a gold medal at the 2008 World Juniors. The same goaltender who won the Calder Trophy and single-handedly took Columbus to their only ever playoff appearance in 2009. The same goaltender who is one more rough outing away from being Andrew Raycroft, the former Boston Bruin-stalwart goalie who woke up one day after the lockout and suddenly realized he forgot how to make a save. He was traded in high demand for Tuuka Rask to Toronto and has been bouncing around as a backup goalie ever since.
Mason is starting down that path. He posted consecutive-.901 seasons after his .916 rookie year, which is a tenth of a percentage above the most average of average goalies. He is 60th in save percentage this season at .869 and that doesn’t seem to be getting higher. It’s not that this is fluke, or that Mason is getting unlucky on the powerplay; he is consistently getting shelled, with just three “quality” starts and his even strength save percentage is just .886. There’s not a lot of regression to be counting on if you’re Steve Mason, and you have to wonder when Columbus will bite the bullet and give backup Allan York one or two consecutive starts to see where he can take the team.
It’s a shame for Columbus fans. They’ve had terrible luck and certainly can’t be blamed (well, any writer who tries to blame the fans is doing it wrong). In the early days, Nationwide Arena was rocking and the fans were loyal as management put out awful product after awful product. The team traded promising defenseman François Beauchemin to Anaheim for Sergei Fedorov at an age where he was no longer a particularly useful player. They paid Adam Foote big money to come in and do not a whole hell of a lot on the blueline. They squandered the talents of Nikolai Zherdev and Gilbert Brule, both of whom went from promising young stars to NHL castoffs.
It’s a shame for Rick Nash. Since he was drafted first overall in 2002, arguably no player has ever put more into a single franchise and has been so vainly repaid for his effort. Since his rookie season, only four players: Jarome Iginla, Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Marleau and Vincent Lecavalier, have scored more goals having playing for just one single franchise. It is all too rare for a superstar to spend years with the same team, and Nash has committed himself to playing for 14 seasons in Columbus (his contract expires in 2018) which is something that we don’t give him nearly enough credit for. His 263 career goals rank him a full 150 above the second highest-scoring Jacket of all time, David Vyborny.
General Manager Scott Howson attempted to fix Columbus’ scoring issues with Carter, and the man has been injured while everybody’s heads are on the chopping block. The early Wisniewski suspension took away from the newly-assembled defensive corps. This is a continuation of the team’s horrible luck that’s developed since the year 2000, when they were forced to select Rostislav Klesla after expansion-cousin Minnesota Wild had earned the right to the third overall selection and Marian Gaborik. Luck, judgment, previous bouts of mismanagement from the previous Doug MacLean regime, there are no clear solutions in Columbus, or reasons to properly explain why this team has lost so many games since joining the NHL.
There are no solutions in this post because there is no clear fix in Columbus. There is a lot of money being spent in all the wrong places. The most important position on the team has not looked stable for the last two seasons and has not looked good at all to start of a third. For a team that has yet to really establish itself in the city where it plays, time may be ticking to really build a perennial playoff contender.