Friday, October 28, 2011

What the Blue Jackets Should Do With Their Forwards

After last nights loss to the Buffalo Sabres, the Blue Jackets forwards are clearly in need of some reshuffling. Coach Scott Arniel mixed up his lines throughout the game, essentially benching rookies Ryan Johansen and Maksim Mayorov, as well veteran Derek Mackenzie for part of the 2nd period and nearly the entire 3rd. This meant rolling three lines, one of which was Cody Bass - Sami Pahlsson - Derek Dorsett. Pahlsson and Dorsett have a role with the Blue Jackets, but it's not to play significant minutes while trailing late in games. Furthermore, it pushed career AHLer Alexandre Giroux into significant top six minutes. For the Jackets to run off any kind of winning streak, AHL caliber players like Giroux and Bass (not to mention defenseman Aaron Johnson) cannot be playing significant minutes late in games against good teams like Buffalo. Something needs to change. Fortunately, Arniel has a number of linemate decisions to make over the next few days, weeks and months. Ryan Johansen will hit his 9th game very soon, Jeff Carter should return sometime in the near future, Jared Boll will be healthy sometime after that, and Kristian Huselius will be back sometime around New Years. How should Arniel and GM Scott Howson handle these decisions? Lets look at them one at a time.

Right Now

News broke earlier today that Matt Calvert has been recalled from Springfield, and Maksim Mayorov has been sent back down. Looking at Calvert's stats in the AHL this year (0 points, -4 in four games), this probably isn't a move to put him on a scoring line. I would expect to see Calvert put into Mayorov's spot alongside Pahlsson and Dorsett, and hopefully inject some life into that unit. Mayorov has been very solid in my opinion, but it seems that Arniel does not quite trust him enough to play in the big spots against other teams top lines like he does Pahlsson and Dorsett. However, something needs to be done to shake-up the Jackets forwards. Replacing a rookie with ostensibly another rookie (Calvert is only 22 games past his rookie status), is not going to wake up Rick Nash, Antoine Vermette or R.J. Umberger. In my opinion, those three players have so far played the furthest below their potential over the last few games and are in need of a wake-up call. Nash played well when Carter was in the line-up, but has been invisible since. Umberger played well against Detroit, and has shown flashes in other games but not been consistently the R.J. we all know and love. Vermette has been terrible for most of the year, with lazy play, poor decision making and no desire to go into the dirty areas. To wake up these players, I would propose the following lines for Saturday's game against Chicago, based on the current personnel that are with the Blue Jackets.

Prospal - Brassard - Giroux
Nash - Johansen - Calvert
Umberger - Pahlsson - Dorsett
Bass - Vermette - Mackenzie

If I were Scott Arniel I would put those lines on the board before the team gets in for the morning skate. I would personally have a chat with Nash, Umberger and Vermette prior to the game and let them know why they have been moved down the line-up. I know these lines present some issues, as Giroux is clearly not a top line player, Johansen has struggled at center and Vermette's talents are wasted on a fourth line. But if this wakes up Nash and Umberger, that unit can quickly become the top line at even strength. Rick Nash is supposed to be an elite player in this league, and I believe he possesses the skills to be an elite player. Elite players need to carry their teams when they are injured and struggling. We need Rick Nash to  have a game where he puts this team on his back and wills them to victory. He has done it in the past, and if there was ever a time for it to happen in the future, it is now.

The Ryan Johansen Conundrum

The first major question regarding the line-up, besides poor play, is what to do with Ryan Johansen. Prior to the season the Jackets brass made it clear they would follow the plan Boston used with Tyler Seguin. Based on Seguin's play so far this year, that looks like a very good act to follow. This plan consists of: sheltered minutes featuring plenty of offensive zone starts against easy competition, a few healthy scratches in tough road games, more minutes at home than away (to dictate match-ups), and a decent helping of powerplay time. Prior to the season, most Jackets fans were totally on board with this approach. This has been the approach Arniel has taken with Johansen. He currently has the fourth highest percent of offensive zone starts in the entire NHL (of players with 5+ gp and +10:00/g, only behind the Sedin line), and in a tough road game last night he sat for most of the latter half of the game. Personally, I think he should have sat the rest of the 2nd period, then seen a regular shift in the 3rd. If you punish a player for a mistake, show him the mistake on video during the intermission, then let him go out the next period and make up for it. Barring that, at least give him a couple more shifts in the period to let his offensive ability shine.

I think Johansen should stay in the NHL, but him and the fanbase should expect inconsistent ice-time and usage going forward. At home, I would like to see him play right wing on the second line (should Umberger, Vermette and Nash get going), as he has looked more comfortable with less defensive responsibility and talented linemates have given him the space he has needed to show off his tremendous skill. On the road, I would sit him for five or six more games through the year against tougher opponents, and possibly drop him to the third/fourth line on occasion. However, I would make him a fixture on the second powerplay unit in both home and away games. This kind of set-up would give him the best opportunity to shine, learn the NHL game and not get broken by overuse or tough minutes. However, late in a close game and down two goals? Get the kid on the ice.
Nash's Number One Center?

