The Columbus Blue Jackets reached the playoffs for the second time in franchise history and appear to be moving in the right direction.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what the Blue Jackets may do to build upon last season's success to return to the playoffs again next year.
There's lots of reason to be optimistic about Columbus, as they have a young core, headlined by 21-year-old centre Ryan Johansen. The only expected returnees older than 30 are defencemen Fedor Tyutin and James Wisniewski. Winger R.J. Umberger is 32, but is looking to move on, so the Blue Jackets largely have a roster around which they can build for the next couple seasons.
GM Jarmo Kekalainen and head coach Todd Richards were buoyed by the Blue Jackets' progress last season, but both know that there is still much room to improve.
"We have to be careful. We want to keep our good chemistry," said Kekalainen. "We always want to bring in the right kind of people, not only as hockey players but as teammates and human beings. It's going to be an important part of our scouting manual."
Scouting is, naturally, important to Kekalainen who, at one time, had been the St. Louis Blues' director of amateur scouting. He stocked the prospect cupboard with three first-round picks last year and that gives the Blue Jackets organizational depth.
It's easier to be optimisic about Columbus' future when they have more good prospects on the way, because it's one thing to have Johansen, Boone Jenner and Ryan Murray in prominent roles, but having Alexander Wennberg, Kerby Rychel and Oliver Bjorkstrand (among others) on the way makes it more likely that success can be sustained.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts), via www.extraskater.com.
Jarmo Kekalainen/Todd Richards
Brandon Dubinsky may not be a star, but he's a valuable player, able to handle tough assignments with defensive zone starts and still produce offence. Dubinsky had the second 50-point season of his career in 2013-2014, but took his game up a notch in the postseason, when he was consistently one of the best performers in the series against Pittsburgh. That he brings an edge to his game -- one of six forwards to have at least 250 points and 600 penalty minutes over the past seven seasons -- is all the better.
Another forward who offers some skill with a physical game, Nick Foligno is one of seven forwards (including Dubinsky) to have at least 100 points and 200 penalty minutes over the past three seasons. Both Dubinsky and Foligno are headed into the final year of their respective contracts.
Small scoring winger Cam Atkinson broke through with a 21-goal, 40-point season, and he's a positive possession player, which makes him a nice complementary player. Can the 24-year-old raise the bar higher so that he's an even bigger part of the Blue Jackets' plans?
Artem Anisimov cracked the 20-goal plateau for the first time in his career, playing a career-high 16:36 per game, and he managed to at least tread water in possession terms, despite starting more of his shifts in the defensive zone.
An industrious winger with some skill who isn't afraid to mix it up, Matt Calvert spent most of his time playing with Dubinsky and Atkinson, a line that contributes offensively, but also had favourable possession stats. Calvert scored a career-high 24 points in 56 games last season, but that could be a jumping-off point, if he can continue to play a reliable two-way game.
A physical winger whose role expanded as his rookie season played out, Boone Jenner had 24 points in his last 47 games (after five in his first 25) and spent quite a bit of time on the wing with Ryan Johansen, a good spot to grow going forward and it could raise Jenner's offensive ceiling.
Recovering from shoulder surgery cost Nathan Horton nearly half of his first season in Columbus, then he added further maladies, including an abdominal injury that kept him out of the playoffs, so his year was far from complete. At the same time, even though he put up modest scoring numbers, Horton continued to be a strong possession player. The 28-year-old has not had an easy time of it, health-wise, in recent seasons, so it's difficult to place significant expectations on him, but he could be a useful top-six forward.
R.J. Umberger has been an effective winger, scoring at least 18 goals in five of the past six seasons, but he's been overwhelmed against difficult competition in the past couple seasons and his ice time of 16:11 per game was his lowest since 2006-2007. Perhaps, then, it should come as no surprise that Umberger has asked for a trade and while it might be part of the offseason plans, it may be not be easy to deal an older winger who is still owed $13.5-million over the next three seasons.
