With just hours to go before the puck drops on a new season, there is a boatload of optimism and excitement in Jacketland. It was a crucial offseason, and Scott Howson and company delivered. Two particular pieces to the puzzle that the Jackets have never possessed- a number one center, and a true powerplay quarterback with a big shot-were finally brought on board in the form of Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski, respectively.
Those moves, combined with the breakthrough of a trio of rookies, continued improvement from current players on the roster, and a few other smaller transactions should lead to a return to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Let's take a look at your Columbus Blue Jackets.
At the beginning of the offseason, Derick Brassard was looking like the player who would ride shotgun to Rick Nash, with Kristian Huselius on the other wing, and veterans R.J. Umberger and Antoine Vermette joining Jake Voracek on the team's second line. Sammy Pahlsson would anchor the third line, with last year's surprise rookie Matt Calvert on one side, and likely Derek Dorsett on the other. Derek MacKenzie and Jared Boll would form 2/3 of the fourth line, with players from AHL Springfield filling in the 12th and 13th forward spots.
That all changed in late June, on the eve of the entry draft. Voracek was traded to Philadelphia, along with 1st and 3rd round picks, for star center Jeff Carter. It was a gutsy move by Scott Howson, and it signalled a commitment to putting a winning team on the ice in Columbus. It gives captain Rick Nash a fellow all-star to help shoulder the offensive load.
In mid-July, Kristian Huselius tore his pectoral muscle while training. It was determined that he would be out until at least Christmas. This was a disappointment for Jacket fans-for a team that has been so hard-pressed to score, losing one of their top guns was a major blow. Team brass moved quickly however, and made the surprise move of signing veteran winger Vinny Prospal to replace Huselius in the lineup. Again, it showed a commitment to winning. When Huselius returns from injury, Prospal will be another weapon for coach Scott Arniel to deploy. At least to start the season, Prospal will be playing on the Jackets' top line with Nash and Carter.
The likely second line to start the season features the versatile veterans Umberger and Vermette, playing left wing and center. They are joined by a fresh-faced (like, really fresh-faced) rookie in Cam Atkinson. The past two seasons at Boston College saw Atkinson score a combined 61 goals- outrageous numbers that led to him being a Hobey Baker finalist last season. After a cup of coffee with the Falcons to end last season, he came to camp and impressed the brass enough to keep him on the big roster. He's getting a huge opportunity by starting on a scoring line, and as long as he can continue to put the puck in the net as he has everywhere else he's played, he could be a huge surprise.
The remaining two lines shouldn't be referred to as "third line" and "fourth line". One is designed for offense, and the other more for a shutdown role. The offensive line is anchored by another rookie- this time 2010 first round pick Ryan Johansen. Given the AHL's age-restriction rules, Johansen's options were either to make the Jackets, or be sent to Portland of the WHL for another season of junior. The team will evaluate his play early in the season, and if it looks like he needs more seasoning, back to Portland he goes. In the meantime the big, playmaking pivot will have Derick Brassard on his wing. I believe that Brass is in line for a breakout season, given that he can focus more on offense after making the move from center. Joining this duo will be either veteran Derek MacKenzie, or rookie Maksim Mayorov. MacKenzie was injured for the latter half of camp, but is good to go to start the season. I think you'll see these two in and out of the lineup, depending on the opponent. Mayorov has shows a nose for the net, and while MacKenzie provided timely offense, he's more of a forechecker extraordinaire. The defensive unit sees shutdown stud Sammy Pahlsson up the middle, with Derek Dorsett and Matt Calvert on the wings. Dorsett needs to improve in all areas, focusing more on the play than dropping his gloves. He's too talented to be in the box all the time, and has the skills to excel on the penalty-kill. Calvert, like MacKenzie, was injured for part of training camp but has the green light to play in the opener. He provides a dose of offense to this line, but as the same time has the never-ending motor and forechecking ability that is perfect for a defensive unit.
Along with Huselius, Jared Boll is also on the IR. He broke his hand in a fight during the preseason game in Carolina, and will be out for a few weeks. I wonder though- when he's healthy, where does he fit in the lineup?
Here's a guess at your forward lines,at least to start the game:
Prospal - Carter - Nash
Umberger - Vermette - Atkinson
Brassard - Johansen - MacKenzie
Dorsett - Pahlsson - Calvert
Shortly before July 1st, the start of the free agency period, the Jackets traded a mid-round pick to the Canadiens for the rights to James Wisniewski. A couple of hours before the start of free agency, Columbus inked him to a six-year deal. The Wiz, as he is affectionally known as, finished fifth in the NHL in defensemen scoring last season. He's right at home on the powerplay, with his booming shot and ability to keep the play moving. He's also got some bite to his game, bringing a much-needed edge to the blueline. During the team's first preseason game against the Wild, The WIz was involved in a dustup with Cal Clutterbuck, which led to an 8-game suspension to start the season.
Once Wiz returns to the lineup, he'll join Fedor Tyutin on the team's top pairing. Tyuts led the Jackets in preseason scoring with seven points, and is fresh off signing a 6-year contract extension. He's a player who could be in line for a big year- he'll be on the first powerplay unit, and he and Wiz will get all of the five-on-five minutes they can handle.
