Bottoms Up is a weekly feature on Backhand Shelf that admits that sometimes the underdog doesn’t win: sometimes they just lose and lose and lose some more. In this edition, the Blue Jackets can’t stand it.
Of all the teams in the NHL, the Columbus Blue Jackets are the Charlie Browniest.
The Blue Jackets’ resemblance to the sad sack protagonist of Peanutes should be immediately apparent. Like Charlie Brown’s baseball team, the Blue Jackets can’t win a game, but they (or at least general manager Scott Howson) also share Chuck’s eternal hope, refusing to fire coach Scott Arniel, make any big trades, or show any sign of desperation.
That might finally be changing, as Howson has finally admitted that “we’re just not good enough as a team” and that the team will “be active,” indicating that some changes are on the horizon. He’s even gone so far as to say “everything will be on the table” and indicated that he’ll hear offers for everyone in the lineup, from Rick Nash to Jeff Carter to R.J. Umberger, though he won’t be actively shopping his core players.
Andy Newman made a really good point over at The Cannon, pointing out that all of the Blue Jackets’ core players could succeed in the right circumstances:
While the team has been abysmal, I believe the core group could still perform with the proper support and structure of a true NHL team. I’m talking Rick Nash, Jeff Carter, R.J. Umberger, Antoine Vermette, Fedor Tyutin, and James Wisniewski. Those are all players that if you trade them to a good team, you will see them flourish. Why can’t that good team be Columbus?
The main reason that good team isn’t Columbus is the supporting cast that surrounds that legitimately solid group of players. The key, then, isn’t jettisoning the good players, it’s giving them the support they need to succeed.
As to why it’s taken Howson this long to admit that the Blue Jackets are, y’know, bad, a fact that everyone else in the league seemed to ascertain a couple weeks into the season? Howson claims that things were just “too disjointed to get a clear picture.” At some point he figured that Lucy would stop pulling away that football and the team would turn things around.
He has a point. The Blue Jackets did have a Charlie Brown-esque string of bad luck to start the season. First, James Wisniewski made a bonehead move in the pre-season and ran into the Shanaban-hammer just as Shanahan was looking to break it in, receiving a massive 8-game suspension to start the season. The Blue Jackest lost all 8 games, only winning their first of the season once Wisniewski returned to the lineup.
Before he returned, however, Jeff Carter fractured his foot. He missed nearly a full month of action, 10 games in total. Meanwhile, talented young goaltender Mark Dekanich ended up with a high ankle sprain; just when he was set to return, he injured his groin. With Dekanich out, the Blue Jackets had no recourse but to run with Steve Mason and Curtis Sanford as their goaltending tandem.
Admittedly, that the Blue Jackets were left with Mason and Sanford is clearly Howson’s fault and relying on an untested rookie to backup the shaky-at-best Mason in the first place was a recipe for disaster. Incidentally, Marty Turco allowed just three goals against in two games for Team Canada at the Spengler Cup. He can’t be worse than Mason.
It was very difficult for Howson to judge the team when his two big off-season acquisitions, Carter and Wisniewski, didn’t actually play together until 16 games into the season. Their first game together coincided with a minor trade that seemed to make a big difference. Howson traded the underachieving Kris Russell for the unheralded Nikita Nikitin on November 10th. His first game with Columbus was on November 12th, the same day Carter returned from injury.
Howson’s patience seemed to pay off: the Blue Jackets were 4-1-2 in the first 7 games with Nikitin, Carter, and Wisniewski all in the lineup, with Nikitin and Carter scoring 5 points and Wisniewski scoring 6. Curtis Sanford started five of those games, giving up just 7 goals. The Blue Jackets seemed like a changed team. Unfortunately, the change didn’t last and the Blue Jackets are back to being terrible.
Since that 7-game run of being half-decent, the Blue Jackets have gone 4-9-2 and they’re still dead last in the league. They finally ended a 6-game losing skid on Thursday with a 4-1 victory over the Dallas Stars.
During the game, Wisniewski blocked a shot and fractured his ankle. He’ll be out 6 weeks.