The Columbus Blue Jackets have been taking heavy criticisms for the past year after finishing with the worst record in the NHL last season. Now, the team has sold off their household superstar Rich Nash and hopes to build a new identity in the 48-game schedule in 2013.
The real question is, can the Blue Jackets actually succeed in doing that?
Scott Howson was under the spotlight for quite some time before he pulled the trigger on a deal with the New York Rangers, which sent Nash to the Garden and brought in Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky and Tim Erixon. He was also able to get a first-round pick in the deal, but it's safe to assume the pick will be a late one.
In any case, the Blue Jackets were able to get skilled players that can help bring this team some success. While Dubinsky is a great two-way center that will definitely benefit from top line minutes, Anisimov is in the same position, and will look to use his size and offensive gifts to put some points on the board. While Erixon was sent back to Springfield, he still is a great defensemen in the Blue Jackets' system.
It would seem quite difficult for young Erixon to make the team when Jack Johnson, James Wisniewski, Fedor Tyutin, Adrian Aucoin, Nikita Nikitin, David Savard and John Moore are his competition. Nevertheless, after hopefully dominating the AHL, he will see time with the big club sooner or later.
At forward, the additions of Anisimov and Dubinsky help a struggling corps of players in Derick Brassard, R.J. Umberger, Vinny Prospal, Derek Mackenzie, Derek Dorsett, Jared Boll, Mark Letestu, Colton Gillies and recent acquisition Nick Foligno.
While the group above looks to be well on it's way to a respectable team, it's the identity crisis the Blue Jackets are trying to fix after the departure of Rick Nash. Enter Cam Atkinson, Ryan Johansen and Matt Calvert.
All three youngsters have seen success at the AHL level, and need to make a smooth transition to the NHL with hopes of remaining with the top club. These are the future faces of the Blue Jackets that need to excel now. Atkinson hopes to be a deadly scorer on the wing, while Johansen plays a very sound two-way game with offensive playmaking upside, and Calvert will likely stick in a bottom-six role hoping to prove himself.
He's good, but it will take a lot for him to earn a top-six roster spot, especially after the upgrades.
One of the best parts of Blue Jacket's training camp was the position battles—they were all over the place. Even still, Steven Mason and Sergei Bobrovsky will continue to battle for the starting gig until a clear cut winner emerges. Based on Mason's last season performance, along with Bobrovsky's showing in the KHL, don't be surprised if the Russian gets the first call.
In fact, coach Todd Richards has been extremely impressed with the young netminder's work ethic and drive after joining the Blue Jackets (via The Columbus Dispatch).
Mind you, Mason hasn't been that bad in camp, either. So, this battle seems to be raging on for the time being. Not to mention, with a shortened schedule, both goalies will have ample time to earn their stripes.
To conclude, a surprise? Maybe a stretch. But do not be taken aback if the Blue Jackets find themselves fighting for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference, with some of the more respected teams around the league like the Anaheim Ducks, Colorado Avalanche and the Nashville Predators.
If not anything else, be sure that the Blue Jackets will be one of the most difficult teams to play against. They are big, mean and have something to prove.
Wouldn't you overachieve in those circumstances?
With that said, the shortened season looks to be a great one, and hopefully the Blue Jackets can find success in fighting for a playoff spot by season's end.
Easier said than done, to say the least.