The 2008-2009 season was the Columbus Blue Jackets’ most successful campaign. The Jackets finished seventh in the conference, making the playoffs for the first time in team history. Even though they were quickly disposed of by the Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs, the Blue Jackets opened a lot of eyes last year and took a big step towards gaining respectability as a franchise. The future looks bright for the Jackets, as goaltender Steve Mason won the Calder Trophy and was nominated for the Vezina, and youngsters Derick Brassard and Jakub Voracek had excellent rookie seasons.
The Columbus Blue Jackets ranked 10th in scoring team in the Western Conference, averaging 2.76 goals/game. Though they ranked in the bottom half of the conference in offense, 2008-2009 was a significant improvement, as the Jackets scored the fewest goals in the NHL only one year earlier.
Columbus’ offensive strength comes from two sources: hard work and Rick Nash (note: Nash also works hard but is the only player other than Huselius that can consistently create scoring opportunities). Fortunately for Jackets fans, Nash is signed through the 2017-2018 season. Columbus’ offensive corps will essentially remain intact, and is improved (defensively) by the addition of Sammy Pahlsson.
Led by 25 year-old Rick Nash, Columbus’ offense has potential to improve significantly for the second straight year. Nash led the Jackets offense with 40 goals last season, many of them of highlight-reel quality. He regarded as one of the NHL’s emerging stars and could easily win the Rocket Richard Trophy.
Kristian Huselius is not exactly your typical Ken Hitchcock player. He has a propensity to float, and at $4.75 million/season may not have been GM Scott Howson’s finest move. In spite of these issues, Huselius gives the Jackets a scorer and playmaker, something they lack.
The rookie combination of Jakub Voracek and Derick Brassard provided the Jackets with a spark during the early part of the season. Unfortunately, Brassard missed most of the season with a shoulder injury and Voracek’s production tailed off near the end of the season.
Brassard, Columbus’ 1st round pick, 6th overall in 2006, is a great playmaker and scorer. Brassard could become a point a game player in the near future. Voracek, Columbus’ 1st round pick, 7th overall in 2007, can create offense. He will lead the Jackets in assists in a few years.
Nikita Filatov, Columbus’ 1st round pick, 6th overall in 2008, was used sparingly last season. He has incredible offensive potential and should take on a more active role with the club this year.
The Jackets also boast depth at centre. In addition to Brassard, they have R.J. Umberger, Antoine Vermette, and Sammy Pahlsson.
Umberger is a valuable penalty-killer and two way forward, and Sammy Pahlsson is a defensive specialist. Pahlsson should help fans forget about the loss of Mike Peca. Antoine Vermette was acquired at the trade deadline last year for goaltender Pascal Leclaire. Vermette performed very well with the Jackets, totaling 13 points in 17 games.
Freddy Modin and Raffi Torres can also make valuable offensive contributions if they can stay healthy.
Columbus also has a number of role players. Jared Boll is an excellent enforcer/tough-guy. Jason Chimera provides solid two-way play, and Andrew Murray and Derek Dorsett are hard-working players that fit well into Ken Hitchcock’s system.
While Columbus is a defense-first team, their defense is relatively unheralded. Led by Mike Commodore and Fedor Tyutin, the Jackets defensive focuses on strong defensive play. Tyutin and Commodore are both above-average defensemen. Tyutin set career highs in points last year and at 26, could see better years ahead.
The key to the defensive improving offensively is Kris Russell. The 22 year-old Russell spent most of last season with the Jackets but also saw time in the minors. Columbus had the worst power-play in the league last year, and a maturing Russell could be just what the Jackets need.
Rotislav (Rusty) Klesla missed most of last season with injuries but will be at 100% for this season. Fellow Czech Jan Hejda was a remarkable +23 last season and may be the best defensive defenseman on the Jackets’ squad.
The primary reason Columbus made the playoffs last year was the play of rookie Steve Mason. Mason won the Calder and was a finalist for the Vezina. After taking over for Pascal Leclaire, Mason led the NHL in shutouts and was second in goals against average.
Mason is making a paltry $850.000 and will likely be one of the best bargains in the league. GM Scott Howson should strongly consider signing Mason to a lengthy contract extension. The Jackets have an improving offense and a solid defense, but the success of the team will be determined by how well Steve Mason plays.
The Jackets made a wise move by signing veteran Mathieu Garon to be their back-up. With Fredrik Norrena signing in Europe, the Jackets have secured a reliable, experienced back-up. The 31 year-old joins his fifth team. He will not play very often playing behind Steve Mason.
Ceiling – Columbus has the potential to finish second or third in the Central division and be the team that no one wants to face in the first round of the playoffs. Anywhere from 4th to 6th is possible as long as Mason plays as well as last year. Columbus has basically the same team as last year, including many young players that should only improve.
Floor – If Mason gets injured or does not play well the Jackets could finish at the bottom of a very tough Central division. Though they will not finish in last, 10th or 11th is not out of the question.