1. Will the blue line finally perform to expectations?
This is a loaded question, for many reasons. First, depending who you talk to, expectations likely run the gamut. GM Jarmo Kekäläinen has spent much of the off-season professing that he was fully prepared to enter the season with the eight guys under one-way deals (Ryan Murray, Fedor Tyutin, Jack Johnson, David Savard, Kevin Connauton, Dalton Prout, Cody Goloubef and Justin Falk). Despite a prevailing view that the off-season would see a veteran blue liner sign on in Columbus, the organization either passed on or missed out on Christian Ehrhoff and Cody Franson, depending upon your perspective and who you choose to believe. On the flip side, they devoted much of the entry draft to defense, and acquired promising Michael Paliotta from the Chicago Blackhawks in the deal that brought Brandon Saad to Columbus. (Kekäläinen refers to Paliotta as a "key element"in the trade, and admittedly had tried to obtain the University of Vermont graduate for some time. Some rumors even suggest that the original trade was a Paliotta/Anisimov deal, with appropriate accompanying pieces, and that Saad entered the picture later.) However, of all of those, only Paliotta could potentially contribute this season.
The question is not "can", but "will" the blue line meet expectations. As with the other questions, this one pre-supposes health. A rash of injuries could derail things in a hurry, but that is true for any club. Focusing instead on the substantive merits of the defensemen involved, the answer is a resounding "probably." The biggest single question mark -- and likely the most talented of the bunch -- Ryan Murray has looked healthy, quick and sound in the pre-season. He still seems a bit reticent in the offensive end, but has all the tools to be an elite blue liner in the NHL. Potential linemate David Savard received a big contract extension and vote of confidence from the organization, and now needs to hit the ice running as the season begins. He had a slow start last year, but ended up with one of the best offensive seasons posted by a Columbus defenseman. He needs to keep focus in his own end, and avoid the silly penalties. If he continues the progression, this may be the top pair by mid season.
Fedor Tyutin and Jack Johnson are opposite sides of the same coin. Tyutin, now north of 30 and losing a bit of quickness, retains his veteran savvy and solid technique, which help make up for a loss of some foot speed. At his best, he is a Blue Line Ninja -- you simply don't notice that he is making consistently excellent plays. His steadiness is a necessary hedge to the more volatile Johnson, who tends to either the amazing or horrific. Plagued by well-publicized off-ice troubles, he started very slowly last year. He could be on a short leash this season, and needs an 82 game consistent effort.
The third pair is a crap shoot. Dalton Prout provides a physical stay-at-home presence, but is neither quick of foot nor nimble with stick. He worked hard in the off-season, but has a ways to go to be competitive in the ever-faster NHL. Connauton was a pleasant surprise after his waiver acquisition from the Dallas Stars, particularly with his deadly accurate point shot. His defensive technique is his Achilles Heel, but he also has worked hard. Goloubef impressed management with some big minutes during the club's end of season tear last year, and hopes to pick up where he left off. Falk saw relatively little time, but is a serviceable eighth man.
So, with another year of experience under their belt, an acceptable mix of speed, savvy and size, and enough competition to keep an edge on the proceedings, the blue line is poised for a comeback in Columbus. They also have the insurance of Sergei Bobrovsky, who can atone for a world of blue line sins. However, any combination of underperformance or injury could send alarm bells ringing, and the front office will move quickly to douse those flames.
2. Will Brandon Saad prove his value, even without Toews and Kane?
In a word: "Absolutely". Some of the Blackhawk fan base have attempted to dismiss the deal as involving a guy who only looked good because he played with Toews, Kane, Hossa, et al., those musing smack more of whistling in the dark than genuine conviction. Though his pre-season debut was delayed by a dental malfunction during practice, he wasted no time in impressing all onlookers as he took his slot on a line with Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno. In two preseason games, he has registered two goals and three assists, and appeared dangerous every shift. Perhaps even more significantly, he the trio looked as if they had been skating together for years, and much of that was due to Saad's instinctive awareness of where to be and when.
Jarmo Kekäläinen and John Davidson have shown a knack for identifying players who have inherent skills that translate to any environment. Few foresaw the transformation of Nick Foligno from a decent acquisition for a mid-level defenseman, to a 30-goal, 70-point guy wearing the "C" in just a couple of short years. Saad has that combination of speed, hands, toughness and innate hockey sense that is going to make him successful in any setting. The fact that he fits nicely with Johansen and Foligno is simply a bonus. Oh, did I mention that he's only 22? It's not much of a stretch to surmise that this line could account for 90 goals this season. If you're opposing them, who do you defend? Get the point? This one is a layup.
3. Can the Blue Jackets avoid the crippling poor starts that have plagued them in recent seasons?
Here the answer is "they have to." The club has been plagued with awful Octobers, dating back to the highly forgettable tenure of Scott Arniel behind the bench. The vast majority of that squad is gone, however, and this group is populated by both veterans and youngsters who have tasted success and want more.
Pre-season performance is not an indicator of future performance, as the Blue Jackets dominated last year's exhibition schedule, and fell flat once the gate opened. True, that was due primarily to an unfathomable sequence of injuries, but every year has been a different excuse. Nobody -- and I mean nobody from the top of the front office to the back row in Section 217 -- will accept those excuses this year. However, other signs suggest this year will be different.
A higher than normal number of roster players stayed in or frequented Columbus in the off-season, and the vast majority were in town well ahead of camp. Only a few small injuries came into play during camp, and the organization moved quickly to pare the training camp attendance sheet from 63 to the low 30's in very short order. More veterans have seen ice time during the last two pre-season games, and the focus has clearly been on getting the roster ready than finding room for youngsters. However, make no mistake that the presence of a big group of talented young players, including Oliver Bjorkstrand, Sonny Milano and Kerby Rychel, made the competition more fierce and put a finer edge on the proceedings. Those same youngsters are poised to make the short 150 minute trip from Cleveland to Columbus, should any of the regulars falter.
If you watch and listen to all concerned, perhaps the major difference is the transition from hope to expectation. Hope is not a strategy, and the Blue Jackets know that. They expect to succeed, have shown the tenacity to overcome adversity, and will come out of the blocks hard this season.
Those are our answers. Stay tuned.