After shedding their tag as the only expansion team that never made it to the post-season, the Columbus Blue Jackets took their licks from the eventual Western Conference champs the Detroit Red Wings. It’s hard not to consider Columbus’ season a success, especially when you factor in that it was enough to entice Rick Nash to sign the line for the long-term in the offseason.
The Jackets’ inexperience cost them a shot at advancing past the first round, they actually failed to win so much as a single playoff game, but the Hitchcockian squad set a high-water mark that they could very well eclipse in the 2009-10 season. Their 41-31-10 record was good enough for 4th in the Central Division, and 7th overall in the West. That’s not bad for a team that iced only 16 players with any post-season experience.
After locking up their best player for eight more years in Nash and riding on the momentum of a Calder Trophy winning performance by goalie Steve Mason, these Blue Jackets look poised to build upon the greatest season in the history of the relatively young franchise. The painfully defensive minded Ken Hitchcock and GM Scott Howson have assembled a strong mix of highly skilled kids and hard-nosed veterans that should be tougher to play against now that they’ve established a winning style.
The Hitchcock Factor:
For years Columbus was viewed as the team that Rick Nash played for while he was licking his lips at the prospect of becoming a Toronto Maple Leaf. Leafs fans’ hopes were crushed this past summer while Jackets’ fans rejoiced at the massive extension Nash signed.
When Hitchcock came on the scene things started to change. Nash made significant strides to become a more complete player, and it’s entirely plausible that we haven’t even seen his best yet. Jan Hejda and Mike Commodore emerged as a top-notch pair of shut-down defenesemen. The Jackets as a whole showed that whether you love his coaching style, or despise it, Hitchcock can make you stronger in the defensive aspects of the game.
You could argue that Steve Mason’s 33-20-7 record, 2.29 GAA, and league best 10-shutouts were a product of his environment. Even if that were completely true (which it’s not), it’s safe to say that with Nash and Mason taking care of business at opposite ends of the ice, this is the most imposing duo Hitchcock has had at his disposal since there were two Undertakers.
What's in that urn Kenny, c'mon, what's your secret?
Hitch will coach his 1000th game this season, this after notching his 500th career victory last year. Just making it to the playoffs in ’09-10 won’t be enough for Kenny this season, he wants results.
There are areas for improvement from this team. Their power play was bad enough for 30th in the NHL last season, largely due to the fact that they’re missing a big-gun on the point. There’s enough young talent in their system that they could make a move to acquire a veteran defenseman to run the point on the PP; Fedor Tyutin was the Jackets’ highest scoring blueliner with 34 points in 82 games in ’08-09.
A full season from both Derick Brassard and faceoff specialist Antoine Vermette will help bolster the offense, but vets Kristian Huselius, Fredrik Modin, and R.J. Umberger need to step up and provide some consistent punch. Super-kids Jakub Voracek and Nikita Filatov will need to establish themselves as top-six forwards sooner than later if the Jackets intend to keep up with competitive Central Division.
The pressure is on this club to show that they’re going to be a winning team over the next several seasons. Other teams will be making adjustments when playing the Blue Jackets this season, so it’s up to the players and coaching staff to step up their own approach and show that they’re for real. They’re going to be in-tough to better their 7th place finish from a season ago, but as they now know very well it’s what you do after the regular season that counts.
The Bold Prediction: 3rd in the Central Division, 7th in the Western Conference. Eliminated in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.