Departures: C Manny Malhotra, D Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, C Jiri Novotny
Restricted Free Agents: D Marc Methot, LW Alexandre Picard, G Dan LaCosta
Unrestricted Free Agents: C Michael Peca, C Jason Wiliams, D Christian Backman, D Aaron Rome, G Wade Dubielewicz
For the first time in their stormy existence, the Columbus Blue Jackets do not have to make huge waves in preparation for the 2009-10 season.
Since going 41-31-0-10 last season and making the postseason for the first time, the Jackets need only to make a few minor tweaks to the current roster, add a few free agents, and re-sign key contributors to remain competitive in the Western Conference.
Sitting at the top of the list is star player and captain Rick Nash.
1. Re-sign Rick Nash.
For the Blue Jackets to capitalize in the coming years on their growing success, they need to re-sign Rick Nash this summer.
Although Nash still has one year remaining on his current contract, it is imperative that contract negotiations reach a conclusion this summer, or the Jackets run the risk of losing Nash to the free agent market next summer.
Nash is due to make $7 million this year, and re-signing him to a long-term deal would, in theory, open up a little cap space for 2010 and 2011, assuming his deal increases in value each year.
Not only will it allow the Jackets to lock up their captain for four or five years, it will allow them to target key free agents in the summer of 2010, when guys like Patrick Marleau, Olli Jokinen, Marc Savard, and Sergei Gonchar hit the market. Keeping Nash on board will make Columbus more attractive to the aforementioned players.
Howson must re-sign Nash this summer, or he will have to deal with a media frenzy throughout the season, led by the one city clamoring for Rick Nash to save their franchise—Toronto.
2. Sign two checking line centers.
Entering the summer, the Jackets had hoped to secure upcoming free agent Manny Malhotra to a new deal, but as July 1 quickly approaches, a deal will not be struck according to both sides.
There may be a chance that Malhotra will re-sign with the club as free agency progresses, but it is unlikely that Columbus will give Malhotra the first or second line money he wants.
Unrestricted free agent Jason Williams proved that he wanted to play in Columbus following his trade from Atlanta in January, and he deserves an offer from Howson this summer. Williams would be a key anchor to either the third or fourth line. While his 29 points with the Jackets may seem minimal, his physical play makes him the ideal player in Ken Hitchcock's system.
Unrestricted free agent Michael Peca made things interesting with his improved play in the Jackets' first round series with Detroit. Despite his less-than-stellar regular-season stats (four goals, 18 assists, -6 plus/minus), he showed management that he was more than capable of stepping up his game in the playoffs.
Peca's playoff effort may have garnered him enough praise to receive an offer from Columbus this offseason, but the verdict is still out on whether or not Peca will remain a Blue Jacket in 2009.
The Jackets are interested in signing Mike Cammalleri, who had a career year in 2008-09, but will not likely be able to afford his salary demands.
Other potential interests include Brendan Morrison, and Chris Gratton.
3. Sign a backup for goaltender Steve Mason.
Steve Mason, the 2009 Calder Memorial Trophy recipient, was overplayed in Columbus last season due to the lack of a skilled, veteran backup goaltender. While Mason handled this pressure well, the Jackets cannot place that much physical pressure on the goalie for a second straight season.
Wade Dubielewicz will most likely not be offered by the Jackets. "Dubie" was not a trusted backup to Mason, and after going 1-2 with a 3.55 GAA, he will probably sign with an AHL team for the upcoming year.
Detroit has said they will not attempt to re-sign Ty Conklin, who started 37 games last season for the Red Wings. Conklin played in Columbus in 2006-07 and has shown in the last two seasons that he is a capable NHL goaltender.
He may end up making more than Mason, but his ability to step in and provide starts every couple of weeks would prove invaluable to the Jackets.
Another guy the Jackets should look at is Jason Labarbera. He played relatively well behind Roberto Luongo in Vancouver, and he has shown spots of superb play during his tenure in Los Angeles. Not to mention, he would be much cheaper than the third possibility for the Jackets.
The third guy on the radar is Manny Fernandez. One of the top goal-tending free agents this summer, Fernandez is to the point where he will not be signed to be a starter on any NHL team.
He paired well with Vezina winner Tim Thomas this season in Boston, and he is a former two-time William Jennings Trophy winner. His ability to provide leadership for a young Mason would be a great benefit, but his price tag may keep the Jackets from pursuing him.
4. Sign a defenseman.
With the departure of Ole-Kristian Tollefsen and Christian Backman, the Jackets need to find a defenseman with big talent to play alongside Mike Commodore, Fedor Tyutin, Rostislav Klesla, Kris Russell, and Jan Hejda.
The big prize this summer was to be Jay Bouwmeester, but his recent trade to the Calgary Flames will give them the first crack at signing the top available defenseman. However, the Jackets would not have been able to pay the salary he is demanding, so it's not too big of a loss.
Kris Russell has been called the "offensive defenseman" the Jackets need, but his play has been sporadic, and unless he improves greatly this summer, they will need to sign a player with the ability to run the power-play, which the Jackets were ranked 30th in last season.
Former Jacket Jaroslav Spacek has the ability to score on the powerplay, as 22 of his 35 points came on the powerplay last season.
Marc-Andre Bergeron recorded seven goals on the power-play last season, which ranked 15th out of all defenseman, and third out of free agents this summer.
The market is rough this summer in terms of power-play defenseman, so the Jackets, if they feel this is a definite need this summer, will need to look at one of these two guys.
5. Develop the younger talent properly.
Under former general manager Doug McLean, the Jackets created problems for themselves by not letting their younger talent develop properly in Syracuse or junior hockey (see Rostislav Klesla). But Scott Howson has preached patience to the fans in Columbus, and it has produced results.
Rookie Derick Brassard was electrifying in his first look with the Jackets this year, before being shelved with a dislocated shoulder.
Nikita Filatov, the Jackets first round pick in 2008, flourished in Syracuse this past season, and even recorded a hat-trick with Columbus on Jan. 10. Howson then sent Filatov back down to Syracuse, where he could continue to properly develop.
John Moore was drafted to be the "offensive defenseman" the Jackets have needed for so long, but will spend this season either played in the OHL, or at Colorado College.
Keep an eye out for Stefan Legein as well, as he may see more time with the Jackets as he continues to grow.
6. Stay the course.
In order to remain a legitimate contender in the Western Conference, the Jackets need to continue progressing, and not make any decisions that would put the franchise back a year or two.
They cannot overspend on free agents this year. They cannot sign a big-name player solely for the sake of having a big name. And most of all, they cannot become disillusioned with last years' success.
The Jackets have drafted well the last four years, and it is starting to show in Syracuse, and in Columbus. Scott Howson has created a core group of players in RJ Umberger, Kristian Huselius, Mike Commodore, Fedor Tyutin, Nash, and Mason, for which to build upon for the next few years.
While the first five points above are vital to the success of the Blue Jackets this year, the sixth point is necessary, or else the first five become null and void. Ken Hitchcock has turned the Jackets into a tough, hard-hitting, fore-checking team that plays the dump-and-chase.
Why is this important? Because now, the Jackets have an identity, and they need to continue to nurture that identity to fruition.
The most important thing for the Jackets to remember moving into 2009-10 is that they cannot be satisfied with "making the playoffs." That goal has been accomplished. The Jackets need to set a higher goal, such as "winning a playoff series," in order to continue the progress built by the organization the last three years.