For a team that has made the Stanley Cup Playoffs just once since entering the NHL in 2000, there's an awful lot of optimism surrounding the Columbus Blue Jackets as they prepare for their first season in the new Metropolitan Division of the realigned Eastern Conference.
It's amazing what a fast finish can do.
The Blue Jackets came up just short of the playoffs last season. They tied the Minnesota Wild for eighth place in the Western Conference, but lost on a tiebreaker (Columbus had 19 non-shootout victories, three fewer than Minnesota). Most of their 55 points came during the last two months of the 48-game schedule -- Columbus went 20-5-3 after February after a 4-12-4 start.
"There's lots of excitement here," coach Todd Richards told NHL.com. "There's lots of anticipation of the season. There's a real buzz. Everyone wants to talk hockey now, where in the past it wasn't that way. A lot of it has to do with the way we finished the season, plus the draft -- we had three first-round picks -- and free agency, where we got Nathan Horton and re-signing [goaltender Sergei] Bobrovsky and [center Artem] Anisimov. There are a lot of positive things that have happened, and there's a real, genuine excitement here."
The biggest reason for the turnaround and the optimism surrounding the team was the performance of Bobrovsky, acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers last summer. The 24-year-old Russian got his chance after Steve Mason continued to struggle, and played well enough to earn the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender, finishing with a 21-11-6 record, a 2.00 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage. He was at his best in the final weeks of the season, going 8-1-0 in his final nine starts, while allowing 15 goals.
Winning the Vezina obviously was a big achievement for Bobrovsky, but Richards feels it also was a big deal for the organization.
"For our franchise, whenever you have someone win one of the major awards, that's a real accomplishment," he said. "Sergei had a great year. He was great himself, but what I think gets lost in the mix is how the guys played in front of him. He made some highlight-reel saves, and I think through the course of the season most goalies do that. He was real solid for us, but I think the guys in front of him played a good game."
The Blue Jackets signed Bobrovsky to a two-year contract this summer, and he'll have to prove he can carry the load for a full 82-game season; the only backup goaltender in the organization with any NHL experience is 30-year-old journeyman Curtis McElhinney, who spent last season playing for the Blue Jackets' American Hockey League affiliate, the Springfield Falcons. He is 19-26-4 with a 3.10 GAA in 69 NHL games with four teams.
"It was real important for us as a franchise that we brought him back," Richards said of Bobrovsky. "It was big news for our franchise and big news for our city that we were bringing back last year's No. 1 goaltender."
Center Brandon Dubinsky, starting his second season in Columbus, has no doubt that Bobrovsky can match his breakout season.
"I don't think he's one of those one-off guys," Dubinsky told NHL.com. "He has a great work ethic. I don't think there's a guy in the League that I've played with or seen who works as hard as he does. He has that quality that [Rangers goaltender Henrik] Lundqvist has, that focus. He has what it takes to be an elite goaltender; tack on his work ethic on top of that and the sky's the limit for him.
"Start with a guy like that and you can build a team around it."
The Bobrovsky signing was one of two major moves for the Blue Jackets this summer. The other was bringing in veteran forward Nathan Horton, a Stanley Cup winner with the Boston Bruins in 2011. Horton was second on the team during 2013 postseason with 19 points and led all players with a plus-20 rating, signed a seven-year, $37.1 million contract with the Blue Jackets on July 5. He won't be ready for the start of the season after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, but he and late-season acquisition Marian Gaborik will give the Blue Jackets a 1-2 punch on right wing.
Horton said one reason he came to the Blue Jackets -- a team not previously regarded as a likely destination for top free agents -- was the perception that the team is moving forward under president of hockey operations John Davidson, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and Richards.
"I want to bring what I can to the team," Horton said after signing. "I think that scoring goals, battling, bringing pucks to the net like a power forward does, that's what I want to do. But again, I'll do anything it takes, wherever I'm slotted and wherever the coach wants me to be, that's where I'll play and I'll be happy to do it because I want to get back and be in the playoffs, obviously, and everyone else does.
"I think we've got the team to do it. I think that's why we're so excited here. There's a buzz going around and I've felt it since I got here."
To Richards, the fact that a player like Horton would come to Columbus indicates the franchise is on the way up.
"I think it is a sign that we're on the upswing," he said. "Prior to this year, if you talked about Columbus, it wasn't a place players would really gravitate to.
"He could have gone anywhere in the NHL for the most part, and he chose to come here."
The Blue Jackets hope that Gaborik's every-other-year trend carries through to 2013-14. In each of the past six seasons beginning with an odd number, he's scored 40 goals and finished with at least 76 points and a plus-15 rating. Gaborik had three goals and eight points in 12 games after coming from the New York Rangers at the NHL Trade Deadline, but he's scored 30 or more goals seven times and gives the Blue Jackets the kind of home-run hitter they lost when Rick Nash was dealt to the Rangers last summer.
Gaborik is one of five ex-Rangers on the roster. Defenseman Tim Erixon and centers Anisimov and Dubinsky arrived last summer in the trade that sent Nash, the franchise's all-time scoring leader, to New York. Veteran defenseman Fedor Tyutin has spent the past five seasons with the Blue Jackets.
Tyutin and Jack Johnson, a February 2012 acquisition from the Los Angeles Kings, formed a solid pairing down the stretch on a defense that could get a boost from the arrival of Ryan Murray, the second player taken in the 2012 NHL Draft. A shoulder injury that required surgery derailed his hopes of making the team as an 18-year-old, but he says he's completely healthy now and eager to show what he can do.
"I'm feeling really good," he told NHL.com. "The shoulder feels great. I got the opportunity [last spring] to do some rehab and watch a bunch of games and be around the guys. I learned a lot watching how they prepare and treat their job -- how serious they are and how hard they work."
"That's my goal," he said of cracking the top six in Columbus this season. "I have my work cut out for me, but that's definitely my goal."
The Blue Jackets will need big seasons from Gaborik and Horton after finishing 24th in offense last season. Mark Letestu led the Blue Jackets with 13 goals, and Anisimov was the only other full-time Blue Jacket still on the roster to reach double figures.
Richards said he feels the additions of Gaborik and Horton should give the Blue Jackets enough of a boost to push them into the top eight in the East.
"We've added two guys who are proven scorers at this level," he said.
The late-season surge has enthused the Blue Jackets' fan base, which never has seen their team win a playoff game. Richards said he can feel the excitement as well, but one of his jobs is to make sure expectations aren't too large for a team whose only playoff appearance was 2009.
"With all of the great stuff that happened, there are higher expectations now," he said. "There are a lot of positive things, but now people are expecting more. Our fan base is expecting more. Hockey people have been talking us up a lot, and there are a lot of good things in Columbus, but now they're expecting more.
"We have to take another step. We took two steps forward last year; we can't take a step back."
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BLUE JACKETS OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
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