For the first five years after Derick Brassard was drafted in 2005, he was "Rick Nash's future center". This kind of proclamation can spoil a player. Brassard has shown flashes of being a very good player, but has not been one consistently. Then Johansen was drafted to be "Rick Nash's future center" and Jeff Carter was brought in to be Rick Nash's current center. Brassard was an afterthought, moved to left wing and sent to the fourth line. Since then, he has reinvented his game. Brassard has gone to the corners, gone to the net hard and buried the tough goals we were used to seeing Umberger put in. To this point of the season, Brassard has been among the most pleasant surprises. At times, he has looked at home as Nash's center. However, too often has Nash not looked at home with Brassard as his center. Over the last four games, I was really hoping Nash - Brassard - Prospal would click as a line so Carter could be moved down the line-up and spread out the Jackets scoring. This has not been the case. Based on the previous moves happening and working (ie. Nash, Vermette & Umberger getting going and Johansen staying) I would propose the following lines:

Nash - Carter - Prospal
Umberger - Brassard - Johansen
Calvert - Vermette - Mayorov
Mackenzie - Pahlsson - Dorsett

This gives the Jackets two very talented scoring lines. Nash - Carter - Prospal was great for the five games they played together. Umberger and Brassard provide the talented linemates Johansen needs for success, and Umberger provides the grit the other two need to be successful. Calvert - Vermette - Mayorov gives Arniel a third line that is very responsible in the defensive end, yet has the talent to be dangerous offensively. This would be very beneficial to both Calvert and Mayorov, as they would have the skilled linemates they have been lacking so far this season, and would aid their development into productive NHLers. The fourth line would be a match-up line, being used to shut down opponents top lines, and allow the other three sets to play against easier competition and play more in the offensive zone. More importantly, this line-up moves career AHLers Alexandre Giroux and Cody Bass back to the AHL where they belong. Giroux does not skate well enough to play a top six role in the NHL, and doesn't bring enough defensively to play a bottom six role. Bass is not nearly as responsible defensively as Dorsett and isn't big enough to physically handle the players Jared Boll can.

To Boll or not to Boll?

There have been innumerable discussions over the years about how poorly Columbus has done developing players. It's why the kid gloves are needed with Johansen. It's why Cam Atkinson (a small player used to forty game seasons against college kids) should spend the majority of this season in the AHL. It's why David Savard and John Moore have played limited sheltered minutes in the NHL and been shuttled back and forth from Springfield. Gilbert Brule has been the poster child for the Jackets development problems, but I personally feel like one of their biggest wasted opportunities was with Jared Boll. Boll only played two seasons in the OHL, registering 47 goals and 49 assists in 131 games. He has good size, pretty soft hands and is a good skater. Watching him with Plymouth, I thought he was a future 20 goal scoring power forward, and a fourth round steal. Instead, Boll was rushed to the NHL straight from junior to replace Jody Shelley (who would be traded to San Jose midseason). Instead of spending two years in the AHL honing his abilities against lesser competition and developing into the player we occasionally see flashes of, he was fighting guys much bigger and older than him on a daily basis, and destroying his hands and wrists in the process.

Unfortunately, I am afraid we have seen the peak of what Jared Boll will be in the NHL. He is not quite big enough to handle the biggest players in the league, is not good enough defensively to be trusted in his own end and he has never had the chance to develop the offensive wherewithal to be a true scorer in the NHL. This brings us to the most obvious competition for his roster spot: Derek Dorsett. Dorsett has his own shortcomings: he's even less talented than Boll and has a penchant for taking bad penalties. However, he has been improving in the second area, and he does draw a number of powerplays for the Blue Jackets. Among players with at least 50 games played last season, Dorsett tied for 16th in the NHL (along with Rick Nash) for the most penalties drawn. Furthermore, since Pahlsson and Dorsett are usually paired together and playing against other teams top lines, when Dorsett draws a penalty, he usually removes another teams top players from the ice. Also, he finished 86th in the NHL in penalties taken that resulted in powerplays, certainly higher than anyone would like but not high enough to really be a problem. I think these contributions put him slightly above Jared Boll for the fourth line right wing spot. Once Boll is healthy, I would like to see him as our thirteenth forward, spelling Mackenzie and Dorsett on occasion, and getting into games where the opponent is a larger physical team and his pugnacity may be required.

How Does $58,523,635 Worth of Players Fit Together 

A little over $58.5 million is the amount Howson has committed to paying his NHL roster for this season (the frequently tweeted $65 million number is inflated due to injuries and $2 million worth of buyouts). We have yet to see all of those players together on the ice, and we won't until Kristian Huselius gets healthy midseason. As we saw last night against Buffalo, a team with three legitimate scoring lines is tough to stop. Shut down one, and you have two more there for the taking. Three legitimate scoring lines allows Arniel to almost always have a line that is a threat to score on the ice. However, the key word is legitimate. If the third line is not really a threat, and just a line of offensive minded players, they can be a liability. I would try to put together two top lines of pure offensive minded players, a third line of very good two way players, and a straight up defensive line. When Huselius returns, Arniel will have the horses to do such.

