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All-Star game a distraction from Blue Jackets’ problems

Courtesy of MCT

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In case you haven’t noticed, the Columbus Blue Jackets are downright awful. Awful might not even be a strong enough adjective.

At the All-Star break, the Jackets have played 49 games and have accumulated 32 points. That’s good for dead last in the league.

It’s nine points less than the Edmonton Oilers who reside in 29th place. Within the tightly-contested Central Division of the Western Conference, arguably the best division in the National Hockey League this year, Columbus is 32 points out of fourth place.

They have a whopping minus 48 goal differential. The Tampa Bay Lightning has given up 165 goals and is the only team to have given up more goals this year than the Jackets’ 163 goals against.

Goalie Steve Mason has been the brunt of much of the criticism this season. He has only five wins in 26 appearances this season, posting subpar numbers in both goals-against-average and save percentage. He ranks last in the league with a .882 save percentage and second to last with a GAA of 3.43. Not exactly the kind of numbers a franchise goalie is supposed to post. Mason does rank first in one particular stat category, and that’s losses.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what has gone wrong for Mason. After winning the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in 2009, many thought the Jackets had found their net-minder of the future. But since his Calder-winning season, Mason’s numbers have steadily been on the decline.

It’s becoming more and more obvious every day that it’s time to part ways with Mason. But it won’t be an easy task as Mason has a $2.9 million cap hit until the end of the 2013 season and teams aren’t likely to take on that sort of contract for a player with such poor results.

I’m still on the fence as to whether or not Mason can be a successful NHL goalie, but if it does happen, it sure won’t happen with the Jackets.

Don’t misunderstand this point. I’m not arguing that Mason is the sole reason the Jackets are struggling this year, he’s merely one of many issues within the team.

The Jackets are in an interesting financial situation. They rank 12th in total spending toward the salary cap, but you wouldn’t think so when you look at their roster. The team is in the precarious position of having to overpay players to come to Columbus.

Look no further than James Wisniewski. Wisniewski, after having his rights traded to the Jackets for a seventh-round pick, signed a six-year deal in the offseason worth a staggering $33 million. That’s the kind of money you give to someone who is expected to be one of your top two defensemen.

While Wisniewski might be a No. 1 or 2 defenseman on the Jackets, that doesn’t say much.

After posting a career-high 51 points last year after spending the season with the Montreal Canadiens and New York Islanders, it was fairly obvious that Wisniewski was in line for a raise. And boy, did the Jackets take the bait.

In my eyes Wisniewski has two faults that should have been immediate red flags.

First, Wisniewski has a penchant for getting himself into trouble with the league. Last season, he was suspended two games for a tongue-in-cheek gesture that was caught on live television. The prior season he was suspended eight games for a high hit on one of his former teammates. These incidents were all prior to him being suspended for the first eight games of this season following an incident in a preseason game.

The second problem I see with the Wisniewski signing is that he doesn’t really excel in the defensive aspect of being a defenseman. He has a minus-18 plus/minus rating going so far this season. Throwing that kind of money at someone who is a defensive liability is a recipe for disaster.

The worst part about this is that I consider myself a Wisniewski fan. I love the style of game he plays; he’s just not someone you build a defense corps around.

With the Jackets primed to get the first overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, even though nothing they do can guarantee the pick, the so-called “Fail for Nail” campaign has begun to land 18-year-old superstar-in-the-making Nail Yakupov from the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League.

I hate this for two reasons.

First of all, if you pronounce Yakupov’s first name properly, the “Fail for Nail” campaign would read like something closer to “File for Nile.” It just doesn’t quite have the ring to it that “Suck for Luck” campaign, which NFL teams adopted as their postseason hopes slipped away and fans rallied behind college football star Andrew Luck.

Secondly, one player, particularly a winger, cannot carry an entire franchise. Rick Nash, while a truly great talent, hasn’t been able to lead the team to success. Success starts around a No. 1 center man and without one, the Jackets aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

That being said, it might be hard to pass up someone with such tantalizing skill as Yakupov, who with 101 points last year broke Steven Stamkos’ rookie record of 92 points. If I was the Jackets, I would think long and hard before drafting Yakupov.

Perhaps my favorite Jackets plot line this year has to be the actions of Blue Jackets majority-owner John P. McConnell.

On Friday, McConnell sent an email to Blue Jackets fans apologizing for the state of the franchise.

“Our goal as an organization is to build a team that wins consistently and competes for the Stanley Cup. Anything less is unacceptable!” McConnell said in the email. “Everything we do in the coming weeks, months and years will be done to that end and everyone in our organization — myself, management, staff, coaches and players — will be held to that standard.”

Good to know that the organization wants to win a Stanley Cup. For a while there, I wasn’t convinced that was the team’s focus.

But hey, McConnell’s heartfelt apology seems to have caused NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to take pity on the franchise.

Bettman awarded the franchise the 2013 NHL All-Star Celebration during his annual All-Star weekend address in Ottawa, Ontario, on Saturday. It comes as a small consolation to those Blue Jackets fans who have stuck with the franchise from the very beginning.

“The Blue Jackets did a terrific job of hosting the NHL draft in 2007 and we have no doubt that we’ll have a good time there, with the All-Star game,” Bettman said in his address.

The event will be great for the city, but it just distracts from the problem that is the Columbus Blue Jackets.

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