After finally making the NHL playoffs, the challenge that awaits the Columbus Blue Jackets is to build on that accomplishment rather than falling back.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what Columbus can do when facing that challenge, as well as the challenge of trying to sign their franchise player to a contract extension, this summer.
For all the progress the Blue Jackets made under GM Scott Howson and head coach Ken Hitchcock, there is already a contentious issue for them to deal with this summer.
Rick Nash has been the face of the Blue Jackets franchise and is just hitting his prime, but will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season. If there isn't a contract extension in place before next season begins, that will mean Nash goes into the same non-stop rumour mill that Panthers defenceman Jay Bouwmeester was in this past season.
The good news for the Blue Jackets is that they have built a strong enough core of young players that, if Nash was to leave, it wouldn't have to be the death knell for the franchise, as it might have seemed a year or two ago. That also means that, if it appears Nash isn't going to sign a long-term deal in Columbus, that the Blue Jackets have to explore what kind of value he could bring in a trade.
Now, with likely Rookie of the Year Steve Mason in goal along with promising youngsters Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek and Kris Russell leading the way, there is plenty of reason for optimism -- both for the future hopes of the Blue Jackets and the hopes that they will be successful enough to keep Nash in the fold.
Sure, a four-game sweep in the team's one-and-only playoff hardly means everything is perfect, but a decent mix of promising young players and solid vets is enough reason to think that it won't be the last playoff appearance for this group.
Scott Howson/Ken Hitchcock
Top Prospects: Nikita Filatov (16-16-32, even in 39 GP; Syracuse-AHL), Maxim Mayorov (17-14-31, minus-15 in 71 GP; Syracuse-AHL)
Rick Nash has steadily improved since coming into the league as an 18-year-old and put up his best season with 40 goals, 79 points and a plus-11 rating. The challenge facing the Jackets now is that Nash is a premier scoring winger heading into the final season of his contract, which will leave him ripe for trade rumours until his contract is extended.
What is most promising for the Blue Jackets is that they have a new generation of offensive talent on the way to finally provide scoring support for Nash. The group is led by Derick Brassard, who was a Rookie of the Year candidate before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Paired with Nash, he could have point-per-game potential.
Kristian Huselius was pretty much as advertised, a skilled and streaky scorer. His goal, point and plus-minus totals have decreased in each of the last two seasons, so it is fair to wonder what kind of production he'll provide over the three years that remain on his deal, but the Blue Jackets aren't in a position to throw away 20-goal scorers.
While not a first-liner, R.J. Umberger does the job as a complementary scorer and put up a career-best 26 goals last season. His minus-10 rating was worst among Blue Jackets forwards, however, so there is room for improvement and it could conceivably come as the supporting cast continues to get better.
Hard-hitting Raffi Torres has run into injury problems the last two seasons and, while he can be an asset, Torres seems to be a long way from the 27-goal-scorer that he was in 2005-2006.
Likewise, Fredrik Modin has only played 73 games over the last two seasons with the Blue Jackets, so he hasn't quite had the anticipated impact. He remains a responsible two-way player and is a big, strong forward, but expectations can't be too high as he hits his mid-30s.
Antoine Vermette's game improved dramatically after coming over in a trade from Ottawa, but he also continued his postseason struggles, so that is something he'd like to change. Vermette is valuable as a speedy, versatile forward who can play wing or centre in all situations.
Jakub Voracek made the team as a 19-year-old and played a reliable enough game to keep a regular spot in the lineup despite scoring just one goal in the final 31 games. Voracek has the creativity and playmaking skills to be a productive offensive player as he matures.
Jason Chimera has a great combination of size and speed to go with a little offensive upside, which makes him a strong performer on a checking line and he had been quite durable before groin injuries sidelined him for 33 games last season.
Hard-working Andrew Murray has good size and hits a lot, but he doesn't offer much once Columbus retrieves the puck.
Few players in the league can rile up opponents as much Jared Boll, who has racked up 51 fights in his first two NHL seasons. It remains to be seen if the 22-year-old is going to develop into something more than fists of fury.
