How I learned to stop worrying and love the Johansen trade

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Seth. Jones. (From Bleacher Report)

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.

Despite changing NCAA regulations, Solich lands top recruiting class

Ohio recruiting coordinator Brian Haines, left, and head coach Frank Solich at the Feb. 2 Singing Day press conference. (Courtesy of The Post -- Staff Photographer Alex Goodlett)

At his press conference on National Signing Day, Ohio football coach Frank Solich proudly announced that this year’s recruiting class could be the best he has had in his seven-year stint in Athens. His first point of emphasis for the 24-man class wasn’t the speed, skill or size of the athletes, though.

“We’ve got a lot of excellent players,” Solich said, “a lot of guys with really high character.”

As more and more NCAA rules violations are being brought to light at high-profile athletic programs, Solich and his staff are trying to ensure their team’s compliance by bringing in players with skill and character. But, even the process of recruiting itself is riddled with rules and regulations. The school’s compliance staff must meticulously monitor and any and all forms of contact with a prospective student-athlete.

The NCAA has a stringent calendar that all Division I football programs must adhere to when recruiting prospects. There are limits set on personal contact, visits to a prospect’s “educational institution” and chances to evaluate prospects during competition.

Even if a coach is approached by a prospect’s parent at the mall, he can do no more than exchange pleasantries, lest the program forfeit one of its 42 face to face contact opportunities – and that’s only if it’s during the “contact period.’

Any contact outside of that seemingly arbitrary two-month window from late November through late January — specific dates vary from year to year determined by a formula in the NCAA Bylaws – and a program could likely find itself slapped with a sanction.

“It’s tough. You’ve got to stay on top of it,” Ohio tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator Brian Haines said. “You’ve got to know what you’re doing and what’s right.”

But, Haines said there was a simple solution to effectively navigate the NCAA’s constantly changing rules and regulations, and ensure all his actions are on the level.

“Put our compliance department in your favorites in your phone,” he said. “We’re always communicating back-and-fourth and they do a good job of helping us out.

Haines shouldered much of the responsibility in determining whether a recruit’s athletic abilities merited a scholarship from Ohio University.

Tricia Turley, associate athletic director for Compliance and Student Services, on the other hand, made sure the recruits and the recruiters were held up to NCAA standards.

“We handle what paperwork needs to be completed by the prospect and when,” Turley said in an email correspondence. “We also provide academic assessments based on the NCAA Qualifier standards for the coaches and help facilitate the admissions process.

“We also answer various questions about communication with the prospects.”

USC expects athletes to self-report meetings with agents

USC student and former NFLPA-certified agent Teague Egan (right) lounging in the 1st Round Sports golf cart. (From The Los Angeles Times)

The University of Southern California is taking steps to make sure its student-athletes avoid contact with agents or, you know, at least give the school a heads up if there is contact.

On Tuesday the USC Office of Athletic Compliance emailed a four-page memo to the school’s 35,000 students and 5,000 faculty members outlining what could be considered impermissible contact between student-athletes and agents — an ‘innovative’ policy that vice president of athletic compliance Dave Roberts said is the first of its kind.

And to think, all this was prompted because USC running back Dillon Baxter accepted a free ride in a golf cart from a fellow student/former NFLPA-certified agent Teague Egan.

‘Cause the whole Reggie Bush fiascoOJ Mayo scandal, and Joe McKnight investigation weren’t enough.

From The Daily Trojan:

Under the policy, students, staff and other third parties are required to notify USC’s compliance office of their involvement with a sports agency before any interaction with student-athletes.

“We’re publishing this to the student body, so they can be aware,” Roberts said. “Of course, somebody could choose to ignore it, but we have to at least be proactive by putting the policy in place.”

Specifically, the new regulations stipulate that all such parties provide written notification to the school’s compliance office within 24 hours of their involvement with a sports agency or similar marketing agency.

Those found to be in violation of the policy would then be subject to remedial action and/or discipline, according to the release.

Essentially, all this “Athletes and Agents” policy does is attempt to deflect blame away from the Trojans if and when more violations surface. “Hey man, we told them not to talk to agents and they said they’d totally tell us if they do. What more can we do?” C’mon, the school replaced football coach Pete Carroll, who jumped ship when heavy-duty sanctions were handed out, with Lane Kiffin.

