A look at the structure of hockey's worst teams
The worst team this year in the entire league is the Columbus Blue Jackets, though the roster would say otherwise. It’s strange how the Blue Jackets reached this point. A few years ago the Blue Jackets were waiting on Pascal Leclaire to be the latest French-Canadian goalie to become a franchise cornerstone, Nikolai Zherdev to be Pavel Bure 2.0, and for their first postseason appearance to no longer be considered an aberration. And while Leclaire never panned out, Steve Mason won the Calder Trophy after posting an absurd ten shutouts, yet promptly won the Andrew Raycroft award for worst letdown after a promising rookie season, Nikolai Zherdev was shipped to the Rangers for Fedor Tyutin, a trade that on paper has gone the Blue Jackets way, but in reality is just a softening of a disappointment. Zherdev was taken fourth overall in the 2003 draft, meaning the expectations of either having Zherdev of Rick Nash play together, or forty minutes of the threat of a goal being scored at anytime, was traded for an above average defenseman.
This year things were supposed to look up for the Blue Jackets. Even with Steven Mason not playing to his rookie form, it should have been all right. After all, if any fan has learned, you can win without having a true stud goalie, as Antti Niemi and Chris Osgood can tell you. So, even if Mason stayed true to his aggregate numbers of his last two years, the team was supposed to have enough talent to hold its own in the tough Western Conference.
The moves that were supposed to make Columbus a playoff team were big ones, Jeff Carter, an actual center to get Rick Nash the puck (meaning Nash would no longer have to be miscast as a center), James Wisniwski, the big shot that could move defenseman Fedor Tyutin to the off point on the power play, making them one of few teams that could have two puck moving defensemen on the power play, or, let Tyutin run the main point on their second power play unit. This was supposed to add to a core that already had RJ Umberger and Antoine Vermette.
Just under a third into the season, the Blue Jackets are well on their way to having to consider trading Jeff Carter. Carter has a no trade clause starting next year, extending all the way to 2022. The overpaid Marc Methot has been invisible on defense and a liability on offense. Wisniwski, has also been a defensive liability, and the trade of Kris Russell to St. Louis for Nikiti Nikitin has been a one-sided deal in the favor of the Blues. Normally steady contributor RJ Umberger has been a non-factor on offense this season, and Antoine Vermette has been surprisingly quiet this year.
What makes the situation strange in Columbus is the fact that Umberger, Vermette, Nash and Carter, and Wisniwski are all signed to long-term deals. The rest of the season will be management’s choice of viewing this as the core to a contender, or the trading chips to what now is seemingly an ongoing rebuilding project. Normally, you would expect a progression to the mean with these players, meaning normally these players should perform better, and in turn be able to contribute more and make Columbus a significantly better team. But going that way, means that it will take subtle trades that steadily improve the team, and a willingness to possibly eat small and mid-level contracts by sending them to the minors.
On the west coast, one team is challenging the Blue Jackets in the “I can’t believe they’re this bad department (The 2011 Philadelphia Eagles Award).” The Anaheim Ducks, once a cup contender, now must be wondering if Guy Hebert, Fredrik Olausson and Steve Rucchin are in skating shape. The roster is a combination of underperforming stars, and horrendous role players. Example? Andrew Gordon and Brandon McMillan have combined for five points, and we’re not talking two guys who are going to be Selke trophy contenders, nor players that would be Anaheim’s answer to Chris Neil. As for goalie Jonas Hiller, waiving Bryzgalov, re-signing Jean-Sebastian Giguere, and eventually going with Jonas Hiller, at least this season, looks like the kind of move that gets a GM fired. Hiller has been downright terrible this year. His save percentage is neatly twenty points lower that his career average. Francois Beauchemin has been the best defensive defenseman in Anaheim, a fact made worse that at least on paper, he is supposed to be an offensive defenseman (he hasn’t been the same since his stint in Toronto).
Bobby Ryan, the next Mike Modano last year, has been penning the first chapter on his tribute to Jimmy Carson’s legacy. Teemu Salanne, the most talented player on the Mighty Ducks 15 years ago, is still the most talented player on the current incarnation of the team. Corey Perry has been nearly his usual self this year, but even Ryan Getzlaf hasn’t been the same player. It seems to be a team that could use an infusion of talent, perhaps 2009 first round pick Kyle Palmieri is ready to make a jump to the NHL after being the top scorer for the Ducks minor league affiliate.
The New York Islanders tried spending money a few years ago, at one point they made a run at being the best team in the New York region, really. And believe it or not, a decade ago, the Islanders were a stacked, albeit underachieving team. Alexei Yashin and Mike Peca were two centers in the prime of their careers; Mark Parrish was an up and coming forward, destined to a career of cashing in feeds from Yashin. Roman Hamrlik, Kenny Jonsson, and Adrian Aucoin were all either 27 or 28 years old. The Islanders had claimed Chris Osgood off of waivers from Detroit, since the Red Wings decided to get in touch with their Bourgeois side and signed Dominik Hasek. A decade ago, things were looking good for the Islanders. They were one key move, perhaps one right coach, one lucky bounce, or maybe one less Darcy Tucker hit away from being a team poised to make a deep playoff run. Fast forward a decade later and the Islanders are a team with an unstable future, both as a franchise, and the team itself. The Islanders laid their own bed with the state of the team, with a decade of first round flops. Starting in 2000, with the drafting of Rick DiPietro first overall, whose injury history would not fit into one column, they also whiffed that year with Raffi Torres drafted fifth overall, who was flipped for Janne Niinimaa. Players like Sean Bergenheim, Robert Nilsson, Petteri Nokelainen, Ryan O'Marra, who are now gone from the organization, never made an impact, and were not involved with trades that brought back a substantial bounty. Recent top prospects Josh Bailey, and Kyle Okposo have yet to put up the numbers to be placed in the elite category that John Tavares has joined. Former castoffs Matt Moulson and P.A. Parenteau, are currently the top performers after Tavares. The team is young, but until the top draft picks play to their lofty expectations, the Islanders will be the punching bag of the Atlantic Division.
The final team in the basement is the Carolina Hurricanes. For the first time, questions have to be raised about team captain and face of the franchise Eric Staal. Staal was handed the Hurricane captaincy following a line of truly elite former captains; Rod Brind’Amour, Ron Francis, and Keith Primeau. The problem is that he isn’t the only underperforming Hurricane. The problem is that without spending on quality players, the Hurricanes are wasting the prime of Eric Staal’s career, and risk losing Jeff Skinner to a real hockey market. It seems like forever ago, rather than a mere six years since the Hurricanes beat the Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup. However, that team was a collection of veterans trying to win a cup, rather than a mix of young players, and has-beens. A blowup, a big one, is needed for this franchise.
The salary cap in the NHL affords teams the opportunities to repackage themselves as contenders faster than they ever have. It has worked in the NFL, and should work in the NHL. What really works for these teams are the ever-growing hockey programs around the world adding to the talent pool to select from at the top of the NHL draft. They only have to look to the Pittsburgh Penguins who took years of losing and turned those draft picks into the core of a perennial contender, even without Sidney Crosby in the lineup.