Blue Jackets hope strong finish points to bright future
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Columbus Blue Jackets had a banner season in terms of rewriting the franchise record book.
The upshot, however, is pretty much the same old story: another year without playoffs.
The club set marks for winning and scoring, yet just like the four previous Blue Jackets teams, this one will be sitting at home when the postseason gets under way this weekend.
"When you're a young team, it's probably better to start from the bottom," said defenseman Adam Foote, a free-agent signing last summer who owns two Stanley Cup rings from his time with the Colorado Avalanche.
"It hurts. It hurts a lot. You don't like it. No one likes it. But you learn. Sometimes it's a hard way to learn. That's behind us now and we have to look ahead. I think guys feel pretty good about what's been going on here the past few months."
The Blue Jackets finished 35-43-4, setting franchise marks for wins, points (74), road wins (12), home wins (23) and goals (223). From Jan. 1 through the end of the season, they had the eighth-best record in the Western Conference and were just three points behind Colorado, four behind Calgary and six back of Nashville.
Still, thanks to an awful start they finished 21 points behind Edmonton for the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference.
"The last 50 games, we've proven that we're a team that's getting better," said Doug MacLean, president and general manager.
On Dec. 23, the Blue Jackets were an NHL-worst 9-25-1. Then 2003-04 goal-scoring co-champion Rick Nash and defenseman Rostislav Klesla returned from injuries and Sergei Fedorov, acquired in an October trade with Anaheim, found his footing.
After that the club went 26-18-3. The offense provided some spark, the defense got stingy and goaltenders Marc Denis and Pascal Leclaire played well.
"If you look at our second half of the season, we came a long way," said Nash, who finished with 31 goals and a career-best 23 assists to give him 54 points in 54 games. "If we had 30 more games left, I'm sure we'd be right there to make a playoff spot."
David Vyborny had a huge year (22 goals, 43 assists) to move into the Blue Jackets' career lead in games (395), goals (90) and assists (137).
Forward Nikolai Zherdev had his best season with 27 goals and 27 assists before missing the final two weeks with a sprained knee. He, like Nash, is just 21.
At 36, Fedorov had his worst NHL season in terms of numbers (12 goals, 32 assists) but was a valued commodity around the younger players -- particularly Zherdev -- in the dressing room and on the ice.
There were several other bright spots. Defenseman Ron Hainsey, picked off waivers from Montreal, was a rock on the blue line and set a club record with his plus-13 rating. Jason Chimera, part of a five-player trade with Phoenix in early October, collected 17 goals and 12 assists. Untested Mark Hartigan, Aaron Johnson, Alexandre Picard and Dan Fritsche all proved they could handle the rigors of the NHL.
"We proved to everybody in the second half that we can win," Chimera said. "We've got a good young team. I'm one of the old guys at 26 -- I don't feel that old, but I guess I am compared to a lot of these guys."
Last year's first-round draft pick, Gilbert Brule, will get a chance to play on one of the top two lines at the outset of next season. The front office believes he has star quality.
Others likely will not return. Forwards Vyborny and Trevor Letowski, centers Jan Hrdina and Manny Malhotra and defenseman Radoslav Suchy are unrestricted free agents. MacLean says he'd like to have them back, but won't overpay to keep them.
Also, Denis might be shopped around in a trade for a draft pick. MacLean says he has seen few teams succeed with two guys sharing the goaltending job.
Coach Gerard Gallant prefers to look at the way the team played late in the year and forget the lopsided losses and bitter disappointments of October and November.
"The start of the season hurt our chances," he said. "It's a long way back. But I like our chances now."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press