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03-30-2013, 08:20 PM
Mayor Bee
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Part 4: defensemen

When Scott Howson arrived in Columbus, the defensive corps in the entire system looked like this:
Adam Foote - 36 years old, signed for one more year. Once physical and nasty, but long since past his prime and legitimately washed-up. If he'd been on Philadelphia's defense of the same period (with Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje), this basic fact would be acknowledged. If they were in a race, Tie Domi would lap the Adam Foote of 2007.
Ron Hainsey - 26 years old, signed for one more year. Offensively skilled, but his defense...yeah.
Rostislav Klesla - 25 years old. Not bad, and easily the best all-around defenseman in the system. Let that sink in for a second.
Anders Eriksson - 32 years old, expiring contract. Awful in every sense of the word.
Duvie Westcott - 29 years old, signed for three more years. Middling at best, and had suffered a severe concussion that threatened his career.
Aaron Johnson - 24 years old. AHL-level player at best.
Ole-Kristian Tollefsen - 23 years old. Physical defenseman with a mean streak, but every bit as immobile as Foote and nowhere near as offensively gifted.
Marc Methot - 22 years old, and couldn't stick in the NHL. There's a story to share from 2008 that sums up what his career looked like at that point, which I'll get to later.
Bryan Berard - 30 years old, expiring contract. Truly a trainwreck in his own zone, but an extremely talented offensive player. He was the only player caught in NHL drug testing to that point, for steroids.
Derrick Walser - 29 years old. Had a huge shot and scored a lot of points in the QMJHL, which is impressive if you ignore the fact that it was 10 years prior.
Darcy Campbell - 23 years old. I honestly don't remember this guy at all.
Filip Novak. 25 years old. A poor man's Tomas Kloucek.
Jamie Pushor, Tomas Kloucek, Jekabs Redlihs. I don't know if they were all on AHL contracts only or two-ways. Frankly, I don't give a **** enough to look up.
Trevor Hendrikx - Originally drafted in 2003 and didn't sign, so Dougie MacLean drafted him a second time! How nice! He drafted Hendrikx twice as often as he drafted Rick Nash!
Grant Clitsome - In college at the time, but ended up as a poor man's Derrick Walser.
Kris Russell - Excellent junior defenseman, and has never come close to cracking anything above a #5 spot in the NHL in the years since. Was just finishing up his WHL career.
Ben Wright - In the WHL.
Jesse Dudas - In the WHL.
Maxime Frechette - Played 5 seasons in the QMJHL, registering 2 goals and 8 assists in his career.

Now, as for the defensive core, it should be quite apparent that there was none. There was no #1 defenseman, nor a prospect who could ever fill that role. There was no #2, nor anyone who could eventually do that. There was a guy who was a #3 at that time (Klesla), and two guys who'd eventually make it there (Hainsey and Methot). Outside of that, it's all third-pairing and worse. Yes, Foote was that bad at that point in his career. Just trust me on this. I saw his entire career, starting in Quebec, and he looked better as a raw rookie than he did in Columbus. His skills had eroded that badly.

Howson's mission was simple:
- Get first-pairing defensemen. Hell, some second-pairing defensemen would be nice.
- Purge the junk, of which there was a lot.
- That is all.

The players on expiring contracts were all allowed to walk, to no one's dismay. Tollefsen was re-signed not because he was any good, but because the depth was so atrocious.

The first move was massive, signing Jan Hejda on July 4, 2007. Hejda was able to step in immediately and provide suffocating shutdown defense on the first pairing. Columbus had never had a player finish as a + in +/- for a full season; Hejda was +20 in his first year. But more than that, he provided a calming effect that rippled all the way down the roster. Other defensemen learned how to play within themselves instead of doing what they'd always done, which was to be undisciplined and fall into habits of what seemed fun.

A trade was made to bring in Clay Wilson and Aaron Rome in November of 2007, which provided some much-needed depth. Dick Tarnstrom was acquired for Curtis Glencross (side note: Glencross was easily expendable. He'd shown nothing to this point, and Edmonton thought so too when they let him walk as an unqualified RFA). And Adam Foote was traded for a 1st- and 4th-rounder at the 2008 trade deadline. The 4th was used on David Savard, who's still around. The 1st would be traded for RJ Umberger.

In the span of 48 hours in July 2008, the face of the defense would change all at once. Mike Commodore was signed as a free agent; this is when he could play without making scouts and small children alike burst into tears. Inconsistent Nikolai Zherdev was traded to New York for Fedor Tyutin, and Ron Hainsey signed with Atlanta. Just like that, the transformation of the defense to a mobile shutdown corps (a Ken Hitchcock dream) was nearly complete.

Now, on to Methot. In 2008, he and Aaron Rome were locked in a struggle for the 7th spot. Whoever was sent down would have to clear waivers, and on the last possible day, Rome was sent down. Aaron Rome today is actually better than he was then, and Marc Methot's level of play in 2008 was on par with Bad Aaron Rome. John Moore was drafted, Hejda started to slip, Klesla kept getting hurt and was traded, Commodore's game went to hell all at once, you get the idea.

What ended up having to happen was a second complete rebuild of the blueline, for one simple reason. The system was so barren of defensemen in 2007 that depth could only be built by adding whoever was available. Anton Stralman, the very definition of an anti-Hitchcock player, was added in and played a couple years. Not because he fit the system, but because Dougie had never built up any depth. Someone, anyone, who was an NHL-level defenseman was likely to be added to the roster.

Starting in 2011, the following things happened:
- James Wisniewski's UFA rights were traded for, and he signed
- Often-disappointing Kris Russell was sent to St. Louis for Nikita Nikitin, who flourished immediately in all facets of the game
- The tail end of the Jeff Carter disaster saw Jack Johnson brought in. Johnson, long derided as an atrocious defensive defenseman, has been many times better in his own zone since the day he arrived. (We survived Bryan Berard and Andy Delmore; we know what poor defense looks like. Don't try to convince us that Jack Johnson is a poor defensive defenseman.)
- Home-grown prospects started to make an impact. 2009 draft pick John Moore played plenty and showed plenty. Dalton Prout and Cody Goloubef got a cup of coffee in 2011-12, and have gotten longer looks this year. Prout in particular has been excellent.
- The Rick Nash trade brought in Tim Erixon, who's exceeded everyone's expectations.

In 2007, there was basically nothing. In 2012, there was one legitimate first-pairing defenseman (Jack Johnson) and a lot of guys who are currently #2 or #3. In the system are several players who will hit that level, where previously there were none. The blueline is so deep in the system right now that a very good prospect in Austin Madaisky has spent this year in the ECHL due to lack of AHL space, while David Savard (who looked excellent in the NHL last year) can't crack the NHL roster.

To rebuild an entire defense from top to bottom in a franchise like this isn't something that simply happens by accident or if you're lucky. It requires a good eye for talent, and more important, a steady hand on the wheel. 2008-09 saw the best overall defense in team history, and 2009-10 saw this very same defense unable to do anything. 2011-12 saw an unbelievable run of major injuries to major defensemen, and yet the future is brighter than ever. At this moment, Columbus has an extremely deep blueline from the NHL roster all the way down to the unsigned junior players.

Next up. Part 5: Forwards.

May your daughter marry a degenerate loser and your wife become a mistress to the same if you quote this entire post for the purpose of replying to it.

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