Nash - Carter - Prospal
Huselius - Brasssard - Johansen
Calvert - Vermette - Umberger
Mayorov - Pahlsson - Dorsett

These lines will probably have a few of you scratching your heads. However, try to think outside the framework of "1st line, 2nd line, 3rd line & 4th line." What you have is a very dynamic line that can control the play against anyone (the Carter line). A line of very talented offensive players that can be used for offensive zone starts and match-ups in home games against weaker competition (the Brassard line). Then you have a line of very good two-way forwards who all have the required skills to put the puck in the net on a consistent basis (the Vermette line). Finally, you have a line that won't score much but can grind out opponents top lines, which allows the other three lines to play with easier match-ups (the Pahlsson line). On the road, you can easily swap the second and third lines ice time, so the opposing coach can't feast on the defensively lacking Brassard line. For the few games that Johansen should sit moving forward, Calvert or Umberger can jump to the Brassard line, Mayorov can fill their spot on the Vermette line and Boll or Mackenzie can fill in for Mayorov.

The season so far has not been good. In fact, "not been good" is probably sugarcoating it. However, the problem with injuries, especially those to players who play at the top of the line-up, is they force lesser players into more minutes. Those expanded minutes expose those players, showing why they are fourth liners or AHLers to begin with. This is not aided by questionable coaching decisions. However, there is hope on the horizon. The health of Carter, Boll and Huselius, and keeping Ryan Johansen, should allow Scott Arniel to roll three scoring lines, keep the AHLers in the AHL, keep Pahlsson/Dorsett out of significant offensive minutes, and place Ryan Johansen in a situation to be successful now and in the future. There is a lot of offensive talent on the Blue Jackets roster, and I am looking forward to seeing it on the ice.


  1. Mayorov is proving hes still not ready to be consistent at NHL level. Vermette isnt wasted on the 4th line if thats all the better hes playing. Plus, he'll be called in for faceoffs until Carter is out, so hell get a little extra time on that.

    Frankly our 5 on 5 has been fine, even while dampened by injury. The PP and PK and Defense are far better discussion points. Atkinson will eventually be the full time replacement for Mayorov/Kubaliks spot, likely by Christmas. Finally johansen should stay and see 3rd line minutes until he fully earns otherwise. It worked with Nash.

  2. The powerplay and penalty kill have been atrocious, I agree. I figure I'll hit those issues at some point in the future. It's just really tough to analyze those units without know what personnel will be available to be apart of them. The biggest problem with the pk from my view has been the play of the defense, not the forwards, and without Methot/Martinek/Wiz ever playing a game together, its tough to know what it will look like moving forward.

  3. Brassard a pleasant surprise? With three points and a -5? Surprise to some, I suppose, but certainly not pleasant for anyone. I don't agree with you about Dorsett, either, but Arniel seems to, so no point in my whining about it. Right now, this team is just not scoring enough to overcome the weaknesses on defense and in goal. I don't buy your proposed solutions - Brass and Giroux on the top line and Calvert and Johansen on the second. This is supposed to inspire Nash, RJ, and Vermette? Really?

  4. Pete - Re: Brassard: I made no reference to his stats on paper. I was referring to the way he has been playing. In the past he too often has been a perimeter guy who got pushed around much to easily. This has not been the case so far this year, and I have been pleasantly surprised at how he has transformed his game. It hasn't translated to the scoresheet much yet (although both his goals came from crashing the net), but it will if he keeps it up.

    RE: Dorsett - What do you disagree with? The facts that I laid out? As much as he takes heat for the bad penalties (which is deserved), he is still a net plus when it comes to putting the Jackets on the powerplay/shorthanded. That isn't something that can be disagreed with. If you think Boll has more value, I'd like to hear why.

    RE: Line combos - At no point did I ever indicate I thought that Brassard and Giroux were long term solutions on the top line. I wanted them there for the Chicago game only. Nash, Umberger and Vermette have looked complacent this year, something that cannot happen when a team has one win. If losing isn't going to shake them out of there poor play, then Arniel HAS to do something to show them there are consequences for lackluster effort. I hate Giroux on the top line as much as anyone, but what other choice is there? Calvert? He just came up from the AHL. Johansen? I would prefer him, but then there is no one to play second line center, as Vermette needs to move down the line-up and Mackenzie and Pahlsson are not nearly skilled enough to play top six minutes. If you have a better solution to get those players out of their current funks, I'd love to discuss it. Long term Brassard is a 2nd liner, and Giroux is an AHLer (as I laid out later in the post). But for one game, if it gets the supposed stars going, I am okay with those guys playing on the top line.