Warren: Bad to worse for the NHL’s most hapless franchise

Way back in 2000, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild entered the National Hockey League together, as expansion cousins.

Way back in 2000, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild entered the National Hockey League together, as expansion cousins.

Come Independence Day 2012, however, the differences between the franchises couldn’t be more apparent.

While Wild fans were rejoicing the biggest signings in franchise history — the $196 million daily double that has brought both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to Minnesota — it was yet another day for Blue Jackets fans to wait and wonder when Rick Nash, their all-time leading scorer and all-time best player, would finally be traded away.

Pity the poor Blue Jacket fan. There has been but one winning regular season among the first 11. The one playoff appearance ended in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings, their divisional and geographical rival.

The cycle continues year after year, with bad drafting and questionable signings conspiring to keep the Blue Jackets at or near the league’s basement. Star power has been minimal. If you knew that David Vyborny is the second-leading scorer in Blue Jackets history, consider yourself a trivia expert.

The insults are getting louder. Former NHL coach Marc Crawford, serving as a TSN panellist when free agency opened on Canada Day, opined that Russian winger Alexander Semin will “be banished to a place like Columbus or something like that, and that’s what those guys do. They head to the island of misfit toys.”

And now Nash appears to hold many of the cards on where the franchise goes from here, sticking to his preferred wish list of teams he’s willing to play for.

We all know he has no interest in joining the Senators. It’s possible the signings of Parise and Suter will put more meat on some of the offers Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson has already received from the teams which are in the running, but in general terms, the longer stalemates like this go on, the worse it becomes for the team. The pressure to do something, anything, mounts. Fans grow anxious, uncertain about the future. We experienced a similar long summer a few years back when Dany Heatley wanted out and was in position to pick his place.

Facing direct competition with Ohio State University football, the Blue Jackets are in a tough fight to stay relevant and keep a dwindling fan base happy.

It wasn’t always that way. Former Blue Jackets and Senators goaltender Ron Tugnutt remembers the honeymoon period when he was a poster child for the “fresh and fun” franchise, which produced a surprisingly strong record of 28-39-9-6 record in its first season, flirting with a playoff spot for awhile.

“Expansion teams don’t have to win, everyone is just excited,” said Tugnutt, who won 22 games for that 2000-01 Blue Jackets team and now serves as goaltending coach for Canada’s national junior team. “If you look at expansion teams over the years, a lot of them do reasonably well in the first two years, but it’s about taking that next step.”

It’s no great secret that the Blue Jackets haven’t capitalized on the draft. Nash is the only big success story. The club’s early first round picks have included Rostislav Klesla, Pascal Leclaire, Nikolai Zherdev, Alexandre Picard, Gilbert Brule, Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek and Nikita Filatov.

Some of them were rushed too soon, some of them clashed with coaches and some didn’t develop. In 2011, the Blue Jackets changed tact, trading their eighth overall pick to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Jeff Carter. The hopes of throwing money around as a quick fix — James Wisniewski was also signed as a free agent — blew up in a hurry, with Carter ultimately traded to the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.

Two weeks ago, they selected promising defenceman Ryan Murray second overall in the 2012 draft.

Tugnutt saw first hand what a succession of great draft picks can do to make a team competitive. He broke into the NHL with the Quebec Nordiques in the late 1980s. In consecutive drafts from 1989-1991, the Nordiques drafted Owen Nolan, Mats Sundin and Eric Lindros, later dealing Lindros for the package which included the rights to Peter Forsberg. The franchise, which moved to Colorado, won a pair of Stanley Cup titles.

“You’ve got to have patience, put trust in your players and do everything you can to develop them into players. Your GM, your coach, your scouts, that’s what it’s about. You’ve got to be solid from top to bottom and all be on the same page. If you look at Nashville, that’s a successful team, because (young) players know they’re going to the minors to learn all the (organization’s) systems.”

Tugnutt suggests that a tandem of GM Pierre Gauthier and coach Jacques Martin — both fired by the Montreal Canadiens last season — might be the right tonic to turn around the Blue Jackets organization, considering they’ve had success with a back-to-basics approach in the past, allowing young players to mature.

The idea is a tad controversial, considering how toxic the Canadiens environment was in 2011-12, but it might give Columbus fans something to think about as they wait for the other skate to drop in the ongoing Nash saga.

Twitter.com/Citizenkwarren

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