Several teams are off to a slow start this season, but none have attracted as much attention as the Columbus Blue Jackets.
During the off-season, GM Scott Howson made two notable moves to bolster his roster, acquiring center Jeff Carter from the Philadelphia Flyers and trading for, then signing, defenseman James Wisniewski.
Those acquisitions were supposed to address the Blue Jackets’ need for an experienced scoring center and puck-moving blueliner to anchor the power play and improve the transition game.
But the Jackets have lurched to an 0-4-1 start and Carter accumulated only three assists in those first five games. To make matters worse, he sustained a hairline crack in a bone in his right foot (the same foot that was surgically repaired in 2010) against Dallas and was put on the injured reserve Tuesday.
Wisniewski is currently serving an eight-game suspension for a pre-season hit to the head against Minnesota Wild right winger Cal Clutterbuck. The defenseman’s absence has been noticeable, especially on the man advantage, as the Jackets entered Tuesday with the third-worst power play (four percent) in the league.
Whether Wisniewski can sufficiently address the Jackets’ need for an offensive blueliner remains to be seen. While he posted 51 points split between the Islanders and Canadiens last season, this will be the first time he plays the role of No. 1 defenseman for an entire season and that brings a whole set of new pressures.
Carter’s play and Wisniewski’s absence aren’t the only factors in the Blue Jackets’ poor start.
They’ve received no help from their second line, as R.J. Umberger, Antoine Vermette and Derick Brassard have combined for one assist so far.
Beyond Wisniewski, the Jackets have no one on their blueline with the skills to transition the play quickly out of their own zone or provide offense from the point.
And in goal, Steve Mason is still struggling to regain the form he had when he backstopped the Blue Jackets to their first (and only) post-season appearance and earned rookie of the year honors in 2009.
Mason has started all five games, posting a 3.40 GAA and .889 save percentage.
It’s believed Howson is under pressure from ownership to ice a playoff club to bolster the team’s sagging attendance.
That’s led to speculation Howson will consider a roster shake-up if his club fails to reverse its fortunes by the end of October.
Twenty-seven scouts attended the Blue Jackets 3-2 shootout loss to the Colorado Avalanche last Wednesday, which is an unusually high number at this time of year.
Blue Jackets scouts attended Saturday’s Rangers-Islanders game, which lead to the suggestion they were watching Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who appeared in his first NHL game since May 23, 2010, when he played for the San Jose Sharks in Game 4 of the Western Conference final.
ESPN’s Craig Custance wondered just how long Howson would continue to put his faith in Mason as the starting goalie and suggested Cory Schneider of the Vancouver Canucks, Jonathan Bernier of the L.A. Kings and Al Montoya of the Islanders as trade options.
It remains to be seen what moves, if any, Howson makes in the coming weeks, but it’s clear the Jackets cannot afford to struggle as they have in their first five games. Failure by Howson’s players to improve the team on their own will force the GM to start trying to salvage the season before it gets away from him.
If he has to go that route, though, Howson will risk jeopardizing his future, or gutting depth, to address his team’s most pressing needs.
Brassard’s name has already popped up in trade rumor blogs. But if Howson is unwilling to move a good roster player, he will be forced to part with first round draft picks and/or promising prospects to get what he wants.
It may only be two weeks into the season, but the clock is already ticking for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.