Mark Letestu has emerged as a valuable complementary piece for the Blue Jackets, with power play production an appealing part of his contribution, or it might be if he didn't rank 10th among Blue Jackets forwards in average power play ice time last season. Nevertheless, Letestu scored a career-best 34 points in 2013-2014 and has missed two games, total, over the past couple seasons.
Enforcer Jared Boll has been battling injuries and, when he does play, has been getting destroyed in puck possession. His three-year contract extension begins next year, but he's going to have to do more than drop the gloves to remotely justify a regular turn in the lineup.
Ryan Johansen burst through last season, after he had 33 points in 107 games through his first two years, then scored 33 goals and 63 points in 82 games last season. Johansen has prototypical size to be a No. 1 centre and, in addition to his scoring stats, generated positive possession numbers despite playing high quality competition and starting more of his shifts in the defensive zone. He has quickly become the Jackets' franchise player and, as a restricted free agent, will be looking at a contract befitting that role this summer.
Scooped off waivers from the Buffalo Sabres, Corey Tropp brought energy to the fourth line, but hasn't done enough (scoring 19 points in 87 career NHL games) to this point in his career to feel comfortable with a roster spot.
Matt Frattin had been making progress with Toronto before splitting last season between Los Angeles and Columbus, finishing with two goals in 44 games. He's a viable depth player but, prior to last year, had shown that he could chip in offensively by using his speed.
For the Blue Jackets to feel comfortable with their roster going into next season, they could use another proven scorer. Free agents Thomas Vanek, Matt Moulson, Ryan Callahan, Mike Cammalleri are among those that could have some appeal.
So long as he's not matched up against the opposition's best forwards, and his 22:37 time on ice per game last season was his lowest since 2008-2009, James Wisniewski can be very effective, particularly on the power play. He's physical and put up excellent possession stats last season.
There may be no more polarizing figure between statheads and old-school hockey minds than Jack Johnson, the player that Blue Jackets coaches played more than anyone else by a large margin last season. When you look at Johnson's with-or-without-you stats, nearly everyone he's played with over the past three years has better possession stats when they play without Johnson and while some of that can be due to Johnson playing a high calibre of competition, it's troubling when it's almost universal that players have worse numbers when sharing the ice with Johnson.
Johnson is held in such esteem that he would figure to be a useful trade chip -- because teams want defencemen that can play 24 minutes a night -- but the Blue Jackets don't seem inclined to get rid of him.
In the past seven seasons, there have been 15 defencemen to record at least 20 points in all seven seasons and one of them is Fedor Tyutin, a steady two-way performer who has never played less than 20 minutes per game in an NHL season.
After a strong rookie season, Ryan Murray will be expected to handle more responsibility as a sophomore. Murray had strong possession numbers in his first year, but should see more difficult competition as he plays more minutes going forward.
David Savard earned a regular turn on the Columbus blueline last season, but his possession stats weren't ideal considering the quality of competition that he faced. But, he's also just 23-years-old, so there is time for him to improve and earn a bigger role.
Praised for his plus-15 rating in 28 games during the 2012-2013 season, Dalton Prout had better possession numbers last season, which isn't to say that Prout is a possession ace, but he was okay and his size and toughness should keep him around.
It seems like Tim Erixon has been a prospect forever nad the 23-year-old has played 51 NHL games, but next season might be his opportunity to step into a regular job with the Blue Jackets, unless Columbus takes to the free agent market.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'13-'14 Cap Hit
Sergei Bobrovsky has emerged as one of the game's better goaltenders and, even though his numbers dipped from his 2013 Vezina-winning performance, he ranks among the top half dozen in save percentage over the past four seasons.
