Things really could have gone better. Entering 2009-10, the Blue Jackets may not have been the toast of the league, but for the first time in franchise history there was genuine reason for optimism. The combination of head coach Ken Hitchcock and general manager Scott Howson appeared to have introduced a competent hockey operations department, a franchise first, and it was expected the team would build on their 2008-09 playoff appearance.
The opposite happened. Top prospect Nikita Filatov fled to Russia, goaltending sensation (or was he?) Steve Mason struggled through a miserable season, and eventually Howson cut Hitchcock loose. In the end, all that hope generated in 2008-09 just made the crash uglier to watch.
Ethan Moreau, baby! The captain of the worst team in hockey last year, coming off an ugly season in which he was ineffective on the ice, was picked up on waivers by the Blue Jackets during the off-season. It was an almost inexplicable move, given Moreau’s $2.0 million cap hit, but presumably Howson had a flashback to his time as an assistant G.M. with the Oilers – back when Moreau was an effective third liner. He’ll be asked to play that role for the Blue Jackets.
Nobody. Well, Nathan Paetsch. Close enough.
The Blue Jackets were a middle of the pack team offensively last year, and there isn’t a lot of reason to expect that to change anytime soon.
Rick Nash is the first name that comes to mind when looking at the Columbus forwards (and rightly so) but Antoine Vermette was actually the team’s best even-strength scorer with 51 points – a total that ranked 19th in the league and tied him with players like Corey Perry, Dany Heatley and Brad Richards. Given that Vermette’s only exceeded 51 total points once before in his career, it’s anyone’s guess whether that kind of scoring can continue. Kristian Huselius and R.J. Umberger are key contributors as well, while a mix of younger players – promising Jakub Voracek, injury-prone Derick Brassard, and wildcard Nikita Filatov – round out the team’s top offensive threats.
The defence lacks much offensive flare, and an injury to Kris Russel is not going to help matters.
Columbus was a highly capable defensive team in 2008-09, but missed the mark by a long ways last year. The temptation is to put most of that on the goaltenders, but while goaltending was a factor it certainly wasn’t the only one. For example, in 2008-09, Columbus ranked third in the NHL in shots against per game; last season they ranked 17th.
The personnel is largely suited to a defensive system; the blue-line is crowded with capable defensive types, including the excellent Jan Hejda. Up front, Rick Nash took flack last year for his defensive presence but has turned into an outstanding power-vs.-power player. Additionally, the Jackets enter this season with a revamped checking line, featuring famous shutdown centre Samuel Pahlsson flanked by a pair of ex-captains in Ethan Moreau and Chris Clark.
The goaltending situation is shaky. Normally, I’m a fan of tandems, but I have trouble getting behind either Steve Mason or Mathieu Garon as a 50-game starter. On Mason, I’d strongly suggest reading Kent Wilson’s fantastic piece. While due to a combination of Mason’s age and his junior numbers I remain optimistic about his long-term potential, I don’t see any reason to believe he’s likely to put in a better than backup-calibre performance this coming season. Garon’s capable of extended bursts of competence, but he’s a backup for a reason.
Best Case Scenario
If one of Mason or Garon can solidify the goaltending situation, Columbus could be a playoff team. There group of forwards is not spectacular but boasts some capable players, and the situation is similar on defence where the team’s blue-line crew is playoff worthy if the observer squints hard enough. Anywhere between sixth and eighth would represent a very successful season for this team.
Worst Case Scenario
If, on the other hand, the goaltending situation is not stabilized, things could get ugly in a hurry. That group of solid but unspectacular defencemen on the Blue Jackets’ roster lack puck-moving ability, and that will hurt the team. Up front, the team is hoping for strong campaigns from less than proven youngsters, and for the continued development of Antoine Vermette – things which could easily fail to transpire. I’m not kidding when I say Columbus could finish dead last in the West this season if things break wrong.
Ah, Maggie Q.
Anyways, Nikita Filatov is the name at the top of any ranking of Blue Jackets prospects. He had a rough year, reportedly battling with coach Ken Hitchcock before returning to Russia, where he was good if not great. The highly talented forward could carve out a top-six role this season. Columbus’ other top picks – Ryan Johansen and John Moore – are both unlikely to make the team this year. 20 year old Matt Calvert, a feisty (though diminutive) forward coming off a 47-goal season in the WHL is a bit of a dark horse, but could also find a home.
All Eyes On…
Steve Mason. The impossible to avoid pick; Mason not only has more to prove than almost anyone else on the team, but his performance is almost certainly going to have more impact than anyone else’s on where the team places this season.
We all begin with good intent
Love was raw and young
We believed that we could change ourselves
The past could be undone
But we carry on our backs the burden
Time always reveals
The lonely light of morning
The wound that would not heal
It’s the bitter taste of losing everything
That I have held so dear.
- Sarah McLachlan, Fallen