BT's 2008/09 NHL Season Preview: The Columbus Blue Jackets
Preface: It's raining outside, which I can only associate with one thing: October.
And as we all know, October is the beginning of the NHL season; like Christmas morning and Easter wrapped into one, except shredded beef atop a heaping pile of nachos replaces the turkey, and instead of an Easter Egg hunt it's "Go get Uncle Mel another beer"....
Either way I'm pumped.
Alright, now that that's out of the way, we're back to the task at hand.
When you're the Columbus Blue Jackets, it's hard paying in the Central division.
For a long time, you were the laughing stock of a lot of people, as you just couldn't get over the hump, no matter what you did.
Me? I was a laughing stock too. You try cheering for the Blue Jackets when you're the lone fan of the team in London, Ontario—and that was before Rick Nash got drafted from the London Knights.
Much like a few other teams around the Western Conference, I still keep taps on the Jackets (Dallas, Nashville, Chicago, and Phoenix are some of the other I feel a little bit of warmth in my heart for), but I'm past the stage of calling myself a fan. I'm more of a Rick Nash well-wisher, just hoping he gets to be competitive one day.
Well, his day has arrived.
It seems that the Jackets made an extra effort this offseason in their attempts to pull away from the St Louis Blues and the Nashville Predators, and join Chicago and Detroit as the most-talked about team in the division.
Now, once again, it's time for the Jackets to "back up that smack".
Roster Additions: Mike Commodore-D (Free Agent), Kristian Huselius-F (Free Agent), R.J. Umberger-F (Trade, signed to four-year deal), Mike York-F (Free Agent), Raffi Torres-F (Trade), Fedor Tyutin-D (Trade), Christian Backman-D (Trade)
Roster Subtractions: Gilbert Brule-F (Trade), Nikoalai Zherdev-F (Trade), Dan Fritsch-F (Trade), Joakim Lindstrom-F (Trade), David Vyborny-F (Free Agent), Dick Tarnstrom-D (Free Agent), Ron Hainsey-D (Free Agent)
How did 2007/08 go? 34-36-12, 80 points, 13th in conference, 4th in division
2008/09 Goal: Top Ten in the conference—make the playoffs.
Let's break'er down...
If you were to look at the recent history of transactions for the franchise, you'd think that Rick Nash is the most fickle player in the NHL.
Gilbert Brule was drafted to one-day become Rick Nash's parnter in crime down in Ohio, but it didn't work out.
Sergei Fedorov was brought in, and the hope was that maybe he could rekindle some of that late-90's fire, and help the Blue Jackets boast a first line combo that would bemoan defenses around the league.
Sidenote: That was probably a terrible sentence. I just was trying to get a lot of alliteration in there, but I may have gone overboard. What I meant to say is this: Columbus hoped that Fedorov would do well, so their first line wouldn't suck. Happy?
Now? The Jackets think that they've found their answer. We're only a pickle, a shake, and a side of fries away from finding out though...
Painting with Pascal Colors…
After dealing with Marc Denis for a couple of seasons, Columbus seems to have found the road to salvation—at least for the next few seasons.
Fredrik Norrena has proved that he has the ability to be a stable NHL backup, and spot-start (as he did in his first season) while Steve Mason is quickly eying an NHL career—although Columbus management would be wise to let him get some seasoning in the AHL before moving him up. Emergency callup (from the OHL) last season or not.
Ahead of both of them on the depth chart however, is franchise netminder Pascal Leclaire, recipient of a shiny, new, three-year deal with the Blue Jackets.
For those of you that missed it though, and are wondering "why the new deal?", well last season was truly the 25 year-old Leclaire’s coming out party.
In his first year as a full-fledged starter, Leclaire posted a 24-17-6 record—his first above .500 season, and his first 20+ win season—with a 2.25 goals against average, a .919 save percentage, and nine shutouts. Nine shutouts which put him second in the league in that stat.
While those stats look like that of an emerging star over the course of a season, Leclaire’s next step will be to prove that he can remain effective for said entire season.
Of his nine shutouts, six came in the first two months of 2007/08, and from February to April Leclaire won only five games, losing six in regulation and three in overtime or a shootout. An improved offense may be able to help out Leclaire’s cause, but we’ll get to that in a second.
Tyutin my Rusty Commodore…
That's probably the dirtiest headline I've published during this entire series. And yes, my mother is proud of me.
If you were to just briskly graze the standings of last season, you'd see that Columbus missed the playoffs—probably a result of not scoring enough goals.
What they miss however, is how effective the Jackets were defensively.
The Blue Jackets’ defense was their biggest strength last season. Columbus was eighth in goals-against per game (2.56), ninth in penalty killing (83.3%), and the Jackets allowed the sixth-fewest shots per game—all of that seems like a recipe for success in the new NHL (well....if you had an offense it would be).
Over the offseason, the Jackets continued to change around their defense as Mike Commodore, Fedor Tuyutin, and Christian Backman were added to a backend which features carry-overs Rostislav (Rusty) Klesla, Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, and Jan Hejda.
