NHL Entry Draft: And The Columbus Blue Jackets Select…

After making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history in 2009, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ 2009-10 season was anything but impressive. In fact, with a 32-35-15 record, the Blue Jackets’ season was simply pathetic.

Goaltender Steve Mason had a sophomore slump for the ages, head coach Ken Hitchcock was relieved of his duties and GM Scott Howson could do nothing but watch his team sink to the bottom of the standings.

But their performance this year should not be cause for great alarm, as there is a bit of optimism that comes out of the Columbus organization this year. The Jackets had a fair amount of depth, as they had five players with at least 50 points – Rick Nash (67), Antoine Vermette (65), Kristian Huselius (63), RJ Umberger (55) and Jakub Voracek (50).

Their biggest problem, though, came on the defensive side of the puck. Only two full time forwards had a positive plus/minus rating (Vermette and Derek Dorsett) while only one defenseman had a plus/minus rating above zero (Kris Russell). The Blue Jackets lacked a shutdown defenseman that many successful teams own.

The Jackets’ 259 goals against this season ranks second worst in the Western Conference and by far the worst in the Central Division. Their minus-43 goal differential is also the second worst in the West, behind the Edmonton Oilers.

With left wingers Nikita Filatov, Maksim Mayorov, Matt Calvert and Tom Sestito coming up from the bottom of the organization, their depth on the left side should increase, but with only John Moore being a prospective NHLer in the future, their future on the blue line looks very weak.

Picking fourth overall, the Blue Jackets have two main options, without going off the board; right winter Brett Connolly from Prince George (WHL) and defenseman Erik Gudbranson of Kingston (OHL).

Connolly, though being injured for the majority of this season, has been said to be not too far behind Tyler Seguin and Taylor Hall, the consensus top two picks this year. He won the 2009 CHL Rookie of the Year award and was on pace for great numbers when he got injured in game 16 this year.

“He puts the puck in the net, he’s got good size, great on-ice awareness,” one scout said to NHL.com. “He’s not a crasher or a banger, but he finishes his checks. He does everything well.”

Gudbranson, on the other hand, was ranked higher than Cam Fowler by NHL Central Scouting. Named the captain of his team in his rookie season, Gudbranson was a dominant force on the blue line – a player that caused opposing forwards to think twice before trying to skate by him.

“There’s no mistaking his physical presence on the ice,” a scout said to NHL.com. “He’s tough in front, tough along the boards, finishes checks with authority.”

Both Gudbranson and Connolly are top-notch talents. If Howson is looking for a quick fix to his franchise, then the choice might by Connolly, since he may be able to step in right away. But if he and the owners are willing to be patient, Gudbranson may turn out to be a mixture of Dion Phaneuf and Scott Niedermeyer.

Though jobs may be in jeopardy, Howson will make the correct decision for the good of his hockey club and will announce the following on draft day in Los Angeles:

“With the fourth pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, the Columbus Blue Jackets select Erik Gudbranson.”

Alan Bass is a writer for The Hockey News and THN.com. In addition to writing for Inside Hockey and Pro Hockey News, he has also worked for the Philadelphia Flyers. He is the General Manager of the Muhlenberg College hockey team as well. You can contact him atBergHockey24@gmail.com.

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