The Columbus Blue Jackets were one of the NHL's most exciting teams to watch in the second half of last season (How many times have you read that before?). Thanks to the work of Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus came within a whisker -- one point, exactly -- of making the playoffs for the second time in franchise history. Despite the disappointing end, there is much to look forward to.
It was a season of change. Rick Nash was gone. Todd Richards was no longer the "interim" head coach. John Davidson took over as president of hockey operations. Scott Howson was fired as general manager and was replaced by Jarmo Kekalainen. Another trade with the New York Rangers brought Marian Gaborik to town. Now entering the 2013-14 season, the Blue Jackets will move to the Eastern Conference and the Metropolitan Division.
Was last season a fluke for Bob and the BJs? Can they fight their way through a tough division to land a playoff spot?
Sergei Bobrovsky did so many exciting things on his way to winning the Vezina Trophy, but Vinny Prospal going
Scoreboard! on Justin Abdelkader was trash talking at its finest. Jack Skille comes over from the Florida Panthers to provide forward depth, but the big move was signing Nathan Horton to a 7-year, $37.1 million deal. Outside of Horton's deal, Kekalainen invested within the team by re-signing Artem Anisimov to a three-year deal and giving Bobrovsky a 2-year, $11.5 million extension.
Important moves were also made behind the bench and in the executive offices as
Richards was given a one-year extension and the team hired former agent Bill Zito to become assistant GM. Forward: Horton needed off-season shoulder surgery and could return anytime between November and January. When healthy and with a good arm, he easily brings 20-plus goals to the lineup. Columbus will need all the scoring they can get after finishing 25th in offense last season (2.40 goals per game). A full campaign with Marian Gaborik, who needed a change of scenery, will help. Gaborik is also entering a contract year, which could mean good things offensively.
The usual suspects in Artem Anisimov (11 goals), R.J. Umberger (18 points), Nick Foligno (19 points) and Brandon Dubinsky (20 points) will be counted on to provide secondary scoring. Mark Letestu earned an extension after he enjoyed a career season (13 goals, 27 points) and was second in team scoring behind Vinny Prospal, who was not brought back.
In the youth department, Ryan Johansen (12 points), Booner Jenner (82 points with Oshawa/OHL), Cam Atkinson (9 goals) and Matt Calvert (16 points) are expected to take next steps in their development.
Defense: With many thanks to Bobrovsky, the Blue Jackets' defense was tied for eighth in the NHL last season (2.40 goals allowed per game). Fedor Tyutin (22 points, 24:05 TOI) and Jack Johnson (19 points, 25:58 TOI) eat minutes and provide scoring from the back. In Johnson's case, big minutes as he played over 30 a game three times in Columbus' final 10 contests.
After injuring his shoulder last season, Ryan Murray, the No. 2 overall pick in 2012, is ready to make an impact at the NHL level. James Wisniewski comes with a heavy price tag ($5.5 million for four more seasons), but can log big minutes and help out offensively. Then again, he's also an injury risk.
Goalies: Signing Bobrovsky a two-year, $11.5 million deal over the summer was a smart move by the franchise. A bridge contract for the goalie also symbolizes a "show me" deal for the organization. He won't surprise teams this season. Now it's time for him to prove he's not Jim Carey 2.0 and that he'll be the guy in the Columbus net leading them back to the playoffs.
Backing up Bob will be Curtis McElhinney, after the Steve Mason era officially ended with an April trade to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Richards replaced the dismissed Scott Arniel in Jan. 2012, the starting point for change in the organization. In October, Davidson came aboard as president of hockey ops. Four months later Scott Howson was gone and Kekalainen was brought back to the NHL after working with Jokerit in Finland. It's no surprise that once the pieces were place, the Blue Jackets went on their late season surge.
Davidson has the front office where he wants it and the attitude on the ice had changed. Kekalainen had made savvy moves. Richards' message is getting through. The Blue Jackets are no longer an easy two points.
It's so ... hypnotizing...
Sergei Bobrovsky. We can only hope he's able to come close to repeating his Vezina-winning season.
Things are looking like they're finally turning around for the Blue Jackets, thanks in part to Davidson and Kekalainen and the product on the ice. It's been a long time coming for those fans.
pipeline looks good. With three first round picks in 2013, Columbus' cupboard is stocked with talent. If they can develop those players into productive NHL players, the woeful days of the past could be long gone.
Playing with the
man advantage has a disaster of late. The Blue Jackets have ranked 29th, 24th and 28th, respectively, in the NHL over the last three seasons. Eight of their 22 power play goals in 2013 came from defensemen. Vinny Prospal, who led the team with four PPGs, is not returning. The hope is a healthy Gaborik and Horton can help turn that number around.
It was a fight for the Blue Jackets to come within a point of making the playoffs last season. It won't get any easier moving to a new conference and experiencing the NHL's tougher divisional playoff format. Gaborik should be inspired in a contract year and when Horton returns, that will be a boost to the offense. If Bobrovsky can do it again and Columbus' secondary scoring contributes, they should at least be in the mix for a playoff spot.