COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
2008-09: 41-31-10 (7th in the West – Eliminated in Conference QF by Red Wings)
TSN.ca Pre-season Power Ranking: 13th
General Manager: Scott Howson (3rd Season)
Head Coach: Ken Hitchcock (4th Season)
What They Did in the off-season:
After the most successful season in franchise history, it was a relatively quiet summer in Columbus. The Jackets added checking centre Sammy Pahlsson and backup netminder Mathieu Garon in free agency, while allowing Jason Williams, Mike York, Fredrik Norrena, Wade Dubielewicz, Ole-Kristian Tollefsen and Michael Peca to search for greener pastures elsewhere.
The team's biggest move of the off-season was locking up the face of the franchise - Rick Nash - to an eight-year contract extension.
Biggest Issue facing the team:
The Jackets saved themselves a lot of headaches by getting Nash's John Hancock on a contract extension prior to the start of the season. That's important as it will eliminate what could have been a big distraction to a very young and talented team.
Life is good right now in Ohio. In addition to the Nash signing, the team is coming off its first playoff appearance in franchise history, Steve Mason was named the NHL's rookie of the year and was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy and the team is loaded with explosive youngsters ready to contribute.
The challenge that the team will experience this season is building on their success from last year. With so many kids on the roster, it would be easy to become complacent and be satisfied with what they have already achieved. Fredrik Modin and the newly-signed Pahlsson are the only players currently on the Jackets roster who are over 30. This lack of veteran presence could play a big role in the team's development this season. Should the team fall into an early season slump, it could be very difficult to dig themselves out of that hole without an experienced group of players leading the way.
Fortunately for Columbus, they have a coach in Ken Hitchcock who won't allow his team to slack. He's is a real throwback to coaches of old who will constantly challenge his players in different ways to keep them hungry. That being said, a few more grey beards on the roster to act as on-ice mentors certainly wouldn't hurt.
Whether the Jackets are able to add a battle-scarred veteran or not, this team is going to be very entertaining to watch. If they are able to keep their core group of players together over the next few seasons, we could be looking at a situation very similar to the one in Pittsburgh - with a group that will contend year-in and year-out.
Player to watch:
It is not so much one player that hockey fans should keep their eyes on in Columbus, but a whole group of sophomores. Mason, Jakub Voracek, Derrick Brassard and Nikita Filatov all got their first real taste of NHL action last season, and all flourished in their roles. Together with Nash, they represent the foundation of the franchise and will be asked to take on even bigger roles in their second full seasons. That is an awful lot to expect out of four players whose average age is just 20. The Oilers were in a very similar situation last year and the team struggled when the youngsters were asked to carry the organization on their backs. It will be interesting to see how the four react to the increased expectations.
Of the four, Mason will likely be the one most highly scrutinized. While his pedigree is unquestionable, there are plenty who believe the reigning Calder Trophy winner benefited greatly from coach Hitchcock's defence-first approach. He also looked vulnerable when the Jackets were swept away in four straight at the hands of the Red Wings in the first round of the post-season. He was not alone in that regard, as the team appeared to be a deer in the headlights against the then-defending champions.
With the increased pressure of trying to make the Canadian Olympic squad, it is not inconceivable that Mason takes a step backwards in his second season. That being said, he has made a career out of proving his doubters wrong and it seems just as likely that he establishes himself as one of the game's truly elite netminders this year.
Scott Cullen's Fantasy Take:
After making their first playoff appearance last season, the Columbus Blue Jackets are on the way up, with a roster of young talent that should only get better as they gain more experience.
Leading the way is Rick Nash, a 25-year-old who ranks among the league's elite power forwards. If the Blue Jackets power play could improve, thereby increasing Nash's 19 points with the man advantage, he could be in for a huge season.