One season removed from their first playoff berth, the Columbus Blue Jackets were once again among the also-rans, due to underwhelming performances from their young players.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at the Blue Jackets and what might help them land in the playoffs next season.
Hopes were high in Columbus, coming off a playoff season and boasting a roster chock-full of talented young players, but something obviously went awry and it resulted in head coach Ken Hitchcock being relieved of his duties in February.
Even though players like Kris Russell and Jakub Voracek made positive strides in their games, there were a couple of young players that obviously struggled.
Goaltender Steve Mason was the NHL Rookie of the Year in 2008-2009 and appeared to be the franchise goaltender that teams crave, but he didn't put together consistent performances until after Hitchcock was gone and, by then, it was really too late.
Mason finished the season strong, providing hope that he can fulfill expectations as a starting goaltender next season and that means providing a save percentage better than .901. Tampa Bay's Mike Smith and Chicago's Cristobal Huet were the only goaltenders to play at least 40 games and have a save percentage worse than Mason.
Considering the team in front of him, Mason has to be better than that. The good thing for the Blue Jackets is that Mason knows it.
Centre Derick Brassard was a leading candidate for the Calder Trophy in 2008-2009 before he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.
The playmaker was expected to step back into the lineup as a potential first-line centre and he didn't respond to the challenge, quickly falling out of favour with Hitchcock and going on a downward spiral. Brassard showed some signs of life late in the season and, with his contract extension kicking in, expectations will be high for him to bounce back next season.
Russian winger Nikita Filatov didn't play a responsible enough game for Hitchcock, who wasn't willing to live with the 19-year-old's mistakes in order to reap the rewards of his offensive creativity, and Filatov ended up leaving for the KHL when it was clear that he was lodged in the doghouse.
Improvement for the Blue Jackets isn't difficult to expect, considering the potential of this trio of players, but that is the challenge that faces many up-and-coming teams; figuring out that being a consistent winner in the NHL doesn't come easily.
"It was six years before I tasted the playoffs, and in that time I learned how hard it is to make them," team captain Rick Nash, a grizzled 25-year-old veteran, told the Columbus Dispatch at season's end. "These guys (his young teammates) had success their very first year, and they might have thought the path was a bit easier. They found out this season how hard this league is, and I really think it'll help them next year."
While the standings don't look terribly optimistic, there ought to be hope in Columbus. They lost more overtime and shootout games (15) than any other team. That's a lot of bad luck. They also have the makings of a solid roster, with five 50-point scorers returning, which could really be something if Brassard and Filatov can add to the equation.
Finally, the hope for development of the young players in Columbus is going to fall on the shoulders of a new head coach. Interim boss Claude Noel could remain in the position, but the most popular rumour has former NHL winger Kevin Dineen taking over.
Dineen finished his 18-plus year NHL career with the Blue Jackets and has racked up 182 regular-season wins with Portland in the AHL over the last four seasons, so he should have some understanding of how to deal with young players and that's a priority.
Franchise forward Rick Nash has three straight seasons with at least 33 goals and 67 points and he's generally durable, playing at least 74 games in six of his seven NHL seasons.
Nash is an elite scoring winger -- only five other wingers have exceeded Nash's 111 goals in the last three seasons -- and yet he's still seeking the kind of playmaking centre that might elevate his performance even more.
That said, the breakout season for Antoine Vermette can't be ignored. In his first full season in Columbus, Vermette scored 65 points, tying for 19th in the league with 51 at even strength. Hitting his peak years, the 27-year-old is signed up long-term and will play in all situations for the Blue Jackets.
A lack of consistency plagues Kristian Huselius, but when he's going (like he was after January 1, scoring 37 points in 36 games), Huselius is a difference maker and his skill is much-needed on the power play.
R.J. Umberger has played every game for the last two seasons in Columbus and is coming off a season in which he notched a career-high 55 points, though his minus-16 rating is a little troubling -- Martin Havlat and Kyle Okposo were the only other 50-point scorers with a worse plus-minus.
20-year-old Jakub Voracek finished strong, with 22 points in the last 25 games, and ended his second season in the league with 50 points. His playmaking skills, combined with his physical development, seem to assure that his scoring totals will continue to increase as he matures.
