NHL season previews often sell you an impressive bill of goods before you realize, at the end of the season, you're holding an empty box. Which makes using advertisements and infomercials the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2009-10 NHL Season Previews, presented each day throughout September.
Last Season's Ad Copy (See Also, Jackets Eulogy): Seventh in the Western Conference and fourth in the Central Division (41-31-10, 92 points). Made the postseason for the first time in franchise history only to have the Detroit Red Wings smack them across the nose with a rolled-up newspaper in four games.
Not like it mattered. Last season was one of validation for GM Scott Howson and Columbus Blue Jackets management, which had methodically transitioned the team away from the veteran mercenaries that had encompassed the locker room into the hands of Captain Rick Nash(notes), a gaggle of young players and shrewd acquisitions like winger Kristian Huselius(notes) (21-35-56), centers R.J. Umberger(notes) (26-20-46) and Antoine Vermette(notes) (13 points in 17 games).
What put them over the top? The combination of Ken Hitchcock's system and Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason(notes) in goal, who won 33 games, pitched 10 shutouts, forced the trade of one-time franchise goalie Pascal Leclaire(notes) and conquered mono. And that, friends, is what gets you this.
So the BeeJays made the leap from draft fodder to playoff team last season; will they be one-and-done, or continue to contend in the Western Conference?
Latest Gadgets (Offseason Additions): It's a testament to the Jackets' bounty of young talent that the summer was spent augmenting the roster rather than making dramatic additions. Shutdown center Samuel Pahlsson(notes) found his game after being traded to the Chicago Blackhawks, and is fully expected to pair with Jason Chimera(notes) on some sort of grind line. Mathieu Garon(notes) comes over from the Pittsburgh Penguins as a sturdy backup for Mason.
To The Recycle Bin (Offseason Subtractions): One of the most significant losses was defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen(notes) to the Philadelphia Flyers, taking one of the team's true nasty streaks (111 in 51 games back in 2007-08) with him. The Jackets also decided not to pursue several veterans under contract last season, including Christian Backman(notes), Chris Gratton(notes), Jiri Novotny(notes), Michael Peca(notes) and Jason Williams(notes), who had 29 points in 39 games last season. Veteran center Manny Malhotra(notes) remained unsigned as of this writing, even though he continued to represent the Blue Jackets in the NHLPA. Also, people keep stealing his red stapler and never passing him cake.
The Pitchman (Top Offensive Player): Rick Nash's startlingly public negotiation with the Blue Jackets over a new contract ended with him signing a 8-year, $64.2 million deal that cements him as the face of the franchise.
Is he worth it? Damn right. Nash averages 2.67 points per 60 minutes, and his numbers last season (40 goals, a career-best 79 points) only begin to explain his impact in the clutch, including 17 points in 15 games during the March playoff push. He worked well with Huselius, and should have another outstanding offensive season.
Introducing ... (Potential Breakout Player): Nikita Filatov(notes) is one of the most tantalizing talents on the Blue Jackets roster, and a winger who could play himself into the top six during training camp. He's still raw, he's still bulking up for the NHL grind ... but four goals in eight games last season for Columbus was simply the appetizer for what could be back-to-back rookie of the year awards for the Jackets.
Operators Are Standing By (The Defensemen): A group that plays well within Hitchcock's system but remains a deficiency in front of Mason. Mike Commodore(notes) (22:53 TOI) and Jan Hejda(notes) (22:22) are a pairing that helped the Jackets to 13th in the NHL on the kill. Fedor Tyutin(notes) was the leading scorer on defense (34 points), with 17 on the power play. He saw time with both Rostislav Klesla(notes) and Marc Methot(notes) last season; Klesla was limited to 34 games due to injury. Twenty-two-year-old Kris Russell(notes) is one of the few puck-moving D-men the team has; it's a need that must be addressed.
