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03-31-2013, 11:29 PM
Mayor Bee
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Part 5: Forwards (again)

On paper, the strength of the Columbus Blue Jackets in June 2007 was up front. In reality...that's true, but it's still damning with faint praise. It was a bizarre paradox that saw two of the game's best young offensive talents choked off for different reasons, a glut of declining older players, and a large cluster of third- and fourth-line caliber players who couldn't actually compose a 3rd or 4th line to any extent.

From top to bottom, here's the forwards that were on the roster and in the system in June 2007.

Rick Nash - 23 years old, All-Star forward. Excellent sniper, and underrated in every other aspect of the game. However, he's always been someone difficult to play with; there were dozens of players who spent time on his line, and no one could seem to bring out his considerable talents.
David Vyborny - 32 years old. Had all franchise offensive records. Very understated and underrated player, and a better playmaker than scorer. Was actually the team's leading scorer in 2006-07.
Fredrik Modin - 32 years old. The physical game was still there, but the offensive game was beginning to decline. How quickly it would go was a matter of mystery, as was how long he'd be able to stay healthy.
Sergei Fedorov - 37 years old, and way past his prime. Still had his moments, but they were getting fewer and far between.
Jason Chimera - 28 years old, and basically an eternal rookie. Had (and still has) freakish physical skills, and has yet to figure out little things like "the offside rule".
Nikolai Zherdev - 22 years old. All-World talent, but also prone to bouts of disappearing. Was outscored in 2006-07 by every player listed above, and would have been outscored by Dan Fritsche if Fritsche hadn't been injured.
Dan Fritsche - 22 years old, and touted by Doug MacLean as "future first-line center". He can't even manage that in the Swiss League, so...
Manny Malhotra - 27 years old, defensive forward extraordinaire. Had some offensive skill as well.
Gilbert Brule - 20 years old, former 1st-round pick and top prospect.
Alexander Svitov - 24 years old. Giant and freakishly strong, and prone to taking lazy penalties and floating around like a fat balloon.
Jody Shelley - 31 years old, and every bit as limited as he has been everywhere else.
Alexandre Picard - 21 years old, 8th overall pick in 2004. Dougie drafted him because "he scored more goals in his draft year than anyone else"; he'd play 67 NHL games and not score a single goal.
Geoff Platt, Joe Motzko, Joakim Lindstrom, Curtis Glencross, Steve Goertzen, Adam Pineault, Philippe Dupuis, Andrew Murray - All of these guys were the AHLers and part-time callups. Glencross was nothing at this point, and wouldn't be until going to Calgary and falling into an advantageous situation. Pineault became an the CHL, this year. I think.

In the system there were:
Derek Dorsett, Jared Boll, Tom Sestito - All various incarnations of the same player.
Derick Brassard - 1st-rounder (6th overall) in 2006, and promptly suffered a major shoulder injury.

I want to take a moment to further explore Brassard, who was 6th overall in 2006. Taken ahead of him were Erik Johnson, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom, and Phil Kessel. Regardless of how you may feel about the next 15 guys taken between 6-21, I think it's reasonable to say that they're not definitively better players than Brassard. This has been the standard for the history of Columbus. In 2000, the franchise players stopped after #3; Columbus had the 4th pick. In 2001, at 6th; Columbus picked 8th. 2004 stopped after #2, Columbus had #4 (and traded back). 2003 (Zherdev) and 2005 (Brule) were examples where many, many people said that the scouts wanted someone else but Dougie wouldn't let anyone else take the first-rounder. He had absolute power, and he was taking that 1st-rounder no matter what anyone else said. I'll get more into this next segment (drafting).

Howson's mission in 2007 with forwards:
- Find out who had what left in the tank. Three of the five top forwards were on the far end of 30, and their decline was inevitable. How quickly would it come, and how much more use could there be?
- Add young talent. There were 3rd- and 4th-line players all over, but most of them were being forced into unfamiliar roles because there was nowhere else for them. There was only one possible 1st-liner in the system (Brassard).
- Devise some type of plan. With MacLean around, what was the third line? Was it an energy line? A shutdown line? A low-level offensive line? All of the above? There was never any type of plan, and the scattershot way the roster was put together made that clear.

2007 was a year that would see much change. In the 2007 draft, Jakub Voracek was taken 7th overall and immediately became a first-liner on the basis of talent. That's how thin the system was; an 18-year-old with one year in North America could slot in on the 1st line. BUT HE DIDN'T. He was sent back to the QMJHL for another year. Maxim Mayorov, a consensus top-15 pick, fell to the 4th round and was picked up after a trade involving three fifth-rounders. (Dallas used one of those to pick up Jamie Benn...eep.)

In free agency, three players that would come to symbolize the low-key nature of Howson were added. The first was Jiri Novotny, a former first-round pick who was being given his last best chance in the NHL. The second was Derek MacKenzie, lightly regarded by Atlanta; he's still in Columbus today. The third was Mike Peca, on his last legs but still able to produce in his role.