Scrappy winger Derek Dorsett is energetic and doesn't back down from a challenge, though it's fair to wonder if his body can hold up to the rigors of playing that way on a nightly basis. What bodes well for Dorsett's future in the league is that he improved his all-around game, scoring 14 points with a team-best plus-6 rating in 51 games with the Jackets.
Following a rookie season that was impressive before being cut short by injury, Derick Brassard couldn't get out of Ken Hitchcock's doghouse and he struggled at both ends of the ice, ultimately finishing with 36 points and a minus-17 rating.
Still just 22, Brassard has the skill level to be considered a potential number one centre, possibly the guy to play with Nash, but he'll have to be much better -- stronger and more competitive -- next season to justify the faith that the Blue Jackets had in signing him to a long-term contract.
There is lots to like about the way Samuel Pahlsson plays the game, matching up against top lines every night, though it does seem that the Blue Jackets are paying mightily for that privilege, paying $2.65-million for three goals and 16 points.
Acquired from Washington in the middle of the season, Chris Clark didn't add a great deal of production, managing just five of his season-total of 20 points in 36 games. Undoubtedly, the former Capitals captain is a character guy but, between Pahlsson and Clark, for a team that operates on a budget, the Blue Jackets are tying up quite a bit of money in "character" forwards.
Andrew Murray works hard -- he had to in order to make the league after being drafted in the eighth round in 2001 -- but the 28-year-old has limited upside with 28 points in 152 career games. He fits, and is priced right, for the fourth line, but will likely need to keep hustling for a spot in the lineup.
With size that might suggest power forward, but a lack of production (four points in 50 NHL games) Michael Blunden may be getting steered to a more physical depth forward role. He figures to be on the roster bubble.
There is no wondering about Jared Boll's role with the Blue Jackets, as he's dropped the gloves 72 times in his first three seasons, while scoring a total of 31 points in 218 games.
Boll is tough and, while not heavyweight-sized, doesn't back off from the big boys, which makes it reasonable to wonder just how long he can stay healthy in a punishing role.
While the Blue Jackets can expect another turn from Nikita Filatov up front next season, hopefully for more than eight minutes a game, they could use another top-nine forward to provide better depth, though that might not fit with the current salary structure.
While the Blue Jackets wait for a true No. 1 blueliner, they do have a developing young blueliner in smooth-skating Kris Russell. Russell's offensive game hasn't taken off yet (he scored a career-high 22 points last season), the 23-year-old improved his play without the puck and he handled a heavier workload as the season progressed.
Fedor Tyutin is a productive and durable defenceman, missing two games over the last three seasons. Almost by default, he's been required to handle power play duty in Columbus and has registered 35 points with the man advantage over the last two years. Nevertheless, Tyutin's play would be aided by the addition of another proven top pair defenceman.
Injuries have plagued Rostislav Klesla, as he's played a total of 60 games in the last two seasons, and it appears that the 28-year-old isn't likely to become the kind of game-changer that was expected when he was drafted fourth overall in 2000.
When healthy, Klesla can be effective, with good size and a willingness to compete, yet that doesn't necessarily mean it's good to have him signed up for four more seasons, particularly if he can't stay in the lineup.
After a couple of very good seasons in a shutdown role, Jan Hejda struggled last season before ending up on the injured list to finish the year. When healthy, however, Hejda uses his size effectively in the defensive zone and should be counted on again in that role.
Mike Commodore's lack of mobility can be an issue, but he is large and has paired with Hejda in the shutdown role at times, but could be bumped from that role by either Klesla or Marc Methot, which could make Commodore expendable if the Blue Jackets need to reduce costs.
Methot improved as the season went along, handling more than 20 minutes a night from February on and his development as a defensive stopper could bump one of his higher-paid compatriots.
Columbus' lack of puck skills on the blueline created a need for the services of Anton Stralman and he did contribute 22 of his 34 points on the power play. His minus-17 rating is a concern, but Stralman's 5-on-5 play wasn't altogether as bad as that might indicate.
The Blue Jackets have enough depth on the blueline that they don't need Stralman to play a huge role but, barring any acquisitions or a dramatic improvement from Russell, they still need Stralman's ability to run the power play.
Columbus has enough NHL-calibre defencemen, with some decent prospects on the way, but could still use an upgrade, to get a legitimate top-pair guy to lead the group. If that makes one of the veterans expendable, then so be it; it has to be considered.
