Michael Arace commentary: Jackets on right track now with player development

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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The Blue Jackets and Dallas Stars were tied 1-1 through two periods last night. By that point, the crowd had been treated to an unwatchable first period, brought to them by both clubs, and a largely frustrating second period for the home team, which frittered away 10 minutes of power-play time — including two full minutes of a two-man advantage.

Yet, they cheered. Derek Dorsett scored the tying goal late in the period, and it brought about a full roil. These fans, they do not need much. Alms for the poor, sir? They got to their feet and roared as the clock wound down and the second intermission arrived. It was a generous display of loyalty.

The Jackets wound up with a 2-1 victory before a crowd of 10,475 on a night when the crowd should have been smaller. These are two struggling franchises that have not drawn well in recent years, especially when they play one another — in either city — especially on a weeknight. It felt like a much bigger throng as the home fans whipped their horse down the stretch in the third period. The evening ended with one last ovation.

Once again, one of the best Jackets was 20-year-old center Ryan Johansen. He set up the winning goal, for all practical purposes. He collapsed the Stars’ defense with a foray to the net, danced right around Alex Goligoski and nearly scored. Seconds later, he laid the heavy screen that allowed Vinny Prospal’s shot to sneak through the legs of Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen.

The fans roared. They have been through a lot and they do not need much now, just a glimmer — a sense that they’re heading north, as John Davidson, the new chief of hockey operations, likes to say. Johansen is a glimmer.

“He’s really blossoming into the (fourth overall) pick we were hoping he was going to be,” defenseman James Wisniewski said.

The Jackets have a history of prematurely promoting their high draft picks. Their fans are aware of every washout, so there is no need to make a list, and space is limited. This trend must be checked. It appears the effort is under way.

“We know that we’ve got to get our guys in the draft, develop them and let them cook,” said Chris MacFarland, assistant general manager and overseer of the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Springfield, Mass.

Johansen was brought to Columbus as a 19-year old in the fall of 2011. He endured a difficult campaign and there was some thought that he, too, was rushed. General manager Scott Howson defends the move by saying that Johansen had nothing more to accomplish in juniors, so it was time to expose him to another level.

“If he’d gone back to junior, it would have delayed the learning process he went through last year,” Howson said. “If he didn’t go through that then, he’d be going through that now.”

Johansen played a half-season in Springfield during the lockout. He moved back to his natural position and went to work. He did not tear up the league, but when he got to Jackets camp last month, he was a different player.

“Down in Springfield, it was about learning the complete centerman’s game,” he said. “I feel I have a bigger role in the middle right now, and I have a good amount of confidence in my game. Plus, I might have a little extra motivation.”

He does not want to get sent back down. Neither does defenseman John Moore, who looks better-cooked than he was during his last twirl in Columbus and is benefiting from his pairing with veteran Adrian Aucoin.

“We’re not going to take chances with young players,” Howson said. “The first example is Boone Jenner, who we had in camp here and sent back to junior. He could have survived here this year, but that wouldn’t be right for him and his long-term development.”

Long-term development is not something the Jackets have done well in the past. Right now, it is all they have to sell — that, and hard work. And at this point, the fans don’t need much.

Michael Arace is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.

marace@dispatch.com

@MichaelArace1

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