2008-09 Team Preview: Columbus Blue Jackets
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OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Scott BurnsideThe Blue Jackets fell into that "so close and yet so far" category in 2007-08, making their first serious bid for a playoff berth only to finish 11 points out of a postseason spot. The team had a winning record from Oct. 23 through the end of March and was just five points out of the playoffs at the February trade deadline, but faded down the stretch.
The Blue Jackets have never made the playoffs, and there is more than a little pressure on coach Ken Hitchcock and sophomore GM Scott Howson to push the team over that hump. Howson dramatically remade the lineup this offseason, bringing in a trio of defensemen who should make the Blue Jackets more physically imposing and help puck movement. Up front, the questions still remain about who will play with Rick Nash and who will provide secondary scoring. The fan support remains strong in Ohio, but the team has to show positive steps toward building a contender after years of treading water or that support will erode in a hurry.
Columbus is a study in contrasts. Given Hitchcock's attention to detail and his demand for defensive accountability, it's no wonder the Blue Jackets have become a top defensive club. Offensively, however, the team remains a work in progress. The Jackets ranked 29th in goals per game and were 26th on the power play. Howson dispatched enigmatic (read: flaky) forward Nikolai Zherdev to the New York Rangers and acquired a pair of solid defensemen in return, Christian Backman and Fedor Tyutin. Both will get a chance to help bolster the power play.
Kristian Huselius comes over from Calgary, where he had 25 goals but zero in the playoffs. The most interesting addition is R.J. Umberger, who played college hockey down the street at Ohio State. He was a playoff scoring hero for the Philadelphia Flyers as they were a surprising East finalist. Umberger will get a chance to be the center the Blue Jackets have never had to complement Nash, who is looking to become not just a point producer but an all-round player capable of playing important minutes.
If Umberger can't answer the bell, look for Derick Brassard, 21, to get a shot. Raffi Torres, acquired from Edmonton, eased his way into camp post-ACL/knee surgery, but will now miss up to six weeks after separating his right shoulder when he fell during a fight in his first preseason game. Fredrik Modin finally appears to be healthy, which should be a boon to the offense.
The Blue Jackets hung in the tough West playoff race thanks almost exclusively to their defensive play. The team finished eighth in goals against and recorded 11 shutouts, one more than in the previous three seasons combined. Nine of those goose eggs were recorded by franchise netminder Pascal Leclaire, who enjoyed a breakout season after struggling in his first couple of NHL campaigns. The penalty kill was a more than respectable ninth overall.
Defenseman Jan Hejda, 30, set a franchise record with a plus-20 rating, and the team ranked fourth in faceoff winning percentage. With Backman, Tyutin and Mike Commodore, who won a Cup in Carolina in 2006 and was with Calgary when the Flames went to the 2004 finals, the Blue Jackets should be even more impressive in their own zone.
Leclaire, who signed a three-year, $11.4 million deal this offseason, was a revelation in 2007-08. After an injury-plagued 2006-07 campaign, Leclaire more than doubled his appearances to a career-high 54 and turned in a sparkling .919 save percentage. His nine shutouts were second only to the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist's 10. Leclaire also shone at the world championship, where he went 4-0 for Canada, and has played himself onto the radar screen for the Canadian Olympic team in Vancouver 2010. Fredrik Norrena provides the safety net, but if Leclaire plays the way he did last season, don't expect to see much of the 34-year-old Finn.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterThe biggest improvement for the Blue Jackets this offseason is the fact the team is starting to take on the personality of its coach, Ken Hitchcock. The additions of R.J. Umberger, Raffi Torres and Mike Commodore make Columbus much more of a "north-south" hockey team, as well as a significantly tougher team, just like Hitch wants. This group won't try to win style points or dazzle you with dipsy-doodle moves. Rather, they will come straight at you, relentlessly, and they will arrive with a nasty disposition.