Lane freakin’ Kiffin — that bastion of coaching integrity. USC didn’t exactly clean up the program with that hire.

Student-athletes are forced to sit down with school compliance officials multiple times a year and learn in excruciating detail about virtually anything and everything that could jeopardize their amateur status and violate NCAA regulations. The ones who accept money and gifts from boosters or meet with agents before deciding to go pro know what they’re doing — and that it’s wrong.

(We’ll save the debate about whether student-athletes should be paid for another time.)

Sure, Athletic Departments have some incentive to self-report violations to the NCAA when it’s obvious the NCAA is going to find out down the road anyway. But why in the world would a student-athlete report talking with an agent?

What sort of professional contract is an agent going to be able to net for a student-athletes who can’t play his sport because he spoke with an agent? If they’re going to get busted, they’ll get busted but don’t expect student-athletes to voluntarily fork over cash and get themselves suspended.

What USC’s policy boils down to is “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the athletic department. But hey, that kept all the gays out of the military right?

Bart Logan: Sports Masochist

Ask any good Cleveland sports fan about their most memorable professional sports moment. If they’re under the age of 46, you can probably prepare yourself for their answer by watching something upbeat, you know, like Schindler’s List.

They’re going to tell you about The Drive, The Fumble, Red Right 88, The Move, Game Seven, The 2007 ALCS and of course the most recent addition to the Cleveland curse hierarchy — The Decision.

Cheering for Cleveland sports a lot like the 4-H livestock auction at the county fair.

A kid raises an animal — let’s say a lamb — from the time it was an infant. The kid cares for it and cherishes it much like a pet, but doesn’t really getting much in return. It’s a labor of love.

Then when that proud moment arrives and the kid can show off his lamb to the rest of the public there’s a sick cruel twist — they’re bidding on it to eat it. At least with the 4-H auction they don’t slaughter the lamb right in front of the kid.

With the globalization of the sport everyone else calls “football” I naturally had to adopt a team. I chose Newcastle United because A) my dad got one of their jerseys (“kits” as the Brits say) when he was across the pond and brought it home for me B) they were a proud English club with a devoted fan base and rich history and C) they weren’t one of the “Big Four” that won by simply outspending the other clubs.

Coincidentally, Newcastle also had not won a single trophy since 1969 — not a domestic trophy since 1955.

In other words, I chose the Cleveland sports equivalent of the Barclay’s Premier League. Today was The Decision on the Tyneside.

With just seven hours remaining in the January transfer window, one of two opportunities during the year that teams can bid on players to add to their roster, Newcastle accepted a $56 million bid for from Liverpool for local star Andy Carroll.

Carroll, a 22-year-old striker, is among the leading scorers in the Premier League. He came up through the Newcastle system and had expressed on numerous occasions that he wanted to remain at his hometown club for life.

Then apparently, he decided he liked the ridiculous wages Liverpool were offering and owner Mike Ashley (a complete knit wit that is not fit to run a club) ‘reluctantly’ accepted the bid (tin foil hat on).

The Magpies just lost their leading scorer — a player to build the club around, an England International — and were left with no time, or negotiating power, to bring in anything resembling a feasible replacement.

You see it, right?

God just doesn’t want me to be happy, I figured. He doesn’t ever want me to be able to cheer for a winner. He takes pleasure in building up my hopes only to tear me down again. And again.

Then I realized the difference — I didn’t really choose to love Cleveland sports. My family was from the area and had always loved Cleveland sports, and therefore I adopted that love. But even my old man had the brains to adopt big club (Chelsea) when he jumped on the European Football bandwagon. But not me.

No I chose Newcastle — a club rich in history, but of late the butt-end of every Premier League joke. One that was relegated two years ago, but returned to top flight this season and boasted one of the most exciting young players in the game.

No they weren’t going to break into the top four just yet, but they were making stride. Europe couldn’t be that far down the road. Maybe they could make a cheeky run at the Carling or FA Cups next season? With Andy Carroll, a No. 9 ready to take his place among the Newcastle legends, there was finally room to be optimistic.

I should’ve known better. But, it wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t know what to do — wouldn’t know how to gloat — if I could cheer for a winner (Ed Note: I am an Ohio State fan. They have been relatively successful of late but I’m talking professional sports).

Luckily I don’t have to worry about that problem. I set myself up to be knocked right back down. I am Bart Logan: Sports Masochist.