Bobrovsky has handled a significant workload over the past couple seasons, so the backup job is one that requires performance in limited playing time. Curtis McElhinney was fine in that role last season. Free agents Chad Johnson, Carter Hutton or Ilya Bryzgalov could be serviceable inexpensive backup options.
||16-5-21, -5, 50 GP
||5-33-38, -4, 40 GP
||34-56-90, +41, 58 GP
||50-59-109, +44, 69 GP
||2.39 GAA, .909 SV%, 42 GP
||Minnesota (Big 10)
||9-24-33, +19, 41 GP
||Bratislava Slovan (KHL)
||3-2-5, -11, 41 GP
||27-24-51, +31, 59 GP
||19-26-45, -4, 55 GP
||Swift Current (WHL)
||6-29-35, +24, 70 GP
||Notre Dame (HE)
||8-30-38, +12, 40 GP
||Modo Ornskoldsvik (SHL)
||2.44 GAA, .919 SV%, 22 GP
The 14th pick in last summer's draft, Alexander Wennberg is a skilled forward who may have a shot to win a job in Columbus next season. He's getting stronger and will have to make an adjustment to the North American game, but Wennberg has playmaking potential.
As noted above, Tim Erixon has been in the prospect pipeline for a while and, after scoring 38 points in 40 AHL games last season, he's knocking on the door, ready for an opportunity to play.
Taken with the 19th pick last summer, Kerby Rychel had a big year, scoring 83 points in 51 (regular season plus playoff) games with Guelph, after putting up 39 points in 27 games with Windsor. After scoring 115 goals over the past three OHL seasons, he's shown what he can do in junior.
Danish winger Oliver Bjorkstrand was drafted in the third round last year and followed that up with a monster offensive campaign, ranking second in the WHL in goals and third in points. Between Wennberg, Rychel and Bjorkstrand, the Blue Jackets have some skilled forwards that will be pushing for jobs in the coming years.
A second-round pick in 2012, Oscar Dansk is a highly-regarded goaltending prospect, but that comes with all sorts of uncertainty and his playoff performance for Erie was disastrous. But, he's a 20-year-old goaltender; it takes time.
Mike Reilly is returning to Minnesota for his junior season, and the 2011 fourth-round pick needs to get stronger to handle the pro game, but he's made terrific progress and was a First-Team All-American as a sophomore.
The third of last year's three first-round picks, Marko Dano hasn't done much in the KHL, though that's not unusual for a teenager. He did, however, have eight points in 15 (regular season plus playoff) games with Springfield in the AHL late in the season, so the 19-year-old should hit the ground running next year.
A power forward picked in the fourth round in 2012, Josh Anderson doesn't have a lot of frills to his game, but he can get up and down his wing banging bodies along the way.
Acquired from Philadelphia in a trade for Tom Sestito, Michael Chaput got into 17 games with the Blue Jackets last season, and while he got stomped in possession, Chaput did have a solid year in the AHL and is likely in position to be recalled if the Blue Jackets need a checking forward.
Picked in the second round last year, Dillon Heatherington is a big defensive defenceman who is plus-49 over his past two seasons in the Western Hockey League. He's just turned 19, so he will need time to develop.
A small forward who scored 161 points in 164 games in four seasons at Notre Dame, T.J. Tynan makes the jump to pro hockey and, starting in the AHL, can show that his scoring will translate at the next level.
Taken in the seventh round in 2011, Anton Forsberg had a nice year with Modo before getting into half a dozen games with Springfield in the AHL. The 21-year-old goaltender should have a shot at decent playing time with Springfield next season.
Blue Jackets advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater
16th - Robby Fabri, Sonny Milano, Dylan Larkin.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Blue Jackets have approximately $48.4M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 15 players.
Check out my possible Blue Jackets lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.
Needs: One top six forward, depth forwards, two defencemen, backup goaltender.
What I said the Blue Jackets needed last year: One top six forward, one defenceman
They added: Boone Jenner, Nathan Horton, Ryan Murray, David Savard.
R.J. Umberger, Matt Frattin, Jack Johnson, David Savard, Dalton Prout.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.