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Taking another giant step in his effort to wrap up the team’s young stars for the foreseeable future, GM Scott Howson has reached agreement with center Antoine Vermette to a five-year contract extension, worth a reported $18.75 million. Vermette, acquired at the trade deadline last year in a trade that sent goalie Pascal LeClair and a second round draft pick to Ottawa, was slated to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season.

This is the latest in a flurry of summer signings by Howson, during which he has secured long term deals for Captain Rick Nash (eight years) and center Derick Brassard (four years), inked shorter deals with defenseman Mark Methot and forward Derek Dorsett, and signed free agents Sammy Pahlsson and Mathieu Garon.

Clearly, the rapid signing of Rick Nash to a long term contract has had the desired “trickle down” effect with the younger players. Both Brassard and Vermette saw that signing as hugely positive, and noted their pleasure with the direction the organization was taking. By the same token, Howson is showing considerable faith in Brassard and Vermette, who played a combined total of 52 games for the CBJ last season (Brassard – 31 regular season, Vermette 17 regular season, four playoff games). Players appreciate that kind of confidence, and by all reports Brassard and Vermette are returning the favor through hard work.

The benefits of what Howson has done this summer are enormous for the franchise. First, he has locked up a significant percentage of his core talent for a long time. Huselius, Umberger and Tyutin are signed through the 2011/12 season, Commodore through 2012/2013, and Hejda through 2010/2011. Of the regulars, only Klesla, Modin and Torres are in their final year before UFA status. Howson now has the predictability he needs going forward, so that he will be able to address the increases that players like Voracek, Mason and Filatov will garner as they come off of their entry level contracts, while still being prepared for the eventuality of a cap decrease next year.

At the same time, all of this positive activity gets noticed around the league, and players begin viewing Columbus in a different light when it comes time for free agency. The fact that so many veterans are willing to sign extended contracts represents a big PR boost for the franchise. Season ticket sales are on the increase, the first day of practice drew a packed house — the signs are all positive, and Howson hand his team have a lot to do with it.

Aside from all of the other benefits of these signings, Howson now knows what he can spend in the short term. I frankly did not think that a Vermette deal would get done until later in the Fall, given the few number of games he played last season. Obviously, Hitchcock loves his talents at both ends of the ice, and Howson struck while the iron was hot. He now faces the glut of forwards and the absence of a offensively minded defenseman with a right-hand shot.

For now, the top two lines appear to be set, with Nash, Brassard, Huselius, Vermette, Umberger and Voracek accounting for those six slots. The third and fourth line forwards must come from a group that includes Modin, Chimera, Torres, Filatov, Murray, Dorsett, Boll, Blunden, Picard and Sestito, to include only the obvious candidates. While two-way contracts may enter into the mix a bit, the noises coming from Hitchcock and Howson indicate that the final slots are going based on merit, not contract.

Filatov is the real deal, and has started camp very well. While he will likely be eased into things in terms of minutes, his future is not on the third or fourth line, and for him the future is likely measure in weeks or months, not years. So, that being the case, who moves out of the top six? While injury could make that determination, Howson likely will have some tough decisions to make, sooner than later.

It seems likely that a number of forwards, and perhaps a defenseman coming up on free agency, i.e. Klesla, could be leveraged in a deal that would bring the necessary power play leading defenseman, and perhaps some depth at center. With so much of the tough contract work behind him, Howson has a better idea of what he has to work with. Do not be surprised if a deal or two materializes fairly suddenly during camp.

Howson continues to deliver the goods in his methodical, understated, but ultimately very effective way. The Blue Jackets are a different franchise today, and all of the signs are pointing up.


  1. will

    September 15, 2009 at 11:19 pm

    Even though Huselius looked great in camp- I think he has the best trade value, and that would open up a spot for Filatov to play on the 1st or 2nd line, and hopefully garner a decent right handed PP d-man, while opening up some salary relief to sign the young guys.

  2. Paul

    September 17, 2009 at 11:33 am

    You make a good point. If Filatov is everything he seems to be, the first line would be his natural spot. The two questions, I think, are if Hitch will trust a rookie in such a spot when the first line already has Brass (Who, let’s be honest, hasn’t played a full season yet and may have “holes” that haven’t been identified) and whether or not Klesla picks up his game. Remember, Rusty may have been the CBJ’s best player in the play-off series, last year. It will be interesting to see how it shakes out.
    Jeff, I’ve always enjoyed your blog and having you here is great. I still remember seeing my first NHL game. A friend of my father’s gave us two tickets to one of the first Seals games as a present for my 8th birthday. Ain’t it nice that the Jackets aren’t going the way of the Cleveland Barons?

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