September 09, 2008
NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Last Semester: 13th in the Western Conference (34-36-12, 80 points). There was a moment last season when the Columbus Blue Jackets appeared ready to stay in the hunt for their first Stanley Cup playoff berth. It was right around the time when Pascal Leclaire was being chatted up as a potential Vezina Trophy winner. But that moment disappeared faster than a plate of nachos in front of Ken Hitchcock, and the Jackets were left only with the memory of having seen one of the greatest goals ever scored in the history of goals, scoring and perhaps mankind itself; as it relates both to Mick Foley and the more abstract definition of "mankind."
Seriously, Rick Nash's goal was that good.
In the off-season, the Jackets made some interesting personnel moves, waged war against the Russians and hoped they could
gain societal relevance reverse burgeoning fan apathy Keep Nash from signing with the Leafs in two years make the playoffs for the first time. Did they do enough?
Homecoming King (Top Player): Three seasons removed from a 40-goal campaign, Nash had 38 goals and 69 points last year -- not counting the hat trick he had in the All-Star Game, which included the fastest goal in ASG history (12 seconds). But if you ask Nash, the most important moment last season symbolically was his earning the captaincy of the Blue Jackets. This team now belongs to the young players who have come up with Nash instead of veteran mercenaries like Adam Foote, and that's a positive thing for the franchise.
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): Former Philadelphia Flyers forward R.J. Umberger signed a four-year, $15 million deal with Columbus after the team traded a first-round and a third-round draft pick to get him. Needless to say, the Jackets are placing more than a little faith in the former Buckeye. Should he center Nash this season, topping last season's career best in points (50) should be a cinch, especially if the team slots newly-acquired left wing Kristian Huselius on the top line as well. But questions about Umberger as a No. 1 center are legit.
Best Expulsion: (Addition by Subtraction): Nikolai Zherdev has his fans, but he didn't create enough offense to forgive his defensive liabilities. The return on the trade from the New York Rangers -- defensemen Fedor Tyutin Christian Backman -- addressed a need on the blueline and the signing of Huselius immediately addressed the offensive that left with Zherdev. There's always a chance he's going to blossom into a 40-goal scorer with the Rangers, playing with Drury or Gomez. But there's also a chance Gilbert Brule could turn into a star with the Edmonton Oilers, who traded Raffi Torres for him. Bottom line is that the Blue Jackets are tired of waiting to enigmas to figure themselves out. OK, except for Jiri Novotny.
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): Hard to argue that the additions of Umberger, Huselius, Tyutin and Torres don't make this a better team on paper. But the interesting addition was that of Mike Commodore, the 6-5, 228-pound defenseman who got good money ($18.75 million) but five long seasons. But he's a former Stanley Cup champion that's been well-liked in all of his travels. After the bitter split between the team and Foote last season, that's a welcome change on the blueline.
If Torres gets anywhere near the 27 goals he scored in 2006 for Edmonton, Scott Howson should have a statue built in his honor.
Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): Jared Boll led the team and was second in the NHL with 226 penalty minutes. He's so hardcore, he broke his hand playing pick-up hockey this summer. Overall, the Jackets had 58 fights last season, including returning players like Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, Jason Chimera and even Nash. From an agitation perspective, Michael Peca has been bugging the crap out of opponents since about 1993. But when push comes to shove, and shove comes to punches, it's Boll who'll drop them and bring the pain:
Keep in mind, long-shot that it is, that minor league fighting legend Jon Mirasty has been invited to camp.
Teacher of the Year: Ancient, time-tested fat jokes aside, Ken Hitchcock has helped this franchise immensely since taking over as head coach in 2006. His intense emphasis on defensive responsibility has made players like Nash more well-rounded and created an environment where Leclaire could post nine shutouts last season. Hitchcock has been a solid advocate for this team, whether it's talking to a Canadian media that questions why the Blue Jackets exist or discussing coaching philosophy with a local blogger. He and Howson have instilled a professionalism that, at the very least, makes this being a playoff team seem plausible.