Hejda may be the most overlooked member of this blue line, as he played in the second-most games by a Columbus defenseman (81), garnered 13 assists, and led the team with a +20. The only player to beat Hejda in games played on the backend was Rostislav Klesla, who began to emerge as the leader of Columbus’ young defense, and began taking in number one minutes.
The big thing that the newcomers are going to add to this lineup is size—they’re just going to have to ensure that they use it correctly. However, with some development, and some strong young players on the way up (Clay Wilson, Marc Methot, Kris Russell, Will Weber, Tedy Ruth), the Blue Jackets D looks to be on the rise in Ohio.
No Onion on My Umberger please….
Remember a few paragraphs ago when we discussed how the Jackets have another option as Rick Nash's new center? Well Columbus, meet R.J. Umberger: the man teaming with Nash for at least the next four years (we hope).
The former Flyer is expected to step into the offensive attack in Columbus and team with former Rocket Richard winner Rick Nash to form a deadly top-line combo.
Umberger proved that he could produce last season with 50 points (13 goals and 37 assists) on an offensively gifted and very deep Philadelphia team.
The problem though, is that if Umberger doesn’t step up, or runs into a problem with his production (or gets hurt), then the Blue Jackets may have a bit of an issue. Behind him on the depth chart are Michael Peca (a great two-way presence, but he won’t help your offense), Jiri Novotony, Manny Malhotra, and Derrick Brassard.
Of that list, Brassard is the only player that has the tools or the skills to step into a first line role, but then you have to wonder if he’s too inexperienced for such a responsibility, which then puts more pressure on Umberger to succeed.
Down the wings, chemistry amongst the lines will be even more important. Fredrick Modin will have to prove that he’s past the back problems that dogged him last season—allowing him to post a measley 12 points in 26 games—while proving he still has the ability to score 22-25 goals in a season.
Kristian Huselius however will have a different problem, in proving that his success wasn’t a direct result of Mike Keenan and Jarome Iginla. More and more however, it’s appeared that Huselius is merely a late bloomer who came into his own the last two seasons in Calgary, providing Columbus with a solid 60-70 point option down the wing.
With the absence of Gilbert Brule, Dan Fritsche, and Nikoalai Zherdez, former Oilers Raffi Torres, Jason Chimera, and Mike York may all see expanded roles, with the expectation of expanded production, and stronger defensive play. However, if they falter or get injured, Jakub Voracek could flourish in an expanded role while Nikita Filatov could throw the entire plan out of whack if he proves to be NHL ready.
So what does it all mean?
After examining how the improvements up front may help out the defense and the goaltending (Is too many goals ever a bad thing unless you're Tampa Bay?), but just how miserable was Columbus' offense last year exactly?
Well the Jackets were 29th in goals-per-game and 26th on the powerplay (14.9%). Remember Pascal Leclaire's nine losses throughout the season's waning months? Well Leclaire only surrendered more than four goals twice, while he stymied the opposition to two goals or fewer four times (one being an O.T. loss).
The Columbus Blue Jackets have the pieces in place to put together a dynamic offense, capable of getting a big enough lead for Pascal Leclaire and the defense to hold—but as they proved last year it’s just building that lead.
This year they’ll be able to do that. Maybe not early on in the season when they're geling, but I can see Columbus with a realistic shot at the playoffs this season.
2nd in the Central Division (Tie)
And now! Re-introducing the View from the Community Leader Pressbox and Columbus Blue Jacket's CL John Arvai:
The only player I think you overlooked a bit was Kris Russell. Russell brings a skill set that is severely lacking on the Jackets blueline and that's the ability to skate like the wind and move the puck. They thought he had decent year as a rookie but really think he'll take a big step this season.
From talking with Hitch he's sees Russell more as a back-door type player who can jump into holes quickly and create instant offense from the backend. At this point his shot is too soft to be a threat from the point and from a 1st unit PP perspective they will be relying on Christian Backman to fulfill that role however Russell should see plenty of PP time as his opposite on the other point. Russell has packed on some 15 pounds and is close to that 178 mark—according to Puck-rackers he ended last season weighing a mere 161 pounds so that extra weight should really benefit him over the 82 game grind.
The coaches have also been blown away with Huselius early. They are saying Nash has never played with a highly skilled guy like this and it should really open things up for him. Zherdev was skilled but he created space for himself. Huselius creates space for his linemates.
You were bang on with your thoughts on the rookies. Brassard will be given every opportunity to hold down a top 6 center spot. Modin has called him "magical with the puck". He's got a year of pro under his belt and produced over a point per game during the season and a point per game in the playoffs.
The Jackets have certainly added strong and competitive players and they will only get better defensively and will be tough as nails to play against but as you mention the question is offensively. They have replaced the production they lost but will need more.That is where Brassard/Voracek/Filatov come into play. If they can get key contributions from 2 of the 3 they make the playoffs in my opinion. Both Brass and Voracek will make the team.
Thanks a lot John! Here's looking to tomorrow where we continue with the Central Division!
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer for Bleacher Report and an NHL Community Leader. If you want to get in contact with Bryan, you can do so through his profile, and you can also check out more of his previous work in his archives.
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