After Ken Hitchcock experienced his second consecutive season on the sidelines when the playoffs began last April, it was clear that neither he nor Scott Howson would settle for another difficult season in Columbus. Consequently, the Blue Jackets made a number of trades and free agent signings to help push the team into the playoffs in 2008/09 for the first time in club history.
Led by the powerful Rick Nash, the team finally has surrounded the All-Star forward with enough scoring help to expect a significant increase in goal output this season. Out are Nikolai Zherdev and Dan Fritsche. They have been replaced by R.J. Umberger (acquired for a 1st round pick), Kristian Huselius (signed as a free agent) and Raffi Torres (acquired for Gilbert Brule).
In Umberger, the Blue Jackets get a smooth-skating versatile forward who can play center or the wing and loves to play a physical game. After an impressive playoff performance with Philadelphia, expect Umberger to see an increase in offensive responsibility in Ohio.
In Huselius, the Jackets add a player with terrific hands and on-ice vision. The speedy Swede came into his own in Calgary and developed confidence in his game that he never had in Florida. The Jackets expect Huselius to replace the scoring of Nikolai Zherdev who was traded to NYR over the summer.
The acquisition of Torres provides the Jackets with a physical player who had a frustrating 2007/08 season with injuries and trouble regaining his old goal-scoring form.
In addition to the aforementioned three acquisitions, the Jackets have added some youth and skill up front with the emergences of Jakub Voracek and Derick Brassard to the scene. Voracek was extremely impressive in his final season in the QMJHL and the organization believes Brassard is ready to make the jump to the NHL after a strong finish to last season in the AHL.
For a team that struggled to score goals last season, the addition of five new players capable of providing offense must get Ken Hitchcock and his staff giddy to start the 2008/09 campaign.
Talk about a new organization top to bottom. The Ohioans added Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman via trade and signed the physical Mike Commodore off the free agent to significantly upgrade the team’s defensive depth.
The acquisition of Tyutin may have garnered less attention than some of the offensive acquisitions previously mentioned, but his presence on the blue line should help out immensely. The Russian defender is built like a truck, unafraid of physical play and can move the puck out of his defensive zone.
Along with Tyutin, the Jackets also acquired Christian Backman. The veteran d-man should help provide depth on the team’s third defense pairing and, while he isn’t very physical, he can skate and move the puck well enough to see the ice on a consistent basis.
Finally, the Commodore acquisition should help the team in the leadership area, the dressing room and increase the defense corps’ physical presence. His playoff experience sure won’t hurt either when the team is coming down the stretch trying to crack the top eight in the Western Conference.
To go with the team’s three off-season newcomers, the Jackets have Rostislav Klesla, Kris Russell, Ole-Kristian Ole-Tollefsen and Jan Hejda. There is concern in Columbus as to who will quarterback the team’s power play (Ron Hainsey left for Atlanta this summer) and that is indeed warranted, but this group is far superior defensively to the group that completed last season in Columbus.
Make no mistake; this is Pascal Leclaire’s net. The young Quebec native was great last year and should only continue to improve on his breakout season. Expect the netminder to see action in about 65 games in 2008/09.
Leclaire is backed up by Fredrik Norrena, a capable back-up who should provide the team with solid netminding when Leclaire needs to take a breather (back-to-back games).
Ceiling: 6th in the Western Conference
Floor: 11th in the Western Conference
This is the best shot the Jackets have ever had at the playoffs and this should be the year that Ohio fans finally experience playoff hockey.