The air is crisp and clear, leaves are turning, and NHL training camps have completed. The Columbus Blue Jackets are in Sweden preparing for games one and two of the season against the San Jose Sharks, as part of the NHL Premiere initiative.
At noon today Mike Blunden and Nate Guenin were placed on waivers, necessary to send them to minor league Springfield. With those two moves, the Jackets roster is set. Let's take a look at this year's squad.The Jackets didn't make any large moves this off-season, but there will be two new faces in the lineup, and two familiar faces are on board on a more permanent basis. The defense is the same squad that finished the season last year, and the goalie tandem remains the same.
Up front, waiver pickup Ethan Moreau and free agent signing Kyle Wilson have made the team, Nikita Filatov has returned from Russia and farmhand and occasional injury fill-in Derek MacKenzie are on the 23-man roster.
Captain Rick Nash anchors the first line, joined by slick forward Kristian Huselius and center Antoine Vermette. This line is a known quantity as they played the bulk of last season together. Huselius and Vermette showed great chemistry this pre-season, combining for 13 points. They each played in four games.
The second line will begin the season comprised of Filatov, center Derick Brassard and winger Jakub Voracek. Filatov led the Jackets in pre-season goal scoring, tallying four goals in five games. This is an important season for Brassard and Voracek- each player is going in to his full third season, traditionally a breakout year for most forwards. While Jake finished last season strong, Brass' season never really got off the ground so he will be under the microscope. This line is young, but inexperience is no longer a crutch. The time for them to ease the burden offensively from Rick Nash is now.
The coaching staff was mulling over the idea of a third scoring line, based mainly on the play of rookie Tomas Kubalik, but the decision was made to give him seasoning in the AHL. This means the Jackets will go with a more conventional third line- a checking line. Newcomer Moreau will be on one wing, while R.J. Umberger plays the other side. Checker extraordinaire Samuel Pahlsson is the pivot. Umberger is a versatile player, with Filatov joining the top six forwards right out of camp, Umby slides off of a scoring line and will be asked to face the opposition's top lines on a consistent basis. This is a role in which he could excel, and he will also supply a dose of offense to the line- something recent incarnations of the Jackets have been lacking. Umberger will also play significant minutes on special teams.
The fourth line will be fluid, at least to start the season. Holdovers Chris Clark, Derek Dorsett and Jared Boll offer toughness and energy, while camp success stories Derek MacKenzie and Kyle Wilson bring a mixture of energy, and in Wilson's case- offensive skill.
The Jackets are carrying two players on injured reserve-forwards Andrew Murray and Tomas Kana. Their return to the lineup is no sure thing, in fact given the performances by Wilson and MacKenzie in camp there is a good chance they are assigned to the minors upon their activation.
As I mentioned, the blueline is the same unit that ended the season together in the spring, with the exception of a healthy Rostislav Klesla. He brings his steady game to the lineup and it will be interesting to see how he is utilized. Under former coach Ken Hitchcock, his game was streamlined to focus on a shutdown role. He does have offensive talent but it remains to be seen if it will be on display in new coach Scott Arniel's system.
Kris Russell had a breakout second-half to last season. He is currently nursing a nagging knee issue, but when healthy he is the team's top offensive blueliner. Fellow defenseman Anton Stralman also excels with the puck, and will get plenty of powerplay time.
Two seasons ago Mike Commodore and Jan Hejda formed one of the better shutdown tandems in the NHL, and they are both healthy and ready to again face top opposition. Commodore experienced conditioning issues last season- a direct result of a misguided change in off-season workouts. He reverted to his previous system this past summer and looks to return to his 2008/2009 form.
Fedor Tyutin, arguably the team's most complete rear-guard, will be relied on for more offense this season. He was relatively quiet in camp, but did manage to score a goal. Rounding out the defense is Marc Methot, who may be the seventh defenseman if Russell is ready to go. Methot is more of a defense-first blueliner, but he isn't afraid of the puck and has surprising speed.
The goaltending tandem of Steve Mason and Mathieu Garon returns for another season. Mason suffered through the dreaded sophomore slump last season, he admittedly wasn't ready after his Calder-winning rookie season came a little too easy for him and by last year the book was written on him. If Mason struggles this season, the Jackets will be on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoffs. Garon is one of the best pure backup goaltenders in the league. When Mason struggled, Garon was ready to step in and win games. He's also in Mason's corner, acting as a mentor to the young goaltender.
This folks, is your 2010-2011 Columbus Blue Jackets. There will no doubt be turnover on the roster between now and next spring, but the focus with this lineup is growth from within. The core of young players needs to cement themselves as high-quality NHL regulars. Their success, along with a strong season from Captain Nash, will lead the Jackets to the post-season.