During the suspension, it's likely that another free agent signing-Radek Martinek- will pair with Tyuts. During the preseason, I couldn't help but notice how steady Martinek is. Providing he can stay healthy (a legitimate concern) Martinek could be a bit of a free agent steal.
Marc Methot and Grant Clitsome will likely be paired together to start the year. Clitsome was a mid-season callup last year, and was an instant shot in the arm to the powerplay. He's got offensive ability, including a heavy and accurate slapper, but is no slouch in the defensive zone. Methot had a good year last year, and was a member of Team Canada at the World Championships in the spring. It gave him a confidence boost, and he needs to become the team's top shutdown defender.
Your third pairing to start the season features a pair of question marks. The first is David Savard, a rookie. He was solid, but not spectacular in training camp, but is coming off of a fantastic rookie season with Springfield. He's a complete defenseman with above-average offensive ability. The question that arises is, when The Wiz returns from suspension, does Savard immediatly get sent down? It would be easy from a contract perspective as Savard is still on his entry-level deal, and is therefore not subject to waivers. The other question mark is Kris Russell. Russ was an outstanding offensive defenseman at the junior level, but has yet to really break out offensively at the NHL level. The suspension is a blessing in disguise for Russ, as it gives him an 8-game audition to show that he belongs on the Jackets. When The Wiz returns, whoever is playing at a high level will remain with the team, while the other will be sent to Springfield (Savard), or potentially traded (Russell).
Your seventh defenseman is Rick Nash's best buddy, Aaron Johnson, aka Sunshine. He's developed into a no-nonsense blueliner, who brings steady play and won't hurt you in the defensive zone. He'll see time occassionally, but to start the season he'll be watching the game from the rafters.
Guess at the pairings to start the year:
Tyutin - Martinek
Methot - Clitsome
Russell - Savard
This is the big one. On paper, the Jackets look great up front. Especially when Huselius returns. The defense is improved- far more mobile and with more offensive punch. The biggest question going into the season is:
Can Steve Mason regain his Calder--winning form and lead this team to the postseason?
My guess is yes.
My thoughts are I freakin' hope so.
Mase has been statistically and realistically bad the past two seasons, after winning the Calder trophy his rookie year, as well as being named a Vezina trophy finalist. This summer, a full-time goalie coach was brought in by the name of Ian Clark, who previously worked with Roberto Luongo in Vancouver. With an improved team in front of him, another year to mature, and now a full-time coach working with him, the situation couldn't be better for Mason to succeed. If he falters, the Jackets will be a pretender, rather than a contender.
After letting Mathieu Garon walk in free agency, the Jackets gambled a bit and signed Mark Dekanich to be Mason's backup. Dex, as he's known, was in the Nashville system, where he put up some fantastic numbers with Milwaukee of the AHL. He has very limited NHL experience, but comes highly regarded. Unfortunately, in the first preseason game Dex suffered a high ankle spraing and is out indefinitely. Also signed was veteran goalie Curtis Sanford. The Sandman was given some difficult games this preseason and performed well. He'll start the season as Mason's backup until Dex is healthy.
I'll be blunt: the Jackets powerplay was atrocious last season.
The additions of Carter and Wisniewski, along with the hiring of former Minnesota head coach and San Jose assistant coach Todd Richards should instantly improve the powerplay. Carter, Nash and Prospal, along with Wisniewski and Tyutin is your first unit. The second unit will likely be more fluid, but look for the second line of Umberger, Vermette and Atkinson up front, and Russell/Savard and Clitsome manning the points. RIchards is the key here, he'll be running the powerplay, as he did in Minnesota and San Jose. During his single season with the Sharks, he helped the powerplay finish third in the NHL, and his two seasons in Minny saw the powerplay finish 10th and 13th, respectively. The years in Minnesota aren't especially notable, unless you look at the talent, or lack thereof, he was working with. He's got far more weapons in Columbus, so here's hoping he can get the powerplay operating at an efficiency similar to his year in San Jose.
The penalty kill isn't a worry for me this season. The Jackets have a handful of defensively responsible forwards to help on the kill, with your first unit likely being Pahlsson and Dorsett, with Methot and Martinek on the back end. The second unit can feature Vermette and MacKenzie, two players with experience at center- crucial if one gets thrown out of the dot in the defensive zone. Tyutin and Clitsome seem like a logical second-unit defensive pairing. At the end of the day however, as the old cliche goes, your goalie needs to be your best penalty killer. Mason needs to be at the top of his game this season, and the PK is especially crucial.
With all of the changes this summer, bringing in Carter, Prospal, Johansen, Atkinson, Mayorov, Wisniewski, Martinek, Savard, Johnson, Dekanich, and Sanford, along with the hiring of Richards and Clark, there are lofty expectations for the Jackets. They need to re-engage the fanbase, and the only way to do that is to win games and return to the playoffs. The duo of Nash and Carter needs to click, and the secondary scorers need to contribute. At least one of the rookies needs to make an impact, and the team's powerplay simply must perform as well as it looks on paper. The biggest key to it all however, is the play of Steve Mason.If he falters, and Dekanich and/or Sanford can't pick up the slack, the Jackets are looking at another top-10 draft pick.
If Mason plays like he can, the Jackets should finish 5th-8th in the Western Conference.