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By Scott BurnsideThere was much about last season that qualifies as magical for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Led by rookie of the year Steve Mason in goal and captain Rick Nash, the Blue Jackets finally rewarded restless Ohio fans with the team's first playoff berth.
The Blue Jackets had a winning record in five straight months from November through March, and they didn't lose more than three games in a row at any point in the season. In the final 30 games of the regular season, the Blue Jackets lost back-to-back games in regulation just twice. Nash amped up interest in the team when he signed a long-term contract extension in the offseason.
Now, though, the question is what the Blue Jackets will do for an encore.
"It was nice going home and not having to answer why we didn't make the playoffs. Going out for dinner in Columbus after the season and just fans asking why we're not there. It was great," Nash told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "One of the best games I ever played in was Game 4 against the Red Wings. It was great. The fans pretty much stood the whole game. We took a huge step this year, and we're excited to get back on the ice in Columbus."
Here are 10 things you need to know about the Blue Jackets heading into this season:
1. The mental step back
Teams that struggle for long periods of time to make the playoffs sometimes suffer a kind of playoff hangover. The Atlanta Thrashers are a prime example of this. Minnesota, too, has never returned to the playoff form it showed in 2003. What about the Blue Jackets? Nash said the key is to not think too much about what happened last season.
"Yes, it's tough," he said. "Obviously, it's in the back of your head, you think about that. Last year is erased for us. This is a new season, a new start. We added some help to our team, some new players, and what happened last year -- even though it was great -- it's done and over with, and we're going to think about a fresh start and not worry about that."
2. Nash on board
After toiling away in near anonymity in Columbus since entering the league in 2002, Nash was expected to test the free-agent market next summer. Had that been the case, this season would have been a nightmare for GM Scott Howson, who would have been forced to try to deal the face of the franchise. But it didn't happen, and rest assured that Nash spent lots of time with Howson making sure the team has a plan moving forward.
"It was important. I didn't want to negotiate at all during the season, for it to be a distraction," Nash said. "Unrestricted free agency is pretty appetizing, especially when you hear from some of the teams, what they're looking for, what they want.
"At the end of the day, I weighed my options from both sides and Columbus was just the right fit. I feel like I had an obligation in Columbus as the captain, and I love it. I love the pressure, love the city, love the fans, love the ownership. I'm 110 percent behind the decision."
Small picture, you just don't find talent like Nash growing on trees. Big picture, his commitment to the franchise should pay dividends when it comes to locking up other homegrown talent or luring bigger-name free agents into the fold.
3. Homegrown is all right with me
Speaking of team building, Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock doesn't believe in relying on free-agent acquisitions to bolster a team's chances. "I think it's a big mistake," he told ESPN.com in a recent interview.
"They're in a really enviable position," Hitchcock said of their being entrusted with top power-play and penalty-killing minutes. "I think it's important that they take ownership. That's the key to what happens to us."
4. That next step
The Blue Jackets walk a tightrope as they try to prove last season was not just a one-year wonder. Hitchcock, who won a Cup in Dallas in 1999, went to the 2000 Cup finals and led Philadelphia to the 2004 Eastern Conference finals, said becoming an elite team means moving at some point from having learned systems to learning to win. That, he said, comes from within.
Hitchcock believes the team has that core of leaders in place in the form of Nash; Fredrik Modin, who won a Cup in Tampa; Mike Commodore, who won a Cup in Carolina; R.J. Umberger; Rostislav Klesla; Antoine Vermette, who went to the 2007 Cup finals with Ottawa; and Samuel Pahlsson, who won a Cup in Anaheim that same year.
5. Home cooking
Those who have never been to Columbus perhaps assume fans are passive, given that it's not a traditional hockey market and the Jackets are the only pro team in town. Wrong. The fans at Nationwide Arena have regularly sold out the rink and were finally rewarded with a playoff berth. Further evidence that a strong home fan base translates into points is the Blue Jackets' gaudy 25-13-3 record at home last season.
6. Mr. Rookie of the Year
What else can you say about a young goalie who jumped from junior to the NHL and led the league in shutouts (10) and was second in goals against en route to the Calder Trophy and a Vezina Trophy nomination? How about, wow. Now, what does cool-as-a-cucumber Mason do for an encore? How does he avoid a sophomore letdown?
