Columbus Blue Jackets season preview

Updated: October 2, 2006, 12:33 PM ET
ESPN.com

Columbus Blue Jackets

STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

The Blue Jackets are a team that's teetering. They appear on the brink of breaking out and jumping into the playoffs for the first time in team history, while, at the same time, just as close to falling into the abyss, squandering the goodwill of one of the best fan bases of all the new franchises. So, what'll it be?

There's no question the Blue Jackets annually suffer more crippling injuries than any other NHL team. In 2003-04, the entire defense seemed to go down at the same time. Last season, Rick Nash was lost for the first third of the campaign with an ankle injury, putting a huge hole in the Blue Jackets' offense. This season, the injuries started early with centers Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Svitov going down in preseason action. But assuming Nash is healthy, the Blue Jackets have better depth than they've ever had with Fredrik Modin coming over from Tampa for Marc Denis, and the late-summer signing of 33-goal man Anson Carter. Given the team's desperation to make the playoffs, it is curious that GM Doug MacLean has chosen to take a hard line with emerging star Nikolai Zherdev, who appears ready to play out the season in Russia.

Offense: The Blue Jackets' 223 goals were among the lowest in the league, reflecting Nash's long absence and Fedorov's lack of production (12 goals in 62 games) after coming over from Anaheim early in the season. Assuming Nash is healthy and Fedorov is more fully integrated into the Blue Jackets' offense, things should get better. Throw in Modin (31 goals) and Calder Trophy hopeful Gilbert Brule, and Columbus should be much more dangerous. The Blue Jackets remain weak down the middle with Fedorov and Brule as their one-two punch, but expectations are high. If Zherdev isn't signed, as might be the case, Columbus will miss his 27 goals and dynamic presence on the power play which ranked 29th last season. But credit MacLean for dipping into ownership's pockets to land the last legitimate scorer on the free-agent market, Carter, who had 33 goals in Vancouver last season.

Defense: In order to make the playoffs, the Blue Jackets are going to have to give up about 30 fewer goals than a season ago, or about half a goal per game. That's a big challenge for a defensive corps that is loaded with potential, most of it unfulfilled. Rostislav Klesla, the fourth overall pick in the 2000 draft, must take a giant step forward. Duvie Westcott has played himself into a top-four role in Columbus and can't take a step back, while Ron Hainsey, stolen from the Canadiens via the waiver wires, must continue to develop as befits a 13th overall draft pick. Adam Foote is the heart and soul of the blue line, but at age 35, the window is closing on his time as an impact player. He was also banged up early in training camp. Bryan Berard remains the lone offensive threat on the back end and he's coming off back surgery and missed the early part of the preseason schedule.

Goaltending: It's sink or swim time for Pascal Leclaire, the eighth overall pick in 2001. Leclaire supplanted long-time Blue Jacket Denis as the starter last season and the Denis safety net is now gone. Leclaire must prove he is both physically and mentally tough enough to give the Blue Jackets the 60 or so quality starts required of him. If he can't, things get murky pretty quickly as it'll be either Ty Conklin, whose horrific gaffe in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals cost him a job in Edmonton, or untested but promising Fredrik Norrena who fills in.

Coaching: When the Blue Jackets stumbled horribly out of the gate last season (they were the worst team in the NHL through the first three months), it was assumed Gerard Gallant would be sacrificed to the hockey gods. He wasn't and the Blue Jackets played well over the last half of the regular season, posting winning streaks of five and six games. It says here Gallant won't get a second chance if the team can't stay in the hunt early in this season.

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
11th The Blue Jackets will get close, but not close enough, finishing third in the Central Division and 11th in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock even
Stock even (but teetering). Reaching the playoffs isn't a must (it might be for MacLean and Gallant but not the franchise), but fielding a competitive squad that doesn't disappear for weeks at a time is crucial to keeping fan support at its current premium level.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
A lot of the Jackets' chances rely on Nikolai Zherdev's contract status. It appears he'll hold out for a significant portion of the season, which could negate some of this team's gains in scoring. A healthy Rick Nash should help this team keep up the pace. Losing Marc Denis hurts, though, as Pascal Leclaire's development could mean Columbus players suffer in the plus/minus department, limiting the value of fantasy scorers like Fredrik Modin, David Vyborny and Bryan Berard. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Blue Jackets:
1. Gilbert Brule, 19, C, Vancouver (WHL)
Statline: 27 GP, 23 G, 15 A, 40 PIM
2. Alexandre Picard, 20, LW, Syracuse (AHL)
Statline: 45 GP, 15 G, 15 A, 52 PIM
3. O.K. Tollefsen, 22, D, Syracuse (AHL)
Statline: 58 GP, 2 G, 16 A, 155 PIM
4. Kris Russell, 19, D, Medicine Hat (WHL)
Statline: 55 GP, 14 G, 33 A, 18 PIM
5. Adam McQuaid, 19, D, Sudbury (OHL)
Statline: 68 GP, 3 G, 14 A, 107 PIM
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Columbus Blue Jackets
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record35-43-4 (74 points)
DivisionFinished third in Central
ConferenceFinished 13th in West
PlayoffsDid not qualify

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Gilbert Brule
People are already talking rookie of the year for the sixth overall pick in the 2005 draft. That's a lot to expect of the 19-year-old, but he's got the skills and maturity to handle it.
Winger: Dan Fritsche
The former U.S. junior standout will be counted on to provide some much-needed offensive depth from the third or fourth line. He needs to step forward.
Defense: Ron Hainsey
At 6-foot-3, 211 pounds, Hainsey has the potential to succeed Foote as the heart of the Columbus defense. Can he make good on that potential?
Goalie: Pascal Leclaire
Lundqvist had so much success so quickly last season, the key will be in not trying to do too much as an encore. He finished with a 30-12 record and a 2.24 goals-against average.

Key Moves
Modin has won a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal since June 2004. That experience is invaluable, but it didn't come cheaply. Svitov is an unknown quantity; he has lots of skill but can he deliver?

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