The Custodians (Goalies): Leclaire posted career-best numbers in GAA (2.25) and save percentage (.919) last season while also setting a career-high in games played with 54. But the Blue Jackets clearly signaled with their three-year contract for the RFA goalie that they're still wait-and-see on his status as an elite keeper.
There's no reason to believe he can't repeat or build upon his numbers from last season if the team plays Hitchcock defense in front of him. While no one's putting Leclaire in Marty Bordeur's level as a goalie, there's something to be said for the right style of keeper fitting within a certain defensive system. And Leclaire might be the perfect fit for Columbus.
Until Steve Mason's ready, of course.
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): The departures of Ron Hainsey to the Atlanta Thrashers and Dick Tarnstrom to free agent oblivion left the Blue Jackets without their two leading special-teams scorers on defense -- which should tell you something when Tarnstrom only had six power-play points.
Rostislav Klesla can give you some offense, but other than that there isn't much to hope for from this group as far as generating scoring, for a team that finished second-to-last in the NHL in goals scored (190) last season. We've seen Christian Backman run the power play; you don't want to.
Expected pairings could include Tyutin/Klesla and Jan Hejda/Commodore, but there's a ton of decisions to be made in camp with this group. Where does Tollefsen fit? Or Kris Russell, who played 67 games last season with the Jackets? This group is certainly different from last season's; is it better though?
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): The Jackets enter camp hoping -- OK, praying -- that either Derick Brassard or Jakub Voracek can step up and be a dangerous offensive player. Both former first-round picks (Columbus has more first-rounders than the draft itself, it seems), Brassard (21) was up for 17 games last season and could be the second-line center for Fredrik Modin (should he stay healthy this season). Voracek hasn't seen NHL ice before, but the 19-year-old has the kind of offensive upside you want in the lineup should he make the team out of camp.
Then there's Nikita Filatov, the ultimate X-Factor. An explosive offensive player with Pavel Bure-like skating ability, he was at the center of a dispute between the NHL and the KHL until the Russian league dropped its claim recently. Are there serious concerns about his defense? Yes. Would some seasoning down at lower levels of competition help? Of course. But could a team that's clearly going to be starved for offense beyond the first line use a rookie like Filatov this season? Affirmative.
AV Club (Media): Aaron Portzline is one of the best hockey reporters in the country, owning the Blue Jackets' beat and writing one of the top MSM hockey blogs with Tom Reed for the Columbus Dispatch. Other Blue Jackets blogs we read include Light the Lamp, Army of Ohio, The Cannon, the NZT and Bethany's Hockey Rants.
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): It's called "the Western Conference." The margin of error is extraordinarily slim for the Blue Jackets this season. They hung tough in the Central last season, beating Detroit from pillar to post. Even if Nashville takes a step back, Chicago has improved and St. Louis could be better than 79 points. The reality is that the eight playoffs teams plus Edmonton, Chicago, Vancouver and Phoenix all finished ahead of Columbus last season. The Blue Jackets have made some significant upgrades at the forward position and have revamped their defense. But are they good enough to climb the standings? Because there aren't a hell of a lot of teams falling down the ladder.
2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: C+
Management: B (maybe this goes up a notch if Umberger proves himself as a center).
Prom Theme: "Building a Mystery" by Sarah McLachlan. The team's moves this off-season are tantalizing on paper. But from Umberger to Commodore to the players in the mix during camp, there are a whole lotta "what ifs" for a team that should be on the cusp of the postseason.
Expected Graduation: Anyone who says they have this team figured out is fooling themselves. There's every chance Hitchcock could take this roster and create a playoff team out of it. There's every chance the team's top line meshes, and Nash scores 50 goals. There's every chance Leclaire is in the Vezina conversation again, or that some of these No. 1 picks start playing like one. There are few other teams in the NHL right now that have this strikeout or home run dichotomy like Columbus does. I can't, in good faith, predict this team will make the postseason, because the Western Conference is too tough. I want them to, for the sake of the franchise and its underrated fan base. But I look at the 12 teams who finished in front of the Jackets last season, and I have a good idea who each of their second-line centers are. In Columbus, not so much. And that's scary.
I'll say this about the Blue Jackets: There's no quit in them.
OK, except for this guy. He's pretty much a quitter, that one.