Well the dog days of of August are fully upon us and Though there's no lack of speculation and rumor swirling around, actual news is hard to come by. As such I thought I'd try my hand at analyzing the 09-10 version of the Jackets.
Derrick Brassard, penciled as the number one center for now, is said to have put on 15 pounds from last year and states he's fully healthy and ready to go. After a rookie season cut short by injury, where he produced 25 points in 31 games, its not a stretch to believe that with increased ice time and what will hopefully be a season free from major injury Brassard can put up 70-80 points this season.
Joining the sophomore center on the first line will be the returning duo of Captain Rick Nash and shifty winger Kristian Huselius. Nash will hope to build even more upon last years terrific season and with an improved center and a full year of chemistry building with Huselius behind him don't be surprised to see Nash flirt with 50 goals and 90 or even 100 points. Huselius, for many the same reasons as Nash, should have an improved year in 09-10. Though snake bitten through much of last year, he's still a premier sniper and play maker in the league.
For the first time the Jackets have depth down the center with Antoine Vermette settling in behind Brassard on the depth chart. Speedy, tenacious and solid in all three zones, Vermette should be a stable in all situations and will more than likely be afforded ample opportunity to build a career year in all categories.
On his wing, RJ Umberger has quickly become the "conscience" of this team, with his hard nosed blue collar style of play, and a nose for clutch goal scoring. Jake "The Snake" Voracek quietly had a very solid rookie season and all things considered will improve upon the 38 points he scored last year when splitting time between the second third and fourth lines.
The Top Six is filled out and likely, free agent signing Sammi Paulson will be taking up the mantle of third line center, but beyond that a glut of solid wingers gives Coach Ken Hitchcock a difficult but not undesirable decision when filling out the other forward positions. With a cast of players ranging from returning veterans (Raffi Torres, Jason Chimera, Fredrik Modin), improving young agitators (Derrick Dorsette, Jared Boll) and a cast of others (Andrew Murray, Michael Blunden and numerous camp invites) the fight for final five spots on the roster should be interesting come time for training camp.
As it has been in the past, the defense seems to be highlighted by the overwhelming need for a true Powerplay Quarterback type defenseman. If there's no significant trade or free agent signing though, the Jackets will go into training camp with the same six defensemen they ended the playoffs with.
On the 1A pairing, shutdown Defensemen Mike Commodore will likely team up with steady and underrated Jan Hejda to form one of the top shutdown pairings in the league yet again. Meanwhile, the 1B pairing will feature Fedor Tyutin who is arguably the teams best overall defenseman. Partnering up with him will most likely be Rostislav Klesla who, the team hopes, can continue what was a very impressive performance in the playoffs.
The final pairing, will see slick-skating defenseman Kris Russel paired with Marc Methot, a returning rookie, looking to prove last seasons numbers won't be a fluke.
Though overall lacking a number one puck moving defenseman, the group is a better puck moving team then most realize, and the improved offense should mean improved numbers and powerplay support.
In training camp, a number of players will be fighting for the seventh defensemen spot including Grant Clitsome, Nick Holden, Adrej Plekhanov and Ted Ruth.
Steve Mason surprised everyone last year by being thrust into the number one goaltender's position, and not only surviving but thriving and leading the team into the playoffs. This year, all eyes will be analyzing him to see Mason can improve on last season or if he falters and suffers the dreaded sophomore slump. Many believe this could be what makes or breaks the Jackets playoff hopes.
Fortunately for him and the team, fresh UFA signing Garon and a new goaltending coach should solidify the position. Should injuries come though, minor league mainstays Kevin Lalande and Dan Lacosta will look to prove they're up to the task and ready for prime time work.
Though the team is not without its "ifs" and question marks, the 2009-2010 Blue Jackets should be a big improvement over last year's at times hobbled and offensively crippled team. Although, Mason will still be relied on, an improved offense and a returning defense with a year of chemistry issues behind them should help alleviate some of the pressure from the young netminder and as always Hitchcocks system is good for a close knit game or two.
Prediction - 6th place; 98 points, 3rd in the central