THE BOTTOM LINE
By Jim Kelley, Special to ESPN.com
This is the sixth NHL season for the last of the teams formed in the NHL's rush to expand. That makes for a benchmark year for president and general manager Doug MacLean. He needs a first-ever playoff appearance for this squad.
Offense: It's young, but should be fun to watch. Left wing Rick Nash tied for the NHL lead in goal scoring in 2003-04 (41) and is going to be better, barring he stays healthy. Nash might miss opening night with a sprained ankle. There's a good, young talent in the form of right wing Nikolai Zherdev and he's on the second line behind the underrated David Vyborny (22 goals, 31 assists in 2003-04). There's an experienced two-way forward in Jan Hrdina and a good checker in Todd Marchant. After that, however, things get thin in a hurry with no other forward garnering more than 32 points.
Defense: Long the weak spot for the Jackets, it was fortified in the offseason with the acquisition of Adam Foote and Bryan Berard. Foote is a physical presence and Berard can move the puck out of his own end and quarterback the power play. Overall, however, it is not as strong and it is not deep as other teams' defenses.
Goaltending: Marc Denis is technically sound and has improved his mental toughness to the point that he's an asset. He's not well known, but hockey insiders love his competitiveness in close games. Denis was 20th in wins in 2003-04, but tied for eighth in shutouts (five) and has improved his goals-against average and save percentage in every season since becoming a starter.
WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
YES The Blue Jackets keep drafting oodles of young talent that may finally pay off.
BUT The team is still too young at too many positions. They don't score or prevent the crucial goals, don't play defense well and aren't particularly good on the power play.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Take your pick from the Jackets' slew of youngsters, but we have an eye on Rostislav Klesla who, playing alongside Foote, might finally blossom into the game-controlling defenseman he's been projected to be.
Gerard Gallant has been around the NHL for a while, but he's really just getting his head-coaching career started here, having taken over from Doug MacLean at the midpoint of the 2003-04 season. Gallant will have to take control of this young team early on.
BEST OFFSEASON MOVE --> ADDING A VET
The acquisition of Adam Foote from Colorado not only strengthens a weak defense, it provides mental toughness and Stanley Cup experience.
WORST OFFSEASON MOVE --> NOT ENOUGH OF IT
Depth, depth, depth. Not getting another defenseman like Foote to replace the aging captain Luke Richardson (left).
Rick Nash, LW
Nash honed in on his scoring skills in 2003-04. He finished with 41 goals, which tied him with Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk for the best in the league. Nash also added 16 assists.
Marc Denis, G
Denis took on the brunt of the Jackets' schedule in 2003-04, posting a 21-36-7 record and 2.56 goals-against average.
“The bottom line is, Rick loves Columbus, he loves the city, he loves the team.”
— Nash's agent, Joe Resnick, after his client signed a five-year, $27M deal.