COLUMBUS, Ohio – Antoine Vermette has been an instant success in Columbus.
And the timing could not be more perfect for the Blue Jackets as they close in on the first playoff berth in franchise history.
Vermette, acquired from the Ottawa Senators on NHL trade deadline day in exchange for goaltender Pascal LeClaire and a second-round pick in the 2009 draft, has helped jumpstart the Columbus offence with five goals and three assists in his eight games with the Blue Jackets.
The Blue Jackets are 6-1-1 since Vermette joined the lineup for an 8-2 thumping of the Detroit Red Wings on March 7.
“You want to chip in as quick as possible,” said the 26-year-old from St-Agapit, Que. “You want to feel part of the team and try to contribute to the success.”
The Jackets brass was confident that Vermette could help Columbus, currently sixth in the Western Conference. He has been on GM Scott Howson’s radar for a long time. After breakout rookie centre Derrick Brassard was lost for the season with a shoulder injury in December, it became imperative for Columbus to improve up the middle.
“We’ve been talking to Ottawa for quite a while about Antoine,” said Howson. “Given our weakness at centre ice, we thought he would be a good fit.
“We think he plays the game the right way. He really supports the puck well. He’s a smart player and he’s got good speed.”
Head coach Ken Hitchcock says it was Vermette’s play last season that got the Jackets interested. Hitchcock has been forced to experiment at centre in recent months but he feels Vermette has stabilized things as a legitimate top-six forward with two-way ability.
“We saw a left-winger that wanted to be a centre,” the coach said. “The thing that I looked at was last year. He was the one player, for me, on their team that could create one-on-one spacing. He could go into the corner, cycle the puck and create his own individual space.
“I felt like that’s a strong guy that knows how to play down low in his own end and the offensive zone.”
Vermette has fit seamlessly into Hitchcock’s system that emphasizes puck management.
“I know the way Hitch likes top play,” said Vermette. “I’ve been under different coaches who have the same approach.”
His offensive outburst since joining Columbus has been welcome to a team that has traditionally struggled with secondary scoring behind captain Rick Nash’s unit. Vermette has found instant chemistry with first-year Blue Jacket R.J. Umberger on one wing. Gifted rookie Jakub Voracek has recently manned the other side.
“Our first game in Detroit, we had a lot of success,” says Umberger. “We just ran with it. He’s an easy player to play with.
“He has a lot of speed, backs players up and is able to make passes and find you in areas where a lot of guys couldn’t.”
The fact that Columbus is contending for a playoff spot has helped make Vermette’s transition easier. He was one of many players struggling in Ottawa, having scored just nine goals with 19 assists through 62 games with the Sens after averaging 21 goals the past three seasons.
“It was a tough year for that team,” Vermette says of Ottawa. “It was definitely challenging for everyone over there.”
Vermette’s point-per-game output since the trade has been critical in a playoff race that has the team and the city of Columbus buzzing.
“It’s fun,” he says of the Blue Jackets’ room. “It’s exciting. It’s young. We have a good group of guys. We’re getting to that time where it’s fun to play, there’s no doubt about it.
“Guys are into it. We know the importance of every game.”