Since the termination of Scott Arniel a lot of speculation has gone on regarding the job security of Scott Howson, what trades and re-signing he (or his replacement) should make, and the direction of the team in general moving forward. While I'm here to provide some more speculation and opinion, this post actually spawns from conversations with other Blue Jackets fans following the disappointing loss to the Washington Capitals on New Years Eve. One of the first steps of the Jackets new direction was hiring a coach who fit the direction and style of play that the roster necessitates. I had been leaning towards keeping Arniel for the remainder of the season, mostly because there is not an obvious replacement candidate and teams are unlikely to be willing to part with an assistant coach or AHL coach this time of year. However, this move was not the crux of the new direction. The primary problem I see when analyzing the Blue Jackets roster is players playing above their heads.
Looking up and down the Blue Jackets roster, there are a number of recognizable names. Antoine Vermette, R.J. Umberger, James Wisniewski and others have all been solid contributors on very successful teams. The problem isn't in those players, but in the role they have been asked to play on the Blue Jackets. R.J. Umberger was a great third liner in Philadelphia, but is somewhat overmatched as a top six forward. Same goes for Antoine Vermette during his time in Ottawa. James Wisniewski had a couple great seasons as a second pairing defenseman and powerplay specialist, but was exposed defensively this season when asked to play as a top pairing defenseman. Fedor Tyutin was a good 20 minute a night defenseman in New York, but has often looked overmatched as a 24 minute a night player in Columbus.
This analysis begs the question: where do these players fit on a Stanley Cup contender? While the playoffs is the first step for the Blue Jackets, the ultimate goal has to be the Stanley Cup. For too long now the Jackets have approached player acquisition from a perspective of filling the holes on a roster with players, as opposed to finding the right position for each player. That sounds like semantics, but what else can explain the contracts handed out to Kristian Huselius, Mike Commodore and James Wisniewski? In each situation, the Jackets looked at the roster, saw a hole and acquired someone to fill that hole. Further exacerbating the problem, Huselius, Commodore, Wisniewski, Tyutin, Umberger, Vermette, Brassard and Mason were all signed or extended at a salary that fit them somewhere between where they should be playing and where they played on the Blue Jackets. For example, Fedor Tyutin is not overpaid as a top pairing defenseman, but he should be a second pairing defenseman and makes too much money for that position.
Another complex issue facing the Blue Jackets is the "country club" atmosphere that has been referenced by other bloggers, as well as ex-player Anson Carter and current player Vinny Prospal. I think there is really only one solution to solve this problem: trade Rick Nash. This has been an ongoing issue for years. The team has changed presidents, general managers, coaches, players, goaltenders, and still had a relaxed atmosphere. Even worse, this atmosphere existed under Ken Hitchcock and Scott Arniel, two of the hard-assiest coaches out there. Hitchcock is renowned for it, but Arniel is also a tough customer. Question: has anyone ever seen Arniel smile? Exactly. In my experience, teams take their cues from their best players. Nash has been inconsistently lazy, and has made every single Blue Jackets fan aware of the term "maintenance day." On the other hand, Rick Nash provides the team with a superstar player and a face for the team. To trade him, someone of similar caliber must come back.
With these thoughts in mind, I ran through the Blue Jackets roster and came up with a proposed lineup for the beginning of the 2012-13 season. The number one question I asked myself regarding each Blue Jacket: "Where does this player fit on a Cup contender?" Without further ado, my dream lineup for the next Blue Jackets:
Bobby Ryan - Jeff Carter - Ryan Johansen
Nail Yakupov - Derick Brassard - Dustin Brown
Matt Calvert - Antoine Vermette - Cam Atkinson
Kyle Brodziak - Mark Letestu - Derek Dorsett
Ryan Suter - Drew Doughty
John Moore - James Wisniewski
Marc Methot - David Savard
Josh Harding - Steve Mason
This roster would fit under the salary cap (including raises for Mackenzie, Dorsett and Brodziak, Suter being signed at $7m, Harding being signed at $2.5m). While this is unlikely, this roster would fit the questions asked. Those top six forwards could all be top six players on a Cup contender. Vermette should be a third liner, as Brodziak, Letestu and Dorsett should all be fourth liners. Wisniewski should be a second pair player, as Methot should be a third pairing shutdown player. Mason is a backup goalie. The rest of the lineup is slotting in a position they have previously played and excelled in (with the exception of the rookie Yakupov).
Now the moves to get to this roster:
1) Trade Prospal, Pahlsson, Huselius, Martinek, Sanford and Boll. Move all of them for just draft picks, and fill those roster spots with players from Springfield for the remainder of the year. While none of these players are superstars, there are very few teams out of the playoff race right now, and it is likely this will be a seller's market at the trade deadline. These picks will be very useful moving forward to replace the prospects and picks needed for the remainder of the moves.
2) Re-sign Dorsett and Mackenzie to one-way contracts. Re-sign Dekanich, Mayorov and Holden to two-way contracts. Dorsett and Mackenzie are solid depth players who could play on a Cup contender and should be kept. With the time Dekanich has missed this year, he should be able to be kept on a two-way deal as Steve Mason insurance. Mayorov should be kept to fight for a third line spot and provide depth in Springfield if he doesn't beat out Calvert or Atkinson. Holden should be brought back to fight for the seventh defenseman's spot.
3) Trade Rick Nash, Fedor Tyutin and additional picks and prospects to the Los Angeles Kings for Drew Doughty and Dustin Brown. The key for a major trade is to target the teams that have disappointed. The Kings are the lowest scoring team in the league, and swapping a superstar defenseman for a superstar forward is a step they could take. The Tyutin-Brown swap provides the Kings with a top four defenseman and the Jackets with a top six forward to replace the superstar dealt. Tyutin was a victim of the "where does this player fit on a Cup contender" question. Ideally, he is a second pairing defenseman. However, Wisniewski is also a second pairing defenseman. Taking their contracts and Wisniewski's injury/suspension filled season into consideration, Tyutin is the much more tradeable player. Additionally, John Moore is an NHL caliber defenseman, looked good playing with Wisniewski, and has significant upside.
4) Trade R.J. Umberger, Grant Clitsome, Nikita Nikitin, one of Goloubef, Weber or Ruth, plus additional draft picks for Bobby Ryan. This deal is more of a stretch than the Doughty deal. However, Anaheim is having a nightmare of a season and has basically put every player on the trade block. Additionally, Anaheim is thin on defense and has three defensemen who are free agents after the season. Furthermore, Ducks GM Bob Murray has said his only untouchable players are Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne. This leads me to believe the Ducks want to reload their roster and compete immediately. Trading Ryan for three solid NHL players, a defensive prospect (which they are lacking) and draft picks (I'd be willing to part with any pick other than the 2012 1st, including the 2013 1st) would give them players to compete next season and assets to help them moving forward.
5) Draft Nail Yakupov. This requires the Blue Jackets finish in 30th place this season. They need to finish last. The NHL draft lottery is structured so no team can drop more than one position. A 30th place finish guarantees them either Yakupov or Mikhail Grigorenko. Both of these players are thought to be absolute franchise caliber players. Both players are thought to be NHL ready for next season. With this roster, they could slot into a scoring role on the second line, no problem.
6) Sign Ryan Suter, Josh Harding and Kyle Brodziak as unrestricted free agents. Suter seems like a reach right now, but with these moves made that looks like an impressive top six forward group, solid depth forwards and defense, and a nice spot alongside Drew Doughty on the top pairing. Of course the Jackets would have to back a truckload of money to his door, but Suter is worth it. Harding is the goaltender I hoped the Jackets would sign last offseason, but he re-signed with Minnesota. Unfortunately, he has had a fantastic season this year and will cost a lot more now. But he is a 27 year old goaltender, has NHL experience, and the ability to be a legitimate starting goaltender. As for Steve Mason, he is young, still has a lot of potential, and with proper sheltering, he should develop into a goaltender worth more than what the Jackets would get if they traded (or waived) him. Kyle Brodziak is a bigger, more talented version of Derek Dorsett. On Minnesota he plays on the third line, but ideally he should be a good fourth liner who can chip in offensively.
Other options: If the Kings will not do the Doughty trade, target Ryan and Cam Fowler for Nash+, and try to trade Tyutin to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Ryan Malone. This allows them to keep R.J. Umberger on the third line with Vermette and one of Atkinson/Calvert/Kubalik/Mayorov. If Anaheim won't do the Bobby Ryan trade, keep Umberger on the second line, and play Yakupov on the top line. If the Jackets can't sign Suter, then they should target Matt Carle. While not an ideal top pairing defensemen, he can hold the fort until Moore or Savard develop into a partner for Doughty and he has experience playing on the Flyers top pairing with Chris Pronger. If the Jackets can't sign Harding, then target Brian Elliott, Tomas Vokoun or Al Montoya. If no Brodziak, then they should go after Jay McClement or Dan Paille. Right now I have Calvert and Atkinson listed on the third line, but Mayorov and Kubalik would battle for those spots in training camp and provide forward depth in case of injuries.
I don't expect to see this lineup for the Blue Jackets next season. However, these are the types of moves that need to be done to accomplish the necessary turnaround. The core of this roster is very different from the core of the current team. Along with a new coach, this would hopefully remove the "country club" atmosphere. The players brought in would be playing their proper roles, and this would allow the rest of the lineup to play their proper roles as well. I expect to see major moves made by Scott Howson (or his replacement), and I only hope they ask "where does this player fit on a Cup contender?" before they make any trade, signing, or re-signing.