Before the NHL entry draft two weeks ago, Scott Howson was telling anyone who would listen that he was poised to make some major changes to his team.
He wasn’t lying.
The Columbus Blue Jackets GM can take a bit of a breather now, having accomplished what he set out to do.
In are forwards Kristian Huselius, R.J. Umberger and Raffi Torres as well as defencemen Mike Commodore, Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman.
Out are forwards Gilbert Brule, Nikolai Zherdev and Dan Fritsche as well as blue-liner Ron Hainsey.
So, are they any better?
“We certainly believe we’re better but it will be up to us to prove that when the season starts,” Howson said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
Howson isn’t totally done. He’d like to add a No. 3 centre.
“We’ve talked to Michael Peca (UFA) about coming back,” said Howson. “We’ll see if that works out.”
Otherwise, this is basically your 2008-09 Blue Jackets. Definitely new, and they hope improved. A loyal fan base is getting restless and so is ownership. Not a single playoff game played since their first season in 2000-01.
This is a big year for Howson and head coach Ken Hitchcock.
“There’s pressure to get into the playoffs,” concedes Howson. “Our ultimate goal is to build a championship-calibre team. We believe we’re making strides in doing that. Our first step in that will be making the playoffs.”
That urgency explains the risk in dealing away players like Brule and Zherdev – both of whom may end up being stars in the NHL. But there’s an obvious stress on wanting to get it done now in Columbus.
“This fan base has gone through eight years of not making the playoffs and we think we owe them a playoff-calibre team and that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Howson.
With any Hitchcock team, it starts at the back end and his GM improved the blue-line this week. Hainsey is gone but the additions of Commodore, Tyutin and Backman complement Jan Hejda, Rostislav Klesla, Kris Russell and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen.
“We wanted to really try and become a more solid team on the blue-line, better able to manage the puck and move the puck,” said Howson. “We think we’ve become a little better back there.”
To get Tyutin and Backman on Wednesday, Howson had to give up his second-best offensive player in Zherdev as well as checker Fritsche. Luckily a few hours later he was able to relax after replacing Zherdev with the soft hands of Huselius.
“We did the Rangers deal first and there was a quite a void in our lineup in terms of a top-six forward and getting Kristian was really critical for us to help find some more offence at the top of our lineup,” said Howson. “That was a real critical signing for us.”
Huselius, who signed a $19-million, four-year deal, was being courted by more talented teams like Minnesota but says he’s up for being part of a first-ever playoff push in Columbus.
“That’s a challenge, for sure,” said Huselius. “Lots of changes for us in the last few days, but we’re an up-and-coming team now. A big, strong team. It’s going to be fun.”
The blue-line is improved, the goaltending is strong with Pascal Leclaire, and there’s some offence on the wings with Huselius, star Rick Nash and Freddie Modin. A question mark is down the middle. Umberger will likely play centre after being mostly a winger in Philadelphia and youngster Derick Brassard will probably be given a chance to centre one of the top two lines.
It could work. It may not.
Either way, the challenge is daunting for the Jackets. They compete in a Central Division with the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, who kept their team together this off-season while also adding star winger Marian Hossa. Then there’s the Chicago Blackhawks, who took huge strides last season with rookies Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and added star defenceman Brian Campbell and goalie Cristobal Huet this week.
“Our division got stronger last year,” said Howson. “And I think it’s going to continue to get stronger. We’ve just got to continue to get better ourselves and Detroit sets the bar for everybody.
“It’s always going to be a challenge to meet that level that they’re at.”