Steve Mason had a sensational rookie season and then the sophomore jinx hit hard, at least for the first four months or so, posting an .890 save percentage through the end of January. Then, the Blue Jackets axed head coach Ken Hitchcock and Mason seemd to turn things around, posting a .923 save percentage in his last 18 appearances.
It's not fair to expect Mason to duplicate his rookie season, but something between his rookie year and last year's uneven performance would make a significant difference. As it is, the Blue Jackets don't have much choice but to bank on Mason returning to No. 1 status.
Mathieu Garon is a solid veteran backup. He started 27 games, appearing in 35, last season and though the 32-year-old performed admirably, there's no upside to having him play more. If Mason is on his game, Garon should be limited to about 20 starts.
||CSKA Moscow (KHL)
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||10-37-47,-5, 61 GP
||3-11-14,+13, 42 GP
||13-64-77,+32, 64 GP
||10-7-17,-10, 36 GP
||17-15-32,-11, 74 GP
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||47-52-99,+47, 68 GP
||Notre Dame (CCHA)
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If there's one prospect who could come in and make a real difference, Nikita Filatov has the chance to do that for Columbus. He's a talented player and, presumably with a more lenient coach, could be turned loose to show off some of those offensive gifts.
After returning to the KHL, Filatov scored 9 goals and 22 points in 26 games. Not bad for a 19-year-old, just as 32 points in 39 AHL games the year before seemed a good indication that Filatov will be able to score when given the chance in the NHL.
Smooth-skating John Moore had a decent season in the OHL and could be ready to challenge for a spot, but would likely be better off maturing in the minors and playing in all situations before he's thrust into a prominent role with the Jackets.
Cody Goloubef will be making the jump to the pros after a solid junior year at Wisconsin. As part of the Blue Jackets' up-and-coming defence corps, 20-year-old Goloubef can use some time to get acclimated to the pro game so he doesn't need to be rushed.
David Savard has made huge strides in his development in three years in the QMJHL, climbing to 77 points last season. He's not aggressive and needs some time to continue his improvement, but is an intriguing prospect.
Mammoth winger Tommy Sestito shows a little bit of offensive ability at the AHL level, enough to think that he might be able to handle a limited role in the NHL, but really isn't a need for Columbus as long as Jared Boll is patrolling the wing.
Maksim Mayorov has size, skill and is just 21, but there wasn't much improvement in his second AHL season and he's shown little in seven career NHL games. He has some upside worth exploring, but could really use a productive season in the minors to show he's ready.
Nick Holden's strong finish might have him a little closer to the NHL, but he can still improve defensively and get stronger and doesn't project to be more than organizational depth; still not bad for an undrafted free agent signing.
Called up for a late-season audition with the Blue Jackets, Grant Clitsome had three points and an even rating in 11 NHL games. A ninth-round pick in 2004, he's worked his way into the conversation on the Columbus blueline though, at 25, there isn't time to waste if he's going to stick.
Possibly a bit of a late-bloomer, Matthew Calvert is a smallish winger coming off a 99-point season with Brandon. If he can translate his emerging offensive game to the next level, he may have a chance with the Blue Jackets eventually.
Limited to just 22 games by injury, Teddy Ruth was signed out of Notre Dame following an unspectacular junior season. He's inclined to play a safe defensive style, but Ruth needs to improve in the minors if he's going to handle that role in the NHL.
Columbus has several collegiate prospects that could offer help down the road. Cam Atkinson (Boston College) and Matt Rust (Michigan) are small but skilled forwards who had productive seasons, while Kevin Lynch (also Michigan) is a checker with more size. Defencemen Will Weber (Miami-Ohio) and Thomas Larkin (Colgate) are big guys; 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-5, respectively.
4th - Erik Gudbranson, Cam Fowler, Brandon Gormley, Brett Connolly.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Blue Jackets have approximately $47.6M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 18 players.
Needs: Two top nine forwards, one top pair defenceman.
What I said the Blue Jackets needed last year: One top four defenceman, backup goaltender.
Who did they add? Mathieu Roy, Anton Stralman, Mathieu Garon.
TRADE MARKET Rostislav Klesla, Mike Commodore.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen