COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Columbus Blue Jackets’ bright future has dimmed rather quickly.
Coming off their best season ever, the Blue Jackets were young, loaded and excited heading into camp. But then leading-scorer Ryan Johansen held out; he and management are at loggerheads. Then it was revealed that Nathan Horton, a prized free agent a year ago who missed most of the season, has a back issue and isn’t able to even skate.
On top of that, last year’s star rookie, Boone Jenner, had his hand broken by a stray shot during camp. He’ll be out for several weeks.
Now the Jackets are scrambling to replace their top players at the start of the season.
“The question this year is who’s going to be that young guy, who are going to be the two or three young guys, who are going to step up and have great years for us?” coach Todd Richards said.
Here are several salient points—and where the points on the ice might come from—for the Blue Jackets when the season gets under way Oct. 9 at Buffalo:
BIG YEAR: The Blue Jackets made the post-season for the second time in the franchise’s 13 seasons, thanks to a series of high points. With a record of 43-32-7 and 93 points, they set team marks for wins, road wins (21), points and goals scored (231). They also won their first playoff games ever when they pushed the star-laden Pittsburgh Penguins to six games.
Season ticket sales, which once lagged around 7,000, are now up over the 10,000 mark. The whole city seems to be talking about the scrappy Blue Jackets, among the youngest teams in the NHL.
THE JOEY QUESTION: The impasse between Johansen and his agent, Kurt Overhardt, and the Blue Jackets’ front office has grown ugly. Both sides are reportedly still talking, but in between is a chasm. The club has offered two years at between $3 million and $3.5 million per year, while Johansen and Overhardt, at least at the outset, were asking for almost double that.
In a breakout season, Johansen had 33 goals and 30 assists in 82 games last season—after totalling just 14 and 19 in his first 107 games the previous two seasons.
As the holdout by the restricted free agent approached the end of its second week, the loss of other players has made Johansen’s presence almost a necessity for the club to be successful. If an agreement isn’t reached soon—and other NHL clubs don’t want to see the club buckle and set a new, higher standard for first contracts—the emotions will only grow more strained.
OTHER LOSSES: Horton, who was hampered in the 36 games he did play last year by shoulder and groin injuries, hurt his back while working out in Florida over the summer. He’s not at camp and apparently isn’t close to contributing or even working out on his own.
With Jenner out for at least a month or more, and standout young defenceman Ryan Murray still recovering from a knee injury, the Blue Jackets will likely get even younger. Luckily, there may be some options, although no one knows how good they are.
THE OPTIONS: Just as Johansen and Jenner (16 goals, 13 assists) exploded last year, the Blue Jackets have several top prospects who are close to being ready, if not already. Recent high draft pick forwards Marko Dano, Kerby Rychel and Alexander Wennberg may be thrust into playing time. They’ve all had solid camps; whether they flourish in the NHL spotlight could determine how the club weathers the early personnel losses.
Also, several other new faces might take advantage of the opportunity. They include forwards Jerry D’Amigo, who played for Toronto last season, Simon Hjalmarsson (Swedish league) and Brian Gibbons, on the top line with Sidney Crosby for the Penguins in the playoffs last year. They will get a long look.
D IS A STRENGTH: G Sergei Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie two years ago and followed that with another sterling season: 32-20-5 with a 2.38 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.
Familiar names Jack Johnson, Fedor Tyutin, James Wisniewski, Dalton Prout and David Savard are quality blue-liners.
If “Bob” is once again a brick wall in net, he can make up for problems elsewhere or buy time for the offence to sort itself out.
And it may need some time to replace three of its top players, in the short or long term.
Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/RustyMillerAP