MONTREAL – Sitting in last place overall in the NHL was not what defenceman James Wisniewski imagined when he signed a six-year contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets last summer.
The Jackets had cleaned house in the off-season, and brought in talented veterans like Jeff Carter, Radek Martinek and Vaclav Prospal in a bid at least to make the playoffs for only the second time in the team’s 11-year existence.
But little has gone right for Columbus, with both Carter and Martinek missing time with injuries and Wisniewski sitting out the first eight games of the regular season with a suspension for throwing a nasty elbow to the head Minnesota’s Cal Clutterbuck during a pre-season game.
The Jackets started the campaign 2-12-1 and, while it was followed by a 5-4-2 mini-spurt, they have already dug a deep hole that will take a big effort to escape.
”We’ve been bit by the injury bug, and suspensions,” Wisniewski said Tuesday as the Jackets prepared to close out a four-game road trip against the Montreal Canadiens. ”For the first time we’re close to having a full lineup, but it’s a long season. Hopefully we can have a couple of hot months and try to get back into the race.”
Wisniewski was making a return to Montreal, which acquired him last season from the New York Islanders after Andrei Markov suffered a second season-ending knee injury in as many years. His strong play, especially as a power play shooter, earned him a long-term deal as an unrestricted free agent worth US$5.5 million per season with Columbus.
Montreal let Wisniewski go partly because they assumed they would have Markov, who has yet to return and isn’t expected back until sometime in January.
But little has gone right for Wisniewski, either. After 18 games, he had one goal and 11 assists and was -13 in plus/minus. He’s still working on getting back to form after missing the start of the season.
”It was tough, still is, because I’m trying to find that line of being able to play physical,” he said. ”I’m under the microscope a bit so I have to be really careful with the style of game I have to play. So for me it’s a bit different and I’m still trying to adjust.”
He’s not the only one off to a difficult start.
Star winger Rick Nash, a 40-goal scorer last season, had only eight through 26 games and was minus-14, while centre Antoine Vermette had only three goals.
Coach Scott Arniel just wants something close to a full lineup to work with to see how good his team can be when healthy.
”Early in the year not having a couple of our big players in Carter and Wisniewski really affected us, and then losing Martinek had an effect, but in the last two weeks more bodies have come back and we’ve played closer to how we wanted to as a group,” he said. ”And we won more points won some games.
”Everybody goes through injuries and you have to find a way to get through them. We didn’t do a very good job of it early in the year and now we have some healthy people and we’re starting to make some strides.”
Carter, who signed for seven years at $5.2 million per season, missed 10 games with a foot injury, returning Nov. 15, and then sat out another game Saturday in Edmonton, although he is back on the ice.
”For opposition coaches and players, he’s a big threat,” added Arniel. ”When he’s not there you can key on Nash and a few other people.
”Jeff’s ability to shoot the puck and get open is so big. It helps our power play a lot. It makes teams adjust. It relieves pressure for Rick, so when he’s out it’s noticeable.”
Nash sees brighter times ahead with more of the injured players back.
”It’s been a tough job for sure, especially as a leader on the team,” he said. ”You see the lowest that guys get, so you have to keep guys upbeat. We knew we’d get out of it. It’s a matter of making up as much ground as we can now.
A bright spot is that top prospect Ryan Johansen has begun his adaptation to the NHL. Columbus hoped they landed a big, future first-line centre when they made him the fourth overall draft pick in 2010. He had five goals through his first 22 games.
At 19, Johansen is eligible to play a second time for Canada at the world junior championship, but it is highly unlikely Columbus will let him go. That suits the six-foot-three centre fine.
”The world juniors was unbelievable, but I think I’d rather be contributing to this team now and trying to get back in the playoff race,” said Johansen, who won a silver medal with Canada last January in Buffalo.
And things should be easier next season when the NHL goes to afour-conference format. Freed from the Western Conference, the team based in the Eastern time zone will have fewer grinding Western road trips.