Despite the big contract, Commodore is not a star defenseman; however, he can play in your top six and is a solid contributor on and off the ice. He is a very good addition. Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman add a nice combination of puck-moving skill and, in Tyutin, toughness, to what is now emerging as a steady back line.
The Jackets need to avoid the injury bug this season, and that appears to be easier said than done. Torres, coming off a major injury last season, has already injured his shoulder in the preseason and will, it appears, miss the first month of 2008-09. A healthy Freddie Modin would be a huge boost up front, and a healthy Pascal Leclaire is a necessity.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
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• Record: 34-36-12
• Division: Fourth in the Central
• Conference: 10th in the West
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• The Blue Jackets open the season with three on the road and a home-and-home with division foe Nashville in the first eight days of the regular season. It's not their longest road trip of the season, but for a team desperate to prove to its fans and itself that it's playoff-worthy, that's a stern, early test.
Experience: 13 years
Stanley Cup titles: 1
• If there's one coach who can coax this offensively challenged team into the postseason, it's Ken Hitchcock. A master tactician and great hockey mind, Hitchcock has, in many ways, become the face of the Columbus Blue Jackets franchise. If the Blue Jackets sneak into the playoffs, the league can start engraving Hitchcock's name on the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Rick Nash
Nash is the franchise in Columbus and admits that missing the playoffs is getting old. "We're going to have to make the jump sooner or later," said Nash, who once again enjoyed a successful turn with the Canadian team at the world championship after the NHL regular season ended. When Adam Foote was dealt at the trade deadline, Nash assumed a more prominent leadership role, and he expects young players will be comfortable coming to him.
F -- Kristian Huselius
If Huselius was tired of hard-as-nails coach Mike Keenan (with whom he toiled in Florida and Calgary), he won't be looking for a walk in the park with Hitchcock. Huselius, however, will get ample opportunity to use his skills, likely playing with Nash to start with and certainly getting loads of power-play time.
F -- R.J. Umberger
Umberger should be a perfect fit for Hitchcock, given his blend of grit and skill. Having him playing with Nash, one of the game's most skilled power forwards, should be a boon to Umberger and to long-suffering Blue Jackets fans. Umberger led the surprising Flyers with 10 postseason goals and was a team-best plus-7 in the playoffs.
D -- Rostislav Klesla
It has taken a long time for Klesla to find his groove as an NHLer, but he and Hejda formed a successful tandem, playing pretty much exclusively together the last two months of the season. Unless Hitchcock is looking to completely revamp his defensive contingent, this pair likely will start the season together.
D -- Jan Hejda
At 6-foot-3, 229 pounds, Hejda represents the other half of the twin immovable objects Hitchcock can use as his shut-down pair. Hejda isn't likely to make many highlight reels, but as long as he's not fishing the puck out of his own net, Hitchcock won't mind too much. If this tandem stays together, look for Commodore and Tyutin to play into a second minute-devouring tandem.
Answer: Sorry, but not quite. Howson has taken important steps to change the makeup of the team, but he still lacks a proven point producer on the back end and might not have the No. 1 center he needs to get maximum production from Nash. There is also a concern about the lack of secondary scoring. Close, but no cigar, in the ultracompetitive Western Conference.
Sleeper: Derick Brassard, C: He has been centering Rick Nash and Kristian Huselius on Columbus' top scoring line during training camp. If he does that in the regular season, his linemates will carry him to the 50-60 point level.
Bust: Pascal Leclaire, G: While it's heartwarming and tempting to say Leclaire finally realized his potential while avoiding injury last season, he's likely to come back to earth after his one standout season.
Fantasy outlook: Rick Nash's scoring output is taken with the bitter pill of poor plus-minus, but he actually finished with a plus-2 in 2007-08. The addition of Huselius will enable the top line to open up the ice and be a real dynamic force. It's really difficult to recommend anyone but the top scoring line, which is why R.J. Umberger's value will take a nosedive if the current line assignments stick. -- Tim Kavanagh