Jackets look to build on oh-so-close 2012-13 regular season
Nathan Horton, Mike McKenna, Frederic St. Denis, Jack Skille, Jeremy Smith.
Nick Drazenovic, Nick Holden.
Last year: They came oh so close.
The Blue Jackets limped out of the gate once the puck eventually dropped on 2013 posting a disastrous 5-12-3 mark through the first two months of the season.
The Jackets looked primed to earn their third lottery pick in a four-year span and were even flirting with posting the NHL’s worst record for a second consecutive year.
Then something changed. The team, no longer lost without Rick Nash, started to grind out some wins and accumulate points.
Going the distance at first – including an astounding 10-game stretch that saw the team head to overtime nine times – the Jackets learned to keep their games to one-goal affairs.
The team turned things around on the back of eventual Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky and played out of their minds through March and April, going 19-5-4.
But it wasn’t enough. The blistering second half left them out of the playoffs by virtue of nothing more than a tiebreak.
This Year: This year marks the first full year under the league’s first-ever European GM: Jarmo Kekalainen.
He has been productive, trying to set the table for a team that can re-shape the Jackets’ identity and put some of the futility behind them.
After Scott Howson added hard-working forwards like Nick Foligno and Brandon Dubinsky after the 2011-12 season, Kekalainen set about adding a measure of skill to make up for the offensive void that lingered after Nash’s departure.
Marian Gaborik is entering a contract year and could be eager to prove once more that he is one of the NHL’s premier offensive threats and the Jackets made a serious off-season cash commitment to Nathan Horton who admitted to being impressed with the team’s sales pitch.
If a newly-re-upped Bobrovsky can hold form and some of the team’s stockpile of young talent can break through, the Jackets could be a very entertaining team to watch in 2013-14.
The Long and the Short – How will a full 82-game slate affect the Blue Jackets' performance after a shortened season?
This is where the Jackets’ 2013 output becomes most interesting. Was this a team that simply had to gel and faltered early, or is this a team that only started playing competently once the damage had been done?
If it’s the former, then the Jackets could be destined to surprise a lot of teams in the coming season.
If it’s the latter, then the team had better hope that they can come together quick, that Horton’s health can hold out - after he returns in December/January after offseason shoulder surgery - and that there’s no fall-off in Bobrovsky’s play. Otherwise, the long season could be just that… a long season.
On the Books – What off-season moves did the Jackets make to get themselves back in cap shape?
The Jackets were in pretty good shape with the dropping cap, since the team only dropped a little north of $53 million last season on its cap obligations.
The team is surprisingly amongst the top half of the NHL’s spenders heading into the season but a lot of that is due to re-upping Bobrovsky, inking Horton and taking on a year’s worth of Gaborik.
The rest of the roster is largely in the $3 million-to-$5 million range, James Wisniewski notwithstanding, with the likes of R.J. Umberger, Jack Johnson, Dubinsky and Foligno all having multiple years left on their deals.
Long Division – A look at the intriguing possibilities ahead for the Jackets after realignment.
It’s a whole new world for Columbus.
They find themselves in the Eastern Conference for the first time, which will certainly be a boon for the team’s travel obligations.
Ironically, it also puts them in close and regular contact with one of their biggest recent trading partners: the New York Rangers.
Lacking natural rivals in the new Metropolitan Division and even their new conference, they’ll have to hope that they can get up for their first run at Nash and that Gaborik feels up to proving a point to his former team to help fuel the fire.
Bobrovsky will also be given his first taste of the team that abandoned him: the Philadelphia Flyers, who might know a thing or two about goaltending inconsistency.
Fantasy - Scott Cullen's Player to Watch
Brandon Dubinsky, C - A two-time 20-goal scorer, Dubinsky has just 12 goals in 106 games over the last two seasons, including two in 29 games for the Blue Jackets last season. If we can operate under the assumption that a player who scored on 9.4% of his shots prior to last season isn't going to continue scoring on 4.0% like he did last year, then there should be some rebounding towards more typical goal-scoring numbers as he continues to play a prominent role for the Blue Jackets.
Additionally, his goal-scoring woes aside, Dubinsky has remained a quality two-way player in the meantime and offers a rare combination of points and penalty minutes. Over the last three seasons, for example, he's one of seven forwards to tally at least 100 points while recording at least 250 penalty minutes.
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Pressing Question: Do the Jackets actually have a plan?
On July 1 Nathan Horton admitted to being impressed by what Columbus was pitching him for the foreseeable future of his hockey career.
That could have been what they were able to do in the second half and the promise of more Bobrovsky heroics and the development of their young assets.
It could also just have been a whole lot of cash.
For the second time in three years, the Jackets dropped serious coin and serious term on a mid-level free agent. The first came with Wisniewski’s six-year, $33 million pact from the summer of 2011.
Horton’s enjoyed some success, having made deep post-season runs with the Bruins in two of his three seasons in Boston. He’s also got a proven ability to score, having broken 25 goals four times since 2005-06.
However, he’s also been injured a whole lot, breaking the 70-game plateau only once in the past five seasons (although he did play 43 of 48 last year).
Horton is still on the right side of 30, but power forwards don’t age well and his deal was the most lucrative handed out this summer, besting even Toronto’s seven-year down payment on the highly sought-after David Clarkson.
Did the Jackets sell Horton on strategy, or did they let the cash do the talking?
- Columbus Blue Jackets Preview by Shane McNeil, TSN.ca