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Friday, November 4, 2011
Not even a miracle could save Blue Jackets

By Scott Burnside

As the NHL approaches the one-month mark, the bitter, galling truth for the Columbus Blue Jackets is this: No matter who gets pushed over the side, no matter who falls on the proverbial sword, whether it’s today, tomorrow or next week, this season is lost.

Not even a month into the season, the Blue Jackets have stumbled and bumbled their way not just out of a shot at the playoffs but out of relevance. Shocking, really, how quickly this team has imploded, how quickly it has managed to suck the air out of a market that was already gasping for breath, having endured a full decade of NHL play without having seen the home side win one single playoff game.
Scott Arniel
The Blue Jackets miserable season goes well beyond head coach Scott Arniel, but the bloodletting might begin with him.


Oh wait, you say -- Columbus has played only 13 games. There are 69 games left. Lots of time to turn it around.

Perhaps if this were the Washington Capitals.

The Caps fired Glen Hanlon just before Thanksgiving of 2007, and they went from last place to a Southeast Division crown and the playoffs.

If the Blue Jackets engineered a trade for Alexander Ovechkin, et al, perhaps the same miracle turnaround would be possible in Columbus.

But that’s not going to happen.

Last season, Dallas missed the playoffs with 95 points, and several GMs have told ESPN.com they believe it will take at least that many points this season to get into the playoff dance.

Can the Blue Jackets rise up and collect 90 or more points in their next 69 games?

Could they go, for instance, 42-21-6, which would put them at 95 points?

Simply not going to happen.

The Blue Jackets are by far the worst team in the NHL.

They are bad from top to bottom, from bottom to top.

Steve Mason -- remember him? The Vezina Trophy nominee and 2008-09 rookie of the year winner was yanked Thursday night after giving up four goals on 11 shots as the Blue Jackets became the first team to reach the 10-loss mark, falling 4-1 to Toronto. The Leafs, by the way, iced a netminder named Ben Scrivens who was appearing in his first-ever NHL game and is somewhere around third on the team’s goaltending depth chart.

Mason is now 2-9-1 with a 3.36 GAA and .880 save percentage and unquestionably the worst starting goalie in the league. Last year, at least Mathieu Garon provided some stability when Mason went sideways, which was regularly. This year? There’s no safety net for the foundering netminder -- or his team.

The Blue Jackets’ miserable 2-10-1 start isn’t all Mason’s fault, obviously.

The Blue Jackets are 24th in goals per game. Their power play ranks 28th, and they are one of only three teams whose efficiency with the man advantage is below 10 percent.

They are 0-8-1 when they give up the first goal and have been outscored almost 2-to-1 in the first period (15-8). Does that suggest a team that comes ready to play every night? How about any night?

Well, at least they finish strong, right? Uh, no. The Blue Jackets have been outscored 17-9 in the third period, the second-most goals allowed in the final frame. In short, the Blue Jackets start poorly and finish worse.

The path of least resistance is, of course, to fire coach Scott Arniel.

His team finished last season with just one win in its last 11 contests and now have managed just two wins in 13 to start this season.

Former coach Ken Hitchcock, who guided the Blue Jackets to their only playoff appearance in 2009, is still under contract and could be reinstalled as head coach, whether he truly wants the job or not.

At this stage, could Hitchcock do any worse? No.

But if anyone thinks this is strictly a coaching issue, they haven’t looked closely at the way this team is constructed, and those issues fall at the feet of GM Scott Howson and his staff.

Offseason moves to acquire Jeff Carter (and his whopper 11-year, $58 million contract) and sign free agent defenseman James Wisniewski (an obscene six-year, $33 million pact) were characterized as bold at the time, but now smell of desperation.

Carter is out with a broken foot and had zero goals and just three assists in five games before going down.

Wisniewski’s impulsive preseason behavior earned him a suspension for the team’s first eight games. He has four assists in five games since joining the team, and even though he’s playing a ton, is he really the cornerstone of a playoff team’s blue line?

There are other serious flaws with how this team is built.

Mason has another year on his contract at $2.9 million.

Antoine Vermette is owed $3.75 million annually until the end of the 2014-15 season and has yet to score this season. He scored 19 times last season, down from 27 the year before.

Derick Brassard, the sixth overall pick in 2006, makes $3.2 million annually and has three points and is minus-8 while averaging 14:30 a night in ice time.

Want more?

Defenseman Marc Methot will make $3 million per year for three more years after this season. He has zero points in six games and has been out with a thumb injury.

If there it is a bright spot this season, it is center Ryan Johansen, who scored the game-winning goal in both Columbus victories.

Still, the fourth overall pick in 2010 is playing just 11:47 a night, and several NHL sources expressed dismay to ESPN.com that he was kept with the big club instead of being returned to junior, thus burning the first year of his entry-level contract.

If adversity builds character, Johansen is in the right place, that’s for sure.

The current issues have been exacerbated by the failure to identify and develop properly. The team is still paying dearly for the debacle of the 2008 draft, when the Blue Jackets took Nikita Filatov with the sixth overall pick. Filatov was an unmitigated disaster and is now playing for Ottawa’s AHL team. Would the Blue Jackets have needed to overpay for Wisniewski had they not squandered the Filatov pick and instead drafted defenseman Tyler Myers, who won a Calder Trophy for Buffalo? Or Erik Karlsson, who leads all defensemen in scoring so far this season for the Senators? Or John Carlson, who is a mainstay on the Washington Capitals’ blue line?

In the coming days, ownership will have to come to the stark reality -- if it already hasn’t -- that this team is a million miles from being a playoff team, let alone a contender.

The players who have been identified as the core building blocks of the team have clearly been misidentified.

That means a painful deconstruct, starting at the top.

Does it matter whether such a deconstruct starts now or at the end of the season?

Not really.

To appease fans, it appears someone will have to go, whether it’s right after Saturday’s game at Philadelphia or sometime next week before the team's next game (at home against Chicago on Thursday).

If it’s Arniel, fair enough, but if that’s where the bloodletting begins, ownership has a duty to ensure that it doesn’t end there because, really, that’s the easy part.

The hard part will be in finding someone who, for the first time in franchise history, can put this team on the right track in terms of assembling and developing personnel. Then the Blue Jackets must find a coach who can work with that person. Then they must start to undo the wreckage that is the team as it currently stands.

One thing remains certain: The dark days that have enveloped the Columbus Blue Jackets aren’t anywhere near being over, no matter who stays or who goes in the coming days or weeks.