Hitchcock hopes the team in front of Mason will give the sophomore a little more breathing room, a little more cushion.
"I thought last year we relied on Mase way too much," Hitchcock said. "We have to play better in front of him."
The coach likes the addition of veteran backup Mathieu Garon, who won a Cup with Pittsburgh last season backing up Marc-Andre Fleury.
7. Own zone
You'd think that when you had one of the rising stars in the game in goal and ranked ninth in goals allowed per game, maybe you'd rest on your laurels. Not the Blue Jackets. Hitchcock believes the team's play in its own zone has to be much better, not just to give Mason a break but also to help jump-start the Blue Jackets' tepid offense (they ranked 21st in goals per game).
8. "Stink, stank, stunk"
To borrow a line from the Grinch, that pretty much sums up the Blue Jackets' power-play efforts, as they were dead last in the league on the man advantage. Hitchcock said that he needs to get much more production from the second power-play unit and that the power play will be a main focus through training camp and the preseason.
9. A scheduling note
The Blue Jackets, an ordinary 16-18-7 on the road last season, will start with seven of their first 10 games on the road. Talk about an early test.
10. Olympic exposure
Nash is a given for the Canadians, and Mason has a chance at landing the third netminding position for Canada. A strong start could see Umberger sneak onto the U.S. radar, and the Blue Jackets could have a handful of European players in Vancouver, including Nikita Filatov and Fedor Tyutin (Russia); Modin and Pahlsson (Sweden); and Klesla and Jan Hejda (Czech Republic).
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
• Record: 41-31-10
• Division: Fourth in the Central
• Conference: Seventh in the West
• Playoffs: Ousted in first round by Detroit
• Sorry, Buckeye State residents. The playoff train stops at just one station as the Blue Jackets become victims to post-playoff letdown and slide back to the bottom of the ultracompetitive Central Division and out of the playoff picture.
• In some ways, coaxing the Blue Jackets back to the postseason might be a more difficult challenge than getting them there the first time around. Perhaps that's why Hitchcock is trying to foist so much responsibility on his own squad to see whether the team is ready to take another step forward.
Hitchcock remains one of the game's most endearing figures with his insights into the game, although that might be less true if you're actually playing for him.
"He doesn't let too much slack on the rope, especially with young guys," Nash said of Hitchcock. "He doesn't let you off the hook too much."
Still, that's not all bad for a team that does not history of winning.
"In the same sense, it's good for a young team. We need that," Nash said. "We need that order, that control from him, and he's got the résumé to prove it that his systems work, and we've got to make sure we follow that."
F -- Rick Nash
• The engine that drives the Blue Jackets machine. Led team with 40 goals.
F -- Kristian Huselius
• Needs to deliver more than the 21 goals and 56 points of last season.
F -- Derick Brassard
• Youngster had 10 goals in just 31 games.
D -- Mike Commodore
• Former Cup winner is dressing room glue.
D -- Jan Hejda
• Underappreciated minute muncher.
Best Bet: Rick Nash, F: Nash keeps getting better for Columbus and all the pieces are falling into place for him to have yet another improvement. His contract situation is settled for the next eight years and the Jackets have some up-and-coming young stars to support him and take the pressure off. Look for Nash to take a huge leap this season and at least give Alexander Ovechkin a run for his money as the league's top scorer.
Risky Move: Steve Mason, G: Calling Mason's rookie campaign a revelation would be an understatement. He was supposed to be this good, but not this soon. Expect a near repeat in his sophomore campaign. He should be among the leaders in goals-against average, but doesn't see the high number of shots needed to be a leader in save percentage. He won't get as many starts as some goaltenders, though, as he was clearly worn down by the playoffs last season. That's why Mathieu Garon was brought in to play backup and start 15 to 20 games.• Player projections | 2009-10 Fantasy Draft Kit
Puck Prospectus uses its VUKOTA projection system to evaluate every NHL team in pivotal categories, while Will Carroll and E.J. Hradek weigh in on injuries and intangibles, respectively. Get an in-depth look at a new category every weekday leading up to the unveiling of The Mag's full rankings.
Where will the Columbus Blue Jackets finish this season in Central Division?
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