How thin was the system as a whole? 2007-08 began with Nikolai Zherdev as the center on the top line. Just take a second to ponder that thought. Nikolai Zherdev, never known as someone who would do anything it takes to win, was being asked to play a position that he had never played because there was ZERO organizational depth. This was an inherited issue; this wasn't Howson killing the roster, this was a seven-year failure to ever address a clear need on the part of a certain nameless individual who will be referred to as "Guy who likes to yell 'I DRAFTED RICK NASH'."

As it turned out, Vyborny would be injured in the preseason, which destroyed his speed and his effectiveness. That resulted in the end of his NHL career in Howson's first year. Fedorov continued to decline and was traded at the deadline. But the real story was Zherdev. In 2007-08, Nikolai Zherdev played far and away the best hockey of his NHL life. He was moved back to the wing, and discovered that he could do plenty. He started forechecking and was good at it. He backchecked and was good at it. He played physically (!) and was good at it. Columbus surged to the best record in team history, with 80 points.

In the 2008-09 offseason, Zherdev was traded as part of a deal for Fedor Tyutin; he was then replaced by Kristian Huselius. Brule was traded for Raffi Torres, who played both his best (and cleanest) hockey in Columbus. A spare first-rounder was traded for RJ Umberger, coming off an impressive playoff run. Voracek was brought up along with Brassard; Voracek would have 38 points as a rookie, and Brassard would have 25 points in 31 games before suffering another shoulder injury. During the season, Jason Williams was picked up from Atlanta, and Antoine Vermette from Ottawa. Even Nikita Filatov, later to be loathed, added 4 goals during an 8-game stint. Columbus made the playoffs with a strong group of forwards who could play any role.

2009-10 saw the departure of Malhotra, and Sammy Pahlsson replace him. Chimera was traded to Washington, and Modin (now chronically injured) to Los Angeles. Through it all, Columbus had three forwards hit 60 points, and two more (including a 20-year-old Voracek) hit 50. Overall, the team slumped back to 79 points. 2010-11 saw the young kids drafted by Howson beginning to arrive on the scene, and a minor rebound back up to 81 points.

2011-12 saw changes made. Vinny Prospal was brought in on a one-year deal, Mark Letestu would arrive from Pittsburgh in a trade. But biggest of all, Voracek and the 8th overall pick in the 2011 draft (Sean Couturier) were sent to Philadelphia for All-Star Jeff Carter. I cannot emphasize this next part enough. I saw Jeff Carter in Philadelphia. I've seen Jeff Carter in Los Angeles. If Jeff Carter played anywhere CLOSE to the level of what he showed himself to be capable of in both of those stops, his bizarre tenure in Columbus would simply be that. It wouldn't be what we all recognize, which is a guy who didn't want to be here just floating through the motions. We saw Zherdev. We saw Filatov. We saw early Rick Nash. WE KNOW WHAT FLOATING LOOKS LIKE. And when CBJ fans say that Jeff Carter basically floated around the ice, we know what the hell we're talking about. Is it Carter's fault that damn near everyone got injured in 2011-12? No. Is it his fault that guys like Umberger and Vermette suddenly forgot how to score? No. Is Carter's pathetic attitude and poor play during his time here a part of why the team stumbled to a 65-point season? Yes.

2012-13 would see a handful of moves made, with Nick Foligno arriving from Ottawa, and young players Matt Calvert, Ryan Johansen, and Cam Atkinson cementing roster spots. But the biggest move was the trade of Rick Nash to New York. The jury remains out on "who won", but Nash's departure has cleared the way for a new type of team up front. It's not a flashy bunch anywhere, but it's a ferociously scrappy and tenacious group that refuses to give up.

I must touch on that last point briefly. Columbus in 2000-01 (the first year) had a similar type of mentality. Columbus this year has this mentality. At no point in between has there been that type of mentality. A goalie lets in a bad goal, and everything would go to hell. A 1-0 deficit would be 3-0 before the first TV timeout. A 2-1 lead would become 2-2, then a 4-2 deficit en route to a 6-2 loss. A 4-1 deficit would become 4-3, because the last five minutes were seemingly the only time that the team would pick up their play. It happened for 10 years, and this year has finally seen the wholesale shift toward something much, much different. This is without a single move being made with John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen around that would impact the NHL roster; what we see on the ice is 100% players who began playing with Columbus after Howson's arrival. Brassard, Dorsett, and Boll were inherited from the previous regime, but that's it.

(Next up. Part 6: Drafting, or "Why Nikita Filatov isn't in any way representative of the other 40 or so players that Howson drafted")

May your face look like a combination of Ryan Getzlaf's hair, Sidney Crosby's mustache, Jordan Staal's beard, Jody Shelley's teeth, Sam Gagner's eyes, and Ian Laperriere's nose if you quote this entire post for the purpose of replying.

Last edited by Mayor Bee: 03-31-2013 at 11:37 PM.
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