Very Smart hockey people will tell you: you don’t trade a No. 1 center. Now, every team by definition has a first-line center, but a bona fide No. 1, All-Star-caliber center? In any given season – or era – maybe half the teams in the league can make that claim in earnest.
The Columbus Blue Jackets spent more than a decade searching for a No. 1 center. Ex-general manager Scott Howson thought he had finally found one* when he selected Ryan Johansen with the No. 4 overall pick in 2010, but he never had the chance to see him fulfill that potential in Columbus. The heinous rules for Canadian major junior players that dictate when and what level they can go pro – a CHL graft sold as a player development best practice – combined with oh-so tactful nurturing of Scott Arniel stymied and even threatened to derail Johansen’s development.
But then, during the lockout-shortened 2013 season, the Columbus brass started to see glimpses of what Ryan Johansen could be, shining in individual matchups against the likes of Joe Thornton. He broke out the following season, netting 33 goals along with 30 assists and by the 2014-15 campaign, he was often the most dominant player on the ice skating for either team. He rightly earned an All-Star nod and racked up a career-high 71 points – the fourth highest single-season total in franchise history and most for a centerman. At 23 years old, with great size, an elite skill set and signed to a reasonable bridge contract, the Blue Jackets looked to have a bona fide No. 1 center locked in for the next decade.
On Wednesday, they dealt him away to hated (former?) rival Nashville in a player-for-player swap for a 21-year-old defenseman who, though he has performed steadily throughout his young NHL career, has failed to meet the expectations thrust upon him.
Many Blue Jackets fans are aghast. Coming into the 2015-16 campaign, this team was touted universally as a playoff lock, and slated by many as a dark horse to win the Metropolitan Division and make a sustained postseason run. Loaded with talent up front that was trending the right way — players like Johansen, Boone Jenner, Brandon Saad and Alex Wennberg poised to take another stride in their development, mixed with guys like Cam Atkinson, Brandon Dubinsky and Nick Foligno in their prime — along with a stud between the pipes and, most importantly, a clean bill of health, this would not be a year of the “same old” Jackets.
Then the season started. Unfortunately, no one informed the players. Blue Jackets fans don’t need a recap of the club’s abysmal start to the campaign, but perhaps they need some perspective. Today, at the exact halfway point of the season, Columbus is dead-last in the NHL with a 15-23-3 record (33 points). If you cut out the month of October (where they finished 2-10-0) they’re a .500 team. They could be treading water in the standings as a .500 team halfway through the season, and if they caught fire and went on a 10-2-0 run (‘cause those happen a lot) they’d be in good playoff position. But the real-life Blue Jackets would need to go on a 10-2-0 run just to get back to .500, and then rattle off another big run to play themselves into postseason contention.
To put it another way, the Pittsburgh Penguins finished in the eighth spot in the East last year with a 43-27-12 record (98 points). Do the math. The Union Blue would have to go 30-5-6 to close out the season just to be in contention. Possible? Sure, whatever helps you sleep at night.
This is all roundabout way of saying that the 2015-16 season is effectively over for Columbus. Yes, it’s still important in a player development sense, but from a competitive perspective — and this is an organization and fanbase that expected a playoff contender — the final 41 games are moot.
So what went wrong with President of Hockey Operations John Davidson and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen’s best laid bricks plans? A coach who was in over his head and lost the room? A fatal roster flaw? Horrible luck? Adam Foote?
Let me say that I’m impressed with the way the Kekalainen constructed this roster and built up the system. I’ve supported most of the personnel decisions he’s made — loved the Saad acquisition — and for the most part, I’m of the same mind philosophically when it comes to building a winner. I honestly think if the team had not completely imploded over the final three minutes of the season opener, there’s no way they drop 10-of-12 in October.
You can have all the pieces assembled, but so much of the game really is decided between the ears and once the sh*t ball gets rolling down hill, it can, and usually does, engulf everyone before reaching the bottom. That’s not to say that Jarmo and co. should get a mulligan as they did for last season. He gambled on this team’s defensive corps and that’s a no-no. The stakes are too high once you get inside your blue line. You need a sure thing.
Going into the season, the thinking was that strength up front and in net would be able to make up for defensive shortcomings — at least for the most part. But, that was based on tall assumptions. This defense would be good enough to get them to the playoffs, or at least within contention by the trade deadline, just so long as David Savard’s breakout season (at age 24) was a new norm and Dallas castoff Kevin Connauton could extrapolate his new-found offensive potency over an 82-game season. They’d be alright if Fedor Tyutin could continue to effectively stave off father time and play top-4 minutes and, of course, if Ryan Murray, who had missed 86 games over his first two seasons [along with what should have been his rookie season in 2013] due to a variety of shoulder, knee and ankle injuries, — all of which are of serious concern for a young player — could step right back in the lineup and be a top-pair blue liner at 22 years old… Suffice it to say, these Goldilocks conditions were not met.
OK, so they needed to improve the defense, but you don’t trade away your No. 1 center to do that. Yes you do. You do to land Seth Jones.
Jones possesses the same tools that Blue Jackets fans and brass salivate over Murray for. The difference is that he’s 6-foot-4, right-handed, more of a physical presence and has a better body of work at the NHL level. He’s a year younger, has been learning the nuances of the NHL game from All-World defender Shea Weber and All-Star Roman Josi. He doesn’t have the injury history (AND HE’S A GODDAMN AMERICAN HERO!!!). He was the most impressive prospect — outside of Youngstown Phantoms players, of course — that I ever saw during my time working in the USHL. And, that was when he was captaining the U.S. National Team Program under-18 team, paired with future No. 9 overall pick Jacob Trouba, before he was even draft eligible.
He’s averaged more than 19 minutes a game since he came in the league, playing on a defensive corps with that included Shea freakin’ Weber. He posted 6-19-25 and 8-19-27 respectively over his first two seasons, which are respectable offensive numbers for blue liner to put up before he’s legally allowed to drink. The numbers are down a bit this year, but that’s more to do with an uncharacteristically low shooting percentage (1.5 percent compared to a 6-percent career average) that will correct itself. Oh, he’s also taking more shots and on pace to well eclipse his career-high from last year, so when the pucks do start going in….
Remember the season is over for the Blue Jackets. Every personnel decision from this point out is made with 2016-17 campaign in mind. Even with Johansen gone, this organization’s still very deep up front — both at the NHL level and in the system. No one player is going to replace Ryan Johansen’s production, but collectively, this group can more than make due. Remember, Jenner was supposed to be this franchise’s No. 2 center of the future not so long ago, but was bumped to wing because there was too much depth down the middle.
Barring an absolute fire sale, the Blue Jackets will still have the depth up front to compete with any team next season. (And if they continue to lose and get lucky at the draft lottery, the franchise suddenly has a No. 1 center again in Auston Matthews, but I digress.) With the addition of Jones, they have a defense that’s capable as well.
Can you name the last team to hoist the Cup that didn’t have at least one perennial All-Star patrolling the blue line? Seth Jones isn’t there yet, but he’s closer than most fans, and Very Smart hockey people realize.