Friday October 31st, 2008

Desperation is the raw material of drastic change. And Thursday night's 4-2 win over the Avalanche notwithstanding, Ken Hitchcock is feeling his collar tighten.

Just 10 games into a new season ripe with expectations, the Blue Jackets coach has come to grips with the obvious: he has a big hole in the middle of his lineup.

The goal-less R.J. Umberger isn't cut out for the No. 1 center role that was envisioned for him when he signed that whopper of a contract (four years at a cool $15 million) this summer. Grinders Manny Malhotra and Jiri Novotny have, not surprisingly, flopped in relief. And as Thursday night's experiment in role-shifting demonstrated, Rick Nash can't be shoehorned into the slot either.

Yanking the superstar out of his comfort zone was as much a ploy to get Nash more involved in the flow as an effort to address the center issue. Either way, it didn't work. Frustratingly inconsistent over the past four games, the captain looked sluggish and uncomfortable rather than motivated, doing little to answer the challenge before being shuttled back to the wing after a handful of shifts.

With nothing being generated by the top line, Columbus was primed for a fourth straight loss. Fortunately, they caught a break when the Avalanche decided to start Andrew Raycroft. While the victory had to lighten the atmosphere around the room, no one should mistake it for a righting of the ship. A better effort to be sure, but the Jackets were the beneficiaries of the generous Mr. Raycroft. The Avalanche backup fumbled away a quartet of softies, giving Columbus a big cushion with which to work before he was yanked after the second period.

Here's a better indication of the action: Outshot 32-17 -- including 14-3 in the third -- this was a game the Jackets likely would have lost had they faced an NHL goalie for 60 minutes.

Afterwards, Hitchcock defended his troops by suggesting their 4-6 start isn't indicative of their play. That's nice, but last check revealed that it's still a team's record that decides whether it makes the playoffs. Those two points count, and that's huge for a team that has trouble picking them up. But the Jackets have to address the elephant in the room before they start patting themselves on the back for their effort. Short of a bold change, they aren't good enough to avoid a ninth straight year without a postseason chair when the music stops.

The Jackets surely need to find someone to fill that No. 1 role, fast. Thing is, top six forwards, especially centers, can be fairly costly on the rare occasions they're made available. It takes a certain opportunism to pull the trigger when the chance arises. That's why it has to be particularly galling for the Jackets' long-suffering fan base to know that GM Scott Howson had his chance last summer. He just wasn't bold enough to pull the trigger.

On draft day, the Phoenix Coyotes remedied their own long-standing need for a legitimate first-line center by sending defenders Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton and a second-round pick to the Panthers for Olli Jokinen. Afterwards, the general consensus was surprise that Florida didn't obtain more for their captain and leading scorer. Could Columbus have upped the ante? Seems like it, but instead Howson chose to bargain-shop. He acquired Umberger without cutting into his roster, but at the same time, Howson was betting on a player who had been just a complementary piece in Philadelphia.

The rebuilding Coyotes are facing struggles of their own, but Jokinen has lived up to his paper, averaging a point per game and easing the transition of future stars Peter Mueller and Kyle Turris. Ask anyone, Hitchcock included, and they'll tell you that's the best way to handle kids. But unless someone drops a gift like Jokinen in his lap soon, Hitch might not have that same luxury with his own youth. So, it's time to take off the training wheels and try Derick Brassard in the first-line role.

Hitchcock has shot down the suggestion in the past, saying he wants to keep the 21-year-old away from the heavier load and tighter checking that would come with the job. In an ideal situation -- say, like the one crafted by Don Maloney in Phoenix -- that would be the smart way to play it. But Howson's dithering has put him in a tough spot. At this point, Brassard's not just his best option. He's the only option.

With a goal and an assist against the Avs, the NHL's top rookie scorer looked up to the task last night. Dynamic, creative and enthusiastic -- even when matched up against Joe Sakic -- he could be just the kick in the pants that the slumping Nash and Kristian Huselius need.

After spending time together in the preseason, it's obvious the trio has some chemistry. That's no guarantee of success now, of course, and the increased pressure might mess with the confidence the kid has quickly developed on the second line. But the Jackets are running out of time. The dwindling fan base is tired of empty promises, and another year of just-you-wait-and-see won't do it.

With Jakub Voracek, Steve Mason and Nikita Filatov, the future looks bright for the franchise. But as woeful attendance figures attest, time is running out in Columbus. It's time for results, not another forecast of better days ahead.

The Jackets already missed one chance to be bold. They can't afford to pass on another.

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