The Blue Jackets are about to embark on the most important season in their brief history. The team has an all-new coaching staff and has commited to a core of young players. The time to win is now. Citizens of Columbus are getting restless, and with the team already dealing with a 25% drop in season ticket sales this season, just making the playoffs may not be enough.
2009-2010 Recap: One word comes to mind- disappointment. After making the playoffs for the first time in team history the year before, the Jackets plummeted last season. With essentially the same roster that made the post-season, many wondered why the Jackets were so often in the losing column.
Two of the biggest factors that led to the Jackets making the playoffs was the stellar play of goaltender Steve Mason, and a commitment to defensive play by every player on the ice. Last season both team defense and the play of Mason took a nosedive. Mason admitted to finding things a little too easy in his rookie year, and wasn't prepared for his sophomore season. The book was out on him, and he struggled with adjustments. Team defense, a hallmark of coach Hitchcock, was non-existent. The defensive zone was a mess, with misplays taking place all over the ice, defensemen missing marks, and forwards struggling on the backcheck. The decision was made that the team was no longer responding to coach Hitchcock's game plan, leading to his firing in February. He was replaced on an interim basis by assistant coach Claude Noel.
There were some positives to take from the season however. The biggest in my mind was the fact the team had five 50 point scorers for the first time. Last season also saw the emergence of Kris Russell as an offensive threat from the blueline. Jakub Voracek also showed improvement, continuing his upward trajectory towards stardom.
The team ended up finishing 14th in the Western Conference, with a record of 32-35-5-10.
Who's In: The biggest influx of personnel weren't players, but coaches. From top to bottom, every coach outside of goalie coach Dave Rook was replaced. The new head coach is Scott Arniel, who is joining the team after being the bench boss of the AHL's Manitoba Moose for the past few seasons. He plans to operate a more wide-open style than Hitchcock (that's a shocker) and has a good rapport with his players. Joining him behind the bench are former NHLers Brad Berry and Bob Boughner. Dan Hinote was also hired to be an assistant coach, but he will be stationed in the press box rather than behind the bench. The team also has a new strength and conditioning coach in Kevin Collins. There are new coaches with Columbus' AHL affiliate as well- head coach Rob Riley and assistant coach Brad Larsen. You can find a breakdown of the new coaches here.
Player wise, the only major acquisition was claiming Ethan Moreau off waivers from Edmonton. The former Oiler captain is destined for the checking line and will provide leadership. With captain Rick Nash not being a vocal leader, Moreau will be tasked with being a voice in the room.
You can consider Nikita Filatov returning from Russia as an addition, but it remains to be seen what capacity he will be used in. Most have him penciled in a top-six role, but his play in camp and how he gels with coaches and teammates will dictate a lot.
Who's Out: There were no major players leaving the squad. Defenseman Nathan Paetsch was not re-signed, he eventually signed a deal with Florida. AHL blueliner Brendan Bell was let go, he signed with Omsk of the KHL. Depth forward Jordan Smotherman was not tendered a qualifying offer and became a free agent. In an interesting move, both AHL goaltenders Dan LaCosta and Kevin Lalande were let go.
Strengths:The team's best strength would have to be its wingers. With Rick Nash, Kristian Huselius, Jakub Voracek, R.J. Umberger and Nikita Filatov, the team has five players who can supply offense. Nash is a star with Voracek well on his way to becoming one himself. Huselius and Umberger are known quantities, and are important players for the Jackets. Filatov has the talent to be an offensive star, but he must commit to Scott Arniel's system. Grinders Chris Clark, Ethan Moreau and Derek Dorsett are quality checkers and energy wingers. Jared Boll is a solid middleweight fighter. When he's on, Steve Mason is a top-notch goaltender. If he can get in a groove he is certainly a team strength.
Weaknesses: Center ice has been a weakness since expansion, but this season it shouldn't be a handcuff. I wouldn't call it a strength, but it isn't a weakness either. There are defined roles for the top three pivots, with Antoine Vermette and Derick Brassard anchoring the scoring lines and Samuel Pahlsson the checking center. If Brassard falters again, center becomes a weakness.
Offense from the back end is also a weakness, with Kris Russell and Anton Stralman the only players who have put up tangible offense. John Moore could inject a dose of offense to the lineup if he makes the team, but an experienced blueliner who can put up points is nowhere to be found.
Kristian Huselius - Antoine Vermette - Rick Nash
Nikita Filatov - Derick Brassard - Jakub Voracek
R.J. Umberger - Sammy Pahlsson -
Extra: Jared Boll
Anton Stralman -
Extra: Marc Methot
Predictions: I'm not a big fan of predictions, but I will say this much- this team should be more exciting to watch, if nothing else. Arniel and the new assistants inject new blood into the franchise, and with exciting young talent on the wings, the team should be able to score. If they can manage to keep the goals against down, (read: Steve Mason plays like he can and the team defends as it should) this is a playoff team.
I offer the following predictions:
Jake Voracek will continue on his upward trajectory and hit the 70 point plateau.
Rick Nash will score 45 goals if he stays healthy.
Kris Russell will score 15 goals.
Columbus finishes 8th in the Western Conference, facing the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the playoffs.