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CBJ 2013 Image

This is a slightly less straightforward CBJ 2013 Review article, so I hope you’ll allow me to develop this a bit. In the previous two posts, I reflected on who I thought was the team’s most valuable player, and which forwards were best for the Jackets. Today I’d like to consider something less definitive, but something that inspires me to follow the team ever closer in the next few years.

In a way, it all starts with the trade of Rick Nash. That move was a complex issue for me and something I tackled at the time. In short, Nash is (present tense) my favorite player and it was a shame to see that kind of scoring skill leave the team, but the return was good (and you’ll note Dubinsky in particular lived up to expectations for me). On the surface, things weren’t perfect but they were respectable.

However, the philosophical change troubled me more and more as the season progressed. The new mantra was (seemingly) that no one player would stand above the others, that the scoring would no longer flow through a single source. While many took this as the club turning a new leaf, the dispersion of goal responsibility was very worrisome to me. The team had suddenly become a squad of third liners with the occasional second liner and a few down-the-road performers (Johansen, Atkinson, Jenner).

As I’ve discussed, recent teams tend to be more successful with “star” skill players. And this meshes well with the facts of shot differential: good players can drive play forward and generate the kind of chances that result in more winning. Furthermore, top players create success throughout the lineup, drawing top opposition and winning those battles (success in puck possession), thus leaving those below them on the depth chart to face weaker competition.

Unfortunately, the reality of this trickle-down effect was felt during the season for Columbus. There were no clearly defined threats on the CBJ squad, and the spread of opposition assignments was fairly narrow from forward-to-forward. Foligno and Dorsett ultimately saw the toughest competition while MacKenzie, Gillies, and Boll saw the weakest… but those last three were barely-used fourth liners so their opposition were similar last-bit-of-the-depth-chart players. Everybody else? Tightly packed.

When the top goal scorers are Prospal and Letestu, it’s not shocking. And even the top possession-drivers couldn’t flip it all on their own. Even their injuries, Dubinsky is only a career 9.1% shooter, Atkinson a 10.2%. There wasn’t a potent star skill shooter to pick up the slack and draw the Shea Webers of the world. The team was muddling about like the Nashville Predators, and not in a good way.

By nabbing Marian Gaborik at the trade deadline, new general manager Jarmo Kekalainen showed that the late-period moves from the former hockey-head wouldn’t stand. Skill would be welcomed and needed in Columbus. Gaborik is essentially the replacement Rick Nash, and I love it.

Great shooting percentage? 13.0% for his career, check. Big salary? $7.5 million cap hit, check. And quite frankly, both are reasonable things here. High skill players are crucial and are accordingly not cheap. Columbus was in desperate, helpless need of skill and now (even with age impacting Gaborik) they have arguably the second best forward in franchise history on the team.

This move tells me that Kekalainen wants the team to have top talent, wants the team to succeed, wants the franchise to win. Philosophically for me, winning in hockey does not come merely from hard work. It comes from high skill that can be coaxed into working hard enough to beat everybody else. Gaborik can drive play and can shoot a puck like few others in the NHL. It’s a potent combination.

Getting Gaborik is the most visible change in philosophy for Columbus, but it reflects the ideology set forth by John Davidson and the draft style established by Kekalainen in St. Louis. If the idea is “brick by brick” this is a great way to improve the offense, a part of the metaphorical building that needed some serious fixing. But it’s also worth noting that this is a reasonably high quality brick, and not likely to be one that needs to be knocked out of the foundation in the next few years.

Similarly, Jarmo Kekalainen has been known for his great draft powers with the Blues (s/t to @RockmanHalo for pointing me at that great article), often going for the “best player available.” St. Louis authors at SB Nation and Hockey Buzz (I know, I know, but it’s not actually Eklund) have chronicled the work done under Kekalainen’s reign as head scout with the Blues and it’s impressive with a clear focus on drafting talented players. Paired with Doug Armstrong’s overall management work, the BPA option has blossomed into a powerful St. Louis squad.

So in acquiring Marian Gaborik for a fairly reasonable price, the first serious moves toward skill, the best player available, and getting the best team possible can be seen laid out in front of us. This is no longer a Columbus team that will give strange values to talent or create an identity of only hard work. This is a club that is moving forward because the talent will be built, because top skill will be treasured even if it means a fourth liner looks a bit “worse” by comparison. Winning is the goal.

Getting Gaborik is a glorious initial move and one that I can’t help but get excited about. The Blue Jackets are changing, and this time it’s definitively for the better.

Gaborik celebrates in photo via The Star, Mark Humphery/AP

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