The Spokesmodel (The Goalies): Looking back at Mason's outstanding rookie campaign, it's startling to think what his stats might have been were it not for occasional bouts of inconsistency. He was second overall in GAA (2.29) but 15th in save percentage (.916). He got a taste of the playoffs and he has a capable backup to support him this season. Things are looking good for Mason in Year 2 ... but sophomore slumps aren't exactly uncommon for elite young goalies.
The Inventor (The Coach): Is there a more underrated coach/GM tandem in the League than Hitchcock and Howson?
Howson stockpiles the talent and smartly locks it up in long-term deals (Derick Brassard most recently). Hitchcock gives that talent structure and, thanks to his system, overcomes some of the shortcomings of the roster (like on the blue line).
Hitch isn't perfect; his team, for example, was thoroughly outclassed in the postseason outside of a wild Game 4, and he can tend to be more conservative than Sean Hannity at a clothing optional beach. But there's no denying that, entering Year 4 with the Jackets, Hitchcock has been a main factor in their steady build to success. There's also no denying he also still looks like Capt. Kangaroo, either.
2009-10 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: C- (The worst power play in hockey last season, and it played like it.)
John from LighttheLamp.com says ...
"In their 8th NHL season the Columbus Blue Jackets finally got their first taste of the postseason. The Jackets will look to build off of that experience and make it back to back trips to the NHL's big dance.
"In order to do so they will continue to rely on word class coaching from Ken Hitchcock and competent leadership from General Manager Scott Howson. On the ice franchise cornerstone and newly extended Rick Nash will be expected to lead the way offensively and the hope is that 2008-2009 Calder winner Steve Mason can turn in an encore performance between the pipes. The Jackets must also find a way to improve their 30th ranked PP and get increased contributions from their key young players in Derick Brassard(notes), Jakub Voracek(notes), Kris Russell and 2009-2010 Calder contender Nikita Filatov.
"Combine all that with consistent play and leadership from their veterans and the Jackets should be right in the mix for a playoff spot in a tight Western Conference."
"Expect this seasons Blue Jackets to come out with vengeance. Brassard will be back to play an entire season. Mason will be able to rest with Garon as his backup. Exchanging Malhotra for Pahlsson improves the checking line. It should be interesting to watch."
"With fewer new pieces to integrate, and some real skill being added to the mix, I expect a significant increase in offensive production, and more confident puck movement coming out of our own zone. Hitch will be able to trust more people in key situations, allowing better distribution of minutes and greater intensity. Despite the bad rap Hitch takes for his style of hockey, this will be a fun team to watch in every zone."
"This year's Blue Jackets could be a real surprise. There's always the question if teams can build on the previous year's success, but the Jackets will essentially have the entire playoff-squad returning. With the additions of Nikita Filatov, Sammy Pahlsson, Mathieu Garon, and full seasons of Derick Brassard and Antoine Vermette, the Blue Jackets might not just be a dark horse for the playoffs, but maybe for the Central Division."
Don Draper Says ...
"New products aside, there are going to be fat years, and there are going to be lean years. But we've established one thing here, gentlemen, about the quality of these Jackets: That Rick Nash can make it rain like a monsoon if he chooses too."
Results May Vary (Biggest Issues Facing the Team): Can the power play improve into something that resembles a mild threat? Will Mason avoid the typical second-year swoon for rookies? Can a second scoring line featuring players like Filatov and Vermette become something opponents have to concern themselves about? Will Howson deal from his glut of forwards to land a defenseman?
Warranty Expires (Prediction): As Nash told us over the summer:
"Yeah, we're expected to [make the playoffs] now. Before, everyone just hoped. We gotta make the jump now. Our young players are going to be that much better. Everyone's going to be a year more mature."
Columbus enters this season as a playoff team for the first time in its history. The division and the conference haven't gotten any easier. A return to the postseason isn't a guarantee, but an improved offensive attack has us thinking the BeeJays will make the cut again.