COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Blue Jackets, after failing to make the post-season for the 10th time in 11 seasons, had every intention of being a serious player this off-season.
After all, as long as they were in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, they knew they needed some major changes to contend in 2011-12.
Well, so far, so good.
Columbus on Friday signed defenceman James Wisniewski to a six-year contract, worth US$33 million. The deal was announced an hour before Wisniewski, 27, whose rights were acquired from Montreal on Wednesday, would have become an unrestricted free agent.
The agreement, which was struck late Thursday night before contract details were ironed out on Friday morning, comes a week after Columbus sent a message to the league by acquiring high-scoring forward Jeff Carter, 26, from Philadelphia.
“James is a player we identified very early on and we are thrilled to have him as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets,” general manager Scott Howson said. “He brings offensive skill and grit to our blue line, character to our dressing room and will be a key contributor to our hockey club.”
Columbus shipped a 2012 seventh-round draft choice to the Canadiens for Wisniewski, one of the biggest names on the free-agent defencemen list this season. When the Blue Jackets reached agreement with him on a contract, the pick became a fifth-rounder.
He has 27 goals and 121 assists with 302 penalty minutes in 329 career NHL games with the Canadiens, Islanders, Ducks and Blackhawks. Last year, he had 10 goals and 51 points with Montreal and New York.
“After they traded for my rights, and after they acquired Jeff Carter, I knew they were on the right path,” Wisniewski said. “They have the green light to change things around. I felt like they really wanted me, and I want to play for an organization that wants me.”
The Blue Jackets also filled some other needs on Friday. They signed defenceman Aaron Johnson, who came up with the Columbus organization, in addition to goaltenders Mark Dekanich and Curtis Sanford.
Johnson, one of Blue Jackets star forward Rick Nash’s closest friends, has also played for Nashville, the New York Islanders, Calgary, and Edmonton.
Dekanich, who played last year for Nashville’s top minor-league team in Milwaukee, will serve as starter Steve Mason’s backup. Sanford, who has played in the NHL with St. Louis and Vancouver, spent last year with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League.
Columbus also solidified its depth up the middle by locking up minor-league centres Andrew Joudrey and Nicholas Drazenovic.
The club also signed Ontario Hockey League defenceman Dalton Prout, a 2010 seventh-round draft pick, and bought out the remaining two years on defenceman Mike Commodore’s contract. Commodore then signed a one-year deal with the Detroit Red Wings.
Wisniewski has a plus-5 rating for his career, and in helping Montreal to the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs last season, he tied for fifth among defencemen in points, and was seventh in assists.
“Montreal is kind of like the Yankees, so I got a lot of exposure, and I was thriving on that,” he said. “I just wanted to play the best that I could there, and see where it took me.”
In a conference call with the Ohio media, Wisniewski spoke about ultimately not testing the free-agent waters, especially in a year where top-tier defencemen were rare. In the end, he chose to stay out of that pool, opting for the security Columbus was offering.
“I like poker a little bit, but I’m not that big of a gambler,” he said with regards to not becoming a free agent. “In and around the city, they want the Blue Jackets to succeed, and I want to be a part of that.
“What really intrigued me is being a part of a team that’s trying to go on a rise. And I want to help the team do that.”
Wisniewski is a Canton, Mich., native, who was the 156th overall pick in the 2002 NHL draft by Chicago. After several stops, he now joins a club that could truly use a boost on the blue line.
In 2008-09, Columbus had 41 wins and 92 points, qualifying for the playoffs for the first time. They have not been back since, finishing below .500 in each of the last two seasons, registering 79 and 81 points, respectively.
“They want to try to play their top players in all situations,” Wisniewski said. “They have me penciled in right now to play with Fedor Tyutin, and hopefully we can develop a good chemistry.”
It’s the overall lack of success through the years—and playing in the Eastern time zone as a Western Conference team—that has helped lead to a bout with anonymity for the Blue Jackets in league circles.
But that’s why players like Carter and Wisniewski are on board now.
“A lot of people don’t know much about us,” Carter said in a conference call on Monday. “We’re still a work in progress. And if we can add a few more pieces to the puzzle, I don’t see any reason why we can’t contend for the playoffs this year.”
Consider Wisniewski another piece.