If Boll isn't the most aggravating to opponents, perhaps that falls to Derek Dorsett, who doesn't let his lack of size deter him from an in-your-face, combative approach. Both Boll and Dorsett are fourth-line performers until they prove otherwise.
Jiri Novotny hasn't quite turned out as hoped, but he has size and enough skill to at least hold down a roster spot.
The Blue Jackets have so many forwards under contract already, to say nothing of highly-skilled prospect Nikita Filatov on the way or the possibility of re-signing checking centre Manny Malhotra, that they could move at least a forward or two to create cap and roster room or address their need for a puck-moving defenceman.
Top Prospects: Cody Goloubef (5-8-13, plus-6 in 36 GP, Wisconsin-WCHA), Teddy Ruth (25-7, plus-11 in 36 GP; Notre Dame-CCHA)
Terminally-underrated Jan Hejda is a terrific shutdown defenceman. Big, strong and willing to sacrifice his body, Hejda is one of just five defencemen to have at least a plus-20 rating in each of the last two seasons (Duncan Keith, Nicklas Lidstrom, Johnny Oduya and Paul Martin are the others).
Acquired in the Nikolai Zherdev trade last summer, Fedor Tyutin turned in a terrific season. He probably got more power play time than he would ideally warrant, but Tyutin is a versatile top-four defenceman who can play in any situation.
It seemed fair to question the Blue Jackets' commitment to Mike Commodore, signing him to a five-year contract when he was a free agent last summer, but he was a solid fit alongside Hejda on a shot-blocking, hard-hitting defensive pairing. His lack of speed can cause him problems, but Commodore generally managed just fine last season.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Kris Russell is undersized but a sensational skater. He needs to keep improving in his own end, but he's only 22 years of age, so he could breakthrough as a dynamic offensive force in the next year or two.
Now 27, it doesn't appear that Rostislav Klesla will fulfill the promise that he showed when he was drafted fourth overall in 2000, but he's still a very capable NHL defenceman with good size. Yet, his inability to stay healthy (missing more than 30 games in three of the last five seasons) has surely slowed his development.
Marc Methot gradually worked his way into the NHL lineup and quietly performed very well in a defensive role. He's not asked to do too much, but is a reliable, cost-effective player.
This is a solid defence corps, but still in need of a power play quarterback, particularly if Russell isn't totally ready to take on the role.
If a trade isn't in the works to acquire that puck-moving defenceman, then Mathieu Schneider, Marc-Andre Bergeron and Cory Murphy are free agents that could fit that bill as power play quarterbacks, while a veteran like Darryl Sydor might also hold some appeal for head coach Ken Hitchcock, who coached Sydor when both were with the Dallas Stars.
Top Prospect: Dan LaCosta (19-18-2, 2.79 GAA, .913 SVPCT, 2 SO in 45 GP; Syracuse-AHL), Kevin Lalande (13-6-2, 2.17 GAA, .928 SVPCT, 1 SO in 21 GP; Quad City, Syracuse-AHL)
Goaltending is well taken care of in Columbus now, as Steve Mason took the league by storm, recording ten shutouts as he backstopped the Blue Jackets to their first playoff berth. Sure, it was a short-and-sweet four-game sweep against the Red Wings and Mason struggled some late in the year, but the 20-year-old handled a much-too-heavy workload, so his future is very bright.
Once Fredrik Norrena was sent packing and Pascal Leclaire got hurt (before getting traded), the Jackets turned to Wade Dubielewicz for their backup duties.
Given Mason's relative inexperience, it would make sense to bring in a more proven backup, just to help keep Mason fresh. Veterans like Mathieu Garon, Brian Boucher, Brent Johnson or perhaps Martin Gerber could make some sense for 20 starts or so.
16th - Zack Kassian, Jacob Josefson, John Moore
The Blue Jackets have approximately $41.5-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: One top four defenceman, backup goaltender
What I said the Blue Jackets needed last year: Two top six forwards, two top four defencemen, one additional defenceman
Who did they add? Kristian Huselius, R.J. Umberger, Jakub Voracek, Fedor Tyutin, Derick Brassard, Mike Commodore, Christian Backman.
Raffi Torres, Fredrik Modin, Rostislav Klesla.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca