Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Trip to the playoffs would suit Howson



Today is the trade deadline in the National Hockey League and for the first time in NHL history all eyes are on... Columbus. Yes, Columbus, Ohio will be front and center today as General Manager Scott Howson attempts to manoeuvre the Blue Jackets into the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Nationwide Arena has been silent each Spring since their arrival in the league but this season could see the lights stay on as Columbus fights through the ever-tightening standings in the Western Conference.

Almost buyers at last year's deadline, a late February losing streak led to another fourth place finish in the Central Division. This season, Columbus is 6th in the West at the deadline with a 32-26-6 win/loss record but they are not in the clear; St.Louis sits in 12th place in the West only 6 points back of the Blue Jackets. If Columbus are to hold on to their playoff spot, they will need to add scoring help. They rank 20th in the league in goals for and are 30th in the NHL on the powerplay at 12.4%.

After going 0-13 on the powerplay on their recent 3 game Canadian road trip, Coach Ken Hitchcock told Tom Reed of the Columbus Dispatch, "If you want to reach your goal at this time of year, you have to play with that sense of urgency and aggression. The temperature is going up and there is a competitive price to pay."

The temperature will keep rising after deadline day as the Jackets play Nashville, Detroit (twice), Boston, Pittsburgh and Chicago (twice) in the next two weeks. Team Captain Rick Nash is leading the way with 27 goals and 60 points, but the former Rocket Richard Trophy winner needs some help. Calgary cast-off Kristian Huselius is second in team scoring (18-26-44 ) and former Flyer R.J. Umberger is third with 35 points (21 goals - 14 assists). While not an offensive threat, left winger Jason Chimera is now out 4-5 weeks with a groin injury. The news is currently breaking that Antoine Vermette is on his way from Ottawa in exchange for Pascal Leclaire. Vermette has struggled this season for the Senators (9 goals - 19 assists) but he has the speed and skating skills to get open and he ranks 4th in the NHL for face-off winning percentage. A struggling power play will be helped by Vermette's ability to gain possession of the puck for his team. He is not the final piece to the puzzle but he should be a good top six forward for the Jackets.

Leclaire is out for the season with an ankle injury and became expendable with the emergence of rookie goalie Steve Mason. The Oakville, Ontario native has surprised many NHL observers as the former London Knight and Kitchener Ranger claimed the number one spot in Columbus with his outstanding play. A Gold Medal winner at the World Junior Championship in 2008, the third round pick (69th overall in 2006) has played like an NHL veteran, posting a 25-15-3 record. His 2.20 goals against average is second in the NHL and his .918 save percentage ranks tenth. He leads the league with 8 shutouts so far this season, which helps an offensively challenged team like the Jackets. The only question facing Columbus and Mason, can he withstand the rigours of the NHL's 82 game schedule? More offensive help will certainly ease the burden on the young net minder.

It is 10:00 am here in Toronto and with the addition of Vermette, Howson has helped his team but he needs to add more. A puck moving D-man and another top six forward will help the Columbus playoff puzzle become a clearer picture. It should make for an interesting afternoon. Have a great sports day everyone.

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