1. Can the Jackets pick up where they left off?
Columbus finished 19-5-5 last season, which was one of the best records in the NHL over that stretch. However, the reason they were sitting at home during the playoffs was because, after starting 1-0-1, they spiraled down through a 4-12-1 stretch. Those 17 games absolutely killed them. A lack of training camp last season with a bunch of new players certainly hurt them, but it’s not as if a team can just show up an immediately expect to play at the same level they were playing four months ago.
For the first time, there is strong roster consistency from year to year, but the biggest hurdle for a fast start this season will be whether or not Columbus can get back to the same level of effort and execution with which they were playing in April. This Jackets team is built on hard work and systemic pressure. They play hard defense, have a good goaltender, and rely on timely scoring to win games. But, when they don’t bring that effort level every night or execute their system properly, they don’t have the firepower to come back from multiple-goal deficits. They have a few new faces, and needed to have a strong (and healthy) training camp to get back to the level of play that carried them down the stretch last season.
They are fighting a few key injuries (Derek MacKenzie, Matt Calvert, Dalton Prout, Jared Boll, to name a few), and played well during the first half of the exhibition season. But, during points of the exhibition schedule, the team was finding itself getting outworked for long stretches. These types of letdowns will not allow the Jackets to win at the level at which they finished last season.
2. What if Sergei Bobrovsky regresses?
The biggest individual reason for the team's success last season was the play of Bobrovsky, who carted home the Vezina Trophy for his efforts. But, Bob hasn’t exactly been the model of consistency in his three seasons in the NHL. Some of that had to do with the goaltending situation in Philadelphia over his two years there, but just the same he’s far from a totally proven commodity at age 24. So, in a two-pronged question, one has to wonder: how good does Bobrovsky need to be this season for them to have a chance to make the playoffs, and how well will he actually play? I don’t know too many people that think he’s going to have a .932 save percentage again this season, but how far can that drop off before Columbus is in trouble?
The Jackets have a solid defense, but it’s no secret that Bobrovsky stole some games for them down the stretch. If he’s not playing at that level, the Jackets’ entire philosophy is impacted. Given their lack of overall scoring up front, their highest priority is to keep the puck out of their own net, and if their newly highly-paid goaltender struggles, there isn’t much behind him that can stop the bleeding.
For whatever it's worth, in the pre-season Bobrovsky put up numbers very similar to his last season's performance: in four games, Bob allowed just eight goals on 106 shots (.925 sv%), posting a goals-against of 2.14.
3. Can Nathan Horton make enough of an impact on offense once he’s healthy?
The two biggest additions to the Jackets’ offense are going to be a full season of Marian Gaborik and the signing of free agent Nathan Horton. Horton will miss time until most likely December due to shoulder surgery, and the big question for him will be how quickly he can integrate himself into a lineup that’s been playing together for two or three months. The Jackets will need Horton to make an immediate impact, given how much time he will be missing at the outset of the season.
If he’s healthy and playing at the top of his game, he’s the perfect addition to this lineup: a guy who can score goals, but who does so with a strong work ethic and willingness to get dirty. But, given Horton’s injury history, will he be able to go full-speed from the get-go, and can he develop some chemistry with guys who have been going full speed for two or three months? The Jackets will need his scoring if they want to make a strong push for the playoffs in the new-look Eastern Conference.
Horton is a guy with proven playoff experience, and would instantly bring that lift both in credibility as well as experience and attitude should the Blue Jackets be in the playoff picture in the spring. How quickly he can get into the flow of the team when he comes back over the winter should help to decide whether the team will be in that picture or not.