Jackets try to avoid sophomore slump

Ross McKeon
Yahoo! Sports

It turns out that eight was enough. That's the number of years it took for the most recent expansion team to reach the NHL playoffs, the last of 30 current members to reach the league's promised land.


Coach Ken Hitchcock has the Blue Jackets playing his style, which means winning hockey.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

The postseason stay didn't last nearly as long as Columbus would have liked – a four-and-out against Detroit – but the Blue Jackets gave their fans a taste of what they've been waiting for. It went a long way for the team, too, feeling the heat to get over the hump and knowing this could be a difficult season to sell tickets if they didn't give their fan base something to believe in.

General manager Scott Howson and especially coach Ken Hitchcock deserve a lot of credit for making this happen. With success on his résumé in Dallas and Philadelphia, Hitchcock took on the most difficult challenge of his career and turned a perennial loser into a winner in just a little over two seasons.

The formula is usually the same – Hitchcock is brought in to take a group to the next level. He makes sure the focus is on limiting opponents' chances and taking care of his team's zone first. Often that strategy means changing individual players' habits and tendencies. In Columbus that meant taking the team's best young offensive talent – Rick Nash(notes) – and raising his defensive awareness and ability to stop an opponent up on par with the rest of his game.

It usually works because once everyone sees the best player buy in they follow along. The biggest break Hitchcock & Co. got last year, however, was the emergence of rookie goalie Steve Mason(notes).

The 20-year-old was thrust into the fray early in the season because former starter Pascal Leclaire(notes) got injured. Mason had displayed marvelous potential since being drafted in the third round by Columbus in 2006, but no one expected the kind of results he managed so early in his career.

Mason simply carried the Blue Jackets to where they wanted to go, appearing in 61 games in all. His 33 wins, a 2.29 goals against average, .916 save percentage and league-high 10 shutouts were more than enough to earn Columbus a top-eight finish in the West along with cinching the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie along the way. If not for Tim Thomas'(notes) outstanding season in Boston, Mason would have won the Vezina as well.



The next hurdle for the organization and Mason is dealing with heightened expectations and avoiding a sophomore jinx, respectively. The Blue Jackets continue to add players who fit Hitchcock's system while subtracting those who don't, and that goes a long way in setting Mason up for further success as well. Who wouldn't be excited to tend the net for a Hitchcock-coached team?

The Blue Jackets are aware they're in a competitive division and balanced conference. One little slip and they'll be right back on the outside looking in. The team will need for its young core to continue to accept the mantle of winning. They want to show this city there's more to Columbus besides Ohio State football.

Last season: 41-31-10 (92 points), third place in the Central Division, seventh place in Western Conference and 16th in the overall standings. Franchise records by a wide margin for wins (six more than the previous best) and points (12 more than ever) enabled the Blue Jackets to qualify for Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time. Columbus, the last of nine new teams that joined the league since 1991 to reach the playoffs, made it a short stay. The Blue Jackets got swept by division rival Detroit, outscored to the tune of 18-7 in the process.

Imports: C Samuel Pahlsson(notes) (Chicago), G Mathieu Garon(notes) (Pittsburgh), D Aaron Rome(notes) (Vancouver), C Pascal Pelletier(notes), D Mathieu Roy(notes) (Columbus).



Exports: C Jason Williams(notes) (Detroit), D Ole-Kristian Tollefsen(notes) (Philadelphia), G Wade Dubielewicz(notes) (Minnesota).

Re-signings: None.

Salary cap: The Blue Jackets are positioned well with approximately $47.7 million spent and room to add nearly another $11.45M before they bump up against the ceiling. They may not have the budget to spend that kind of money, but there is flexibility if they want to make a move.

Three keys: By adding Samuel Pahlsson and Antoine Vermette(notes) (last trade deadline) along with extending the contract of youngster Derick Brassard(notes), the Blue Jackets appear as strong down the middle of the ice at center as at any time in their franchise history.

Brassard, the sixth overall pick in 2006 who turns 22 later this month, will be asked to set up Nash and Kristian Huselius(notes) plus certainly provide the team's top offensive threat, but Vermette and Pahlsson are very strong two-way players who should fit Hitchcock's ways to a tee.

Be wary of injury here, though. If the Blue Jackets are missing one of their big three – Brassard missed the second half of last season due to injury – there's not a lot of depth or natural centermen ready to fill the void.

Second, Nash signed a big eight-year extension in early summer when it looked like otherwise there might be a nasty split. That would have put a major hurt on the franchise and set a bad example for others looking to extensions. Nash needs to lead by his play and in the room as team captain. His recent goal totals have risen each of the last two seasons while he's been asked to do more defensively. His points have gone in the same direction, too. And this is no time to stop that trend.

Third, the Blue Jackets very much have a no-name defense, and one that is light on offensive upside. Rostislav Klesla(notes), Kris Russell(notes) and Marc Methot(notes) were drafted and developed by Columbus, but Mike Commodore(notes), Jan Hejda(notes) and Fedor Tyutin(notes) got their starts elsewhere only to arrive in Columbus within the last year or two.


Raffi Torres(notes) can help Columbus if he stay injury-free and returns to his pesky ways.

(Bruce Bennett/Getty)

The group needs to blend quickly, sort out its roles, find a player or two who can step it up offensively and maybe the Blue Jackets can develop a cohesive unit that is a sum of its parts.

On the hot seat: Mason burst on the scene with a splendid first season, and he's displayed maturity beyond his tender years so far. But it won't be easy during his second season. Opponents will have studied video and picked up tendencies. Mason will have to adjust mentally to the expectations of others in addition to knowing he won't catch anyone by surprise. We've seen what happened to a number of goalies who make a big splash their first season – Andrew Raycroft(notes), Jose Theodore(notes) and Jim Carey to name a few.

Poised to blossom: The Blue Jackets have a good one in 19-year-old Russian winger Nikita Filatov(notes). First things first, the sixth overall pick by Columbus in 2008 still has to make the team out of camp, but there's a need for his tremendous offensive skills if he can prove he's not a liability on the ice defensively. Filatov scored four goals during an eight-game look-see last season. He wouldn't have to try to play on the first line, and Hitchcock's system is a safe one to start a young player off on the right foot early in his career.

Time has passed: You hate to say it about a player who is only 27 years old (will turn 28 a week into the season), but Raffi Torres just can't seem to stay healthy enough to stay in the lineup and fulfill the role as super pest he exhibited mostly with Edmonton earlier in his career.

Torres is a terrific battler who can dole out devastating puck-separating-from-body hits, the kind that change the momentum and bring fans out of their seats. Limited to 51 games last season and only 32 the year before, Torres has to walk the fine line of playing to his strengths but protecting himself at the same time.

Prediction: The Blue Jackets could fall victim to trying to duplicate last year's finish, especially with a so-so blue line and little depth up front. There's going to be a ton of pressure on Mason, and he will have little margin for error. The feeling here is Columbus is in the hunt throughout, but maybe comes up a couple points short in the end.

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